Coronavirus Is Killing the World's Last Great Newspaper Industry

A man reads a newspaper in front of a closed shop in the old quarters of New Delhi.
SourceJEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty

Coronavirus Is Killing the World's Last Great Newspaper Industry

By Pallabi Munsi


Without newspapers, India's 1.3 billion people are more vulnerable to fake news.

By Pallabi Munsi

Chhanda Dey woke up, made herself a large mug of tea and walked toward the balcony of her house to pick up the newspaper — a habit she has followed for years. But the resident of an affluent housing society in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata was in for a surprise.

There was no newspaper on her balcony floor. 

She soon found out that the residents’ association had barred newspaper vendors — and, in turn, newspapers — from entering the complex amid fears that they might spread the coronavirus. They’re not alone.

For the past decade, India’s newspaper industry has stood out as a rare beacon of hope for the print media, which has seen sharp declines in readership in the West. According to the Indian Readership Survey (IRS), the overall readership of newspapers had grown from 407 million readers in 2017 to 425 million readers at the end of the first quarter of 2019. Now, the coronavirus is threatening to do what the Great Recession of 2008 couldn’t: deal a crippling blow to the industry.

Like Dey’s complex, a growing number of residential societies, condominiums and high-rises across India’s biggest cities — Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and others — are stopping the delivery of newspapers. While some are worried to let vendors in, others are responding to a forwarded WhatsApp message making the rounds in the country. The forward, which lacks any scientific citation, maintains that a newspaper surface can carry the virus, which can remain on it for 24 to 48 hours. 

The ability to touch and feel, which was earlier an advantage, has become a liability today.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, veteran journalist and media analyst

That’s making worried newspapers put out advertisements pointing out how the WhatsApp claims are unsubstantiated. The Times of India, the world’s largest English-language newspaper, has created television commercials to bust the myths propagated in those forwards. To be sure, India’s top newspapers are trying to adapt in real time, dropping online paywalls and offering free PDF versions of the print publication to try to keep their audiences intact. But none of that’s helping earn revenues at a time the economy is in the doldrums and advertising is low.

Major publications like The Indian Express, among the country’s premier investigative publications, have announced deep wage cuts. And the Indian Newspaper Society — an industry body — has written to finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman seeking a two-year tax holiday and the removal of import restrictions on newsprint. “The domestic Indian newspaper industry is now … in very real danger of turning sick,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, a 21-day national lockdown — which started on March 25 — has deepened the hit the industry is taking. While newspaper deliveries are allowed, newsprint supply isn’t — a pointer to the haphazard and unplanned nature in which the lockdown was announced. The result? Even independent houses and neighborhoods that haven’t banned newspapers are reporting that they aren’t getting them. And in some cases, distributors are concluding it’s not worth their while to try to sell newspapers at the moment.

“The hawkers’ association has now decided to stop circulating newspapers [in the northeastern state of Assam] until things subside,” says Jishu Das, a leading newspaper distributor in Assam.

Traditionally, governments in India have subsidized newspapers — including through advertisements — as tools to help improve literacy, says veteran journalist and media analyst Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. That’s helped the country’s newspaper industry ride out economic storms in the past. “It used to be said that the newspaper is like the sun — it sinks in the West and rises in the East,” he says.

After the Great Recession of 2008, ad spending growth decelerated in India, and as in other parts of the world, younger audiences have moved to access their news digitally. But, he says, “the elite and the elderly still like the touch and feel of paper,” and they continue to be drivers of the industry in India. “It’s not as if people stopped reading.”

That’s what makes the coronavirus a particularly significant threat. It’s the affluent neighborhoods that — fearing the spread from vendors or the newspapers — are turning away. And the elderly — loyal readers otherwise — are the most vulnerable against the virus.


A security officer reads a newspaper in front of a closed shop during the 21-day government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Chennai, India.

Source ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty

What’s worse, the absence of newspapers allows fake news to further dominate the mainstream discourse, experts worry. “Newspapers continue because of the credibility of the information they provide, even though the business model and the revenue model is completely broken,” Guha Thakurta says. 

Raj Jain, chief executive officer of Bennett, Coleman and Company Limited, India’s largest media conglomerate and owner of The Times of India, concurs. They’re circulating as many newspapers as the company is confident will be sold. For the crisis staring at the industry, he blames the wave of “misinformation doing the rounds.” 

Experts say there’s little evidence that newspapers actually contain the virus. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that the coronavirus loses half its potency every 66 minutes, and that potency drops to 2 percent after six hours. The study further states that it lasts longest on smooth, nonporous surfaces and can stay alive on plastic and stainless steel with steadily lowering potency for two to three days. The virus does not last on cardboard after 24 hours and lasts even less on newsprint, which is far more porous than cardboard.

Dr. Aneel Advani of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says it is critical in these times of fear and panic to “live intelligently.” After all, he says, “the virus could be anywhere — but that’s not stopping you from eating food bought from outside, right?” 

He believes hand hygiene is of utmost importance. “If you’re worried about newspapers containing fomites or the virus, make sure you wash your hands after [handling them] as a precaution,” he says. People should be doing that whenever they “touch anything foreign at all.”  

But newspapers aren’t immune from a broader shift Guha Thakurta points to. “The ability to touch and feel, which was earlier an advantage,” he says, “has become a liability today.” India’s newspaper industry will hope that’s temporary.