Two weeks in, how Indian publishers are doing in the world’s biggest lockdown

By Madhavi Sekhri

INMA

New Delhi, India

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The world’s most comprehensive lockdown, effectively confining 1.3 billion Indians to their homes for 21 days, has necessitated numerous adjustments in every way of life, including the business of news.

Earmarked as an “essential service” and therefore given certain exemptions to an otherwise unfettered restriction on movement, Indian media has been tasked with the responsibility of ensuring credible and verified information reaches the entire population, rather than unsubstantiated “fake news” that has the potential to trigger panic and provide incorrect hygiene and social distancing information.

The Indian media has risen to the challenge despite serious hits to advertising revenue and several logistical blockages that such a massive lockdown exercise inadvertently creates. The numerous adjustments, like elsewhere in the world, include:

  • Contingency planning.
  • Expanding digital offerings.
  • Working from home.
  • Working with reduced revenues.
  • Encouraging positive messaging in advertising.
  • Working with skeletal staff.
  • Working with authorities to ease distribution constraints.
  • Providing pandemic specific content.

Newspapers throughout India have been deemed an "essential service," yet they struggle in a culture driven by print at a time when myths of COVID-19 spreading through newsprint and distribution are challenging.
Newspapers throughout India have been deemed an "essential service," yet they struggle in a culture driven by print at a time when myths of COVID-19 spreading through newsprint and distribution are challenging.

And, in a difficult time like this, it is encouraging that media houses are working collaboratively to ensure that under no circumstances should the credible information dissemination suffer or stall, no matter the challenges. 

Employee-first policies

Every publication we have spoken to has stressed the prioritising of employee safety. Further, they are ensuring the entire supply chain for print editions is adequately equipped with gloves, masks, sanitizers, and accurate information on how to mitigate the risk of contracting the infection. 

With stringent safety policies in place, regularly monitored by the respective publications, the assurances they are giving the public regarding the safety of newspapers imparts additional credibility. 

Difficulties in distribution

As with most logistics, distribution for several publications has been an issue — even though newspapers are an “essential service” — with the percentage loss in distribution varying from 10% to 80% of total circulation for different publishers.

This has required ongoing and extended dialogues with the government authorities, especially in the metropolitan areas, to resume services unhindered. As things stand today, most publications are working towards resolving these issues and resuming unfettered delivery in the next 10 days. But it remains a work in progress. 

Collaboration 

Harsha Mathew, chief resident editor and director at Malayala Manorama, explained how the INS Kerala Committee reached out to the chief minister of Kerala for his involvement and received his endorsement to fight fake news. He also emphasised how the INS Kerala Committee has come together to fight against fake news and combat rumours that claimed newspapers were not safe. He mentioned the campaign is visible on the front page of all newspapers in Kerala followed by a comprehensive online campaign.

The One India alliance exists between Anand Bazar Patrika (ABP), Hindustan Times (HT), and The Hindu. D.D. Purkayastha, managing director and CEO of ABP, mentioned how the three are in constant touch with each other exchanging viewpoints and best practices to help develop an effective action plan for the future.

He felt that going forward as an industry, “We need to work together to weather this storm and find ways to bring businesses back on track as quickly as possible.” 

Some publications have entered into partnerships with entities like banks, the latter sending daily links to read e-papers free of cost. Publications are also working on printer publisher collaborations, working through distribution challenges and vendor management issues.  

Revenue hits

Ritu Kapur, co-founder and CEO of Quintillion Media, said by May 2020, revenues could decline by as much as 50% if the situation doesn’t improve. Purkayastha said he feels it is difficult to predict the percentage of decline in future revenue. He expects it to be in the range of 30% initially for print with a strong recovery in the latter half. He also feels online revenues ought not to be impacted much. 

Pawan Agarwal, deputy managing editor of Dainik Bhaskar, also shared his concern about alternative revenue sources being available to replace a lull in advertising revenue opportunities. 

With many of the leading publications — including online-only news entities — not using a paywall for content and with a sharp decline in advertising revenues, publications are weighing alternatives for revenues. Publications have also voluntarily opted to focus on and incentivise advertisements for products and services that help combat the spread of the pandemic such as sanitizers, soaps, etc., as well as social awareness messages. 

To balance the revenue hits, publishers will have to look at ways to reinvent  the cost model and explore new revenue streams.

Cost-cutting measures will also be considered, with some publications seeking to reduce expenditure on outsourced or non-essential aspects. The Quint, for example, is cutting down on some subscription costs that it can still manage without including certain wire subscriptions and some site optimising tools. 

Social messaging 

Innovative and evolving messaging solutions are especially crucial if there is an issue with distribution of print editions. One of the most vulnerable age demographics — the elderly, especially outside of the metropolitan areas — may not be accustomed to receiving relevant news through online and digital mediums. This makes outreach and credible messaging even more critical to reduce dependence on potentially fake news and, at the same time, receive helpful information on how to minimise risk. 

Most publications have set up COVID-19 specific material including e-books, targeted mailers, special FAQs section, and awareness building videos. COVID-19 has also precipitated the use and focus on video witnessing innovation in formats and narratives. The pandemic has also led to a significant increase in push alert activity and social posts for credible information dissemination. 

HT has published full-page ads and smaller segments with the prime minister’s endorsement for the importance of the media. HT has also extended the assistance to the elderly beyond messaging and news by partnering with Emoha Elder Care for community service, encouraging volunteers, and releasing an informative ad campaign that explains the process. 

Jagran New Media recently launched a “Positive India” series on Twitter, with an initiative to share stories that evoke positive emotions and empowerment. The stories highlight exemplary work done by society especially in education, innovation,  research, and entrepreneurship.

Dainik Bhaskar Group has launched a food donation drive, “Seva Parmo Dharma,” across 12 states and in 42 cities to initially help daily wage workers by distributing one week food supplies and partnering with local NGOs to facilitate responsible distribution. 

Dialogues with the governments 

Mohit Jain, executive president of supply chain at The Times of India, has stressed how dialogues with the authorities are helping solve logistical challenges. The government is also taking tough steps against those who are spreading fake news and rumours. 

News media companies are working with the government in India to get real journalism to people.
News media companies are working with the government in India to get real journalism to people.

Jain also mentioned the government has included print media and the distribution system of newspapers under the list of essential items along with other supply chains of milk, grocery, vegetables, and pharmacy. The government has also directed its officials to ensure continuity of newspaper operations, otherwise all other essential commodities supply chains would be impacted adversely — one after another — leading to chaos in cities. 

Difficulty in on-ground reportage 

Understandably, there is difficulty within a lockdown to ensure comprehensive on-ground reportage. Given the need to prioritise the safety of their employees, publishers will be closely monitoring and balancing news coverage with adequate measures to prevent any employee being at risk of contracting the coronavirus. 

The pivot to digital 

An immediate pivot to digital as a primary revenue generator is some distance away. Even though publications have seen a spike in traffic and numbers online, there are concerns that revenue earned via digital cannot match revenue lost in print advertising.

While many publications have paywalls for their e-papers that have mostly been relaxed during the pandemic situation, overall digital revenues are still miniscule when compared to traditional print revenues. 

I Venkat, director at Eenadu, put this into context: “The current revenues for digital subscription are marginal compared to conventional revenues, not more than 2-5% in comparison.”

All said and done, there is only one certainty: The pandemic has caused publishers to adjust to a fast-evolving situation — one that causes a relook at revenue models, reportage, balancing print and digital, and above all, ensuring employee safety, while continuing responsible media coverage.

About Madhavi Sekhri

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