When COVID-19 hit India in January, we were (not surprisingly) smug and unprepared. The fact that we are a tropical country, and therefore pride ourselves on our high immunity, along with the fact that summer was just around the corner, gave us a false sense of security.
The prevailing belief was, “This is not going to affect us so badly.” To say that we lost precious time in preparing ourselves for the upcoming crisis would be an understatement.
By the end of March, the scenario in the Indian media was chaotic. Rampant spread of misinformation through social media, widespread panic caused by 24-hour news channels vying for TRPs, and the ever-popular “WhatsApp University of India” caused a mental pandemic like no other. Media credibility was at its lowest.
Print faced its own unique set of challenges. Hawkers, who are the mainstay of circulation in the Indian newspaper industry, were victims of malicious reports about health and safety on social media. For us at Rashtradoot, with the city of Jaipur under lockdown, many employees were unable to commute to work, and those living in “curfew” zones couldn’t get out at all.
The media industry itself didn’t help matters. With advertising revenue at a complete standstill, many newspapers — including national stalwarts — either laid off employees or reduced salaries by up to 40%.
Fear and panic were the key emotions created by the industry and within the industry. Except by us.
As a relatively small media organisation, we were cognizant of our limited resources to reach out and support the community, while ensuring stakeholders did not suffer. Being the third-largest regional player meant a responsibility not just to readers, but also as a loyal and responsible employer for more than 70 years.
So we decided to focus inward and developed a campaign called Stand Tall with Rashtradoot.
A three-pronged approach addressed the most important pillars of our work: stakeholders, circulation, and coverage.
An organisation is only as stable as its employees. Our first stance was to neither reduce staff (essential or non-essential) nor cut salaries. Employees living in areas under total curfew were accommodated in guest houses away from hotspots, with meals and transportation provided. For those who normally rely on public transport, the company provided them with transportation.
As a result of these efforts, we had a daily turnout of over 90% employees despite the lockdown, a sense of prevailing goodwill, and new enquiries for job opportunities.
Hawkers are the last mile in this industry. It was crucial to motivate them to resume daily operations, while educating them on sanitisation and social distancing. Given that many come from impoverished socio-economic backgrounds, this was even more of a challenge.
Rashtradoot provided a one-month supply of cooking and cleaning essentials to about 2,000 hawkers, and free health and life insurance was offered to 4,000 hawkers and their families to boost confidence and morale in the community. As a result, the average number of copies per hawker has gone up by 15% in the last 45 days.
From day one of the lockdown, all efforts went to ensure minimal lapse in circulation, especially in key stronghold markets of Rashtradoot. An in-house team was set up to deliver newspapers to individuals and societies that hawkers couldn’t reach. Distribution was started through 520 milk booths, fruit/vegetable vendors, and provision stores across the city.
This has been a first in India, and became a model that was quickly replicated by other players.
Also a first is the installation of 120 proposed manual newspaper vending machines in Jaipur. Additionally, digital broadcast groups were created to make sure a soft copy of the newspaper reached readers in areas under total curfew. With concerted efforts, despite the prevailing times, Rashtradoot increased its daily circulation by over 6,000 copies in Jaipur alone.
At a time when many newspapers reduced the number of pages they printed — some legacy brands even went from 44 to 12 pages — Rashtradoot was the only newspaper in the city, and one of the very few nationally, that did not reduce the number of pages printed.
Detailed and accurate reporting of events by senior Indian journalists explained the pandemic in simple and succinct terms to engage and educate a broader audience. A positive and life-affirming front page was maintained, with picture captions of nature and human interest stories, which has been a trademark of Rashtradoot.
A human angle to the pandemic was covered through the English leisure reading section, ARBiT, with several stories contributed by readers themselves. Being bilingual also gave us the platform to carry COVID-19 related stories by international journalists and doctors, lending a unique flavor and facet which cannot be replicated in vernacular pages. This made Rashtradoot the only newspaper to provide coverage in both English and Hindi, giving a distinct advantage over contemporary dailies.
In a time of sink or swim, we decided to swim. The best testament to our response is that it was measurable in “human terms” — a satisfied employee who takes home a well-deserved, full salary earned with pride and dignity; a reader who gets his copy every morning despite not being able to step out; a hawker who can carry on secure and unafraid; and an employer who can sleep peacefully at night, with only the next day’s headlines to worry about.
Banner image courtesy of Free-Photos from Pixabay.