In Aesop’s Fables, one of the stories that everybody relates to is the one about the boy who cried wolf. It’s No. 210 in the Perry Index of Greek and Latin fables: the morality tale of a young boy who shouts “wolf, wolf” while grazing his sheep.
Villagers who are near by rush to his defence, but they find him hale and hearty. His flock of sheep too is safe. The bored boy had merely pulled a prank to draw attention and make his afternoon more exciting.
He does this again on another day and again the villagers come to rescue him. Again they find him safe. He does this so many times that people eventually do not believe him when he and his flock are actually attacked by a wolf and when they are truly in danger.
The idiom “to cry wolf” is derived from this Aesop’s fable, which dates back nearly 2500 years.
The Cambridge dictionary says “to cry wolf” means to keep asking for help when you do not need it, with the result that people think you do not need help when you really need it.
But there is a lovely saying in Kannada that takes this to the next level: “Dina saayuvavarige aluvavaru yaaru?” Loosely translated, it means who cries for someone who dies every day?
Put differently, who cries for someone who cries wolf every day?
This axiom is especially applicable to the Indian Newspaper Society (INS), the closed club of the newspaper industry: the high table of the owners, proprietors and designated legatees.
On paper, INS has nearly 800 members—big, medium and small—and it acts in their name. But in reality, a small clutch of big publishers calls the shots.
Ever since COVID twisted the media landscape out of shape, INS has been hyper-active—going to the government on a nearly daily basis with a petition of its latest demand.
# One day it wants a check on imported Chinese apps. Another day it wants cut in customs duty on imported newsprint.
# One day it wants government to pay for the ads that have already been published. Another day it wants higher rates for government ads that will soon be published.
# One day it wants newspapers to be classified as an essential service. Another day it warns those sharing PDFs of newspapers on WhatsApp.
And so on.
But every day INS cries like the village boy in Aesop’s fables: that the industry is in serious danger of falling sick, that it needs a two-year tax holiday.
It’s not a pretty sight, this sight of the fat cats—the paper tigers—holding the bowl, looking so desperate, helpless and needy.
The charitable view to take is that this is exactly what every industry body is expected to do and should be doing—which is to protect and advance the interests of its members.
On the other hand, looking at the frequency with which INS is seeking assistance, you cannot help but wonder if the owners are not merely using the opportunity provided by the COVID crisis to extract a better deal for themselves.
“Never waste a crisis,” as they say in business schools.
Like the boy who cried wolf once too often, you have to wonder which of the demands of INS the government will hear, and when it will be tempted to ignore it completely.
But the big question you must ask is whether INS is merely speaking the interests of the moneyed maaliks, or are they at all concerned about those responsible for their profits and dividends.
Not just editors and reporters and photographers and artists, whom these owners employ. Or the managers and executives and clerks. The fragility of their fate is apparent from the ongoing bloodbath in the media industry through job cuts, salary cuts and worse.
Not the vendors who supply plates and chemicals and ink or paper, but the last man—and it is always a man—in the chain: the paper boy who delivers your copy every morning. That vendor.
Are they ever in the line of vision of the maaliks and their managers?
Was the word “vendor” mentioned even once in any of the petitions of INS?
Actually, a better question to ask is: have readers and RWA uncles ever wondered about the plight of their paper boy, about his life and livelihood?
Modern living is so superficial that a paper boy is like a nameless COVID victim, but he does have a name if only you would bother to ask.
My vendor, my paper boy, is K.S. Uday Kumar.
He is 50.
For over 25 years, Uday has delivered newspapers at our home, in the morning and in the evening, through rain and shine.
When he started out in 1991, he earned all of 35 rupees per month, delivering newspapers to about 75 homes.
In 2020 he and his son Chetan Kumar were delivering to 350 homes and apartments, earning 8,000 rupees a month.
Thanks to COVID, thanks to the fear of contamination through newspapers and magazines, Uday Kumar’s distribution plunged to a little over 100 copies.
In other words, his door delivery is down by two-thirds. His income which comes by way of a commission is down to a third.
Uday has a wife and two teenaged children to take care of.
The dental college where he held a day job has been in trouble, and he hasn’t been paid for over two years.
He is also polio-stricken since birth.
Has the INS spoken up for Uday Kumar?
Do the owners and managers keep him in their mind’s eye?
And those like him around the country?
When I spoke to him a month ago, at the height of the lockdown, Uday Kumar gave me a break-up of how each newspaper’s circulation had fallen in his delivery zone.
With the lockdown nearly lifted in Mysore, I asked him for the numbers again today. There has been only a marginal improvement.
This is exactly the same case with big distributors, who all report a big drop in sales.
But what Uday Kumar says about news consumers today is indicative of the uphill road ahead of India’s print media.
He says English readers are the most fearful of contamination.
He says “Educated” well-off readers are the most reluctant to resume subscription.
Many don’t want to pay the full cover price for skimpy issues.
And some readers treat vendors like untouchables, not even bothering to receive newspapers or pay their monthly bill by hand.
All the news stories and advertising campaigns vouching for the safety of newspapers, it appears, have had a limited effect. And after nearly two months of living without newspapers, readers are getting used to a life without it.
My friend Imran Qureshi says his vendor has seen a 25 per cent drop in sales.
Big newspaper executives expect circulation to settle down slightly lower than what it was when the lockdown began. At least a minimum of 10 per cent lower, is what they say.
But for people like Uday Kumar the challenges ahead are even bigger than the taxes and tariffs and tax holidays haunting INS members.
For the paper tigers, a 10% fall is a small blip in profits.
For the paper vendors, it is a mountain of losses.
In early April when I shot a short video of distributors and vendors sorting newspapers without safety equipment and sent it to a publisher in Bombay, his immediate reaction was whether his group should launch a public awareness campaign.
Two months down the line, looking at Uday Kumar, it is clear India’s proprietors and publishers need to do a lot more than that.
It is not that they have never done so. The circulations of newspapers are built on cash and other incentives media houses provided. But that was in good times.
In these horrendous times, they need to put a bit of the money they extract from the government and from advertisers where the mouth is.
Of people like Uday Kumar.
And others like him, without whom India’s newspaper industry wouldn’t exist.