Saturday, August 8, 2009

Look and Feel

I’m told that, the head honcho of a newspaper house – which has re-launched their flagship paper with a brand-new design - has gone on record to say that, “it (the new design) is as best as it can get”. I have no intention of taking him on that point - not b'coz he is known to take serious umbrage at even mildly critical comments in inconsequential bolgs such as this one, but because I - for one - genuinely like the new design ( tho’ I have heard mischievous critics quip, “it is “DNA four years too late”). But for me what’s more interesting to debate – is that eternal question of form (design) vs. content.

Surely look matters. Especially on first appearance. And, beauty is certainly not necessarily only skin deep when it comes to a ‘thought product’ like a newspaper. Great content can be made to look even more attractive by intelligent packaging and ease of navigation is sure to please even an old school die-hard reader.

I believe research indicates that, in a digital age – a newspaper even in its printed form must have a digital look and feel – especially if it wishes to attract new (and obviously) younger readers. And, Garcia is a master of 'digital' design. So far, so good. But, how does an older paper go about re-inventing itself for a younger audience.

The challenge to my mind is not about ‘turning off’ older readers by replacing a layout which they had gotten used to over the years with a new snazzy layout that can appear to be too much of a discontinuous change. The fears on this score – I think – are grossly overstated. But, for a ‘digital design’ to really work – one has to also re-engineer and completely over-haul the content – almost to the point of changing its DNA (no pun intended). It is here many publications fall-flat – because the risks of alienating the traditional readers are too high. And without doing much to the content, changes in design remain largely ‘cosmetic’.

New publications have a clear advantage here. They have the luxury, as it were, to marry content with design – to have a total offering that also reflects the personality of the paper. And, if the 2 (content and design can match up to each other – you do have a winning proposition. In the near past, MINT did this masterfully and DNA too was very successful in its attempt to differentiate with existing products. The Telegraph and Asian Age had done it in their own times. More recently, Forbes India has worked hard at doing the same in the Business Magazines genre and, in it's own modest way, OPEN can be another good example (tho’ I am yet unsure about its chances of commercial success).

MINT went a step further. It was planned truly as a multi-media offering for the future and its design and content delivery seamlessly transitioned across platforms – print, web, phone and even video-steaming.

But, only too often – do we have a new offering in the market – which looks smart but fail to deliver on its content.

The job is decidedly tougher for an existing newspaper – especially the larger and more established ones. Here, I liked the ToI formula – which follows, I suspect, the more classical (and, perhaps, conservative) route. Both for ToI and ET – they first went about incrementally and imperceptibly changing the content (which – detractors popularly called “dumbing down”) and then tinkered with the design. So, when DNA and HT were launched in Mumbai – ToI’s response was not to the drawing board and a new designer – but, instead, they invested heavily on content to make it – arguably – the best newspaper in the country. The same was, I believe, the brief of The Hindu to Garcia when he came to work on it a few years ago. But, then there are also wagging tongues – who say that these are also the 2 terribly designed newspapers in the country.

Even the staid Deccan Herald and the New Indian Express (down South) have also tried a change of wardrobe – but I’m not sure what it has done to their circulation and readership numbers.

Change with continuity seems to be the name of the game. It is surprising how many publications tend to clone their print format even in the digital (web) rendition. There must be some logic to that as well.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

News as Utility

Somewhat simplistically put the problem of newspapers in western countries (especially the US) has been that, fearing mass migration of readers to the web – they have actually accelerated the process without being able to monetise the readership of the net editions.

Finally American Print Media Industry are coming to terms with the fact that, their old model of high dependence on advertising doesn’t work and, therefore, they are now desperately seeking ways to charge for content – turning to Television and other media for inspiration. But, none of it seems to work for newspapers and magazines.

The paradox – however - is that, it isn’t as if the market is not growing. But, the revenue is going in different directions.

Just a few days back, the National Press Club in Washington held a symposium to debate the issue with top industry leaders (like Tom Curley of AP, Jon Klein of CNN, Alberto Ibarguen of Knight Foundation, Vivian Schiller of NPR). All of them – doyens of the industry – were unanimous on the fact that, the old Business model of newspapers is obsolete. But they were not clear about the answers and felt they have to experiment a lot before a new business model emerges. (To read full report click here).

