Survival of the Fittest?

    13-May-2020   
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The Corona virus pandemic has deepened the crisis for the newspaper industry. Many of the leading media houses have also gone for layoffs while others have asked their employees to take salary cuts and proceed on leave without pay. Those who are yet to take such steps have already forewarned their staff about ‘bold decisions’ in future
 
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Vendors arranging different vernacular newspaper before delivering it to customers during the nationwide lockdown amid Corona virus pandemic, at Ganeshguri in Guwahati 
 
Even as the world is battling the Corona virus pandemic, many skeptics have started writing obits to the print media, which has been one of the worst-hit sectors in the aftermath of the crisis.
 
While print media has been at the receiving end from time to time, this is perhaps the first time that it has been hit simultaneously both on the circulation and advertisement fronts. With the lockdown in place and scarce transportation, distribution of newspapers has become an impossible task. Added to that were apprehensions of the newspaper being potential carriers of the deadly virus, prompting many local authorities, Residents Welfare Associations etc., to ban the entry of vendors in residential areas.
 
Media houses responded by joining hands to remove the misconception through advertisements both in print and electronic media. They emphasised the automated production of newspapers sans manual interference and the hygienic environment of the ecosystem maintained through the supply chain. Still, the million-dollar question many readers are asking is whether the vendors are also following those very protocols.
 
Many dignitaries including Union Information & Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar too has gone on record stating that it’s safe to read newspapers and only the normal precautions such as washing hands with soap or using sanitisers applicable to touching other surfaces are good enough for newspaper readers as well.
 
The media groups also came together and issued several public interest advertisements highlighting the credibility of the print medium vis a vis the perception of large scale fake news circulated in other media, particularly digital platforms.
 
In spite of the publicity blitzkrieg, there were not many takers. Subsequently, newspapers have resorted to cutting costs. Many leading international publications including India Abroad have called it a day and wound up their print editions citing unaffordability. In India too, publications such as Outlook have suspended their print editions for the time being. The newspapers which are still bringing out their hard copy have reduced the number of pages considerably. The supplements have been stopped.
 
With the lockdown impacting a wide range of industries, some of the leading brands such as Big Bazaar have stopped their print ads, terribly hitting the revenue as never before. According to rough estimates, the daily loss is guesstimated to be to the tune of Rs 5-10 crore. How long can any enterprise sustain it is the big question.
 
Many of the leading media houses have also gone for lay-offs while others have asked their employees to take pay cuts or proceed on leave without pay. Those who are yet to take any such steps have already forewarned their staff about ‘bold decisions’ in the coming days. The situation is no different in vernacular language newspapers across the country.
 
If this is the condition of major newspapers, less said the better when it comes to small and medium newspapers, many of whom were surviving on Government ad spend alone.
 
Though this is against the spirit of PM Narendra Modi’s appeal to employers to safeguard the interests of their employees and some trade unions have gone to courts against the move, the media houses are citing the financial downturn in defence of their decision.
 
It’s not only the private sector but the public sector and the Governments, both State and Central, too have cut down on their ad spends. Only adverts related to COVID are being released now. In fact, the Congress party even suggested that the Central Government stop all media ads immediately prompting industry organisations including News Broadcasters’ Association led by India TV’s Rajat Sharma to lodge a strong protest.
 
However, with a view to providing some relief to the beleaguered media, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry wrote to all the Ministries and Departments to clear at the earliest all their dues to the tune of Rs 400 crore payable to the industry.
 
It is not that only the print media is hit. The revenues of both electronic and digital media too have suffered a setback with advertisers pulling out in a big way. However, the silver lining for them is the increased viewership. Latest BARC rating shows that people have shifted in a big way from entertainment channels to news channels as the hunger for information has increased in a world under lockdown. If they are able to retain this viewership, sustainability may not be that difficult in the post-COVID scenario when the situation might limp back to normalcy. The same holds true for digital media as well. The 2020 Pitch Madison’s Report projected that the print advertising market is expected to grow by 2% to Rs 20,446 crore but in the post-COVID scenario, it seems very difficult.
 
The moot question is will the readers ever return? Having learnt to live without the newspapers for so long, the newspaper is no more a ‘must have’ along with the morning cup of tea. Many except in the rural areas have shifted to online newspapers.
 
Though publications are worried over the development, pdf format of almost all newspapers are being circulated in WhatsApp groups. There’s no reason why even those who can afford to pay would return to print when the same is available for free.
 
The print media certainly is at the crossroads today. A drop in readership means loss of ad revenue. Is going online the only option?
 
News consumers are already fed up with the Infodemic, a deluge of information which makes it hard to find a “reliable and trustworthy source of information”. In the post-COVID era, they are going to look for more evidence-based reportage, data journalism and visual stories.
 
Responsible public health reporting is certain to play centre stage as we are envisaging co-existence with pandemics like COVID virus or SARS epidemic. People would be demanding more of positive news, spiritual content in a pessimistic world order, the content that would educate them and stories that would inspire them.
 
Notwithstanding the advancements in technology, the content will always remain the King. He who has content and technology will survive and succeed. It will be the Darwinian Theory at play – The survival of the fittest.
 
(The writer is a Senior Journalist and Founder Dean, School of Modern Media, UPES, Dehradun)