Kerala’s newspaper gold rush

BY ninan| IN Media Practice | 02/07/2003



Kerala’s newspaper gold rush



Thanks to circulation gimmicks from the leading dailies it is raining gifts and gold in Kerala.


 Sreedevi Jacob

The widely circulated Malayalam dailies Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi have been competing with each other for years. In order to increase the circulation figures, both have adopted various methods in the past. In the early nineties insurance schemes were offered by the papers for its subscribers. Later Manorama offered scholarships for subscribers` children and discount cards which could be utilised at select outlets to earn a discount on the subscribers` bills. Now since May this year, both the newspapers have launched a circulation drive, albeit of a different kind.

Malayala Manorama announced its `Swarna thambola` (Golden thambola) about two months ago, saying it has earmarked Rs 1 crore to be given away as prizes to the winners. Its fifth game is in progress now. Gold coins are the catches at the basic level known as line prizes. Winning of a full house will get you five sovereigns and at the end of all the rounds there will be a mega bumper prize too. A total of 2500 sovereigns will be given away as prizes.
To get one step ahead of its arch rival, Mathrubhumi has a budget of Rs 1.25 crore for its promotional programme. Cashing in on the monsoon season in Kerala, the exercise is called `Sammana Mazha` (Rain of prizes). It proudly advertises that ‘you don`t have to crack your head over numbers, to get our prize. You only have to read the paper carefully and keep it safely till the next day.` True, while you have to match the numbers in the tambola card for the Manorama game, to win the basic prize from Mathrubhumi you only have to see whether your copy of the paper did or did not carry a particular inscription or catchword which will be announced in the next day`s paper. There are hundred prizes to be won every day. A gold coin or silk saree is the daily prize. Out of the winners, five get motor bikes in a draw which will be held every week. Two cars are given away every month and the luckiest person will get a house worth Rs 22 lakh as gift!

Both newspapers have a proud legacy. Manorama began more than a hundred years ago, while Mathrubhumi was set up to support the freedom struggle in print. But at present, bereft of such worthy issues, both papers are forced to maintain and boost their numbers by way of aggressive marketing which forces the newspaper to turn into a commercial product.

Both the newspapers are spending a good amount of money to promote their schemes. Advertisements are telecast on various Malayalam television channels during prime time, showing how celebrities are excited over these offers! When the programme was launched Mathrubhumi gave a full page announcement in The Hindu! Expectedly, the two papers devote quite a few column centimetres to promote their programmes. Report and photograph of superstars of Malayalam cinema engaged in filling in the tambola card along with their family members occupied three columns of Page 1 in one newspaper, while the other devoted an equal space to report the foundation laying ceremony of the plush house that would be presented to the luckiest! Winners of the games at various stages were also featured to bring authenticity to the contests.

Prominent media analyst and editor of Deshabhimani newspaper Dr Sebastian Paul says the war between the two papers is not unethical, but it points to the dangerous indication that newspaper can be sold like any other product. ``In both schemes no intellectual effort is demanded from the readers. The concept that you need not READ the paper to win the prizes, is not suited for a newspaper,`` he says.

 There is hardly a home in Kerala which does not buy a newspaper. And both Malayala Manorama and The Mathrubhumi have almost loyal clientele and near-saturated circulation figures. According to Shibu Cherian, Circulation manager, Mathrubhumi, there has been a boost of 1 lakh copies since the exercise started in May, which he thinks is an increase of 50 per cent over the rival paper.
Ravi, Circulation Manager of Malayala Manorama, refused to DIVulge the figures saying this was an internal promotional programme and was not meant for competition. But newspaper agents say many homes are subscribing to two newspapers now! While the Swarna thambola is till September, the Sammana Mazha was supposed to end on July 31, but advertisements are appearing in English newspapers saying how people want it to be extended!

On August 1st it was  extended  for another two months. `Rain of prizes` is becoming `Torrent of prizes` , said the advertisement. Another Rs 1.25 crore will be spent for this second stage exercise. The prizes also have increased. Instead of the earlier 100, there will be 150 prizes (gold coins and silk sarees) everyday. Seven colour televisions and 10 stereo sets will be given away in the weekly bumpers, in addition to the existing weekly bumper prizes of five bikes. Two cars every month as super bumper prizes will be continued. Mega bumper prizes will be TWO flats, one in Kochi and another in Thiruvananthapuram.

Controversial circulation drives are not new to the Malayalam Press. Recently, the two most circulated Malayalam weeklies Mangalam and Manorama were in the eye of a controversy, when the former poached a novelist from the latter publication. The novelist had been writing two novels under different names in the same weekly when the shift happened. Manorama immediately brought an end to both novels by killing the central characters of these novels, Mayamma and Narendran, who were hugely popular among readers, hoping that the death of these two would prevent readers from flocking to Mangalam. Without the knowledge of the novelist, Mayamma took poison in one novel and Narendran was shot to death in the other. But then Mayamma and Narendran had to live for Mangalam. For days it advertised on channels and in print that Mayamma and Narendran had not died. It was actually a dream, the advertisement explained! Unofficial figures say about one lakh readers moved over to Mangalam.

``If newspapers want to benefit readers, they should reduce the price,`` says Sebastian Paul. At present both newspapers cost Rs 3.25 each.  ``Last year during Onam, these two newspapers brought out  sets of  two papers a day each day  for some days because of  heavy advertisement bookings.  It was announced that the reader benefits from getting two Manorama papers for the price of one. But everyone knew that the newspaper was forced to bring out two papers as the ad demand for Page 1 was tremendous and they could increase business tremendously this way. It smells of a street hawker`s business sense,`` he adds.

Onam is the major shopping time in Kerala. Forty per cent of all annual sales of electronics items are sold in these ten days. It is  also the time of year when  employees receive bonuses. During the last Onam there was huge demand for page 1 adsvertisements. In order not to lose revenue, both Manorama   Mathrubhumi brought out two papers everyday. Manorama advertised it saying `two Manorama for the price of one` and invited criticism saying that  it was like selling soap.

Both original and free papers had a good mix of news--- local, national, regional, international, since the free copy was printed earlier in the day, it had early takes and the latest developments often appeared in the actual paper.

The only positive aspect the reader can hope to get from these circulation gimmicks is that buying two newspapers will lead to better news analysis by the readers and the papers will be forced to sharpen their professionalism. In Kerala, the readers also are in two groups blindly believing and quoting their newspapers at tea shops and shopping malls alike. These promotional exercises will hopefully achieve reader sensibility also.

(The Quest Features & Footage)




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