Even before the pandemic hit, The Printers Mysore Private Limited group (TPML) had frenetic activity during the months before. One of its flagship newspapers, Deccan Herald, underwent a complete editorial revamp in August 2019 with a redesign including new masthead, fonts, and tagline, and a focus on a younger audience.
“Everything was going along smoothly and these things were settling in,” said CEO Sitaraman Shankar told INMA members in a live Webinar on Thursday. “Then the pandemic hit.”
The devastating impact of COVID-19
The effects in India and at TPML started being felt in March 2020, when lockdown was declared and the first COVID deaths in the country sparked generalised panic.
“That demanded a response from us,” Shankar said. The decline of TPML print sales and circulation was quick and severe, with losses in copies of 40%-60% amidst talk of the end of newspapers. Ad sales also collapsed, falling by 82%. All in all, at the end of the first quarter of 2020 revenue was down 75%.
“At that point, things were quite bleak,” he admitted. In May and June, there was no significant improvement. “There appeared to be no light at the end of the tunnel.”
The media organisation was forced to take some hard positions, including cutting pages down to 10 or 12 from 18 to 20, shelving the pink business pages, shrinking and collapsing supplements, and moving one supplement into the e-newspaper. The company also instituted salary cuts and renegotiated vendor contracts.
Fortunately, readers were understanding and TPML communicated these changes clearly to its readers. And in retrospect, several of these adaptations ended up being good ideas despite the pandemic.
The staff also went to work-from-home and even now, 10 months later, most of the newspapers are still produced in staff homes across Bengaluru. Through it all, they still managed to print on time, every day.
“The central idea is never waste a good crisis,” Shankar said. “The emphasis moved quickly from self-defense to seeking new initiatives to recover revenue and retain readers.”
Using downtime for innovation
There was increased demand for information about COVID-19 as well as general news reading as people were in lockdown at home. At its peak, TPML Web site traffic quadrupled. This meant the company had to pivot quickly with new Web site, content, video, and audio innovations.
Some of the initiatives undertaken included:
- A highly popular daily video COVID bulletin, which generated 3.5 million impressions and 10,000 hours of watched time on social media.
- A 15-part cooking video series, which garnered approximately 4.2 million views.
- 15 Webinars, featuring a range of topics and celebrity speakers.
- Podcasts in two languages, which quickly built to a half-million plays.
- A high-profile reader quiz.
“So as you can see we used the time to bring about the product offering, and this has done well for us,” Shankar said. “We had more time on our hands to do all this.”
One of the publisher’s biggest mandates during this period was service journalism, providing accurate information and dispelling the many myths about coronavirus.
Where print meets digital
During the pandemic TPML launched four major digital products: brand new apps for both Deccan Herald and Prajavani, and a new, monetised e-newspaper for both. The apps made up for lost time, Shankar added, noting they should have produced apps earlier than this.
“We identify news before it becomes news,” Shankar said. “We look at what’s going to go ahead during the daily news day, and we allow people to set up alarms for it [in the app].”
This feature of the app is called “What’s Brewing.” The app has already had more than 100,000 downloads.
The e-newspapers were a new journey for TPML, as its first foray into digital subscriptions. They offer an e-newspaper only edition that is an ad-free experience and also bundle the digital edition with print subscription offerings.
“It’s a new experience altogether,” Shankar said. The digital offering was well-received by readers.
Still, print remains at the core of TPML’s business. One of the new products developed during the pandemic is a weekend mainbook edition, which had long been an ambition of the company. The edition is feature-heavy without compromising on news, with features on food and drink, gender, travel, and wellness.
“We realise the supplements should be monetisable,” Shankar said. “Pullouts, I think we will try to make them advertorial and native-driven. This is a bit of a departure for us.”
Going virtual with events
Pre-COVID, the company had a full events schedule. Transitioning those into virtual events was also something tackled during lockdown. TPML only re-launched its in-person events in late January with its Changemaker “21 to Watch in 2021” awards.
“I think this will be a big year for events for us,” Shankar said. “It’s a big learning experience. I think we are hopeful of doing something interesting on the editorial front.”
Today, nearly one year later, how is TPML faring?
- Circulation is back to 70% of pre-COVID levels.
- Ad sales are recovering to a similar percentage.
- There is good traction on digital and the e-newspaper.
- There is concern over rising newsprint prices.
“It’s still a tough haul,” Shankar acknowledged. There is some trepidation over the rising newsprint costs across the industry. We will cross that bridge when we come to it.”