News during coronavirus pandemic: the institution is more important than the format

I trust the newspaper (more than I trust random strangers on social media). As someone who has spent more than half of my career in public relations and corporate communications, I know for a fact that a news organization is not an individual, but a set of people where individual biases could be questioned within the system and reporting be fair, largely. So, in relative terms, if I take newspaper news with a grain of salt, I’d take social media news with a truck-load of salt.

So, it is disconcerting to see a huge, persistent campaign by the print newspaper leaders (Times of India and Economic Times + a whole of others) to quell fears about print newspapers carrying the coronavirus.

This is totally understandable in these times. See how people ‘treat’ newspapers every morning!

I had earlier written about anecdotal views on how so lesser number of people seem to be depending on getting a printed newspaper at their homes. The print newspaper seems like an artifact of another age. Like a landline telephone!

While I fully agree with the tone and content of the campaign to assuage people about newspaper’s value in these times of rampant fake news, one particular nuance seems odd: the focus on ‘print’ newspaper.

Now, in a country with such disparate income levels, expecting everyone to move to online reading is very ‘Let them eat cake’. But, there is no doubt that people are moving rapidly to consuming all kinds of news, not just ‘news’ from a newspaper point of view, on their phones.

The confidence about printed news, from the news organizations, stems from the fact that something printed is of more solid, longer value: because it is printed, it goes through more stringent checks, unlike online content which can be edited any number of times.

The problem is that no newspaper, in its print avatar, has a direct connection with its readers. They are printed and dispatched, and an army of distributors enable the delivery to our homes. This distribution mechanism is akin to the earlier mode of film-roll distribution to cinema theaters – physically taking a film-roll from Mumbai (where it is produced) to every single theater in India.

There are so many jokes around shows being stalled because of the lack of arrival of the film-roll. The one that I recall most vividly was from the 1985 Tamil film, Aanpaavam.

The distribution for newspapers is a well-oiled offline machinery, but it is still a ragtag team (around the world, not just in India) that could be affected by several last-mile upsets. Unless this entire machinery works in unison, the print newspaper would not reach you.

In a world where more and more brands are disintermediating the middlemen and attempting to go ‘direct-to-consumer’ (D2C), newspapers seem to be holding on to the complex distribution mechanism as the main vehicle to reach consumers.

There are obvious reasons for this, of course. A print newspaper that you hold in your hand, physically, seems like it has monetary value (on that day only, of course; the next day it is garbage). But the online version doesn’t seem ‘worth paying for’. The print newspaper is a physical artifact that the online variant doesn’t seem to be, much like a physical CD vs an mp3 file for music.

In the case of music, streaming music found a way to continue monetizing the content format. Ditto for movies and videos. But news organizations in India haven’t found viable ways in this direction. Outside India, news organizations like the New York Times have cracked this online subscription model reasonably well.

In an online subscription model, the news organization has direct one-on-one contact with the end-user. No intermediaries that could disrupt the passage. The offline print model worked for a period in time where we, the end consumers, needed to pay physical cash to a fellow human who delivered the newspaper artifact at our homes. This is a simple cash-on-delivery. This nuance is missing online since we pay digital cash for digital content.

Much like how streaming platforms are changing our behaviour (even with a 30-day window for theatrical releases to move to streaming), this is perhaps an emergency-like time for print media to shift our behaviour to read and pay for news online. The focus should not be on the mode of delivery (print) but on the fact that news media is more trustworthy, direct to consumer, through a digital route. If people get a free experience (during the lockdown) of how news online works in a professional, predictable (every morning) set-up, it could serve as a way to cut the print model of delivery eventually, slowly.

But print news organizations need to innovate fast. The print model had a 24-hour window because of the physical printing needs. Does online delivery need the same window too? Not necessarily. So how often would news be updated in the pipeline we pay for? How many can we read, at what intervals? Who wants what kind of news? What format would the online delivery be? The old-world comfort of physical newspaper in epaper format? Or one suited for online reading? All these matters a lot to shift the most important behaviour – to trust and pay for mainstream media news, in a digital format.

The focus right now seems to be in extending the dying legacy of ‘printed’ news instead of selling us the importance of the news organization as an institution worth trusting. That is, the format (printed media) is given more importance than the institution.



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