How is Print weathering the COVID-19 storm?

Print industry leaders say the coronavirus crisis is a temporary phase and the medium will continue to thrive

e4m by Tasmayee Laha Roy
Updated: Apr 10, 2020 9:34 AM
Newspapers

Newspapers have been on and off shelves during this period of lockdown but does that put popular print media brands under threat? Is print dying an early death? The answer that several industry heads gave us is – ‘not really’.

It is not yet time to write an obituary for newspapers in India. For most newspapers, the global health crisis only means a quick and temporary reboot. Going solely digital is a mere stop gap arrangement for the dailies - for the popular ones at least.

While the present situation of print doesn’t really look cheerful, experts say it is a temporary roadblock that the medium is going through, like most other sectors.

Talks of print going out of business started when the vendor associations in Mumbai decided to suspend delivery in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

Circulation of newspapers was suspended between March 23 and April 1. However, newspaper owners promised that they’d resume printing physical copies at the earliest and they did.

A number of newspaper publications including the likes of Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, Eenadu, Hindustan, Patrika Group, Amar Ujala, Daily Thanthi, Sakshi, Dinamalar, Deccan Herald, Hindustan Times and Divya Bhaskar also issued a joint statement saying newspaper distribution across India has largely stabilized ranging from 75 to 90% of the base number of February.

With the government categorising newspapers as an essential commodity, newspaper owners have come back strong with circulation picking up again.

While data published periodically reflects a steady decline in production, distribution, and consumption of print newspapers in the Western world, India still has a strong readership base.

In India, print media has consistently held on to its market share throughout 2019 and the third quarter report of the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) maintains the stead. There has been no major drop in readership for the top dailies or magazines, in both English and the vernacular languages.

In Q2, Dainik Jagran, Hindustan and Dainik Bhaskar occupied the first three spots in the top dailies’ category with readership at 72559000, 52866000 and 52111000 respectively. That kind of readership, according to the marketing head of one of the most circulated dailies in India, comes with loyal readership and strong ad bills. “65% of our ads are from local advertisements where brands count on local readership pattern and reach of their products’ catchment area. Digital readership doesn’t matter to these brands and broadcast is too expensive for them. Till these local advertisers don’t shut shop, newspapers will continue to thrive.”

He, however, suggested the present time is an exception and business will bounce back once brands resume selling their products again. “Obviously there is tension in newsrooms but it is a temporary phase. Brands have to sell their products and they need newspapers to communicate with their clients,” he added.

Assuring that the print industry’s present troubles were more temporary in nature was Padma Shri awardee and senior journalist Alok Mehta. “There are roadblocks in terms of revenues which the industry is facing in the wake of the pandemic but it is a temporary phase. There have been many other natural calamities in the past that has prevented circulation of newspapers but the industry has stood the test of time and will continue to do so for the generation of readers who are not on digital media and the generation of news readers from Tier II and Tier III cities who depend on newspapers for information. This is also the generation that advertisers are targeting.”

According to Praveen Someshwar, CEO, HT Media, such a crisis comes with the burden of a financial collapse and organizations must be prepared to deal with it. “HT is prepared to fight out the battle. Necessary steps have been taken to manage the short and medium term financial impact on the company,” he said in an internal meeting with his employees.

As per to sources, Someshwar said in the meeting that the brand was trying to secure a greater revenue share in the digital ecosystem, which hasn't been disrupted as much as their regular print and radio business.

“Every crisis has an opportunity where we can redefine the way we work. So I am very optimistic of the future. I feel confident that we will get through this challenging period together and emerge even stronger,” he said.

Newspapers have acknowledged that a threat is looming and are gearing up to put up a tough fight. Shailesh Gupta, President of Indian Newspaper Society (INS), has written to the finance minister requesting for a two-year tax holiday and removal of import duty on newsprint.

Whether the finance minister will act on the request is not certain but most newspaper brands are hopeful of bouncing back soon as they keep their fingers crossed and believe that ‘this too shall pass’.

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