By Upasana Sarma
Print media all over the world has been extraordinarily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In India, the media industry experienced an overnight change since the announcement of India’s first lockdown on 24 March, 2020. This has persisted through its successive days, and has affected the newspaper and magazine industry’s capacity to sustain itself. As several predictions come by in the form of editorials, think pieces, long-form or statistical estimation, newspapers are also being touted as the first and amongst the biggest industries to face a rapid extinction in the aftermath of COVID-19.
In terms of revenue and influence, data from recent years would show that print media has already been functioning within a steady decline. Recent surveys carried out by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) also exhibit that through this decline, new media houses in English and vernaculars continued to spring up while old ones shut down. However, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly accelerated this otherwise gradual pace of diminish, with digital media – specifically television media and social media – declaring a firm edge over the influence that the print industry could have perhaps formerly claimed.
The whole of the media industry then stands today as one of the worst affected industries in the country, as corroborated also by a study carried out by the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PTI, 2020).The Indian Newspaper Society (INS) too had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, stating that the industry was now functioning at a loss of 80-85% of its advertisement revenue and 90% dip in other revenues. What is ironic in this matter is that while suffering through these vast and unalterable losses, the media industry continues to provide its labour as an “essential service” during the nationwide lockdown at no further cost or want of reassurance.
In the Indian subcontinent specifically, what this decline might mean for vernacular publications is especially worrisome. In turn what this means for the relationship between language and people, communal ties, the significance of a daily communion with one’s lifeworlds, the wide accessibility of news itself and the persistence of this medium – all of these are put to the test.
In March this year on the eve of announcing the first lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held an online conference with representatives from several mainstream media houses. The conference was attended by members of more than 20 publications (including Amar Ujala, Lokmat, Eenadu, The Indian Express, Punjab Kesri Group and the Hindu Group, among others), representing more than 11 major languages of the country. This conference was an effort towards suggesting that they aim to publish mostly positive news with regards to COVID-19 so as to quell misinformation and panic among the people. What is possibly striking about this event (besides the subtle instructional nature of the meeting) was the absence of a Northeastern representative due to the fact that no Northeastern media house has been big enough to compete with others in the country. Influence is denoted by numbers and, in the case for print, the very future and likelihood of continuity comes down to circulation numbers and revenue margins. For a Northeastern media house to be considered, there needs to be a confirmation of both these aforementioned traits, in addition to a formidable presence within the larger national media corporation.
What this lack of a representation also tells us is this – the languages of the NE hardly boast of numbers as large as the linguistic populations such as those of Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, et al speakers. This is due to not only our smaller populations and geographical distance from the mainland, it is also telling of the vastly multiplicitous linguistic diversity that the eight states accommodate, where for one or more languages to claim absolute majority is impossible. Here, communities range from having 230 speakers to around 10,000 to fall under the category of those under an extinction watch. Secondly, this first point also leads us to understand that newspapers even only in the numerically major languages of the NE – such as Assamese, Khasi, Meitei, Nagamese, et al – still do not compare to the circulation numbers of newspapers in other languages. Where a top Hindi daily can boast a readership of over 70 million units read annually, the highest circulated daily from the region is from Assam and circulates at a little over 2.5 million units – numbers that can be assumed to have dropped since they were last recorded, according to the fourth quarter report of the Indian Readership Survey, 2019.
Additionally, the FICCI Frames report on the Media and Entertainment industry also shows us the disparity that exists between the revenue generated by different sections of the media. Print, although still claiming an influential position and the second largest share in the M&E industry, also has the slowest growth as of 2018 data. Print media was estimated to have seen a 7% growth until 2020, with 8-9% growth for vernacular languages, while the growth rates for English were to remain slightly slower. Moreover, it must be mentioned that the very basis of the growth of this industry towards representation cannot be declared as completely even-handed either. However, the space for contemplation and amendment remains aplenty. This is due to the fact that many of the tribes and communities in the Northeast continue to flourish at present without the establishment of a proper script, and with languages that have been diminishing by the day due to their extremely heterogeneous and varying numbers.
The relevance of print lies on multiple dimensions – first, the print industry in itself provides livelihood to a huge section of people trained and equipped specifically for roles and services within the industry (as would be in any other service-specific industry). These roles and skills often cannot be transferred from one language to another, or one medium to another, as the requirements of either can differ vastly, leaving a large section of formerly employed as unskilled. Secondly, newspapers and printed periodicals cannot survive solely on subscription revenue since the cost of production greatly outweighs the cost of consumption, thereby making it lucid that the industry derives only a small section of its returns from the services it provides but a majority from the ads it facilitates. Third, the expectations of the state from the media industry can come off as unfeasible due to the fact that the rapid livelihood loss of its workers will eventually affect its production too. Fourth, the very structure of the model on which print media works stands to be completely transformed by what can retrospectively be seen as a short moment in history, yet a moment that is close to pronouncing the death knell for several industries of which print media is one of the worst hit.
These aforementioned points also stand to be contrasted with the following observations – for populations as distinct and culturally frictional as the linguistic populations of the Northeastern Region, the loss of a mass medium such as the newspaper will have immediate and long term reflections on the crucial issue of identity for communities. For example, with regards to the Assamese language alone, the presence of ample literature in the language cannot be deemed as compensation for the practice and connectivity of the daily literary exposure that the printed medium provides. Moreover, newspapers act in the present day as modern totems of one’s socio-politico-cultural identity. The assertion of this totem is also symbolic in the assertion of one’s stake on a larger national platform, such as the Indian nation, where intersectional identities seek visibility consistently.
At this juncture then, requirements from the government and from the masses are the same as before, but with added significance. The first factor to be mentioned here is the number of subscriptions, which acts as a crucial, even if not as the major attribute for securing revenue. The second requirement is the payment of all dues that are to be cleared by state and private agents for the sustenance of the industry and its stakeholders, which can lead to an even better and more innovative industry. The third and most important requirement lies in advertising. Advertisement is a phenomenon that is capable of providing a new lease of life to several industries, print media being one of its most important recipients. Newspapers forge an everyday relationship of language and identity with consumers, becoming indispensable reservoirs of culture, opinion, awareness and opportunity. In its accessibility and affordability, the newspapers tie communities through its representation as a single totem bereft of the demands of social or economic hierarchy. It remains a service through which the future of a shared identity lies on our agreement of a singular, collective reality, one that print media has served us with, and must continue to do so.
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Upasana Sarma is currently a research scholar affiliated to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, India. Born and raised in Assam, her research interests primarily revolve around cities, urban forms, indigeneity and media. Twitter: upasana_is
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