News media in South Asia in a revenue freefall due to COVID-19
They say that the news media loves a crisis. The novel coronavirus pandemic or Covid-19 may well be the century’s most important crisis. Indeed, the viral outbreak has put the news media in South Asia in a deep trouble. Newspapers, television channels, online news portals, across the subcontinent, are in a mess due to the coronavirus.
Like news publishers around the world, those in South Asia too havesuspended print editions, reduced pages or are focused on their online versions to keep their heads above water. Some have even resorted to job cuts or furloughing journalists without pay, and even retrenching editorial and production staff. The hardest hit in the crisis are the print news media, both big and small.
The story is somewhat different in the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan. Though registering revenue losses due to zero advertisements and slash in circulations, the news media here have not retrenched journalists or imposed salary-cuts, says Yugen Penjor, editor-in-chief of the government-owned Kuensel, Bhutan’s lone English language daily newspaper.
But the crisis has seen the sale of copies plummeting and advertisements-the primary source of newspaper revenue decreasing by more than 70%. The lockdown in Bhutan is partial, but with travel restrictions and the sealing off of international borders, tourism has been hit hard.
“This has forced the newspaper to slash the number of pages and reduce print orders,” Penjor told South Asian Monitor over phone from Thimpu. “Sales of Kuensel have gone down by 40% since early March when the international borders were sealed and the flow of tourists stopped,” Penjor added.
Being the only English language daily newspaper in Bhutan, Kuensel was circulated to all the hotels and resorts across the country. However, the main source of revenue was government advertisements.
“With ad revenues plummeting by 45% in just one month, we were forced to slash the number of pages from 12 to 10 and the weekend edition, which used to have 20-pages, has been slashed to 16,” Penjor said.
However, the young editor said that the pandemic has also given the fledging news media industry in Bhutan, a new outlook.
“Journalists in Bhutan are now hunting for feel good stories. The world needs positive journalism now more than ever, and we in Bhutan are doing just that,” Penjor said.
“Furthermore, the health department holds two news briefings ever week and the country’s prime minister is also easily accessible to journalists,” he added.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, Bhutan has seen an increase in online news traffic. “Apart from providing free online education to students (as schools across the country are shut), copies of Kuensel are being distributed free of cost to people who are in the quarantine centres. Online traffic has increased so much that at times our website crashes,” Penjor said.
However, the scene in the rest of South Asia is gloomy. Some of the bigger newspapers across the subcontinent have shrunk in size, and the smaller ones’ existence itself is at stake. Some have halted publication.
But top Indian news magazine Outlook which suspended publication of its print edition on March 30, said that the suspension had nothing to do with cost-cutting. Editor-in-chief Ruben Banerjee told South Asian Monitor that the suspension was due to a logistic hurdle created by the country-wide lockdown.
“A newspaper is city–centric whereas a magazine has a nation-wide reach. The transport restrictions made circulating the magazine tough, so we switched to publishing a PDF version of the magazine, The PDF version of Outlook is doing well, though, businesswise, there is very little revenue,” Banerjee said.
"The media is having a very hard time with no advertisement revenue. Outlook print edition will be back after the lockdown restrictions are lifted, but we will still face challenges. But a print edition will be back."
Asked if the shift from print to the digital is inevitable, Banerjee, said: “News consumers have had to change their lifestyle as social distancing, work from home, closed schools and cancelled travel and events have disrupted everyday routines. As a result, the consumption of digital news media has increased and readers of Outlook online have gone up three-folds.”
In Bangladesh, the number of newspaper copies printed has plummeted and the news media industry is staring at a bleak future, said Matiur Rahman, editor of Bangladesh’s leading newspaper Prothom Alo.
“A large number of publications in Bangladesh have stopped their print editions and the bigger ones like Prothom Alo have reduced the number of pages from 16 to 10 or 12. We are printing one third of the copies we used to, as revenue is nil. Newspapers that are published are mostly from Dhaka. Publications outside the capital city have gone online or have stopped their print editions,” Rahman told South Asian Monitor.
The Bangladesh government has, however, agreed to give a special stimulus package to the media industry. “At the second meeting on April 30, the government agreed to disburse pending advertisement bills to newspapers and also consider the demand for a special stimulus package that will include financial aid to journalists, newspaper agents, hawkers and transporters,” Rahman said.
Immediately after a country-wide lockdown was announced in Nepal more than five weeks back, major news publications, including the biggest news media house, the Kantipur group, suspended the print editions of its Nepali and English newspapers.
