My earliest memories of reading newspapers is inextricably linked with early childhood. In those days, newspapers and magazines, were the only way in which millions of people connected with the happenings around the country and the world. I developed such a habit of reading, that whenever our class teacher asked us about the major news of the day, I was always ready with the answer. As, I grew older, my morning ritual of reading the newspaper with my first cup of tea became almost a subliminal part of my day, I never noticed doing it but missed it badly when I had to skip it due to any contingency. I have no hesitation is saying that millions across the country spend some time in the same way. Newspapers are as much a part of our life as morning tea. When the lockdown happened, it was extremely difficult for me to spend around two and a half months without a newspaper.
However, COVID has hit hard creating fears and panic. The extent of the fear is exemplified by a video which went viral a while ago. It showed a woman picking up the morning newspaper with a pair of kitchen tongs and ironing it to sanitise it. When the lockdown started on March 25 many dailies faced immense difficulty in printing. At many places, newspaper delivery boys were refused entry into housing societies by RWA’s. In some extreme situations they were even attacked as people thought they would bring the virus along with the newspaper. These reasons led to circulation dipping sharply. To make things worse, advertisers started freezing their spends and planners started yanking print out of their media plans.
A major complication is that readers have become used to “instant gratification” news consumption, namely getting their news from online news browsing, TV, mobile news apps and even WhatsApp. Complicating matters further, many categories which are heavy users of print like real estate, education and the automotive sector, have been completely shut in the past few months and therefore froze their ad spending completely. As a result, INS, the Indian Newspaper Society estimates the total loss to the print medium at Rs 12,000-15,000 crore.
Everyday, we read news about more and more resignations at all levels in the media. I have had close working relationships spanning more than 30 years with numerous media friends and their situation pains me deeply. Many of them have shared with me that due to the mounting losses, almost all media houses have been on desperate cost cutting sprees. This has resulted in delayed salaries, salary cuts and thousands pink slips for journalists. Many of my friends say that in the current scenario, even seniority or tenure with the organisation provides no safety net, as long timers of reputed media houses, with decades of loyalty have been asked to leave by newspapers struggling to stay afloat. The situation is so bad that reportedly, in Mumbai, a charity is actually organising food parcels for unemployed reporters.
Other measures that newspapers are taking are shutting down branches, stopping editions and pullouts while reducing the number of pages. Business and sports pages, real estate pages and lifestyle pages have shrunk dramatically across most publications. Many newspapers in English and regional languages have stopped printing Sunday magazine extra pull-outs like Brunch etc. Financial newspapers have also reduced the number of pages and pull outs as part of their cost cutting efforts.
When I discussed the revival of the business with many journalists and marketers, I got various opinions. However, the consensus was that the damage will be long lasting and will leave some permanent scars on the community. My view is that the business has the resilience to bounce back, but the other stakeholders of the ecosystem too need to lend a helping hand. Vernacular publications are going strong and seem to be a strong ray of hope and will possibly be the leaders in revival and the growth of the sector. Other good signs visible are improvement of auto sales and an improvement of passenger traffic on domestic flights as well. On 4thJuly the airline industry flew 75000 passengers. Clearly, consumer confidence is on the path back towards normalcy. I am sure print media will now swing back too. However, more marketers and advertisers need to start coming back to print and even the government needs to pitch in, especially for the smaller and regional publications. I would really like to see many of the columns and articles of my journalist friends again. Newspapers and magazines are, and always have been, the mirror to society. We owe it to ourselves to help bring back print media to society.
The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.