Missing Newspapers: The Vanishing Livelihood in the Digital Era and Pandemic

Missing Newspapers: The Vanishing Livelihood in the Digital Era and Pandemic

The digital era, though supposedly having made different avenues of life easier, has also challenged and brought about the termination of many professions and sources of livelihood. This, combined with the ongoing pandemic, has caused a havoc in the newspaper industry. With news available on the touch of a screen, people seem to have left behind the waiting for the morning paper to arrive. It used to be a regular sight one could witness in most households until a few years ago: Newspapers lying at the doorsteps. But today, news has become faster. It is updated by the minute and with most of the print media houses going digital, it is becoming difficult to get hold of a newspaper. And with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing multiple lockdowns, the newspaper industry is on its decline.

Like many other businesses, the newspaper industry in Sikkim has also taken a great hit since the past one year.

While speaking with Amit Patro, the editor of Sikkim Express, it comes to light that during the pandemic, the circulation of the newspaper has witnessed a decline.

According to Patro, “During the last lockdown, our circulation and distribution took a hit by about 30%. With most government offices and schools being shut, the circulation in this sector has become nil. And this definitely reflects on the newspaper as print media (newspapers) acquires its revenue through advertisements, and with a decreased circulation rate and the general declining state of economy, advertisements too have come down.”

“We are managing by shifting to digital platforms which does not require a particular revenue model. Though Sikkim Express is managing through these difficult times, Himali Bela, our Nepali counterpart, has taken a hit as we unfortunately had to let go about 30% of our employees.” He added

The nature of journalism has taken a turn in Sikkim, it seems. In the case of field reporters, who were already being paid meagre salaries, the pandemic induced lockdown has had an adverse effect. With various restrictions imposed, they find it hard to move around freely and talk to people. They have been continuously coming up with new and innovative ways to gather news. Many reporters are also having to take up the responsibilities of copy editing and so on.

With the decrease in circulation and distribution, the printing presses that used to cater to the needs of the newspapers in Sikkim have also seen a fall. And with the pandemic in hand, most circulars and notices, apart from newspapers, that would have otherwise been printed, have moved to the digital platform. This has had an immediate effect among the workers in the printing press.

Another category of people who have been seriously affected during the pandemic are the hawkers and newspaper vendors. The shops that usually used to display newspapers in the front are the visible index to the decline in newspaper circulation. And with most newspapers going digital, the vendors and hawkers face an income cut.

Kuber, a newspaper vendor based out of Gangtok, says that he is finding it difficult by the day as people do not want to seem to buy newspapers as they get everything on their phones. Many such hawkers and vendors have been severely hit by the pandemic and the gradual shift from print to digital media.

Anjan Upadhaya, senior journalist and editor of Hamro Prajashakti says, “The biggest factor that has affected our paper is the decline of advertisements. We have stopped receiving commercial advertisements over the past many months. But above that, we haven’t received a single advertisement from DAVP (Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity) in the past months. In the past, DAVP used to provide many advertisements that was helpful to run the newspaper in terms of the economy involved, but now that has come to a halt. One small advantage Hamro Prajashakti had was that the circulation included Sikkim and regions of North Bengal, but the pandemic has definitely affected our circulation to a large extent.”

Further Upadhaya also mentioned the people involved in the newspaper industry from the workers at the printing press, the vendors and hawkers and so on, whose right to exist is being deprived through this process of digitalization.

K K Chettri, the editor of Sikkim Reporter reflects on similar issues,“It is really a bad phase and with the number of advertisements coming from the state government has reduced, it is difficult to run the establishment. The pandemic has also caused a fall in the rate of circulation.” Said Chettri

Another newspaper that has also been affected during the pandemic is Sikkim’s Hindi newspaper, Anugamini. The executive editor of Anugamini, Aswini Anand said, “We have faced lots of loss during this period as our circulation has come down by 25-30%. And unlike many other states in India, we have also stopped receiving advertisements from the state government. This has forced us to lay-off some of our staff members and has affected the general running of a newspaper.”

Puran Tamang, the editor of Summit Times, however, is coming up with innovative ways to tackle the ongoing crisis.,“Circulation has been primarily affected by the lockdown and transport issues. We however, continue to produce a newspaper in the traditional format and have built out a WhatsApp subscriber base who receive a PDF copy of the newspaper since reaching physical copies to readers everywhere is not always logistically possible.” Said Tamang

“So yes, while earnings from copy sales have suffered substantially, readership of the traditional style newspaper has not. We have also increased our social media presence so that news about incidents and developing stories is made available to our readers, and then the newspaper itself can flesh out these stories more and provide context and analysis.” He added

Joseph Lepcha, senior journalist and the president of Press Club of Sikkim said  “The current reality is forcing many young and genuine journalists to shift to digital journalism from print journalism. Sikkim has also witnessed this paradigm shift in terms of news media. The decline in the circulation and readership of print media has burdened the media houses in terms of financial stability and has introduced an anxiety among the journalists. Digital news platforms also provide with better access to news among the readers, and spontaneous feedback to journalists on their work. These factors combine to a general trend of a shift from print to digital news media.”

The issue of the pandemic and its impact on journalism is being widely discussed. In November 2020, the Journalist Union of Sikkim (JUS) along with the Indian Journalist Union organized a workshop on the impact of Covid-19 on media. In the workshop, they discussed the importance of maintaining sustainability of the media houses in order to keep them functioning. It was also decided that the journalists would document their experiences during the pandemic, which would later be brought out as a booklet by JUS.

The government of Sikkim, in April 2020, gave out cash incentives to all the journalists in Sikkim in recognition of their hard work during the pandemic. The Chief Minister of the state, Prem Singh Tamang presented a cheque of Rs. 31.10 lakhs to the president of the Press Club of Sikkim. He lauded the contribution made by the journalists in Sikkim during the outbreak. Though such initiatives were taken, the sustainability of print media houses is still in struggle as many media houses have stopped receiving advertisements from the state government. This has become a major challenge in the functioning of print media houses in the state. With a cut-down in circulation and many journalists getting laid-off, the pandemic along with the rise of digital media has had its impact on print media in Sikkim, like elsewhere across the nation.

By Vaidyanath Nishant. The author is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at vaidyanathnishant7@gmail.com