Newspapers do a rethink during the pandemic - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

The newspaper business has been impacted by Covid-19. Dainik Bhaskar, the world’s third largest-circulated newspaper's SOPs has triggered calls for reform.

In this Sunday Column, RD Bhatnagar, chief technology officer, DB Corp, explains how his team collected advisories and protocols plus created safe standards

05 Jul 2020 | By Noel D'Cunha

Q: How has Dainik Bhaskar coped with the printing of its newspaper editions during the lockdown?

RD Bhatnagar: On Day One, we created a crack team of senior management. This included our promoter Pawan Agarwal. We collected all advisories and protocols, studied them and created SOPs for all departments. On the Day Three, 95% of our office staff (finance, HR and admin, editorial, sales & marketing, technology, excluding printing) was instructed to work from home.

Q: What about the print crew?

RD Bhatnagar: We created minimum batch sizes of the printing crew and designed the roster in such a way that one batch worked for 14 days. After which  they went into self-isolated care, and the next batch came in and so on. 

Q: And the factory?

RD Bhatnagar: A washing area was created at each gate and each person was made to wash his hands and face with soap under the supervision of the security. Then they were scanned for fever before being permitted to enter the plant. The entire printing plant is sanitised every week by the contractor appointed by the local municipal corporation. 

Q: How will one equip the production centres post-pandemic?

RD Bhatnagar: Safety protocols will become a part of regular SOPs.

Q. Will talent recruitment and retention see an enormous transformation?

RD Bhatnagar: We did not see any significant attrition or reduction in manpower in the printing plants, while resources continue to be optimised in other departments.

Q: There has been a lot of misinformation about newspapers being carriers of the virus. How do you allay it?

RD Bhatnagar: We believe newspapers are safe from being carriers of bacteria and viruses. There are two reasons. One, newsprint is very porous and has bleach in it. Two, printing inks in combination with fountain solution contain chemicals that act as anti-virus/ bacteria reagents. In addition to this, we spray the mist of alcohol-based sanitiser while copies are transported in the vehicles.

Q: Any study?

RD Bhatnagar: I have suggested IFRA undertake a study on the survival of viruses and bacteria on newsprint. The suggestion is under active consideration by the World Printers Forum.

Q: A lot of media firms have journalists who are WFH (work from home) or operating from remote newsrooms. How has this system been working for DB? 

RD Bhatnagar: From Day Three, we ensured all our journalists and editors could WFH, except about five-seven page-making journalists to come to the office to design the pages. This was because the only bottleneck was the Adobe InDesign software that did not support cloud compatibility. But within a week, we created a robust VPN service that facilitated remote page-making.

Q: Will the newspaper industry require new tactics for a new era? For example, scaling the power of analytics across editions? 

RD Bhatnagar: Yes. The myth got demolished during this pandemic. We have automated almost all processes within editorial, and today everything that the editorial needs is on their fingertips. They can work from anywhere, on any device, at any time.

Similarly, we created a portal for advertising agencies to create and submit their ROs and creatives from their mobiles. The data is appended in our SAP system, where the sales order is created automatically. No physical or verbal communication is required to fulfil this activity.

Q. Also making firstline workforces the new focus for digital transformation. Is this possible? 

RD Bhatnagar: The frontline sales force now has an app that provides all information that they require to close a deal, and no backend support is needed.

Q: Will the newspaper industry reshape its factory, its shopfloor, its pre-press department, its marketing services, etc?

RD Bhatnagar: The page levels will be restricted, which means the newspapers will be thinner.

Q. I see.

RD Bhatnagar: My contrary view is that the page level will spike as the entire industry will jump the scales to recover their losses and would need media more than ever. 

Q. What about the shop floor?

RD Bhatnagar: There wouldn't be much change on the shop floor except the manual work getting further automated like recordkeeping, etc. I don't see any change in the pre-press department as well, except that the image correction (popularly known as scanning department) will vanish due to the extent of automation offered by the software.

Q. Marketing?

RD Bhatnagar: Marketing will have to become more aggressive, though the communication will primarily shift to virtual meetings using videoconferencing solutions. They will be forced to offer innovative/ customised packages to the advertisers who would be looking at very tight ROIs.

Q: What are some of the working practices that DB has developed over the past 90 days—which could become an industry blueprint? 
RD Bhatnagar: There are many, including:

1. Extensive use of cloud-technology. The entire data and transactions reside on cloud accessible from anywhere on any device and at any time. We have migrated almost all applications on the cloud, except Adobe applications. 
2. Create mobile-user interfaces to all such applications, including CMS for editorial. Today, 95% of our reporters file their stories, including pictures through a mobile app called Matrix.
3. Portal for agencies and clients to submit their ROs and material directly into the ERP.
4. An algorithm based on rules that reads the orders from SAP and automates scheduling of ads on the respective pages of respective editions. I mean that the scheduling can be done using very few manual resources of any number of editions.
5. Portal for designers. The designers need not be located at all centres. This portal facilitates the designers, clients to choose from numerous templates and design ideas to create their advertisement.
6. App for the sales force, giving them all information that they need to close the sale, including rate approval workflow within the same app.
7. Night operations interface: The newspaper dispatches are made using a mobile interface with required information like vehicle arrivals, agency / depot-wise print orders already pre-populated. We have eliminated all paperwork. 
8. App for circulation agents. They can manage their copies and have access to their invoices, payment history and can also make payments using payment gateway.
9. POS app for cash sales of copies on depots. Sales executives use a secure yet straightforward app to collect cash and distribute copies. This has helped in getting details of each hawker and customer within the ERP
10 A portal for customers. This was to facilitate booking advertisement, including classifieds, and using a mobile from the comfort of his home.