Paradigm Shift or Psychological Shift

The problem they thought was a psychological shift of readers from being “consumers” of news to becoming “users” of news – who interact with the information across media platforms. There may be a way to charge for news – if it becomes “utility” – just as a light and a cable bill. But, all this is fuzzy thinking at the moment.

One thing was clear though’ – costs have to be kept under a tight leash and media must learn effectively the tools of target advertising. But, the forum ended on an optimistic note. The panelists felt that, the next couple of years will be tough but once they get thru’ the valley – there would be enormous growth ahead. Wishful thinking some may say.

Apocalypse Postponed (for now)

In India ( and Asia) we might see things very differently. With internet penetration – despite the exponential growth – still lagging miles behind newspaper readership, that is poised to increase further with an exploding rising middle-class and rising literacy rates – the apocalypse would seem someway off.

But increasing print circulation could lead us to the same cost trap that devoured the big papers in the US. However, the bigger problem – to my mind – could be that, while in the West readers actually migrated from print to web – in India the per-capita “consumption” of news (even as an utility) could actually fall. This is already apparent in the falling readership amongst the youth. Much of this fall could actually be for good and irretrievable even in the long run, as they might be lost permanently to TV and other media such as cell-phones (and not necessarily the ‘web editions’ of newspapers and magazines).

Flight or Migration, Consumers or Users

Following the international trend, most Indian newspapers and magazines have launched their e-paper or e-magazine editions in addition to the internet editions. And, almost all of it is free content as on date. That was inevitable and unavoidable – I agree. But, do we have a clear fix on how many unique readers it has added in the domestic market. My guess is that most of the traffic is generated from overseas readers – and the migration from print to web would still be quite nominal and is likely to remain so for a long time to come. Those youth who turn to the web for news – get it from Yahoo, Google and other services and not as much from electronic editions of newspapers.

Thus, the challenge – unlike in the West, where it is to monetise readership – would be how to get readers back or increase the “consumer” ( or “user” – any which way you like to put it) base to grow the market.

So going forward, the Western model – even if they were to find one – may not work for India.

I am not sure if these issues are finding attention, as we begin to rejoice on the fall of newsprint prices and the imminent return of the good times.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Back to Business (Class) Again ??

It’s party time in Goa.

The country’s Ad and Media fraternity have flocked there – braving the scorching April heat – for the GoaFest, which is finally showing signs of living up to its promise of becoming the Indian Cannes since the 2 reigning ‘Gods’ of Indian Advertising smoked their peace cigars some 2 years ago.

But while the Ad Guys have at least the Creative achievements to celebrate even in a depressing business year, what are the media folks cheering over ?

Print being our area of interest – talked to a friend in the industry. According to him, even though ‘bad news’ keeps coming from the western world (especially the US), in India – perhaps - the worst is over. After a year of ‘blood-bath’ one is beginning to see rays of revival.

So, this being also the time of presenting the AOPs (Annual Operating Plans), there is a new cautious optimism in the meeting rooms. This is probably based on 2 premises. The first, of course, is the collapse of newsprint prices. Second – tho’ some may be reluctant to admit it – with the ‘right-sizing’ exercise carried out by many the cost structures seem to be in better shape. And, with all this if the economy does pick-up by coming Diwali as many are predicting – one could well be back on track this year.

“Time to buy newspaper stocks ol’ chap !! ” – he said tapping my shoulder before rushing off to catch his flight to Goa. Then turned round for a bit to add with a smile – “hope the company restores the travel policy and I am allowed to travel Business Class, once again”.

But, it left me wondering if the Indian Print-Media industry has indeed cracked the code - which has been eluding the chaps in Obama-land or are we simply lulling ourselves into believing that surgery was the cure and we will be back to good health once the nourishing juices of ad-revenue begin to kick-in again.

The question is if we have missed a lesson or 2 in this crisis. I intend to turn to a few of those thoughts in the coming posts.