“But two weeks later, the group restarted its print editions after criticism from the people who said that the news organization was more concerned about its falling circulation than providing news to readers,” said Yubaraj Ghimire, editor-in-chief of Deshasanchar, a journalistic multimedia venture.
Another major media group, the Republica-which publishes the Nepali language daily Nagarik and the English daily Republica, and the Nepal edition of The New York Times, suspended printing the papers, Ghimire said. “Most newspapers in Nepal are operating online news portals with a very lean staff,” he told South Asian Monitor.
Nepal had called off a number of international events due to the Covid-19 pandemic, including the “Visit Nepal 2020” and the Sagarmatha Dialogue- a multi-stakeholder, permanent global dialogue forum initiated by Nepal, which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Imran Khan were scheduled to attend in early April, Ghimire pointed out.
“Nepal gets more than two million foreign tourists every year, and remittances from its overseas migrant workers account for 30% of its GDP. These sectors face a bleak future due to closures in various countries. Nepal’s targeted GDP growth of 7.1% has now been reworked to 2.3 % and this will have an impact on every sector, including the media,” Ghimire said.
The impact of COVID-19 on the news media in India has been the most brutal. The industry has seen a freefall in advertising expenditure by commercial companies. The largest circulated English newspaper in India, The Times of India has retrenched staff, including two editors and a designer. All employees of the newspaper’s popular Sunday supplement ‘Times Life’, have been retrenched, and the four-page supplement has now been reduced to a single page, a source in the paper said.
The Indian Express and Business Standard have announced pay cuts. The Hindustan Times, in an internal mail said a fixed percentage of employees’ ‘fix pay’ salary component will be diverted to the variable component, which is linked to the company’s performance.
“A number of the bigger newspapers have a very complex salary structure and employees usual get a much lesser ‘take-home salary’ than what is mentioned in their ‘cost-to-company’ structure,” a former journalist with the Hindustan Times told SAM.
The Kolkata-headquartered English daily, The Statesman, the oldest broadsheet in India, first published in 1875, has not reduced the number of pages of its print edition. “Though our salaries are delayed, there has not been any salary cuts or retrenchments in The Statesman until now and neither has the print edition shrunk in size,” a senior member of the editorial staff with the newspaper in Kolkata who did not wish to be named, told SAM.
AK Bhattacharya, former editor of Business Standard and currently its editorial director, said that prospects of a prolonged economic slowdown and a decline in advertisement revenue have aggravated the weaknesses in the business model of the print industry, which has been hugely dependent on advertisement revenue.
“The print industry’s woes can get worse unless it reduces its dependence on advertisement revenues and increases its revenues from readers. The principal of ‘users must pay’ should become the guiding principle for the media industry if it has to escape the aftermath of an economic slowdown,” he said.
However, according to Ruben Banerjee of Outlook and A.K. Bhattacharya of Business Standard the future of the print media is not as bleak as it might seem to be.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people who still want the feel and the smell of newspapers and printed magazines,” Banerjee said.
“The print newspaper industry must recognize that online has certain inherent strengths which will make it score over print. Therefore, the print media must build on its own inherent strength which is providing analysis and views that help upgrade the reader’s understanding,” Bhattacharya said.
The pandemic has financially hit the Sri Lankan news media hard but there is no wholesale retrenchment at least by the big newspapers.
“Executives and senior journalists have had to take a 60% cut in their salary and the middle level staff and others have had to forego their allowances. With allowances being the bigger component of their pay, their take home pay is much less than before,” said a Special Correspondent of The Sunday Times.
“The main problem is that advertisement revenue has fallen steeply. Last month it was nil,” said V. Thanabalasingham Consultant Editor of Express Newspapers. E. Saravanapavan, Proprietor of “Uthayan” a Tamil daily, said that selling a printed paper is difficult now because of the lockdown and the ban on crossing district borders.
“The government has announced a relief package for newspapers. But our paper is getting a paltry Rs.2.5 million, which only covers one month’s salary bill,” Saravanapavan pointed out.
In Pakistan, the Dawn, the oldest and one of the largest circulated newspapers in the country, has reduced the number of pages from 22 pages to 18.
“The advertisement revenue stream has become a trickle, which has a coronary effect on the news media in Pakistan. Salary cuts have become the norm,” Pakistani columnist Zaarar Khuhro told SAM over phone from Karachi.
“If this situation persists, which definitely will, there will be larger layoffs,” Khuhro, who co-hosts a popular television show “Zara Hat Kay” on Dawn TV warned.