Hero to Zero
If my mind can be regarded as a neural net, the Times Of India can be regarded as the initial training data set. When I was 7-years old, my mother took me to visit her sisters office. I picked up a newspaper that was lying around and asked here the meaning of a word I didn’t understand. My mother (who I think also didn’t know the meaning) said something to the tune of “Don’t worry son, this is hifi newspaper english, forget about it”. Maybe it intrigued me or maybe it irked me, but a seed of curiosity was planted. A few years later, it birthed a new obsession. One day I asked my grandmother for the grand sum of two rupees and bought myself a copy of the Times of India. I read it cover to cover like a retired uncle might. And I absolutely loved it. It showed me all these new words, new concepts & new stories. It opened up a whole new world to me. Crime, sports, economy, bollywood, fashion, politics — I read it all, cover to cover. With the indiscriminating innocence of a childs mind; articles on fashion & bollywood gossip were read with equal fervour as news about the economy & elections. This soon became a daily affair. I would ask for that 2 rupee coin with a map of India and “star” on the back side and buy myself a fresh dose of daily gyaan. And then oh my, there was the Sunday Edition — economic analysis from Swami Aiyar, stories of India’s past and present from Gurcharan Das, puzzles and a whole roster of funky knowledge. The paper used to black and white back then. I vividly remember the day The Times Of India in Bombay became a full colour newspaper (April 25th 2004). Woooooow. Not only was there a beautiful splash of colour, there were fancy edited headers and new layouts. Ooo la la. In 2004, newspapers were a beautiful window to a new universe, they were the shit.
Fast forward to 2020, I’ve never a bought paper in the last decade or so. A newspaper is something the Bhelpuri waala gives me or what I use to keep my cupboards from getting dusty. News comes to me from all directions; and most of it, I don’t want. There’s too much of it. Plagued by notifications from apps of all shape and form, I’m starved for peace and sanity.
The Media industry is in a crisis. The pandemic has been the accelerator of many trends. One notably being the death of print media and its offsprings in digital media. Layoffs are everywhere. Barring a few, publications of the print era have not survived unscathed. Fewer and fewer people buy newspapers as getting news from apps becomes the norm. Newspapers are dying while people on Youtube are becoming multi-millionaries, drawing huge crowds for doing everything from reviewing phones to unboxing things. Umm, ok.
The harsher sight to see has been the death of the newspaper’s cultural influence. Back in 2017, Ubers reputation was slowly catching up to it’s reality of being a crazy workplace and a shady operator. What flipped the conversation? A single blog post about office sexual harassment by former employee Susan Fowler. It triggered a huge public outcry and a management shakeup followed. The most read piece of work on the coronavirus was written right here on medium by Tomas Pueyo. Save a few domains, press conferences are so 1998. Modi does YouTube streams and Trump just announces policy on twitter. People hit publish and respond to comments online. That’s the conversation. Earlier you might’ve waited for critics reviews before watching a movie. Now? 5 of your friends will post about it, you’ll watch 2 online reviews, check out the ImDB ratings and then decide.
Relatedly, the economic command has disappeared too. Brands and advertisers, who actually paid the bills at media companies are now sending their money to Google and Facebook, who in turn are giving very little back to the media companies of yore. Attempts to restore the old balance are going awry, badly awry. Spain forced Google to pay for snippets from news publishers (that were used in Google News). Google responded by withdrawing Google News from the country altogether.
Meanwhile, our sense-making apparatus is completely breaking down. We’re bathing in fake news from all sides, lynchings based on Whatsapp rumours are a sad reality. We don’t know what is true and what is false anymore. We’re flooded with information and are struggling to maintain a coherent narrative in our heads. Separating fact from fiction is harder then ever.
How did we end up here? What happened in the middle? What can we do to get out of this? Lets discuss this step by step.
What is a newspaper really?
A newspaper sells you information. The paper is just the medium, the actual product is the valuable information printed on it. But is it really? Yellow Pages and novels are examples of specialised information products with specific use cases. A newspaper, on the other hand, gives you — news at the national, international and local levels, celebrity gossip, letters to the editor, comics, stock market updates and economic news, (in one era) TV show timings, updates on science and technology, sports coverage, obituaries, classifieds and much more! A rare few people read everything in the newspaper. People are usually of one type — you have your sports section people, your crossword people, your celebrity gossip people, your comics people, your politics people, your “I just look at photos” people and so on. The newspaper caters to all of them is fundamentally, a bundle.
Marketing 102 will tell you that bundles are easier sells — they reduce decision making for the buyer but are fundamentally worse products. A bundle with something for everybody, isn’t the best at any one thing. The editor makes the content composition decision for you, based on interest levels of the group as a whole. Love only sports? Want detailed stats & commentary? Tough luck! Go buy a sports mag.
Ok now for the most fundamental question. Why do you read a newspaper? If you asked someone why they read the news, they’ll say something like “to stay informed”. Once you’re informed what do you do? “Nothing really”
The biggest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing newspaper readers they’re being informed … when they’re actually just being entertained.
There’s a fancy new word for this, its called a kayfabe. The classic example of a kayfabe is Wrestling/WWE. It’s sure looks like a fight, people are getting hurled around and (sadly) getting really hurt but it’s purely entertainment. The audience suspends it’s disbelief and goes along for the ride. The thing has Entertainment in the name, how much more blatant does it have to get? That doesn’t stop too many people.
With newspapers, we like to tell ourselves “Oh look I read the paper today. I’m an informed citizen”. So what are going to do differently today with your informed outlook and enlightened self? “Umm nothing really, office as usual”. Reading the newspaper usually has no material impact on our lives. What decisions of your life are affected by news? None. Sure, you can now act all smart at parties & family gatherings, but your life isn’t meaningfully changed.
People who really value information are willing to spend time and money to get it. Stock traders need to adjust holdings minute by minute and pay through the nose for fast accurate feeds of information; a trader terminal with real-time news costs upwards of $20,000 (₹15 lakh) a year. But don’t feel bad for traders, they earn back truckloads more. I’ve worked as Product Manager and trust me, we don’t wait for the newspapers to tell us how our industry is changing or what our competitors are doing. The same middle class family that pays 5 RUPEES for a newspaper, is willing pay lakhs for coaching classes, textbooks and the like. We do value newspapers but as cheap entertainment.
Here’s the dope: A mainstream newspaper typically has 48 pages. Customers are charged just 4 or 5 rupees. The cost is low because newspapers are vying for a large circulation (aka reach). 40% of that consumer revenue goes into distribution costs itself (2.4 rupees are left). It costs 25p per page. So the cost of the paper itself is 12 rupees. Now add costs for journalists, editorial, admins, etc. and a newspaper will cost 15 rupees conservatively. So publisher loses 12.6 rupees with every paper sale. So hello advertisers! Circulation dictates premiums in a power law sense — the largest newspapers get much higher premiums for ad slots compared to the 2nd largest and onwards. The advertising side sees a winner take all dynamic. So newspapers subsidise the reader by ripping off the advertiser, subsidising the reader to increase reach. Notable exception: The Hindu, which has consistently upped their prices with circulation remaining unaffected.
This explains everything about those pages and pages of ads in the Times Of India. So the winner milks the shit out of the audience while everyone else struggles.
The newspaper is a bundle, good on average but not deep on anything. We fool ourselves that we’re getting informed while we’re just getting entertained. The industry dynamic of maximising circulation pushes newspapers to subsidise readers and milk advertisers. Circulation driven ad-spends happen in a power law fashion creating a winner take all scenario. Newspapers are information products, ripe for disruption by anything that makes information cheaper to acquire.