Fake news puts publishers in jeopardy

Newspapers face challenges in lockdown

Snehasis Roy
Snehasis Roy, technical director of Times Group

In India, COVID-19 arrived about a month later compared to many parts of Europe. Currently, the pandemic is on the verge of entering its peak in the country. With all the challenges of the total lockdown since 25 March, newspapers are trying to maintain their production and distribution of copies door-to-door.

The Times of India owns 14 presses at different locations across the country and has around 20 print partners at various locations in India. The page-making is done from Mumbai or New Delhi. On regular days, the newspaper prints and circulates 7 million copies of its various dailies. However, this number has fallen substantially during the COVID-19 lockdown across the nation because of distribution challenges.

Challenges for printers during COVID-19

India is a populous country. It is very densely populated, and people enjoy the company of one another. During the initial days of the lockdown, productivity was a huge problem. “When we started working from home, we realized that our productivity came down by at least 25% to 30%. In the last month, we have learned how to keep the business running. Print production requires manual intervention. Hence the plants were running at 60% to 70% capacity.

“Ever since the outbreak, the government restrictions kept evolving with restrictions being imposed and subsequently lifted, which posed many challenges for newspaper distribution. There were rumors on social media that newspapers may carry COVID-19 infection. That rumor spread fast, and it hurt us a lot. The entire publishing industry had to fight against the rumor and instill a belief that newspapers cannot and do carry the virus,” says Snehashish Roy, technical director of The Times of India.

Mitigation steps by TOI

Around 80% of the prepress work was moved into the homes of employees. For pressroom related work, the company formed two teams, each comprising 50% of the staff strength. Each team works in shifts to print newspapers and magazines. “Since the demand has come down drastically, we decided to run a minimum number of presses and involve fewer people in production. We made thermal screening mandatory for each person entering the printing plant,” adds Roy.

The Times of India also took self-declaration from its plant employees stating none of them came in contact with family members or relatives who have a travel history to COVID19 affected countries or states within the country, or in contact with people who exhibit flu-like symptoms. Every staff member not involved in any pressroom work has been advised to work from home.

Since most of the presses of various publishers were running at lowered printing capacity, newspaper competitors united in agreeing that in case of a breakdown, they may print copies at a competitor’s printing plant. Arrangements were also made for specific teams to camp in the printing plant to ensure uninterrupted production.

Newspaper distribution challenges during lockdown 2.0

During lockdown 2.0 starting on 14 April and supposed to end on 3 May, the state and central governments identified more than 200 hotspots throughout the country where the newspapers could not be distributed. These no go areas posed another challenge for the publishers.

Unlike other countries in the world where newspaper distribution shot up during the lockdown, India saw a sharp decline in the distribution and circulation numbers, especially in Mumbai (where printing was allowed but distribution prohibited by the government) and also in parts of New Delhi.

In areas where newspapers couldn’t get an entry, publishers started using pharmacies, local kiosks, and grocery shops for distribution. However, in the end, the anxiety and superstition about newspapers being a potential carrier of the deadly coronavirus remain amongst many people in several parts of the country. The same people are happily handling milk pouches, raw vegetables, and currency notes that have passed from hand to hand. This irrational behavior is adding to the woes of newspaper publishers.

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

Indian Printer and Publisher founded in 1979 is the oldest B2B trade publication in the multi-platform and multi-channel IPPGroup. While the print and packaging industries have been resilient in the past 33 months since the pandemic lockdown of 25 March 2020, the commercial printing and newspaper industries have yet to recover their pre-Covid trajectory.

The fragmented commercial printing industry faces substantial challenges as does the newspaper industry. While digital short-run printing and the signage industry seem to be recovering a bit faster, ultimately their growth will also be moderated by the progress of the overall economy. On the other hand book printing exports are doing well but they too face several supply-chain and logistics challenges.

The price of publication papers including newsprint has been high in the past year while availability is diminished by several mills shutting down their publication paper and newsprint machines in the past four years. Indian paper mills are also exporting many types of paper and have raised prices for Indian printers. To some extent, this has helped in the recovery of the digital printing industry with its on-demand short-run and low-wastage paradigm.

Ultimately digital print and other digital channels will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future. For instance, there is no alternative to a rise in textbook consumption but this segment will only reach normality in the next financial year beginning on 1 April 2023.

Thus while the new normal is a moving target and many commercial printers look to diversification, we believe that our target audiences may shift and change. Like them, we will also have to adapt with agility to keep up with their business and technical information needs.

Our 2023 media kit is ready, and it is the right time to take stock and reconnect with your potential markets and customers. Print is the glue for the growth of liberal education, new industry, and an emerging economy. We seek your participation in what promises to be an interesting ride.

– Naresh Khanna

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