It is a rare occasion these days for journalists in the mature economies to hear a newspaper boss boast of double digit growth in circulation and advertising revenue. So it was an attentive audience that greeted Siddarth Varadarajan, editor of The Hindu, India’s number two English language daily at a March 29 FCCJ lunch.

In Japan, daily newspaper circulation has fallen by seven million over the past dozen years to 47.7 million in 2012. But decline at that pace seems modest compared with North America and Europe where long established titles have ceased to publish or moved online. Overseas news bureaus being the first in line for budget cuts, FCCJ members have been particularly hard hit.

In South Asia there is an entirely different reality, as Varadarajan explained. The world’s most populous region with well over 1.5 billion people in six nations, most of the Subcontinent has enjoyed robust economic growth over the past two decades. And that has boosted the fortunes of newspapers across the region.


Siddarth Varadarajan at the Club

A veteran of several Indian publications, including the Times of India, who was appointed editor of The Hindu two years ago, Varadarajan said although the region still lags by many measures, growth has brought benefits that are helping over come obstacles that kept the region static for many years. Per capita income is on the rise everywhere in the region, both in real and nominal terms; more children are going to school; and women are joining the workforce, thus raising their stature in the family. He cited all these among the factors helping papers in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and smaller regional nations to significantly expand circulation.

After a decade and a half of spectacular growth, The Hindu, with circulation at 1.3 million, is now number two among India’s English dailies. Fifteen years ago daily circulation was a mere 200,000 copies. First published in 1874, it is India’s oldest surviving English daily, and Varadarajan is probably justified in claiming it is the nation’s most respected national newspaper. It contrast to most national media, which are based in Delhi or Mumbai, The Hindu is headquartered in Chennai, the southern city formerly known as Madras.

Its archrival Times of India recently passed 2 million to become the world’s best selling Englishlanguage newspaper, narrowly ahead of USA Today. Vernacular dailies are faring even better, with the largest Hindi paper moving almost 6 million copies. All told, more than 330 million newspapers circulate each day in India more than in any other country.

Varadarajan said ad revenue has soared along with double digit economic growth a trend he does not see as entirely healthy since newspapers are increasingly vulnerable to pressure from the business community. Then again, subscription revenues cover only five percent of production costs. Each copy of The Hindu costs 25 rupees (about ¥45) to produce, but subscribers pay just 3.50.

Other South Asian nations are following the same trend with equal vigor. In Bangladesh, Daily Prothom Alo (the paper I represent in Japan) leads the pack in circulation with more than 600,000 copies daily. Given that the paper was only launched in 1998, its growth curve has been steep. In the early 1990s Bangladesh had only a single daily with circulation above 100,000. After two decades of phenomenal growth, six dailies now circulate more than 100,000 copies.

South Asia’s circulation figures are even more significant considering that a single newspaper is often read by up to 100 people in tea shops that provide patrons with all the dailies. Home delivered copies are similarly passed among many family members. And as Varadarajan pointed out, once subscribers are finished with the paper they can recover nearly the full subscription price by selling it to a recycler.

Varadarajan believes low subscription cost is one reason why the internet will not dislodge newspapers from the leading position they now enjoy. But he said the trend to watch is the gradual migration from simple mobile phones which are now almost ubiquitous to smart phones that make reading the news easier. He expects this will create a new generation of readers who bypass newsprint altogether, just as millions in India went straight to mobile phones without ever owning a landline.

Monzurul Huq represents the largest circulation Bangladeshi national daily, Prothom Alo. He was FCCJ president 2009-2010.