As an unprecedented lockdown continues in India, the newspaper groups face an uphill task to maintain its devoted readership. The complete shutdown, to continue till April 14, 2020 next because of Covid-19 pandemic, instantly prevented the vendors to deliver morning newspapers at reader’s doorsteps as rumors spread that the paper itself could carry the novel coronavirus even forced many publishers to drastically reduce their circulation figure.
As the China-originated deadly virus started smashing almost all the countries on the planet resulting in affecting over a hundred thousand people and casualties in the thousands, Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to the front to lead the fight against the deadly virus. Modi in a televised address to the billion-plus nation on March 24 announced the lockdown to break the chain of infection so that the spreading of Covid-19 can be prevented in the large country.
As the pandemic infected more than 2,300 Indians with over 60 casualties, its immediate impact was observed over 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 for the residents of Mumbai as well as Thane, Pune, Nagpur, etc.
However, the managements of The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, Mid-Day, etc. made it clear that even though no physical editions would hit the stands on account of the new-found restrictions their newspapers would be thoroughly available on the internet. Many media houses started sharing the complete PDF versions of their newspapers free of cost. Acclaimed news magazine Outlook and RSS mouthpiece Organiser suspended their print editions, but continued the digital versions for the readers.
After Mumbai, it was the turn for hundred of thousands of residents of Bangalore, Hyderabad along with Guwahati, Imphal, Agartala, Aizawl in northeast India to miss their favorite morning newspapers as the local distributors decided temporarily to suspend their works because of the virus outbreak. Guwahati newspaper-hawkers’ association, Manipur hawkers’ association, Tripura and Mizoram based newspaper vendors separately came out with the resolution that they would not distribute the 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, Nepali, etc. Few viral posts on the social media identifying newspapers as a potential source of the coronavirus created panic for hundreds of newspaper agents and hawkers along with other media employees. Many families collectively prevented the vendors from delivering newspapers in the localities.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has, 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 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 that has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low, it added.
But sad news broke on March 29 with the sudden closure of Gopal Raju’s 50-year-old publication titled India Abroad, which was the voice of ethnic Indians in USA. More reports relating to the temporary suspension of physical editions of many newspapers because of Covid-19 outbreak started pouring in from different parts of the globe.
From Sylhet (Bangladesh) to Colombo (Sri Lanka), Rabat (Morocco) to Rome (Italy), Vatican City to Jordan, Oman, Yemen capitals along with American cities like Pittsburgh, Seattle, Missouri, West Virginia, Lewisburg, etc. witnessed the temporary suspension of newspaper productions. Those media outlets have already committed for entering into the digital platforms completely.
The largest democracy in the world today supports over 82,000 registered newspapers with a cumulative daily circulation of 11 crore estimated to be a Rs 32,000 crore (5 billion USD) industry. As India has been improving its literacy rate up to 75 percent, more citizens now develop the capacity and resources to access newspapers and digital forums. More middle class Indian families are now starting to use the internet for various activities for the first time in their lives. So advertisement revenues, earlier meant for traditional media, have slowly shifted to digital platforms.
Prior to declaring the 21-day nationwide lockdown to fight against Covid-19, Modi interacted with some selected media barons in the country and received suggestions from them over the issue. It is quite amazing that Modi did not organize such interactions with news media owners prior to the shocking announcement of demonetisation (2016), abrogation of Article 370 from Jammu & Kashmir (2019) and paving ways for the citizenship amendment act 2019.
Even Union information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar issued a statement asking everybody nobody not to believe in the rumors. “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 used to work as a professional journalist, adding that newspapers have tremendous credibility and those can play a constructive role in the time of crisis.
Understanding the heat of changing social engineering, various print media houses opted for boosting their presences in the digital media. As millions of Indians now start using smartphones with internet connectivity, the media owners have come to the realization that they would now prefer to get all necessary and 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 to the digital media space.
It needs not to be reminded that a newspaper in India is sold in the market at a lower price than its actual cost. The deficit (also profit) is managed by the commercial advertisers. They want a newspaper to reach more people (with a price or even without it) so that their products get necessary visibilities. Minus circulation, the advertisers would not support the newspapers anymore. So no distribution of newspapers (even if it is duly published) simply means low advertisement flow for print media outlets.
The situation can lead to an alarming situtation for regional newspapers like those published from Guwahati, Imphal, Agartala, Aizawl etc, as the owners may not be able to sustain their publications for a long period. It would directly impact the employees including thousands of journalists in the region. A number of media bodies have came out with statements against the rumor that newspapers can carry the coronavirus and also requested the concerned 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, The Meghalaya Guardian, etc. made a collective statement that there is no scientific proof for newspapers carrying the coronavirus to the readers. The managements claimed that a section of electronic and social media outlets spread the incorrect news.
But strongly countering it, many social media users put a challenging question to those media houses if they could assure their valued readers of authenticated, credible and balanced news here after. The world will return to normalcy after fighting against Covid-19 in some future months, but will the traditional media houses in the region ever get their dedicated readers back in the post-corona era. That is a difficult question to be pondered at this hour.