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Will 'crisis-ridden' news industry regain credibility in post-Covid-19 pandemic era?

By Nava Thakuria*
Amidst myriad devastation created by the novel coronavirus around the world, the news industry might learn to survive only if it regains credibility, proves it authenticity and accountability in the post-Covid-19 pandemic era. Earlier if these principles were claimed to be necessary for the mainstream media, now it becomes an utmost priority for its survival.
Besides news outlets, working journalists will also face the heat. As millions of people are infected with the deadly virus with thousands of casualties across the globe, once a vibrant media fraternity finds itself in an awkward situation as they start losing their readers, viewers and appreciators along with the advertisement revenues.
Most of the Indian newspapers have lost two-thirds of their circulation because of the prolonged lockdown. Many have closed down their physical papers emphasizing on digital versions. Indian news channels, many of whom are free-to-air (FTA) in nature, are growing their audience rating points, but are under stress because of reduced commercial advertisements.
Many of the channel proprietors have to manage all expenditures from running offices to paying staff salaries to productions to flawless distributions, but they cannot ask money from their viewers. as the outlets are registered as FTA news channels. 
Nearly 500 Indian channels terribly depend on advertising revenues for their survival. In reality, an enhancement to the number of viewers for an FTA channel would not automatically bring good revenues unless there is an increase in advertisement flows as well.
On the other hand, commercial advertisements are directly related to the business activities where people can afford to spend money for the propagated products. Otherwise, nobody would look at the commercials.
The largest democracy today supports over 82,000 registered newspapers with a cumulative daily circulation of 110 million estimated to be a Rs 3,20,000 million industry. Published in various frequencies, the newspapers run their business with both subscription and advertising revenues. 
As newspaper managements in India normally sell their products with lesser cover prices than the actual expenditures, they logically depend on advertisements for recovering the deficit amounts. It’s not a sustainable business model anyway.
Recently, the Indian Newspaper Society (INS), the umbrella body of over a thousand newspaper-owners, appealed to the Union government in New Delhi for a strong stimulus package to the media industry. 
INS president Shailesh Gupta argued that the advertising came to an almost halt for weeks and newsprint prices were soaring and hence newspaper economics would not work any more -- even though newspapers are claimed to be published as a dedicated public service. Terming the vibrant newspaper industry is among the worst affected enterprises in the country, he stated that it has already lost Rs 4,000-4,500 crore in March and April 2020.
Since economic activities have nearly collapsed and there is no likelihood of advertising from the private sector, the losses are expected to continue for the next few months, asserted Gupta adding that the government should also withdraw five percent customs duty on newsprint.
“Newsprint cost accounts for 40 to 60 percent of the total expenditure for publishers. On the other hand, India has to import over 50% of its annual newsprint demand of 2.5 million ton. The withdrawal of five percent customs duty on newsprint will also have no impact on domestic manufacturers,” pointed out Gupta.
He added, New Delhi should provide two years tax holiday for newspaper establishments, 50 percent increase in concerned advertisement rates and 100 percent increase in budget spend for the print media. 
New Delhi spends around Rs 1,250 crore annually for advertisements in newspapers, news channels and online media outlets
Taking advantage of the new-found financial crisis, many large media houses have resorted to retrenchment by sacking media employees, salary cuts or delaying committed packages. They also asked some of their employees to go on leave without pay citing the reason of shrinking advertising revenues. A number of journalist organizations have already raised the issue with the federal government demanding its intervention to stop these anti-employee activities urgently.
Meanwhile, a suggestion from Indian National Congress president Sonia Gandhi to avoid media advertisements except Covid-19 related advisories by the government for two years has angered the media industry. 
The proposal from the oldest political party for a complete ban on television, print and online advertisements by the government and public sector undertakings was reacted sharply by both INS and News Broadcasters Association (NBA). Both the organizations urged the Congress chief to withdraw her suggestion made to Prime Minister Narendra Modi immediately in the interest of a healthy and free media.
Office-bearers of both the associations argued that the media must continue playing its role to update millions of readers-viewers about the pandemic along with other relevant information as they face an unusual shut-down in their lifetime. New Delhi spends around Rs 1,250 crore annually for advertisements in newspapers, news channels and online media outlets.
But India based companies invest much more money in the tune of a few billion rupees per year on advertisements. The television channels and print outlets usually enjoy the advertising benefits, but it is apprehended that the digital medium would overtake both very soon. Golden heyday for channels and newspapers is almost gone.
As the billion-plus nation has been improving its literacy rate up to 75 percent, more citizens now develop the capacity to access news items in digital forums. Slowly the mainstream media has lost its influential and also the bargaining power over their stakes. Not only for news inputs, internet is used by more and more middle class Indians, mostly the young people, for various other activities as it is fast and cheaper.
By now, the media family has been expanded as hundred thousand news portals emerged from various parts of the vast country. People with incredible obsession to journalism start practicing their passions in various internet run information outlets. 
Hence it’s understood that most of the seasoned but corrupt, senior but selfish and glamorous but irresponsible journalists would find it difficult to sustain their supremacy over the honest, hard working and committed media entrepreneurs.
Nonetheless, braving the pandemic, the traditional media will survive if it can assure the subscribers of accuracy, genuineness and reliability. They might regain older generation of audience and also create a new group of supporters. Digital media may be too fast and affordable for billions of users, but it will need few more years to be consistently viable. 
“Journalism has already made its strong presence in the social media and it has emerged as the people’s medium of expression. Covid-19 has brought a series of challenges to the mainstream media. In fact, it will wash away the garbage in the profession,” commented Rupam Baruah, president of Journalists’ Forum Assam.
He added, blackmailing, touting or personal scoring in the name of media practices will be a matter of past as the human race now eagerly waits for a noble, compassionate and all-inclusive journalism.
---
*Northeast-India based media analyst

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