Can India’s print newspapers survive the Covid-19 pandemic

by Nava Thakuria
As an unprecedented lockdown continues in India, the newspaper groups face an uphill task to maintain their readership. The complete shutdown, to continue till 14 April, instantly stopped the vendors from delivering morning newspapers to reader’s doorsteps as rumours spread that the papers could carry the novel coronavirus. This forced many publishers to drastically reduce their papers’ circulation. As the deadly virus, originating from China, started smashing almost all the countries on the planet, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to the forefront to lead the fight against the deadly virus. Modi in a televised address to the billion-plus nation on 24 March announced the lockdown to break the chain of infections so that the spread of Covid-19 can be halted in this large country at an early date.
As the pandemic infected over 6500 Indians with more than 225 casualties, its immediate impact was seen on the circulation of newspapers in Mumbai where the vendors ceased to work because of
the Covid-19 menace. Managements of all print media houses after a meeting with Brihanmumbai Vruttapatra Vikreta Sangh resolved to suspend publications for some time. The decision finally resulted in no daily newspapers in print for the residents of Mumbai as well as Thane, Pune, Nagpur etc.
However, management of The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Hindu, Hindustan Times and Mid-Day made it clear that even though no physical editions would hit the stands on account of the new restrictions their newspapers would be thoroughly available on the internet. Many media houses started sharing the PDF version of complete newspapers free of costs. Journalists have also been extensively used for the purpose.
Well-circulated news magazine Outlook, RSS mouthpiece Organiser, sports magazine Sportstar, Manipal’s weekly Taranga, Hindi daily Mahanagar with few others suspended print editions. Most of them vowed to continue their digital versions for the readers. Assam’s popular magazines Prantik, Bismoi, Nandini etc have also stopped print editions. The voice of ethnic Indians in the USA, Gopal Raju’s 50 years old weekly India Abroad also faced the same fate on 29 March.
Soon after Mumbai, the wave reached Bangalore, Hyderabad, Bhopal plus Guwahati, Imphal, Agartala, Aizawl in northeast India, where readers started missing their favourite morning newspapers as the local distributors decided temporarily stop their work fearing the spread of the deadly virus. Guwahati newspaper-hawkers’ association, Manipur hawkers’ association, Tripura and Mizoram based newspaper vendors separately came up with resolutions that they would not distribute newspapers for some days.
The region with a population of over 60 million supports over 50 morning dailies in different languages including English, Hindi, Assamese, Bengali, Boro, Meitei, Karbi, Khasi, Mizo, Nagamese and Nepali.
Few viral posts on the social media identifying newspapers as potential carriers of coronavirus created panic among hundreds of newspaper agents and hawkers along with media employees. Many families collectively prevented the vendors from delivering newspapers in their localities.
The World Health Organization (WHO) however asserted that newspapers remain safe to touch by anybody even though the coronavirus can live on a surface for several days. The papers used in print media outlets are produced in highly automated mills and the process hardly needs the use of bare human hands. Moreover, the likelihood of an infected person contaminating newspapers is low and the risk of catching the virus from a package that has been moved, transported, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low, it added.
Most other countries witnessed the temporary suspension of newspaper production in print and decided to enter the digital platform.
India, the largest democracy in the world today, supports over 82,000 registered newspapers with a cumulative daily circulation of 11 crores. These newspapers are estimated to make a Rs 32,000 crore (5 billion USD) industry. As India has improved its literacy rate up to 75 percent, more citizens now have the ability and resources to access newspapers and digital forums. More middle class Indian families now use the internet for various activities. So advertisement revenue, earlier meant for traditional media, has slowly shifted to digital platforms.
Prior to declaring the present 21-day nationwide lockdown to fight Covid-19, Modi who did not bother to interact with news media groups. He had managed to talk to some selected media barons in the country. Even Union information & broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar issued a statement asking all not to believe in rumours. ‘You will not get infected by reading newspapers. There is just one rule to follow- wash your hands after doing any work,’ stated Javadekar, who was a professional journalist before, adding that newspapers have tremendous credibility and those can play a constructive role at the time of crisis.
Understanding the nature of the changing social situation various print media houses opted for boosting their presences on the digital platform. As millions of Indians are now using smartphones with internet connectivity, the media owners came to the realization that they would now get almost free news contents from the digital platforms rather than paying for newspapers or even news channels. So the advertisers have also substantially shifted their focus on the digital media space.
A newspaper in India is sold in the market at a lower price than its actual production cost. The deficit is managed by advertisers. They want a newspaper to reach more people (at a price or even without it) so that their products get sufficient visibility. Minus the circulation, the advertisers would not support a newspaper. So the publication of print newspapers with little or no circulation now simply means the shrinkage of advertisements.
Moreover, traditional advertisers of newspapers from sectors like the automobile industry, construction, home appliances, private education, travel, hospitality, etc have also faced the shutdown and with this, their advertisements also stopped.
Print newspapers may have to significantly depend on government advertisements in the post-corona restriction period. The situation can be alarming for regional newspapers like those published from Guwahati, Imphal, Agartala and Aizawl, as the owners may not be able to sustain their publication for a long period. This would directly impact the employees including thousands of scribes in the region. A number of media-related organisations came out with statements against the rumour that newspapers can carry the coronavirus and requested the concerned state governments to support the media houses to deal with the situation.
Earlier a host of Guwahati based media houses including Asomiya Pratidin, The Assam Tribune, Dainik Janambhumi, Niyomiya Barta, Dainik Asom, Amar Asom, Purbanchal Prahari, Sadin, The North East Times and The Meghalaya Guardian issued a joint statement that there is no scientific proof of newspaper copies carrying the coronavirus to the readers. They claimed that a section of electronic and social media outlets spread the incorrect news.
But strongly countering their statement, many social media activists put a challenge to those media houses asking if they could assure their valued readers. The world would return to normal fighting Covid-19 after some months, but would the traditional media houses in the region get their readers back? This question haunts the traditional media houses of the NE region as in the rest of India.
(The author is a Guwahati, Assam, based media activist)