The first time I heard the term COVID-19 was in December 2019, just around Christmas. The news was pouring in about how a virus was making people sick in Wuhan, China, and how easy its transmission was. As it was also contagious, it led to empty streets and house arrest for citizens.
Fast forward just one month, and the first case in India was reported from Kerala in January. Initially there were few cases, but real concern arose when a 14-member tourist group from Italy tested positive. Since then, the graph has been rising as more international travelers tested positive. The real heat of the situation came to light when Prime Minister Modi imposed a curfew on March 22, followed by a 21-day nationwide lockdown.
Since the cases were already on the rise, Amar Ujala started putting employee policies in place to address the situation. We started thermal screening for all employees and made work-from-home arrangements for the majority of them.
For those whose role demanded them to be present at work, we introduced a social distancing policy which was regularly monitored. We regularly santized the work area, along with creating santizer spots on the work floor. We even replaced steel utensils with disposable utensils to provide every bit of protection.
Safety measures were also incorporated at the production level, too. To begin with, we started sanitizing the newspaper at the production line itself along with sanitizing the plant infrastructure every second day. Then, in response to the concern of newspapers passing through many hands, we undertook an industry intiative which included providing gloves, hand sanitizer, and masks. We also created sanitizer spots for vendors.
On the reader front, the scenario became challenging as the days progressed. Despite newspapers being listed as an essential item, a lot of readers believed the misinformation that newspapers are a carrier of coronavirus. This led to a downfall in circulation, with readers withdrawing their subscription.
The impact was greater in metro cities than in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, where the bigger deterrents were the RWA associations who categorically denied vendors access to enter and deliver their products, newspapers included.
This was an unprecedented situation — not only for Indian publishers, but for publishers around the world. The biggest reason for this behaviour was inaccurate information spreading like wildfire, at a rate higher than the virus itself (which the WHO has rightly called disinfodemic).
However, it was heartening to see that top leadership of the country — including the prime minister, senior medical professionals, and other leaders — collectively echoed the importance newspapers play in the community. They also negated concerns that had been raised due to miscommunication and fake news.
In fact, many initial studies and reports had already come out in public domain regarding the safety of newspaper. Key global health agencies like WHO mentioned that the likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low, and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved and exposed to different conditions and temperatures is also low.
Delivering information in a crisis
At Amar Ujala, our constant endeavour has been to deliver the right information to our readers, and admist this crisis, it became all the more important and relevant. Our efforts were equally focused on delivering the facts on the crisis along with banishing illogical information about lack of safety of newspapers.
We started holistic editorial intiatives to cater to all aspects of the crisis:
- Various editorial drives talking about the safety of newspapers, apprising our readers on the various safety measures that are being taken and providing the opinions of doctors and scientists on it. Our aim was just to present facts to the readers.
- Also, we realised this pandemic had induced a lot of stress and anxiety overall in the environment, hence our aim was to cover stories of bravery, recovery, and hope. We started covering stories of COVID-19 survivors and how they braved the situation. We reported on the front line warriors — the doctors, nurses, hospital staff, etc. We also wrote about the common heroes who were contributing in the fight against this pandemic.
- We started a regular full page dedicated to the pandemic. It gave updates on the crisis, advisories, research status, do’s and dont’s, and a key takeaway that we put under the main header every day.
For increasing the accessibility of the newspaper, we also created purchasing hot spots:
- We made arrangements with RWAs to distribute the newspaper at the society gates, and the repsonse has been very good.
- Newspapers are being sold at essential stores such as milk booths and grocery stores so whenever a reader comes to buy essentials, they can buy a copy of the newspaper, too.
- We created temporary cash sale points along with essential supply stores so readers can come and buy newspapers.
- We removed the paywall and made e-paper subscription free during the lockdown period, making it easier to access information.
These initiatives helped gain back our circulation figures, stabilising them at 75% to 90% of previous month’s figures, depending on the market. In fact, with extensive penetration and a solid distribution infrastructure, Amar Ujala’s network has also been used for social causes, even by authoritative institutions. Utilising our network and internal resources, we are distributing food packets, organising food collection drives, and creating shelter homes for all those displaced due to the lockdown.
Despite all precautions being in place, advertising revenue took a major hit. March and April are considered the festival season in India, with Navratras, harvesting new year, Baisakhi, and year-end closing. During this time there is usually an advertising jump due to clients rolling out new products/offers, etc.
However, this time the season lacked even the routine advertisements as businesses across all categories were not operational due to the lockdown. There were also issues of dropping circulation, distribution hiccups, etc. which added to the problem.
To cater to these concerns, we started a one-to-one intiative with our clients, informing them about the growth in circulation figures, the best practices being followed for safety and talking with them about our social intiatives.
Overall at Amar Ujala, we have tried our best to adapt to the changes and have moved ahead, acclimatising ourselves with the changing enviornment every day. However, how far this pandemic will go and what more it has in store for businesses will only be visible in time. Until then, we hope to keep relevant engagement with all our stakeholders.