Will loyal newspaper readers lose the newspaper habit given the 5+ week lockdown?

13 Apr,2020

 

By Indrani Sen

 

I have been reading various articles on how the Indian newspaper industry has been performing since Covid-19 struck India. We are all aware about how the newspapers in major cities were forced to stop printing for couple of days due to protest by hawkers’ associations.

 

Subsequently, all newspapers resumed regular printing though no one indicated if they were able to print and distribute their regular print orders. Last week, there was a joint statement issued by publishers assuring their readers about the safety measures undertaken by them to ensure that the newspapers reaching their hands in safe condition. Publishers have also claimed that newspaper distribution have largely stabilised across India. In the meantim, hard copies of most newspapers have reduced their number of pages and the lack of advertisements is noticeable even to an untutored eye.

 

A sensational article (https://www.ozy.com/around-the-world/the-virus-other-victim-the-worlds-final-hope-of-a-major-newspaper-industry/293705/) published on April 10, 2020 led me to do a quick dipstick survey this weekend over the phone among 31 elderly (50+) upmarket citizens across Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi to find out if they are receiving/reading their usual newspapers. I found that 26 of them have shifted to reading e-papers and have stopped reading hard copies of the newspapers they used to read regularly till the pandemic struck India.

 

Only three of them reported that their building societies are not allowing newspaper hawkers’ access inside the complex. The other 23 have stopped reading the newspapers on their own in order to avoid the chance of getting infected by Coronavirus with some of them discontinuing their subscription even before the lockdown was imposed.

 

I tried to probe the root cause of their fear. I found that they are not worried about how the newspapers are printed and despatched from the press, but about the distribution process where many people handle the same under unhygienic conditions at the roadside dumps and distribution points. Some of them have seen the messages from leading newspapers assuring that surface of newspapers do not carry the virus. All of them have received contradictory information through social media and messaging apps and have decided to boycott the hard copies of their favourite newspapers. A couple of them who are early risers are actually happy that they can read the e-copies early in the morning, much before they used to get the newspapers delivered at their doorsteps.

 

All of my respondents were not ready to pay for accessing e-papers which they are now reading free of cost. Under the lockdown, those who were not browsing the internet earlier have also learnt to browse for news and have become aware that TV channels deliver the same news faster than the newspapers and keep updating the news throughout the day. Only one of these people had previously downloaded the apps of the newspaper he used to read.

 

As many as 52% of the 23 (50 to 60 years in age) were unsure if they would again subscribe to the hard copies of the newspapers which they used to read earlier. The others (60+ age) would like to go back to reading the hard copies more due to the inconvenience of reading small print of the e-papers on their mobiles. All of them would prefer their newspapers to be delivered at their doorsteps rather than stepping out of their home to purchase a copy from a nearby convenience store or newsstands/ shops across the roads. I read the article by my friend Jwalant Swaroop, a veteran from the newspaper industry, a few days back arguing for a change in the distribution system of newspapers in India (https://www.exchange4media.com/media-print-news/its-time-for-newspapers-to-reinvent-their-distribution-model-jwalant-swaroop-happy-ho-103795.html). I am afraid I cannot agree with Swaroop’s view as I think the unique last mile delivery system is keeping the newspaper industry alive in India, in spite of agreeing with his observation on the prevalent unethical practices by the some newspapers to control the newspaper hawkers union and the lack of transparency in the entire system.

 

The five respondents (50 to 60 year age) of the dipstick survey, who are continuing to read the hard copies of the newspapers, are more scientifically enlightened and net savvy. They have done through research on the internet about the possibility of hard copies of the newspapers carrying the Coronavirus and have compared it with the possibility of surface of other goods (milk packets, etc.) entering their household on a daily basis. On the basis of their findings, they have decided to continue with their subscription of newspapers.

 

Summing up the findings from my dipstick, I can conclude that the newspaper industry in India is facing a grave crisis as many loyal newspaper readers, particularly the elderly elite, are likely to have stopped reading hard copies of the newspapers under the threat of Coronavirus. Five continuous weeks of lockdown followed by a few more weeks of staggered withdrawal would be capable of creating a time window for changing the current newspaper reading habits of Indians, even the elderly elites. Along with the policy for surviving the present crisis of fall in circulation and ad revenue, the newspaper industry needs to simultaneously draft a strategy for winning back their loyal subscribers after the dark cloud of Covid-19 disappears from our Indian sky.

 

 

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