Co-Written by Geeta Kashyap & Harikrishnan Bhaskaran

 ‘Tusi ki karoge je Rozana Spokesman nu band kar den di naubat aa jaye’ (What will you do if condition arises to close Rozana Spokesman), was an unusual appeal as a banner head appeared in Rozana Spokesman, a Punjabi newspaper published in the Indian state of Punjab on 10th May. In its 15 years of publication, this is the first time it published such an appeal to its readers. While the pandemic and the drying up of advertising revenue is causing unprecedented layoffs and shut downs across Indian media, regional language newspapers like Rozana Spokesman, are particularly staring at an existential question.

Almost all Indian states have news publications in their respective languages, catering to the comparatively smaller market (as opposed to the English or Hindi dailies which aim at a pan-Indian audience) of news audience. These regional language publications still play a major role in information dissemination to regional language audience, despite the proliferation of smartphone based news consumption habits. But the pandemic and the resultant situations are forcing these publications to seek alternative ways of sustenance.

“This is first time in the history of our publication that we are facing such a severe financial crisis. In normal time we were funding few projects for social cause but at this moment we have to publish an appeal to save our publication to which we are getting favourable response”, says Jagjit Kaur, Managing Director of Rozana Spokesman.

The only saving grace for these small newspapers was the revenue from circulation. However, that was also hit hard, due to wide-spread rumour mongering about the possible spreading of the virus via newspapers in the early days of the pandemic spread.  “Situation is generally gloomy for all the media organisations but small newspapers are in acute crisis as they are not able to bear printing costs and other expenses. Due to misinformation about being infected through newspapers, the circulation of the newspapers was hit hard,” says Jatinder Pannu, former editor Nawa Zamana, another Punjabi daily. Nawa Zamana also had to publish a public appeal to its readers for a fund-raising campaign to sustain the difficult times.

The infection paranoia was especially very strong by the end of March when the lock down first came into effect in India. “Editors wrote editorial and write-ups on different platforms to make people aware about the misinformation. Situation improved a little bit, but there were still many areas in Jalandhar where readers started unsubscribing newspapers. For almost 15 days, there was no circulation of newspapers in many areas and hawkers were not allowed to enter housing societies”, says Pannu about the situation in Jalandhar, a city in Punjab.

Small newspapers have to face several scares at the same time. “Newspapers like Punjabi Tribune, Desh Sewak, Nawan Zamaana, Rozana Spokesman, Ajj di awaaz all are publishing their magazine section with half the number than before. Punjabi Jagran is publishing only two-page magazine and their editorial page is now black and white. Punjabi tribune is also publishing only two-page magazine,” says Gurpreet Singh, a Punjabi journalist and writer.

As the routine life came to a standstill, advertisements vanished into thin air. Advertisements from the private business dried up, newspapers had to look forward to government for help. Indian Newspaper Society (INS) approached the central government asking for 50 per cent increase in the rate of government advertising rates and also to release all the outstanding amount for the past government advertisements.

“Our situation would not have been acute if Punjab government would release our due payments. Government is liable to pay 2 to 5 crores amount to the newspapers in the state. If they can release that money now, we do not require any emergency fund or anything. We will be able to survive well”, said Kaur. According to her, they are getting good response from the readers for the appeal to help. “Moreover, circulation was down earlier due to rumours about the corona in newspapers. But now this is also improving with efforts of creating awareness among the public,” she said.

However, there are concerns about looking forward to the government money. Lately, government has started to pick organisations when it comes to advertising revenue. Ripudaman Singh, editor of Desh sewak said that being a paper which brings out public issues and does not subscribe to the right-wing political spectrum, have put them under pressure always. “In normal times, we are less preferred for advertisements so for us there is a constant crisis. This situation has made it worse”, he said. Moreover, there is a general concern that the INS request for a package will only help the big players. However, Jayant Mammen Mathew, ex-INS president, denies this concern. “INS represents everybody. We have big boys and very small players. INS role is to help everybody. All newspapers need to benefit. It is not just for the big player or a certain player. There are several newspapers which are barely able to make ends meet. It is going to keep business alive”, he said in a recent interview.

According to Ripudaman Singh, if the government plans to spend 50-60 crore in the form of public advertisements which can be a campaign on the awareness of COVID-19 misinformation, then it will not hurt the integrity of journalism. “However, the advertisements should be released with a proper policy”, he said.

Realising the obstacles raised by the already declining advertising revenue, many Indian dailies are gradually implementing metered pay walls for their web content and subscription plans for E-papers. However, small regional newspaper owners think that the move will not go well with them. According to Jatinder Pannu, going the digital way will not help small newspapers retain their reader base and monetise it sustainably. “If people get into the habit of reading newspapers in digital form, it will be dangerous for small newspapers. They will find it difficult to find neither enough advertisement revenue nor reader revenue even after the situation get normalised,” he said. Despite such anxieties, the print industry in the country is taking this route. However, there are other concerns about the nature of the market, where propriety news products like premium E-paper in PDF format are often shared over social media platforms like WhatsApp. The concerned publishers had to put up a notice to create public awareness that doing so might attract legal action.

These uncertainties and pressures have precluded into the worst nightmare for the journalists on ground. While almost all organisations have announced tiered salary cuts, and in some cases furloughs, some organisations have gone on a right-sizing spree. Times Group, one of the biggest media groups in the country closed down several state editions and bureaus, laying off more than 30 journalists. Hindustan Times, Telegraph and The New Indian Express have all taken similar measures showing the door to more than 50 journalists together in the last month. Since many of these organisations are using video calls and verbal directions to remove employees, the actual number of journalists being served the pink slip is not clear yet.

“We as well as other media outlets are facing financial crisis and we have to reduce our staff. The problem is number of pages have been reduced so we require less staff to work. As we are not getting revenues so how we are going to pay/salary to our employees”, says Jagjit Kaur, Owner of Rozana Spokesman.

Freelancers and journalists in Punjab are raising concerns over the role played by Press Clubs and journalists’ unions to address the issues created by the pandemic. Angrej Brar, who works for Punjabi Times, says, “Journalists’ union, Press Clubs are not active and they are not bothered. I live in a small town near Ferozepur and here also some union have been formed but is inactive.”

Des Raj Kali, a journalist and a Dalit writer, also believes that press clubs and journalist unions could have played a significant role in helping journalists. “Many of the members of the clubs are not from journalism. Membership is being given to non-professional people. Many of the working journalists in Jalandhar are not part of the Press Club. The condition of the press club is so worst that they cannot even help any journalist financially if they meet with small accidents or caught by some disease. In this crisis, they could have taken steps but that is totally missing,” he said.

The Indian print media was already reaching a cross-road where restructuring itself was a necessity. The pandemic added one more reason to do so. Despite the reiterations about the on-going growth of print media in India as compared to European markets, things have turned for worse lately. The recent figures released by the Indian Readership Survey for 2019 Q4 show that the readership for print was gradually declining across previous quarters. The average issue readership (AIR) for the seven out of nine most circulated non-English dailies in India recorded at least 20 per cent decline across four quarters in 2019. Falling readership and a slump in the domestic economy have already pushed many newspapers into troubled waters even before the pandemic. With the pandemic opening up more uncertainties, it is highly likely that small newspapers, especially in regional language markets, would wind up operations, bringing down the diversity in the news market.

Geeta Kashyap is a Research Scholar with the Central University of Himachal Pradesh, India (geetakashyap.87@gmail.com)

Harikrishnan Bhaskaran is an Assistant Professor with the Central University of Himachal Pradesh, India (harikrishnanbhaskaran@gmail.com)


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