Battle-weary journalists, who have been there, done that and seen it all, think they know exactly how the media houses which employ them should deal with the existential threat posed by the #Coronavirus pandemic.
You could call this the sentimental view, the belief that, at this inflection point for the media business, the least those who employ them can do is protect their jobs, protect their salaries, and protect their publications.
If you do this, they say, once things return to normal, the show will go on as before. And we will still retain our right to pontificate on the ills and thrills of the world.
In other words, a few small tweaks will do the trick.
On the other hand, media owners have their own view and, to no one’s surprise, it is diametrically opposite to that of the journalists.
You could call this the pragmatic, hard-nosed view: the maaliks have seen the big picture and worked out the sums with their managers, and it is not looking good, certainly not in the short term, what journalists loosely call the “foreseeable future”.
So, brutal decisions have to be made, costs have to be cut, salaries have to be pruned, jobs have to be slashed, editions have to be shut or suspended.
Bottomline: No point beating around the bush.
This ever-green tussle between labour and capital is in full play as the full extent of the damage being wrought on the print media sector by COVID starts becoming clear.
While the Indian Newspaper Society (INS), the umbrella body of newspaper owners, writes to the government every other day seeking assistance, journalists and their representative unions and associations have gone to court to save their livelihood.
So, how does this situation look for a media owner with a fully paid-up membership of INS?
In this episode of J-POD, a podcast on journalism, Jayant Mammen Mathew, immediate former president of INS and executive editor and director of Malayala Manorama, looks into the hazy crystal ball.
4.43: “The way advertising is going, it is quite scary. In April advertising was as good as zero. That’s put a hole in all of us across the country.In the North and many other parts of India, where cover prices are low, they were all dependent on advertising. That’s probably why many of them are in very bad shape.
“When the advertising comes to a halt and you have a negligible cover price, then the economics doesn’t work. Newsprint prices are nowhere as high as 18 months ago, when prices touched $750-780 per tonne, but how long can all of us last if advertising is just not there?
8.14: “We have a duty to publish, it’s public service. With all the fake news people look at credible media, especially newspapers, to believe in something. What we have seen in the last two months is there is no substitute for journalism. Reporting from the ground, is the only thing which gives us the edge.
12.30: “We all have to future-proof ourselves in working from home, and look at costs, by automating, by doing things differently at a lower costs. Gone are the golden years when we could do things without looking at efficiency…. There is no substitute for credible content, and in the digital realm, everybody should start charging for content.
18.05: “Indian newspaper growth and trajectory has been phenomenal in the Hindi heartland.Full credit to the Jagrans and Bhaskars. They have gone to small towns, expanded on a low cover price. In hindsight, they should have steadily increased the cover price, that would have given them a cushion. Maybe now they will do it.
“Once you establish yourself, if your brand is strong and you are not scared of losing a few copies, you should increase the price. Your newspaper should be worth something for you to pay. The moment you give something for free, then there is no value for it.
21.06: “In South India, a regional paper has much higher penetration than an English paper. In Kerala, the combined circulation of Malayalam newspapers will probably be 35-40 lakh newspapers a day; English will be not more than 4-5 lakhs. Right now, it is not the time for a cover price increase for sure, when everything is hurting for everybody.
23.25: “Print media gets between Rs 21,000-22,000 crore of advertising per year. Simple calculation tells you we have lost 1,700-1,800 crore of advertising in March. In many parts of India, specially Maharashtra, there has been distribution issues. So there’s been a loss in sales income.
“In the last two months, print media has lost Rs 4,000-4,500 crore across the country. It is natural for any industry to appeal to the government, otherwise where are we going to get money, when we have all these fixed costs?
27.44: “We all have high-powered, high-speed presses and we are using lower grammage newsprint. That is just not manufactured here. We are all going from 42 GSM to 40 GSM and Indian manufacturers only have 45 GSM and we are not able to use it. We need imported newsprint. It is a genuine issue.
29.54: “INS represents everybody. We have big boys and very small players. INS role is to help everybody. All newspapers need to benefit. It is not just for the big player or a certain player. There are several newspapers which are barely able to make ends meet. It is going to keep business alive.
33.15: “INS does not demand government advertising as a right. The rates for government advertising are very low, extremely low, and in many cases, newspapers lose money printing it. I personally feel this was not the time for Sonia Gandhi’s suggestion for a suspension of government advertising. It might not impact a large newspaper, as much as a small newspaper which depends heavily on it. It will completely go out of business without it. It is important to look at the totality of the industry.
36.05: “Good journalism can only happen with boots on the ground, if there are enough journalists on the ground. The tech giants pay minuscule amounts for our stories which are done by our journalists at great cost. If we are producing the content, we should get a fair share of the revenue. There is no transparency, no money from the Chinese aggregators or anybody else. If local journalism gets killed, we will all be reading the same wire copy. Life will be terrible.
42.50: “Print still has huge penetration in India. This year all the media will get lesser advertising. There is going to be no IPL unless they find a window somewhere. So that huge chunk of advertising that companies keep for IPL Rs 2,000-3,000 crore will be unspent. It will have to go somewhere.
44.41: “As a media company, we have to offer more to the reader, viewer, the public at large. Investments have to come in. Get into more areas than we have got into before, like podcasts, product reviews, short videos, explanatory videos, etc. There is scope for some long form journalism within all this.
“We have to offer more content, diverse content, and this content definitely needs to have a pay wall. Otherwise it is going to be difficult going forward. 80% of the revenue goes to the tech giants, we get very little, just 5% by way of digital revenue, which is as good as nothing. We have to monetise, that’s the only way out.
47.16: “Print, whether newspapers or magazines, will be under pressure. Everybody will have to relook at their operations, their costs, and also their offering. There is still scope for magazines provided the cost structure is looked at and the segmentation.
“At this stage, it doesn’t matter what degree we have, we all have to sit down and work really hard, need a good team, and every skill we have, to get out of this. What kind of company to do you want to be in 12-18 months?
52.41: “Small and medium players will have to look at different ways of generating revenue, whether it is boosting cover price, getting into a new segment, or a new service. You can only cut so much of cost. You can strip it to the bone but what more. You can’t chop costs to the extent there is nothing left.
54.00: “Journalists need to be multi-skilled. Learn how to shoot video or how to do a quick audio, pick up photography, do a podcast. It’s not rocket science, it’s easy to learn but it requires practice. Become an expert in your existing skill, become indispensable.”
Photograph: courtesy The Week