Q: The newspaper transport and logistics system are quite robust. How can MSME and SME converters and printers find more ways to be a part of the supply chain? As an industry, can we forge partnerships?

RD Bhatnagar: The newspaper transport system is entirely dependent on third party contractors. We have already started to share the vehicles with other publications. As the timings and drop points for upcountry editions could be different, the partnership in such cases is hard to be accepted by publication houses. 

Q: Dainik Bhaskar is the world's third-largest circulated newspaper with 4.3-mn copies. Have you returned to those numbers in June?

RD Bhatnagar: Not yet. We have regained around 78% of our base circulation (before the lockdown). The copies that have not returned are primarily the institution sales, railway stations, office and shops. We are confident that once the lockdown opens, we would be able to regain the circulation.

Q: Mr Bhatnagar: You are a hardcore newspaper man. On the one hand: The World Press Trends 2019 report released by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers' (Wan-Ifra), has named Dainik Bhaskar as the world's third largest-circulated newspaper. On the other hand: we saw a 22% dip in newsprint consumption. Newspapers in India are seeing a fall in subscription, print runs and page numbers ... This will impact operating profits in 2020 ... What has been transpiring in the newspaper space? What are the key innovations we have seen?

RD Bhatnagar: This is obvious that page levels will continue to remain low and may pick up only on heavy advertising days. The advertising rates, cover prices will also remain mostly stable. The publishers are focusing on reducing the costs, especially the HR cost, by automating mundane processes, and material costs by renegotiating the prices.

Q. What are the key areas?

RD Bhatnagar: The main focus is to provide a 360 degrees solution to the advertisers and getting into long-term deals. We are also looking at introducing other revenue verticals in addition to just advertisement and circulation. The blueprints are being created and are under consideration. This is going to be the most challenging task, and yet we do not have a very clear picture so far.

Q: Very few in our industry know that you have been the architect of DB plants across India. Can you explain how you have built these newspaper factories across India from Navi Mumbai and Ahmedabad and Bhopal to the smaller centres in Maharashtra?

RD Bhatnagar: We have 59 newspaper printing presses across Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Bihar. We built almost all plants with quick turnworunds thereby beating our own records. The precise and elaborate project planning with a very sharp focus of the promoters has been the success behind these projects.

Q. How do you classify these plants?

RD Bhatnagar: We have classification of plants based on the number of copies and several printing presses. Each classification has details of every material required along with their vendors and price list. The board just gives us the date of launch, and everything is then executed with military precision. We hold the benchmark of installing a five-tower press with a folder in just 48 hours. Wan-Ifra acknowledged our speed of installation of our most difficult configuration in 2005 when we installed three lines of Manugraph presses with eight four-high towers, folders with three upper formers and overhead dryers to print heatset and coldset simultaneously in record time.

Q: What lessons can a commercial print firm learn from your efforts? Is it possible to transplant these values to the rest of the industry? 

RD Bhatnagar:  Commercial presses need to focus on quality rather than quantity and in a very short print window. But, automation has provided equal opportunity to run operations with less dependence on manual processes, predictable consistency in quality. Encon and safety should now become a part of everyone's SOP. They are no longer optional.

Q: How does Mr Bhatnagar spend a typical day? Focused on new projects or analysing daily reports or fire fighting? 

RD Bhatnagar: I head both production and IT in DB Corp. I have a pretty structured day. It starts with ad aily huddle with my colleagues and spending an hour discussing any bottlenecks faced by them in their projects. We have almost all our KPIs mapped to a real-time dashboard (edition timings, delays, quality scores, pan-India WAN network, end-user devices and so on). So all routine KPIs flash when attention is needed. I have the liberty of time to dwell a lot on new processes, innovations and technologies that can be beneficial to our fraternity.

Q: Experts say there will be another crisis. Do you feel better prepared going forward?  

RD Bhatnagar: The current crisis is unprecedented. While we are prepared to work virtually, we still do not have robotics to print and distribute the physical product to homes. Without humans back on the streets, we will be doomed.

Q: What do you see as your personal challenges in your role, in the years ahead? 

RD Bhatnagar: I see all challenges as opportunities. Survive, revive and thrive.

Thank you Mr Bhatnagar for a wonderful knowledge sharing session.