The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world in many ways and its actual impact may be still beyond the realm of our imagination. It has raised new issues, altered the way of dealing with old issues and led to all kinds of uncertainties.
Economists are divided over how long it would take the economy to bounce back. Many established businesses have to transform or reinvent themselves. While for some it has meant an end of an era for others it has hastened the change which has been in the offing.
Among those who are already feeling the pinch is the print media. It was already in crisis before the outbreak of coronavirus with tough competition from the electronic and social media and the devastating impact of the pandemic has now worsened the crisis.
Going by the trends in the western world and the peculiar conditions in India, media barons had been expecting that the transition from print to the digital media may still be at least five years away. The pandemic may have shortened even that deadline.
The print media industry had already been badly hit in the advanced countries with readers preferring to read online or electronic editions of newspapers. A few newspapers and magazines had stopped print editions after a dip in the circulation. Most top publications had already moved to the digital space and had introduced paid subscription to provide access to their content.
In India, with the burgeoning middle class and rising literacy rates, the circulation figures of newspapers, particularly of Hindi and regional languages, had been rising. However with the advent of electronic media, with no less than 400 television news channels taking away a substantial part of the advertisement revenue, the print media was already finding itself in crisis.
The Covid pandemic has further broken the backbone of the print media industry. With huge fall in circulation of newspapers due to the prolonged lockdown, the advertisement revenue has virtually vanished. As per a global study, the losses to the print media have been estimated at over two billion dollars.
The impact has been severe in India too with a majority of top newspapers sharply cutting down on staff, cutting salaries and even closing some projects. The fate of the small and medium enterprises is even worse with a huge number of such publications shutting down altogether. Even news magazines, which have not been printed and circulated for the last two months, are facing existential crisis.
Many readers do not realise that the price of the newspapers is heavily subsidised by the advertisements. As Anant Goenka of the Indian Express group of newspapers said at a recent webinar organised by the confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the newspapers are general sold at price ranging from Rs 4 to Rs 6 but cost Rs 15 to Rs 16 to produce and print. The balance cost is subsidised by the advertisement revenue.
Anant Nath of Delhi group of publications, which brings out about 30 magazines, said at the same webinar that only those publications would survive who earn credibility and on whom readers can depend for authentic information.
Many leading newspapers in the country had been promoting their online newspapers during the lockdown period by circulating these widely for free. For one this did not disconnect the readers from newspapers and secondly these might have inculcated the habit of reading newspapers online. Some media houses, including the top newspapers like the Indian Express and the Hindu have already offered subscriptions at highly subsidised rates and others have little choice but to follow.
In the current world of social media and "citizen journalism” leading to proliferation of fake news, it would become all the more imperative for credible sources of information where the authenticity of any news is properly checked and cross checked before release. This is where the established newspapers with experienced journalists and a strong desk would make a difference and have better chances of survival.
(The author, a freelance journalist, is a former Resident Editor of Indian Express, Chandigarh, and reported on the political developments in Jammu and Kashmir, North-Eastern India, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab in his long, illustrious career.)
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