As the lockdown in India is getting lifted partially and in phases, the country is limping back to business. Media universe, specifically print media, is attempting to bounce back too.
A month ago, the Indian Newspaper Society (INS) that represents more than 800 newspapers in the country had appealed to the Government seeking a financial stimulus. INS highlighted that the print media business is facing “unprecedented crisis” with no advertising revenues and huge input costs. The Society had said that print media had suffered a loss of about Rs 4500/- crore and if the economy doesn’t improve over the next six months, it is likely to incur another Rs 12,000/- to Rs 15000/- crore loss. This impacts the business that employs about 10 lakh people directly and another 20 lakh people indirectly.
Changing the habit
It is said that newspaper reading, holding the paper in its physical form, is a habit. If one is used to it, it is hard to shake off the habit. Middle-aged people and above are used to it, whereas the younger generation, 25 years and below are not. Their technology orientation is high, and they are comfortable with online reading.
However, COVID-19 altered this equation. First, there was the unsubstantiated rumour about the virus spreading through newspapers. Then there was the action by community, resident associations in cities and even state governments banning newspaper hawking. This meant a steep dip in the circulation of newspapers, anywhere between 25 and 40% as some publications themselves have admitted. Some worried these subscribers may not return and may continue their current form of news consumption sans the newspaper. Business analysts and experts expressed the writing on the wall was clear. Print media may not bounce back to its original self.
Shooting oneself in the foot
A partial lifting of the lockdown in several states since the beginning of May 2020 has brought in a sense of positivity in the economy. With the stimulus package the government has announced, optimism is blooming. Print media had an ideal (and probably last) option of getting back on track, and they have squandered it.
The last two days, leading publications such as The Economic Times, The Times of India and The Hindu are screaming from the rooftop about ‘their growth’. The Times of India says they have grown in Chennai, The Hindu bastion. The Hindu says they are the fastest growing English daily in India. The bickering has begun, once again!
The print media community lost a perfect opportunity to collectively present itself as a strong, healthy medium that readers trust and the numbers are proof of that growth. This was the time for business biggies to rally together. Watchdog of the business, the INS has failed to rally its members together to bat for the community.
Earlier INS had maintained that despite stretched financial and other resources, some publishers have not shut their newspaper in the national interest and have ensured readers get essential and authentic information day after day, in the safety of their homes.
Toothless and self-serving
A perfect opportunity to resurrect print media’s importance has ended up being a platform to display the muscle and strength of individual players. If all those who are displaying their supremacy over each other had rallied together to talk about how print media survived the pandemic and lockdown to keep readers informed and provide authentic news, imagine what impact it would have created on readers.
A campaign highlighting how the community battled the financial hardship (loss), logistics hardship (of bringing out a newspaper with few people) and psychological hardship (fighting the rumour of virus spread) to keep the reader happy and satisfied would have brought immense equity and trust to the community. Instead, the Indian Newspaper Society has ended up being toothless and the newspapers self-serving. While everyone says the pandemic will bring in a new normal, print media business seems to be in the delusion of the old normalcy returning, and it is business as usual.
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