Editorial – Emerging from the pandemic and other mayhem

Optimism in the season of recovery, war, floods and Pegasus

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Naresh Photo Gulmohar Park
A cropped and retouched version of a photograph taken in the pandemic in 2021 Photo IPP

We have long maintained that the pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns only highlighted the print industry’s problems with a sluggish economy for seven quarters before Q4 of FY 2019-20. Nevertheless, like many other businesses, we were hoping for our investments to come good with the start of FY 2020-21.

Like other publishing and print-related businesses, we had invested considerable effort and cash in a future that never came because of the first lockdown that began on 25 March 2020. As a result, private schoolbook publishers and printers never received the last quarter orders they usually get for the upcoming year.

Many printers had already installed presses in the last quarter, and others were lucky not to because long-outstanding payments that were to arrive in Q3 and Q4 never arrived. Sometimes the outstanding amounts of the previous financial year keep coming in April also – with backdated checks. It took the following year for most but not all of these payments to arrive. The advance payments for the next year also reached far after the calendar advanced in lockdown conditions.

In the meantime, the newspaper industry had lost anywhere from 25% to 60% of its circulation and ad revenue. Many of the larger papers lost 40% despite savings on newsprint, journalist redundancies, wage cuts, and work from home savings. The festival season in 2020 was a washout with big dailies getting good advertising for one day instead of nine days during Diwali – and three days instead of twenty at Christmas and New Years.

Commercial and digital printing also collapsed with erosion of turnover anywhere from 25% to 75%. The book printing exporters did nicely, however. Otherwise, the pandemic is cited as a catalyst for the continued shift of print to digital media and from offset printing to digital printing. Packaging did well in the pandemic as it kept the supply chain of essential goods, including food and pharma, humming, and some offset printers began – too late – their migration to carton printing.

It turned out that the most optimistic forecasts of the new normal for commercial printers were too optimistic. We not only lost a year, but just as we were reviving the industry in January and February of 2021, the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic arrived – and it was far more devastating than the first, with far more deaths around us and in the industry itself.

The index of optimism

Now in August 2021, we are getting some of the same vibes as in January 2021. Cities, transport, and businesses are opening up. (Many never closed during the second wave from March to July.) The vaccines are now being produced in numbers that most honest realists expected, and the daily vaccinations have started hitting 8 million on some days this month. However, despite domestic vaccine production picking up to about 130 million doses a month, we will not sustain this rate because it is eating into 30 million or more doses remaining in inventory from previous months.

Even at the current higher domestic production rate, we will not be able to vaccinate more than 600 million persons by December 2021 fully. Moreover, the discussions for the import of vaccines in July show no sign of fructifying in the near future. And so, we are short of around 800 million to a billion doses even if we are to vaccinate 71% of our population fully.

Some commercial printers have quit the industry, others have committed suicide, some have even invested in new equipment or diversified. But, unfortunately, many commercial printers are still waiting to either slim down further, close, be bought out, or outlast the pandemic and the economy’s recovery.

However, some are still optimistic – newspapers that expect circulation and ad revenue to return to pre-Covid-19 levels, and commercial printers that expect a full recovery. The publishers and printers in this category hope that the economy and the publishing and print industry will resume high growth in subsequent years.

19 August 2021 – Naresh Khanna, editor@ippgroup.in

(This is the editorial from the print issue of the September Indian Printer and Publisher.)

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