It’s time for newspapers to reinvent their distribution model: Jwalant Swaroop, Happy Ho

Guest Column: Swaroop, the CEO of Happy Ho, says that the pandemic may have stopped the presses, but newspapers will continue to thrive in a post-COVID-19 world

e4m by Jwalant Swaroop
Updated: Apr 6, 2020 9:09 AM
coronavirus

It seems that the world would not be the same after the COVID-19 crisis is over. The world will clearly get divided into two parts -- Pre-Corona and Post-Corona.

Several industry sectors are busy in formulating their post-corona plans and response to the market realities. As most of us have not seen such gigantic disruption ever before, it surely compels us to think about the business models in post-corona times.

From the newspapers standpoint, this disruption has been of monstrous proportions, and never in our normal self has anyone imagined a world without newspapers. Even in the world’s worst scenarios of past ridden with war (World War 2) or other pandemics such as Spanish Influenza in 1918, newspapers, which were the only source of credible information for people, were never suspended even for a day. Frankly speaking no one in the industry was ever prepared to face such a challenge.

Lockdown just hit us overnight. Suddenly, those who were part of our ecosystem were socially distanced beyond imagination and therefore a newspaper hawker was not a welcome guest in several localities and residential complexes. In many areas, even hawker unions refused to pick the copies for distribution fearing the COVID-19 spread. On the contrary, in COVID-19 hit countries other than India, the newspaper distribution has been able to survive the onslaught.  Time to ponder

Newspapers had to incur losses on account of unsold copies and therefore decided to discontinue printing. The presses came to screeching halt. 

The 21-day lockdown is long enough to alter a habit. You can make a new habit or drop an old one. Therefore one can apprehend in a post-Covid 19 scenario, a sharp change in newspaper consumption. And it may be worth considering that newspapers may be compelled to bring some serious changes in content. It is quite possible that news and current affairs may shift completely out of the ambit of newspapers. Though many publishing friends have circulated PDF of pages on WhatsApp. But whether the practice serves any purpose in a time like this is a serious challenge.  

The one thing that COVID 19 has highlighted is the distribution model in Newspapers in India seriously requires reinvention. We have for long relied on to the door-to-door delivery model of newspapers, but during the COVID 19 crisis, this model is devastated. Ironically, newspaper organizations have concentrated on distribution channel in past with a greater degree of push and control. For many newspapers, this has been the clear competitive edge with the least transparency. All kinds of favours and practices were prevalent to control the Newspaper Hawker and its union. But years of hard work to nurture and tame these unions have gone down the drain. Because newspapers were so heavily invested in the existing distribution channel that all efforts to bring transparency in the distribution were beaten down in support of the existing channel.

 So what went wrong  

  1. Readers’ demanded a safe, sanitized and hygienic newspaper: All efforts and videos promoted on social media that the newspaper is delivered with due sanitization yield no result as the dump centres did not follow the social distancing and operated in severally unhygienic conditions (which were overlooked so far) on the roadside. Result Readers refused the newspapers.   
  1. Hawkers refused to pick the printed copies: Hawkers themselves feared being infected and so refused to pick the copies, on the other hand, the same fear was with the reader. For the first time the market demanded a crisp fresh and corona free copy, The existing distribution channel failed to guarantee and convince the reader and trade.  
  1. Social Distancing on the dumb centres: Never before this aspect was highlighted and the awareness created about social distancing in the last 21 days of lockdown will surely stay with people. In post lockdown days, this aspect will surely haunt the existing distribution channel.  

The Silver lining

While I followed the discussion on several WhatsApp forums wherein members missed their morning dose of the newspaper. The pleasure of holding your printed copy, its feel and engagement were sorely missed by readers. The desperation to get printed copies was a big driver but not big enough to overlook the safety. So it will be wrong to say that newspapers are heading for early sunset, No. I also saw some argument among the housewives for the raddi value of the newspaper in the household economy.

 The way forward

 Desperate times need Desperate measures: It is time for newspapers to reinvent the alternate distribution mechanism which addresses the need of the hour.  

  • Change the delivery timing (Temporary): During the COVID-19 crisis the essential commodities were made available by the administration freely. Though the door delivery was impacted the availability in the market was never a question. We did not see newspapers utilizing the approved retail store on a locality basis to sell the newspapers wherein they could be delivered in hygienic wrapping at any general merchant store. Now some critics may say that in the conventional distribution the newspapers are made available early morning, maybe here was a case to explore the new timings in desperate times.
  • Is it time to reinvent the wheel (Sustainable Intervention): I somehow feel that newspaper’s over-dependence on the door to door delivery model has matured well. It is time to introduce alternate distribution mechanism like western countries have to dispense newspapers through Automatic Vending Machines. Today post demonetization the Indian population has matured to use ATMs for their cash requirements, they can use the similar solution for newspapers as well. The industry will have to collective take the call for the size, pricing (Good time to increase cover price when advertising is falling and pull is being created) and paginations. There can be brand-wise stand-alone vending machines. The existing hawkers/newsagents can work as back end solution providers. Today technology delivers to use card scanners on such machines with sufficient protection as well.
  • Bring Variety of resellers: Point of Sales to be increased bringing more shops and General Stores in the newspaper sales. This may expand the consumer touchpoints and thus build an alternative to the existing distribution network.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of exchange4media.com

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