by Nava Thakuria
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 pandemic COVID-19 outbreak. A shutdown that
prevents the vendors to deliver newspapers at the door steps of buyers
and the rumour that the paper itself can carry the novel corona virus
have forced the publishers to drastically reduce their circulation
As the 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 thousands, Prime Minister Narendra
Modi came to front to lead the fight against the deadly virus. Modi in
a televised address to the billion-plus nation on 24 March 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 COVID-19 outbreak.
Brihanmumbai Vruttapatra Vikreta Sangh had a formal meeting with the
managements 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, Thane, Pune, Nagpur
However, managements 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 in the
internet. Acclaimed news magazine Outlook also suspended its print
edition making the digital edition available to nurture the need of
After Mumbai, it was the turn for hundred thousand residents of
Bangalore, Hyderabad along with Guwahati, Imphal, Agartala, Aizawl in
northeast India to miss their favourite 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 witnesses 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 corona virus 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 corona virus 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,
travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also
low, it added.
But reports relating to 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 for entering
into 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.
Prior to 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 prior to the shocking announcement of demonetisation (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 presences in the digital media.
As millions of Indians now start using smart phones with internet
connectivity, the media owners come to the realization that they would
now prefer to get all necessary and almost free news contents 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 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
rumour that newspapers can carry the corona virus. 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 corona virus to the
readers. The managements 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.
The author is a northeast India based media activist