News industry must regain reliability for own survival

The traditional media will survive only if it can assure the subscribers of accuracy, genuineness and reliability reports Nava Thakuria

Amidst myriad devastation created by the novel corona virus around the world, news industries might learn to survive with regained credibility, continued authenticity and most sought after accountability in the post Covid-19 pandemic era. Earlier if these principles were necessary for the mainstream media, now it becomes an utmost priority for its survival. Besides the news outlets, working journalists will also face the same 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, appreciators along with the advertisement revenues. Most of the Indian newspapers have lost two-third of their circulation because of the prolonged lockdown where many closed down their physical papers emphasizing on digital versions.

Indian news channels, where most of them are free-to-air (FTA) in nature, presently grow their audience rating points but drastically reduce their commercial advertisements. 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 a 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 and it finally demoralizes the advertisers.

The largest democracy today supports over 82,000 registered newspapers with a cumulative daily circulation of 110 million estimated to be a 3,20,000 million (75= US$ 1) industry.

Published in various frequencies, the newspapers run their business with both subscription and advertising revenues. As the newspaper managements in India normally sell their products with lesser cover prices than the actual expenditures, they logically depend on the advertisements for recovering the deficit amounts. It’s not a sustainable business model anyway.

Recently, 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 souring and hence the newspaper economics would not work anymore. But even though, the newspapers are being published as a dedicated public service, claimed Gupta.

Terming the vibrant newspaper industry is among the worst affected enterprises in the country, he stated that it has already lost 40,000-45,000 million in March & 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 per cent customs duty on newsprint.

“Newsprint cost accounts for 40 to 60 per cent 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 per cent customs duty on newsprint will also have no impact on domestic manufacturers,” pointed out Gupta adding that New Delhi should provide two years tax holiday for newspaper establishments, 50 per cent increase in concerned advertisement rates and 100 per cent increase in budget spend for the print media.

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 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. Responsible 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 12,500 million  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 per cent, 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 reliabilities. 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 earn the consistency. So the trustworthiness is likely to emerge as the ultimate trademark for any news outlet.

“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, adding that 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.

The author is a northeast India based media analyst. Views expressed are his own