There’s a motorcycle-taxi stand near my home in Bangkok, and many of the drivers’ hands are dirty. Not from urban grime or motor oil, but from newsprint. Fueled by a growing literacy rate and press reforms in some parts of the continent, Asia is enjoying what may be the world’s last great newspaper boom. Eight of the world’s 10 biggest paid-for daily newspapers are printed in Asia, according to the World Association of Newspapers . The largest national newspaper markets? China, India and Japan.
Even as Europeans and North Americans abandon their paid subscriptions newspaper circulation contracted by 1.84% and 2.14% respectively in 2006-07, according to WAN’s most recent figures Asia’s grew by 4.74%. In India alone, 11.5 million new newspaper readers were added in 2008, and ad growth is chugging along at around 10% less robust than over the past two years but still remarkably strong. “Many people can’t enjoy their morning cup of tea without their newspaper,” says Rahul Kansal, chief marketing officer for the Times of India, the world’s most read English-language broadsheet and a major player among a whopping 64,998 newspapers registered across India.
Asia’s media expansion has mirrored the fall of its dictators, as newspaper readers thrill at no longer getting just the day’s propaganda. In Indonesia, the number of newspapers has increased from a few dozen when strongman Suharto was deposed in 1998 to roughly 800 today. The market is so buoyant that a new English-language paper, the Jakarta Globe, revved up its printing presses last November, just as several cash-strapped American papers were readying their final editions. “The Indonesian middle class is growing, and many households subscribe to two newspapers,” says Ali Basyah Suryo, strategic adviser to the start-up Globe. “People like to hold the newspaper in their hands and even clip stories or save copies. It’s seen as a valuable product.”
Even in China, where state censorship directives are dispensed daily to newspaper editors, a press revolution is under way. Over the past decade, the central government has started weaning newspapers off state subsidies. The free-market reality has forced editors to print stories that sell. While the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, still publishes numbing headlines like “China-Mali Ties in Continuous Development,” other newspapers are attracting readers by delving into corruption scandals and celebrity sex lives. Low Internet penetration throughout much of Asia ensures that it is newspapers not computer or cell-phone screens that impart information to readers. As of last September, only 12.24 million Indians were Internet subscribers, a fraction of the 180 million Indians who have newspaper subscriptions.
Online citizens may be more plentiful in East Asia, but even there paper rules. In Japan, the average household still subscribes to more than one newspaper. In fact, the Japanese are the world’s most avid newspaper readers, despite a dip in circulation over the past couple of years. “One would be hard-pressed to find another country in the world where newspaper companies are publishing several million issues a day,” says Yoichi Funabashi, editor in chief of the Asahi Shimbun, the world’s second largest daily with more than 8 million subscribers. Nonetheless, publishers know they cannot count on younger consumers. The Asahi Shimbun is helping launch a paid service for thumb-tapping readers who want to access news through their cell phones. The multimedia program is set to roll out this summer and aims to hook 10 million subscribers in a few years.
The world’s most fertile ground for newspapers is also the most dangerous for reporters. In 2008, 26 Asian journalists were killed in the line of duty, according to the International Press Institute, making Asia even deadlier than the Middle East for the fourth estate. Some 54 Asian journalists are languishing behind bars, says media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. Those disheartening statistics underline, however, the importance of Asia’s newspapers as a check on the excesses of power something that should never go out of fashion.
With reporting by Madhur Singh / New Delhi