4 April 2020 Guwahati – As an unprecedented lockdown continues in India, its newspapers face an uphill task to maintain their devoted readership. The complete shutdown, to continue till 14 April 2020 next because of the Covid-19 pandemic, instantly prevented the vendors from delivering the morning dailies at reader’s doorsteps as rumors spread that the printed paper itself could carry the novel Coronavirus. The rumor and the consequent vendor, hawker, and delivery person’s behavior forced many publishers to reduce their circulations drastically.
As the fast-spreading deadly virus started smashing almost all the countries on the planet resulting in affecting over a hundred thousand people and casualties up to few 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 24 March 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 over 3000 Indians with nearly 100 casualties, its immediate impact on the circulation of newspapers was observed in Mumbai, where the vendors ceased work because of the
menacing virus. Managements of all print media houses after a meeting with Brihanmumbai Vruttapatra Vikreta Sangh resolved to suspend publication for some time. The decision finally resulted in no newspaper day for the residents of Mumbai as well as Thane, Pune, Nagpur and other cities and towns.
However, management of The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Hindu, The Hindustan Times, Mid-Day, and others made it clear that even though no physical editions would hit the stands on account of the new-found restrictions, their newspapers would be completely available on the internet. Many media houses started sharing the PDF versions of complete newspapers free of cost. Journalists have also extensively contributed to this purpose.
Acclaimed news magazine Outlook, RSS mouthpiece Organiser, sports magazine Sportstar, Manipal’s weekly Taranga, Hindi daily Mahanagar together with a few other publications have already suspended print editions. Most of these vowed to continue their digital versions for their readers. The voice of the ethnic Indians in the USA, Gopal Raju’s 50 year-old-weekly India Abroad, also faced the same fate on 29 March 2020.
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 down their distribution work in fear of the deadly virus. The Guwahati newspaper-hawkers’ association, the Manipur hawkers’ association, as well as Tripura and Mizoram, based newspaper vendors separately came out with resolutions and statements that they would not distribute the newspapers for some days.
The plight of dailies in Northeastern India
The region with a population of over 60 million supports over 50-morning dailies in languages including English, Hindi, Assamese, Bengali, Boro, Meitei, Karbi, Khasi, Mizo, Nagamese, Nepali, and several others. A few viral social media posts identifying newspapers as a potential career of the Coronavirus created panic amongst 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 meanwhile asserted that newspapers remain safe to touch by anybody even though the Coronavirus can live on a surface for several days. The papers used by print media outlets are produced by highly automated mills, 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 or newspaper bundle that has been moved, traveled, and exposed to different conditions and temperatures is also low, it added.
From Sylhet in Bangladesh to Colombo in Sri Lanka, Rabat in Morocco to Rome in Italy, the Vatican City to the capitals of Jordan, Oman, and Yemen along with American cities like Pittsburgh, Seattle, Missouri, West Virginia and Lewisburg and others witnessed the temporary suspension of newspaper production. Most media outlets have already committed to enter into the digital platforms completely.
India, the largest democracy in the world today, supports over 82,000 registered newspapers with a cumulative daily circulation of 11 crore (110 million) and is estimated to represent an industry turnover of Rs 32,000 crore (US$ 5 billion). As India has been improving its literacy rate up to 75%, more citizens now develop the capacity and resources to access newspapers and digital forums. More middle-class Indian families have started using the internet for various activities for the first time in their lives. Thus advertisement revenues, earlier meant for traditional print 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 prior to the sudden announcement of demonetization (2016), or abrogation of Article 370 concerning the status of Jammu & Kashmir in 2019, and which paved the way for the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, managed to talk to a few select media barons in the country. The participants proudly offered suggestions to Modi over the issue.
Even the Union Information & Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar issued a statement asking everybody nobody not to believe in rumors about newspapers carrying the Coronavirus. “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 this can play a constructive role in a time of crisis.
Understanding and recognizing the heat of change in social engineering, various print media houses opted for boosting their presence in the digital media. As millions of Indians started using smartphones with internet connectivity, the media owners came to a realization. Readers would now prefer to get all necessary and almost free news content from digital platforms rather than paying for newspapers or even news television channels. Thus the advertisers also substantially shifted their focus to the digital media space.
It hardly bears a reminder that a daily newspaper in India is sold in the market at a price lower than its actual cost. The commercial advertisers cover the deficit (and profit). They want a newspaper to reach more people (priced or even free) so that their products achieve the necessary visibility. Minus circulation, the advertisers would not support the publications anymore. So the inability to distribute newspapers (even if duly published) means the shrinkage of advertising revenue for print media outlets.
Moreover, traditional newspaper advertisers from sectors like the automobile industry, construction, home appliances, private education, travel, hospitality, and others have faced the shutdown equally. Once consumers lose the capacity to buy such products at least for the next few months, the advertisers may more selectively use their resources. Finally, the newspapers may have to depend on government advertisements only in the post-Coronavirus period.
The emerging situation is alarming for regional newspapers such as those published from Guwahati, Imphal, Agartala, and Aizawl, as the owners may not be able to sustain their publications for a more extended period. It would directly impact their employees, including thousands of scribes in the region. Many media bodies came out with statements against the rumor that newspapers can carry the Coronavirus and requested the concerned governments to support the media houses in coping with the situation.
Several 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 made a collective statement clarifying that there is no scientific proof of newspapers carrying the Coronavirus to the readers. The managements claimed that a section of electronic and social media outlets spread the false news.
But actively countering this statement, many social media users put a challenging question to the same media houses – whether they could assure their valued readers of authenticated, credible, and balanced news hereafter! The world is likely to return to normalcy in the next months after fighting the Covid-19 virus, but would the traditional media houses in the region ever get their dedicated readers back in the post-Coronavirus era. A difficult question to be pondered at this hour!!
The author of this article is Nava Thakuria, a Guwahati based media activist. The views presented represent those of the author. Naresh Khanna edited the report only slightly for style.