Column: Can newspapers survive the COVID-19 pandemic?

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 14 April 2020 next because of the COVID-19 pandemic, instantly prevented the vendors to deliver morning newspapers at the 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 China originated deadly virus started smashing almost all the countries on the planet resulting in affecting over a hundred thousand people and casualties up to a few thousand, said Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came to the front 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 infection so that the spreading of COVID-19 can be prevented in a large country.

As the pandemic infected over 5500 Indians with more than 175 casualties, its immediate impact was observed over the circulation of newspapers in Mumbai where the vendors ceased to work because of COVID-19 menace.

Management 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 newspaper day 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, 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 PDF version of the complete newspaper free of cost. Journalists have also been extensively used for this purpose.

Acclaimed news magazine Outlook, RSS mouthpiece Organiser, sports magazine Sportstar, Manipal’s weekly Taranga, Hindi daily Mahanagar with few others have already suspended print editions.

Most of them vowed to continue their digital versions for the readers. Assam’s popular magazines Prantik, Bismoi, Nandini, etc. have not hit the stalls. The voice of ethnic Indians in the USA, Gopal Raju’s 50-year-old weekly India Abroad, also faced the same fate on 29 March.

Soon after Mumbai, the wave reached Bangalore, Hyderabad, Bhopal along with Guwahati, Imphal, Agartala, Aizawl in northeast India, where readers missed their favorite morning newspapers as the local distributors decided temporarily to shut their works scaring the deadly virus.

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 social media identifying newspapers as a potential career 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.

World Health Organization (WHO) has however asserted that newspapers remain safe to touch with 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, traveled, and exposed to different conditions and temperatures is also low, it added.

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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. witness the temporary suspension of newspaper productions.

Those media outlets have already committed to 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 crores 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 now start using 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.

Before declaring the 21-day nationwide lockdown to fight against COVID-19. Modi, who did not bother to interact with news media groups before the sudden announcement of demonetization (2016), abrogation of Article 370 from Jammu & Kashmir (2019), paving the way for the citizenship amendment act 2019, had managed to talk to some selected media barons in the country.

The participants proudly offered suggestions to Modi over the issue. Even Union information & broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar issued a statement asking everybody not to believe in rumors.

‘You will not get infected by reading newspapers. There is just one rule to follow – wash your hands after doing any work,’ stated Prakash Javadekar. He 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 presence in the digital media. As millions of Indians now start using smartphones with internet connectivity, the media owners realize that they would now prefer to get all necessary and almost free news content 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 commercial advertisers.

They want a newspaper to reach more people (with a price or even without it) so that their products get the necessary visibilities. Minus circulation, the advertisers would not support the newspapers anymore.

So, the inability to distribute newspapers (even if it is duly published) simply means the shrinkage of advertisements for print media outlets.

Moreover, traditional advertisers of newspapers from sectors like the automobile industry, construction, home appliances, private education, travel, hospitality, etc. have faced the shutdown equally and once the people lose the affording capacity for such items at least for the next few months, the advertisers would restrict their resources.

Finally, the newspapers may have to significantly depend on government advertisements only in the post-corona period. The situation can emerge alarming 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 longer period.

It would directly impact the employees, including thousands of scribes in the region. Several media bodies 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 included 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 management 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 hereafter.

The world would return to normal fighting against COVID-19 after some months, but would the traditional media houses in the region ever get its dedicated readers back in the post-corona era, a difficult question to be pondered at this hour!!

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