New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government may have emphasised that the coronavirus cannot be transmitted through newspapers, but that appears to have convinced very few people.
On Tuesday, Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar took to Twitter to quash rumours that readers could get infected through newspapers. “Do not believe in the rumors. You will not get infected by reading newspapers. There is just one rule to follow — wash your hands after doing any work,” he tweeted, adding newspapers provide the correct information.
अफवाहों पर विश्वास न करें। समाचार पत्र पढ़ने से #CORONA नहीं होता। समाचार पत्र और कोई भी काम करने के बाद साबुन से हाथ धोना है इतना ही नियम है। समाचार पत्रों से हमें सही खबरें मिलती है।#IndiaFightsCoronavirus #WashYourHands #StayAtHomeSaveLives #StayAtHome #COVID19
— Prakash Javadekar (@PrakashJavdekar) March 24, 2020
Over the last few days, however, residents across the country have unilaterally decided against letting vendors deliver newspapers at their doorsteps, fearing possible transmission.
In Mumbai, printing and distribution of newspapers will remain suspended from 23 to 31 March. But the Covid-19 transmission fear is not the only reason in this metro — many vendors in Mumbai blamed it on the cancellation of local train services.
According to multiple industry sources, the move has hit the newspaper industry hard with advertisement revenues hitting rock bottom since the crisis started.
Vendors, too, have been severely affected with many saying the crisis has magnified after housing societies disallowed entry of newspaper delivery boys fearing Covid-19 transmission.
The I&B ministry had earlier asked all states and union territories to allow the print and electronic media to function smoothly during the ongoing lockdown, citing their “utmost importance” to ensure “timely and authentic information dissemination”.
PM Modi too said newspapers have tremendous credibility and they play a critical role in creating awareness about the COVID-19 outbreak at the national and regional levels.
Heavy losses for vendors
Madhab Pandey, a newspaper vendor supplying newspapers in at least four prominent societies of Noida, told ThePrint that at least two societies have refused delivery of newspapers.
“We are incurring heavy losses as very few people are buying the newspapers that we are buying from the depot. Many households have called me to tell me not to deliver newspapers,” Pandey said. “Around 4,000 to 5,000 newspaper copies I have bought have been going unsold in the last few days.”
On a usual day, the depot from where Pandey buys his newspapers gets around 18,000 to 20,000 copies of major newspapers a day. But hardly 3,000 to 4,000 of them are getting sold, he said.
Another newspaper vendor, Anirudh Rai, said 70 per cent of the households in Noida where he delivers newspapers have stopped taking them. “We have stopped supplying newspapers in the last couple of days and plan to keep it halted for some days as the delivery boys are not just allowed in the societies, but also are being stopped by the police from moving around,” he said.
“Even the agency from where we procure our papers is not able to sell the majority of the newspapers,” he added.
Laljeet Yadav, a vendor in Mumbai who delivers newspapers to around 250 houses, said it is a big jolt for the vendors in the city because not only have many households refused to get newspapers, but the printing also had stopped completely since Monday.
“Our businesses are suffering hard after printing and distribution stopped completely,” he said.
A meeting was held between Maharashtra Industry Minister Subhash Desai and the newspaper publishers and distributors Wednesday where it was decided to resume the publication and circulation of newspapers from 1 April.
Ad revenues hit
Multiple newspaper industry sources said the coronavirus pandemic has deepened the crisis for the newspaper industry — majorly with advertisement revenues taking a hit and circulation revenues too going down.
“We were hoping that the situation will improve after 31 March, but with the all-India 21-day lockdown, it is going to be a long haul,” a source from a prominent English newspaper said.
“What has hit the industry the most is that there are no advertisement flows right now. Circulation revenues, too, have gone down because of few takers and no circulation particularly in Maharashtra. As a result, vendors are also not getting paid. There is an uncertainty now,” he said.
Due to the lack of advertisements, several prominent newspapers have drastically reduced their number of pages. The Delhi edition of Hindustan Times, for instance, now consists of only 14 pages, down from over 20 pages.
A majority of the newspapers have relegated their coverage to Covid-19 outbreak, and are designing their pages accordingly.
Others like The Indian Express, which recently put its e-paper behind a paywall, have made it temporarily free. Express has started sending a PDF version of its daily newspaper to members of the International Association of Advertising (IAA – India Chapter).
With no advertisements, the source quoted above said, newspapers will have to cut down on the number of pages and some are redesigning the way news is presented based on priorities.
Pointing out that the cost of producing a newspaper is as high as Rs 20, a second industry source said the lack of advertisement is severely affecting them.
“For example, advertisements such as those of, say Big Bazaar, have stopped coming now as there are no footfalls there,” the source said.
Covid-19 has also affected magazines like Outlook, which has temporarily suspended its print edition. The weekly magazine’s e-version will be available to its readers on its website.
A source in a Delhi newspaper office said media houses could be facing losses to the tune of Rs 5 crore to Rs 10 crore per day approximately. ThePrint could not independently ascertain the figure.
Newspapers tell readers they are safe
The industry sources said in the wake of a country-wide lockdown and an uncertainty over whether newspapers would actually reach the readers, big newspapers such as Hindustan Times have also started sending lighter version of their e-paper to their readers.
Sai Nagesh, CEO of Tempus Fugit, a communications firm, told ThePrint that revenues have dropped across media and given the current environment consumers too are not welcoming any advertising, nor looking at any consumption of products beyond immediate need.
“While there is fear about the transmission, people have realised that news reported in a newspaper can’t be fake. Starting from the PM himself, there is an aggressive campaign to convince people that newspapers may not be the carriers of viruses,” he told ThePrint.
In the last few days, after newspaper consumption went down drastically, many dailies have emphasised to their readers that newspapers are safe and sanitised and that print is the authentic source of information.
On 19 March, in a note to its readers, Hindustan Times said it is making changes in its offering to keep its focus on essential and topical coverage.
“The paper itself is safe. All our plants are fumigated and sanitised regularly and the printing process is totally automated,” the note read.
Hindi daily Dainik Jagran, too, has told its readers that their newspaper is as safe as their “milk and bread”.
On Tuesday, The Times of India in a note to its readers said its presses follow stringent hygiene protocols that have been reinforced following the outbreak and at no time is the paper handled manually during the printing process.
“At distribution centres, we and other news organisations have provided gloves, sanitisers and masks to ensure that last mile delivery is also safeguarded,” it said. The TOI note added that respected epidemiologists and public health specialists have said people should not believe in rumours about newspapers being unsafe to touch and called such fears “unscientific and irrational”.
This aside, newspapers have also given out advertisements on fake news, stating that “print is proof” and urging readers to wait “until the truth in print” makes its way to their doorstep.