The idea of selling five million newspapers a day to a market of mostly 28-year olds is a distant dream for any local newspaper owner. Beth Shirley spoke to the director of the world’s largest English-language newspaper, The Times of India, to find out the recipe for success.
The idea of selling five million newspapers a day to a market of mostly 28-year olds is a distant dream for any local newspaper owner. One just has to look at the grim picture painted by the latest ABC figures and acknowledge the fact that the youth mostly read their news on Twitter. But in the populous and tech-savvy India, the newspaper industry and the English-language stable, in particular, has never done better.
India’s English-language newspaper industry is an anomaly in the days of rapid digital development and media convergence. Why does one have to read a large broadsheet when news is easily accessible on the latest smartphone? Sanjeev Vohra, director of The Times of India (TOI), confirmed that TOI has the largest English-language newspaper circulation figures in the world, and boasts a daily readership of seven-and-a-half million people across the country and the Indian diaspora.
To boot, the youth are the newspaper’s chief supporters. “Our readers are obviously voracious consumers of anything digital, but we find that our readers still regard newspapers as the most credible source of news. The Times of India, owing to its historical roots (the paper is almost two centuries old), is perceived as the ‘master’ of the nation and its balanced journalism is held in high esteem. Furthermore, our news is packaged to suit everyone,” explains Vohra.
TOI is distributed in 25 cities across India, with plans to expand the footprint.
Apart from credibility and the packaging of news, Vohra attributes its success to “distribution”, saying that “is what differentiates us from our competitors”. He explains that the habitual morning reading of a hand-delivered paper is what sustains the business.
“Our biggest strength is our focus on single-copy home distribution channels. We have managed to complement this strength with timing and an expansive reach.” In other words, sales are excellent because the TOI offers copies across India, including those hard-to-reach places. It is essentially a mix of personalisation (single-copy distribution) and a wide reach due to sophisticated distribution channels. Vohra says this model has worked well in other countries, such as Japan. The Japanese Yomiuri Shimbun, Asahi Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun are the largest circulated newspapers in the world, and swear by the single-copy home distribution business model.
TOI’s head office is in Mumbai and it employs 5 000 people. Its chief competitor is The Hindu, which dominates sales in the south of India.
According to a recent Bloomberg article entitled ‘India’s Top Newspapers Battle for Readers’ Hearts and Souls’, the TOI also boosts its circulation through its pricing: the newspaper “prices out its competitors by costing just five rupees (or R0.76c). It compensates (for the loss in revenue from reduced prices) by wooing advertisers and repositioning the readers first and foremost as a consumer”.
The article explains that the TOI speaks the language of the ‘new economy’, “persistently interpreting the decisions of people through the impact of such actions on their brands.” Vohra explains that the newspaper reflects the news needs of its chief reader – the 28-year old, who wants to read, among other things, about Bollywood, celebrity and brand culture. TOI has thus established brand offshoots – The Mumbai Mirror, The Bangalore Mirror, The Pune Mirror and The Ahmedabad Mirror. These newspapers and their online counterparts discuss entertainment, sex and wellness, as well as contain ‘fun’ things like Sudoku and crossword puzzles.
While critics voice their concern over TOI’s supposed bowing to advertisers because of the newspaper’s very low price and its dumbing down of content, Vohra maintains that the newspaper presents balanced and credible news.
It seems as if the TOI has triumphed in the online space too. The timesofindia.indiatimes.com is one of the world’s most visited websites, having 159-million page views of one of its leading stories last year. The Washington Post reported that the timesofindia.indiatimes.com came second in terms of global web traffic (The New York Times’ online counterpart is first), beating the Wall Street Journal and every Chinese news site.
“We have a prolific multimedia operation that caters specifically to our large diaspora. But in no way does our online presence take away from our newspaper business (even though the type of content is similar, the newspaper carries more in-depth stories). We see digital as part of the reader’s media experience and it only strengthens our print brand,” says Vohra.
He adds that newspaper owners have to focus on innovation and differentiation in a trafficked market. For instance, what we call advertising in South Africa, the TOI terms ‘response’; what we call circulation, they call ‘results and market development’. A TOI salesperson, for instance, has to think of his/her job as more than selling advertising. He/she has to attach greater meaning to what advertising means to the overall business and to the changing global newspaper market. Although slightly esoteric, reframing these terms has focused the newspaper’s direction.
As Vohra says, “The newspaper business has to be reframed in these terms to reach a wider array of readers whose time and attention is stretched to the limits. Also, digital is your friend; it shouldn’t be viewed as competition, but as something to enhance the success of your newspaper brand. Newspapers still hold much weight, even in highly developed markets.”