New Delhi: India’s dynamic news media industry — among the few thriving in the world — with its crores of readers and viewers has been hit hard by the unprecedented economic standstill brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dwindling advertisements and a serious disruption in circulation of newspapers and magazines have forced media houses to take drastic steps — from slashing the number of pages and shutting printing to lay-offs, salary cuts and leave without pay for employees.
The crisis has engulfed even top players such as The Times Group, the Indian Express Group, Hindustan Times Media Limited, Business Standard Limited and the Quintillion Media Private Limited, which runs the website The Quint.
The Times Group announced salary cuts Thursday morning in an internal email to the employees of its print publication Times of India, The Economic Times and Navbharat Times. It said there will be a salary reduction between 5 and 10 per cent from 1 April.
Later, news channel NDTV too announced salary cuts between 10 and 40 per cent from April 1 for three months. The pay cut is applicable for employees earning more than Rs 50,000 per month.
On Wednesday, Raghav Bahl, founder of The Quint and BloombergQuint, announced that BQ, a business news website, was terminating its television division. This came a week after The Quint sent 45 employees, including reporters, production and technical staff, on furlough — indefinite leave without pay.
Also on the print side, Outlook magazine was among the first to stop press, with its editor-in-chief Ruben Banerjee announcing on 30 March a temporary suspension of the magazine with immediate effect.
For the print media, this is a fresh and more severe blow as sections of the industry had already been hurt by India’s economic slowdown. English daily DNA, run by media baron Subhash Chandra, had stopped printing after his company, Essel Group, ran into financial trouble last year. The Deccan Chronicle editions for Kerala and Bengaluru, and The Asian Age editions in Mumbai and Kolkata were also abruptly shut down last year.
Senior journalist and editorial director of Business Standard A.K. Bhattacharya told ThePrint that to survive, the print media industry needed to stop depending on advertisements for revenue and, instead, make it “user-must-pay” model.
The Covid-19 crisis has been so sudden and severe that it forced the Indian Newspaper Society (INS), an independent body that authenticates circulation figures of newspapers and periodicals, to appeal to the I&B ministry to remove the 5 per cent customs duty on newsprint, which, a senior government official told ThePrint, had been done.
Its president Shailesh Gupta said different organisations were looking at different cost optimisation strategies. “Budgets are being relooked at, annual plans are being reshuffled, several cost-cutting measures are being taken to ensure that the losses are minimised.”
According to the last Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI) report, the total number of registered publications as on 31 March 2018 stood at 1,18,239. This included 17,573 newspapers and 1,00,666 periodicals.
The Pitch Madison Advertising Report 2020 said the print advertising market is expected to grow by 2 per cent to come close to Rs 20,446 crore.
India has over 900 television channels, about half of which are dedicated to news.
Print media takes biggest blow
The hardest hit, though, is being suffered by the country’s newspaper industry, which is reeling under the impact of circulation and advertising both dropping precipitously during the lockdown. Myths and paranoia about coronavirus spreading through newspapers have only added to the problem.
The Times of India has retrenched staff with at least three employees of Times Life, its Sunday supplement, including two editors and a designer, having been verbally asked to leave.
Times Life, initially a four-page supplement, has been reduced to one page. The Times Group did not comment on the matter.
Two other English dailies — The Indian Express and The Business Standard — have announced pay cuts in internal emails. The Hindustan Times has made changes to the salary component of its employees by diverting a percentage of fixed pay to the variable component, which is linked to the company’s performance.
Among the regional players, the Pune-based Sakal Media Group last month asked 15 employees from the editorial team of its Sakal Times to leave.
Hamara Mahanagar, a Hindi newspaper published from Mumbai, has shut down three editions — from Mumbai, Pune and Nashik.
English daily Star of Mysore, a 43-year-old eveninger published from Mysuru, has stopped publishing since 13 April.
The crisis in the media was highlighted by Congress leaders Manish Tewari and Shashi Tharoor. While Tewari wrote to I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar, urging him to tell media houses not to fire employees, Tharoor in a tweet called the news of sacking, layoffs and cuts disturbing.
INS’ Gupta, however, said the newspaper industry had suffered from loss of circulation in Mumbai, but, by and large, across the rest of the country and Tier 2 and 3 markets, there was not much of an impact.
Online too faces the heat
Besides, the retrenchment at The Quint, News Nation Network, a Noida-based Hindi news channel, sacked its entire English digital team of 15 on 10 April citing a financial crisis.
The Quint, in an email to its employees last week, has said the organisation is faced with an “unprecedented situation despite robustly dealing with a grinding economic slowdown in India”.
The email added that the website’s revenues will be under severe strain over the next three to four months at the very least.
