Focus turns to journalists as Indian publishers reel

Increasingly dire reports only partly chart the change of fortune of the Indian newspaper industry wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A sudden increase this month has seen the number of new cases in India climb to 456,000 and deaths to almost 14,500, challenging the relative confidence with which publishers were facing the pandemic.

Newspaper sales are thought to have dropped by two thirds with reports of distributors still being attacked - despite reassurances that newsprint does not carry the virus - and advertising has fallen away.

AFP reported that English-language mastheads in Pune and Goa had closed and national titles including the Times of India and Hindustan Times laying off "scores of staff". It quotes Shreyams Kumar, joint managing director of Mathrubhumi, that the Kerala-based paper had seen advertising fall from up to $6 million a month to $500,000.

Until now, India's print newspapers had been the exception to the rule, as publishers elsewhere in the world saw the demise of print and its replacement by online and digital editions; circulation increases in India - especially in vernacular titles - had made up for the losses everywhere else in the world. Some had even been able to increase cover prices.

With COVID, WAN-Ifra South Asia's business development manager Magdoom Mohamed told the news agency advertising was the first casualty, with newspapers losing 75-85 per cent of their advertising in March and April.

While demand for information seemed to be insulating the Indian news industry, and its audience of 1.3 billion people, from the worst effects on circulation, the speed and scale of the increase in cases has brought this to an end.

First there were initiatives such as that of Dainik Bhaskar, which asked readers and employees to help feed poor during lockdown with a week's worth of basic groceries; now the economic impact of COVID-19 is hitting closer to home.

As publishers wonder when if ever, things will improve, there have been reports that journalists are among those most feeling the strain, with pay cuts and job losses, so that in Mumbai, for example, the Press Club has been preparing food parcels for distribution to journalists laid off during the crisis.

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