Newspapers Strive on Novel Coronavirus Menace
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Newspapers Strive on Novel Coronavirus Menace

By Nava Thakuria

Newspapers Strive on Novel Coronavirus Menace

March 26, 2020, Guwahati — Newspapers in Assam face an uphill task to maintain its readership index as India goes for a complete lockdown till the middle of April because of the pandemic COVID-19 outbreak. A shutdown that prevents the vendors to deliver newspapers at the doorsteps of buyers and the rumor that the paper itself can carry the novel coronavirus has forced the publishers to drastically reduce their circulation figures.

As China originated deadly virus started smashing almost all the countries on the planet resulting in affecting over a hundred thousand people and casualties up to few thousand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to the front to lead the fight against the deadly virus. Modi in a televised address to the billion-plus nation on March 24, 2020, declared a total shutdown to break the chain of infection so that the spreading of COVID-19 can be prevented.

As the pandemic infected over 600 Indians with nearly 15 casualties, its immediate impact was observed over the circulation of newspapers in Mumbai as the vendors ceased to work because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Brihanmumbai Vruttapatra Vikreta Sangh had a formal meeting with the management of all print media houses and finally, they resolved to suspend publications. The decision resulted in no newspaper day for the residents of Mumbai as well as Navi Mumbai and Thane.

However, management of The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, Mid-Day, etc made it clear that even though no physical editions would hit the stands on account of the new-found restrictions their newspapers would be thoroughly available on the internet. Acclaimed news magazine Outlook also suspended its print edition making the digital edition available to nurture the need of readers.

After Mumbai, it was the turn for a hundred thousand residents of Guwahati, Imphal, Agartala, Aizawl in northeast India to miss their favorite morning newspapers as the local distributors decided to suspend their works because of the virus outbreak. Guwahati newspaper-hawkers’ association, Manipur hawkers’ association, Tripura and Mizoram based newspaper vendors separately came out with the resolution that they would not distribute the newspapers fearing of the virus infection.

The region witnessed the publication of over 50-morning dailies in different languages including English, Hindi, Assamese, Bengali, Boro, Meitei, Karbi, Khasi, Mizo, Nagamese, Nepali, etc. A recent message that went viral on the social media indicating the newspapers as a potential career of coronavirus created panic to the newspaper agents and hawkers along with other media employees.

World Health Organization (WHO) has however asserted that newspapers are still safe to touch by anybody even though the coronavirus can live on some surfaces for several days. The papers used in print media outlets are produced in highly automated mills and the process hardly needs human hands. Moreover, 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, traveled, and exposed to different conditions and temperatures is also low, it added.

But reports relating to the suspended publication of physical editions because of COVID-19 started pouring from different parts of the globe. From Sylhet (Bangladesh) to Colombo (Sri Lanka), Rabat (Morocco) to Rome (Italy), Vatican City to Jordan, Oman, Yemen capitals along with American cities like Pittsburgh, Seattle, Missouri, West Virginia, Lewisburg, etc witness the temporary suspension of newspaper productions. Those media outlets have already committed to entering the digital platforms completely.

The largest democracy in the world today supports over 82,000 registered newspapers with a cumulative daily circulation of 11 crore estimated to be a Rs 32,000 crore (5 billion USD) industry. As India has been improving its literacy rate up to 75 percent, more citizens now develop the capacity and resources to access newspapers and digital forums. More middle-class Indian families now start using the internet for various activities for the first time in their lives.

Before declaring the 21-day nationwide lockdown to fight against COVID-19, Modi interacted with some selected media barons in the country and received suggestions from them over the issue. It is quite amazing that Modi did not organize such interactions with news media owners before the shocking announcement of demonetization (2016), abrogation of Article 370 from Jammu & Kashmir (2019) and paving ways for the citizenship amendment act 2019.

Understanding the heat of changing social engineering, various print media houses opted for boosting their presence in digital media. As millions of Indians now start using smartphones with internet connectivity, the media owners realize that they would now prefer to get all necessary and almost free news content from the digital platforms rather than paying for newspapers or even news channels. So the advertisers have also substantially shifted their focus to the digital media space.

It needs not to be reminded that a newspaper in India is sold in the market at a lower price than its actual cost. The deficit (also profit) is managed by the advertisers. They want a newspaper to reach more people (with a price or even without it) so that their products get the necessary visibilities. Minus circulation, the advertisers would not support the newspapers anymore. So no distribution of newspapers (even it is duly published) simply means nil advertisement (read financial supports) for the print media outlets.

The situation can emerge alarming for regional newspapers like those in Guwahati, Imphal, Agartala, Aizawl, etc, as the owners may not be able to sustain their media houses for a longer period. It would directly impact the employees including thousands of scribes in the region. A number of media bodies came out with statements against the rumor that newspapers can carry the coronavirus. They also appealed to the governments to support the media houses in this time of crisis. Lately, a host of Guwahati based media houses including Asomiya Pratidin, The Assam Tribune, Dainik Janambhumi, Niyomiya Barta, Dainik Asom, Amar Asom, Purbanchal Prahari, Sadin, The North East Times, The Meghalaya Guardian, etc made a collective statement that there is no scientific proof for newspapers carrying the coronavirus to the readers. The management also asserted that a section of electronic and social media outlets spread the unauthenticated news.

But countering it, many social media users put a dramatic question to those media houses if at all they could assure their valued readers of authenticated, credible and balanced news items! COVID-19 is a time-bound disaster and the world would probably return to normalcy after some months, but will the traditional media houses ever get its dedicated readers back in the post-corona era, a difficult question to be answered at this moment.

About the Author:

The author is a northeast India based media activist

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