Indian media houses respond to national lockdown, myths about print contamination, community opportunities

By Madhavi Sekhri

INMA

New Delhi, India

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The Indian media is facing a two-pronged challenge. With the entire country on a complete lockdown as of late Tuesday night, 1.3 billion Indians are confined to their homes. Because of this, the consumption of news will increase significantly.

That, by itself, is a double-edged sword. It is important that the news available for consumption is credible and substantiated by respected publishing houses. But with the lockdown impacting production and, even more so, distribution, there are several challenges here:

Getting trusted journalism to readers

The role of the media in combating rumour-mongering and fake news — while at the same time disseminating useful and life-saving information — has been recognised by the government of India. A notification from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has directed states and union territories to use all efforts to ensure the media should be allowed to work unhindered, including within that the need for ensuring print editions should reach households.

Competing news media companies in India banded together to make an appeal to readers to prioritise trusted journalism.
Competing news media companies in India banded together to make an appeal to readers to prioritise trusted journalism.

Even this, however, is facing challenges from several different corners. Distribution of even essential goods is being restricted on ground by local authorities who are doing their best to enforce the lockdown. Residential societies and associations are also acting as voluntary vigilantes who restrict access to essential goods to the residents.

Because of these well-intentioned efforts, print editions, which are not clearly spelt out as essential goods, face logistical hurdles in attaining distribution. Hurting the publishing houses further is a drop in demand from readers who are fearful of newspapers being carriers of the COVID-19 virus. AS INMA Executive Director/CEO Earl J. Wilkinson pointed out in a blog post earlier this week, these fears are unfounded.

The media is in the unique position of facing all the challenges that this national lockdown brings with it. But, at the same time, they have a moral obligation to ensure proactive, credible, and accurate information continues to flow to the public. This requires a dual-purpose recalibration by the publishing houses — immediately in the short term and, eventually, perhaps a pivot to an alternate business model that allows sustainability.

What Indian newspapers are doing right now

Leading publications are taking active measures. The Indian Express, Business Standard, The Hindu, and others are, to varying degrees, widening free access to their digital platforms.

Stalwarts of the media companies, including Raj Jain of The Times of India, are contributing opinion pieces that spell out the World Health Organization (WHO) clarification and explain the processes followed by reputable publishing houses to mitigate any risk of contamination.

Indian news brands like Business Standard are dropping their paywalls around some COVID-19 content.
Indian news brands like Business Standard are dropping their paywalls around some COVID-19 content.

The Hindu has recently released a series of advertisements that address the issues of the spread of fake news. 

The Hindustan Times, Dainik Bhaskar, and Mathrubhumi are examples of publishers communicating to their readers about the thorough sanitisation processes. 

“Mathrubhumi has taken considerable steps to show our commitment to our readers and well wishers in these challenging times,” said Anupam Luthra, manager of public relations at the Kochi-based publisher.

Mathrubhumi created a video to show the hygiene and safety standards it is maintaining to deliver its print newspaper to readers.

“In the present challenging times when the world in facing a life threatning pandameic COVID-19, we as a responsible media organisation are following various safety and hygiene standards of how the newspaper is printed and handled without human intervention and sanitary precautions are taken by the delivery partners,” Luthra said.

In a press release, Mathrubhumi discussed the need for the video: 

The print medium is the victim of misinformation campaigns and rumours spread on social media, making the false claim that newspapers too can spread COVID-19 infection. Mathrubhumi wishes to break this myth and educate all our constituents about our unswerving commitment to their welfare.

“The video showcases the hands-free, automated process of printing, and mechanised, sanitised wrapping and bundling. We are also following strict protocol in the distribution of our newspaper. The entire transportation and handling right up to the newspaper distribution is done is in fumigated trucks with masked and gloved handlers.

“Moreover, neither the World Health Organization (WHO), nor India’s health ministry has issued any directives against distribution of newspapers to arrest spread of the contagion. On the contrary, both the central and state governments have lauded the role of the print industry in disseminating authentic and curated information and updates on the pandemic.

“We earnestly seek the support of our readers and well-wishers by continuing to repose faith in us and help spread our message.”

Macro and micro opportunities in India

There are remaining community challenges publishing houses at a micro level could consider for engagement. At the same time, they could continue pursuing the macro objective of providing reliable information.

At the micro level, publishing houses could support through rapid information dissemination for the citizens and small businesses as to availability and solutions for receiving essential goods and services. Uber and Ola have suspended services. There are several procedural and practical obstructions for e-commerce aggregators Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart, grocery delivery services Bigbasket and Grofers, and food delivery services Swiggy and Zomato. Most have either suspended or greatly curtailed their services.

With mobility limited, publishing houses could consider maintaining dashboards or information services at a colony or area level with a broad indicator of services, goods and inventory available, whether for medicines or medical services, groceries, or food. The information gap currently is a real problem, especially when social distancing is necessary and panic buying is prevalent.

Positive messaging on hygiene, easy to follow dossiers on what the constantly evolving directives are, and leading the information transmission to ensure fake news does not prevail are already activated.

The Hindu made a public statement to caution those taking advantage of the pandemic for personal gain.
The Hindu made a public statement to caution those taking advantage of the pandemic for personal gain.

This is a trying period for everyone, and the impediments to print distribution are an undeniable challenge.

But the leadership of publishing houses will be vital for positive breakthroughs in this pandemic. At the same time, publishing houses could reassess the situation and explore whether a pivot to a sustainable digital model is an eventuality whose time is has come much sooner than anyone expected.

Many of the publishing houses have told us that they are tackling many of the burning issues, all in real time. Answers should emerge in the coming weeks and months.

About Madhavi Sekhri

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