How COVID-19 'makes us stronger' and may boost sales

As the COVID-19 pandemic is reaching its peak in India, Times Group technical director Snehasis Roy has outlined the moves the English-language giant has had to make.

They include coping with the "social stigma and social media rumours around newspapers being virus carriers" and a 'work from home' productivity challenge of 25-30 per cent.

"The rumours hurt us a lot," he says in a WAN-Ifra webinar, one of a series organised by the World Printers' Forum. "The Indian print publishing industry as a group had to fight against the rumour to convince people that actually newspapers cannot carry coronavirus."

Circulation of seven million copies across 124 editions has been badly impacted as the pandemic spread to more parts of the country and a total lockdown kicked in. "Circulation numbers have significantly gone down owing to distribution challenges," says Roy.

As the publisher works to maintain production and distribution amid the lockdown, challenges still include social distancing and a complete lockdown of public transport.

Employees were provided with laptop and desktop computers, with efforts made to ensure good connectivity. "We tried to keep the desktops in the office on and connect local desktops to the servers in the office using VPN or some kind of connectivity form, so that you are not bandwidth hungry," he said.

Guest houses were arranged for staff resident at plants, with one room per person, and large areas such as conference rooms converted to bedrooms and food supply ensured four times a day.

A dedicated network of buses, which had permits and curfew passes, is ensuring transportation of staff. Roy says HR staff have done a fantastic job keeping staff morale high. "Communicating with people is the only way to keep them motivated, or else what they would hear would be the fake news and rumours," he says.

Ninety per cent of prepress staff are currently working from home and printers have been divided into two teams with separate working hours and no direct contact. Self declaration was sought from all, and thermal screening together with sanitation and fumigation of the press became part of everyday activities.

"Most of the big publishing houses also made an agreement that if one of them faced a problem of a press being locked down due to infection, others would share their resources with them to help them keep going," he says.

Strict and early lockdown measures led to there being 2000 hotspots where newspapers could not be delivered. Times also had to tap in to local grocery shops, pharmacies and kiosks to ensure distribution of copies, and Roy says access to housing complexes remains a challenge, with multibook delivery completely banned.

The upside has been people soon starting to realise most of what they saw on social media was not true, and returning to newspapers. "Some of the readings show that readership has actually gone up by 50 per cent, that some readers are spending 50 per cent more time with newspapers," he said.

With promotional activities in place for post lockdown days, circulation numbers are expected to rise in some markets.

A "silver lining" has been the "enormous amounts of learning" imparted by the process, prompting them to look at cost saving and optimisation of manpower and workflow.

Roy believes that with something such as COVID-19 which happens once in 100 years, all will emerge stronger: "We cannot get defeated by it."

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