Can print-media survive the pandemic?

By 22 Feb 2021

Som Nath Sapru surveys the current situation.

Som Nath Sapru

Everything has to have sunset — the glory of Maurya dynasty, the glory of Mughals and lately the glory of British rulers in India all had their ups and downs and one day they got eliminated. The present day print-media enjoyed its glory days for more than 120 years did get its first dent with the sudden appearance of electronic media and then digital in-marches in various areas of publishing — be it texts, text editing, or visual inputs like charts, graphics, line or halftones black and white or even colour. As it is print-media was exasperated by the sudden invasion of digital inroads taking prime stage in 21st century and now the unfortunate worldwide Covid-19 pandemic has severely impacted print-media, mostly in the form of dwindling advertisement revenue, and sharp drop in readership due to disruption in circulation.

As a senior journalist said recently it is, “the bleakest of ironies — the biggest news story in a lifetime is killing off the very industry that exists to report it.” Undoubtedly, coronavirus is destroying newspapers almost the world over. Major as well as regional newspaper publishers have found it economically unviable and unsustainable to go on producing newspapers without any financial returns. To compromise with the situation, they have reduced the number of pages, instructed several of their staff to operate from home, besides reducing the number of desk reporters and stringers – due to cut down on advertisements by most of corporate sectors, and other allied agencies of multinational companies.

At national level print-runs of several major newspapers were drastically reduced because of distribution problems due to nation-wide lockdown for more than two-and-a-half months and on-going restrictions, cut down of advertisements by the advertisers which created financial problems and newspaper publishers have found no viable solution or the alternative to advertising revenue as their major source of financial assistance.

Would there be a post-pandemic “old print-media” recovery? It is very doubtful as most print-media publishers are finding digital-media easier to manage and perhaps less expensive and even might create more profitable situation vis-à-vis print-media, since print-media establishments have gone through heavy financial losses during pandemic period for now more than eight months.

Some of the cascading effects of the pandemic on print-media include journalists being laid-off; some news related publications folded to cut down on the number of pages. All over the country, the newspaper industry was briefly walking on a tight rope – trying to keep afloat financially and at the same time keep readers informed. Despite the hard times, newspapers have remained committed to giving wide coverage of the pandemic, combating misinformation, providing public health updates and not bypassing even entertainment to help general public cope with the virus impact.

Besides facing the financial blow, newspapers were trying to be as cooperative with various government agencies to give prime place in the pages to advertise all the precautionary and safety messages to fight the pandemic. This fight against the pandemic was fought collectively by all the newspapers irrespective of all-time low circulation of their publications.

Small states and mofussil town newspapers did face horrific pandemic onslaught because of cut on advertisements, and  because of the lockdown, major private sector companies and corporations didn’t function and likewise private advertisers — for small town newspapers it was a precarious existence — whereas ‘A’ class newspapers didn’t feel much of a pinch because of existing resources and provincial or central government’s release of various ministry’ Covid-19 related campaign advertisement placements.

Countrywide lockdown was abruptly announced around third week of March 2020 that caught the entire industry by surprise. For most of the print-media organisations, this lockdown led to the breakdown of supply chains, a cutdown in the number of printed copies and readers shifting to digital mediums. However, after about six to seven weeks, the general public was made aware that the newspapers and news magazines were printed with utmost care and under sanitised conditions — sanitisers were sprayed right during the print operations just before the delivery point of newspapers for the bundling and even delivery boys were supplied with sanitiser sprays before they dropped newspapers at readers’ doorsteps. All this was widely circulated through videos on WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, etc.

Leading newspapers like The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, and The Hindu took a joint decision that during the lockdown period that even if the physical edition of the newspaper may not be available for the readers, they will continue to churn out each daily edition of these newspapers on the internet. But soon the management of these newspapers realised that if the public is made to understand that the newspapers are not contaminated with any virus of Covid-19, readers will be willing to purchase them again.

Newspapers and news magazines started print editions of their publications after the World Health Organisation asserted that newspapers remain safe to touch by anyone even though the coronavirus can live on a surface for several days. The papers used by print media outlets are produced by highly automated machines and the entire process hardly needs human hands. Moreover, the likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes Covid-19 from a package, newspaper or news magazine bundle that has been moved, travelled and exposed to different conditions and temperatures is also low — it was confirmed.

As it is all the media houses, newspapers, news magazines and other allied publications, were facing financial crush due to the cut in advertisement placements by corporations and ad agencies. It was further hit by the increase of 20% cost in paper. So, the government was approached by all the newspaper publishers with a petition for a waiver of at least 5% on import duty to help cut cost on production of these publications as the industry has been hit hard due to Covid-19.

Our country is the largest democracy in the world and it supports more than 82,000 registered newspapers with combined circulation of 11-crore (110-million) and is estimated to represent an industry with a turnover of around Rs 2,525-crore which translates to more than USD 5.1-billion. As the country’s literacy rate touches 75.1%, more citizens now have developed the capacity and resources to access newspapers as well digital forums. Many middle class families have started using the internet for various activities for the first time and it was timely and proved handy for their school and college-going children for online classes, during the ongoing pandemic and nationwide lockdown, due to closure of all the schools, colleges and even professional institutions like medical and engineering establishments besides all the universities all over the country.

Print media persons played an important role in educating people all over the country through all leading newspapers and news magazines in all languages, besides mass circulated social media as well. The Press Council of India, which regulates the print-media, said, “In dealing with the issues concerning Covid-19, print-media has played a crucial role in reaching to general public and advising about precautions to be followed to save themselves and their families from corona virus and mitigating the impact of pandemic."

The impact of the pandemic on newspaper industry was so disastrous that it lost more than 4,000 to 5,000-crores in the two months of country-wide lockdown. The general feeling is that it is the print-media industry which is surviving adversely affected situation due to financial crisis.

The growth in the number of internet users was significant during the peak period of the pandemic times, between June and September 2020. During this period, there was a downward trend on the placement of advertisements and the advertisement revenues for all newspapers and news magazines establishment all over the world.

Let me reiterate that the growth in the internet users was significant compared to last 20 years all over the world. It happened in our country as well because of the lockdown and the closure of all educational institutions right from schools to universities, besides professional institutions as well — students from all categories used and are dependent on the massive use of the internet that is perhaps the gain of the pandemic.

While many newspapers launched digital editions of their publications which is an experiment with subscription-based content models, the digital media game is still largely driven by free online publications such as News 18, NDTV, Firstpost, Indian Express, Economic Times, etc.

The real question still remains if the print-media can survive and enjoy its old glory, which is more than 120 years old, after the massive dent created by the ongoing pandemic.





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