ThePrint reached The Quint founder Raghav Bahl for comment, but he did not respond.
Sharp drop in ad revenue
For newspapers, already battling the lockdown and unfounded rumours of helping spread coronavirus, the biggest problem has been the nose-diving ad revenues.
Advertisements — both from the industry as well as the government — are still the biggest revenue sources for media houses.
Multiple industry sources, however, told ThePrint that while government advertisements had shrunk after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, those from the industry too have taken a hit because of the pandemic.
“With the economic slowdown, ads from private advertisers were anyway getting tougher to come by,” a source associated with a prominent newspaper said. “And what would advertisers advertise about in a lockdown? The purpose itself will be futile.”
R. Rajmohan, president of the Association of Indian Magazines, said the sharp drop in advertisements has forced most newspapers to reduce the number of pages in their editions.
“Initially, there were a few ads on sanitisers and hand washes but then they too fizzled out, probably because the companies felt that people would anyway buy them and there was no need to advertise,” he said. “There are some sporadic ads for online courses.”
He added that while newspapers are at least being printed, the distribution of magazines has almost stopped. “Monthly magazines have not printed their April issues and the same could happen in May.”
However, Outlook’s Banerjee told ThePrint that the suspension of the print edition of the magazine had nothing to do with cutting costs. “Physically, it is not possible to distribute a magazine countrywide, during the lockdown so why bring out a print edition?”
Sevanti Ninan, founder-editor of the now defunct The Hoot.org, which was a South Asian media monitoring website, told ThePrint that the industry is panicking.
“If the economy goes for a six, so does the advertising. People in the industry can see what this (lockdown) is going to do to the economy. Who will advertise?” she said. “They are doing these things (layoffs and salary cuts) in anticipation.”
Bhattacharya of Business Standard agreed that the main reason the media industry has been affected so severely is over fears of a sharp cutback in advertising expenditure by companies.
“There is also a fear that newspapers as a print product may cease to be the preferred choice for readers, with other platforms having acquired more mind space,” he said.
“The prospects of a prolonged economic slowdown and a decline in advertisement revenue have aggravated the weaknesses in the business model of the print industry, which has been hugely dependent on advertisement revenue.”
Bhattacharya added that the print industry’s troubles will only multiply unless it can reduce its dependence on advertisement revenues and increase its revenues from readers.
“The principle of user-must-pay should become the guiding principle for the media industry, if it has to escape the aftermath of an economic slowdown,” he said.
Some gains for news TV
The only silver lining for the media industry during the lockdown has been the viewership figures for news TV — even so, not entirely. For, although viewership has seen an exponential rise, according to a BARC-Nielsen report, it has not resulted in a rise in advertisements.
This prompted the news TV industry body, the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), to request the government earlier this month to either remove or reduce the 18 per cent GST on advertisements on a par with the print industry.
A letter by NBA president Rajat Sharma states that advertisements are the main source of revenue for the news broadcasters, who are “under severe pressure during this pandemic.”
“Poor recovery and lack of future income would mean that news broadcasters would have to weather the storm for two or three quarters and hope for a partial recovery towards the end of the financial year,” reads the letter written by Sharma, the chairman and editor-in-chief of India TV.
INS’ Gupta explained the rise in viewership numbers, saying at a time like this news and information would be in high demand. “The extra time created for each individual at home has translated into higher consumption of all our media verticals — print, digital, TV and radio. We’ve recorded a huge surge in traffic across all our digital and video portals,” he said.
Bhattacharya agreed that news channels may have suffered less but their dependence on advertisement revenue was no less than the print media. Their non-advertisement revenues need to grow, he added.
Govt says it’s doing what it can
A senior government official told ThePrint that the government was doing its bit to ease the crisis, adding that it was unfortunate that media houses were not following the prime minister’s suggestions to not lay off staff.
“The government also had reduced the 10 per cent customs duty on newsprint to 5 per cent on requests from the newspaper industry,” the official added.
The I&B ministry had also on 11 April written to other ministries urging them to pay media houses the amount they owe for advertisements as the industry is facing financial pressure due to the lockdown.
According to a Hindustan Times report, various Union government ministries owe at least Rs 400 crore to media companies.
Another industry source said there has been a massive decline in government advertisements since last year, particularly those announcing inauguration of projects or related to events such as the Labour Day.
“There have been no such advertisements,” the source said. “This has particularly affected the small and medium scale newspapers, because bigger newspapers still have other sources of income.”
The government official quoted above said there are many reasons for such ads not getting approval. “It could be a measure of saving money, as the current government does not believe that giving out advertisements is an effective way of public outreach.”
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