Anirban Roy Choudhury

Myths, distribution, unions: Newspapers and challenges during the pandemic

Mumbai is not getting its daily dose of newspapers lately, but things could change starting tomorrow.

Did you get your newspaper this morning? If you live in Mumbai then you definitely haven’t. As far as other parts of the country go, it seems iffy. Though journalists are braving the COVID-19 outbreak and stepping out to do their reporting, readers seem to have decided to stay away from broadsheets. In some parts, readers believe that newspapers can carry the virus and, therefore, have decided to maintain a 'safe' distance. In urban areas, many societies have banned the entry of delivery boys altogether. Meanwhile, in Mumbai, the vendors association had a fallout recently, and newspaper distribution has completely stopped.

The “myths”

"Let’s not go by rumour mills and fear mongers. The newspaper delivered to your home is safe. And this fact is endorsed by several reputable authorities. WHO, perhaps, the organisation in the best position to comment on the matter, has stated that couriers or packages delivered to homes (and that would include newspapers) carry a very low risk of infection, even if they come from an infected zone!" This statement was issued by Raj Jain, CEO, Bennett Coleman and Company (BCCL), recently.

Maharashtra and Kerala are the worst affected states in terms of those who’ve tested positive for the Coronavirus. And, this seems to have affected the newspaper industry in the two states. Almost all districts of Kerala have been hit by the pandemic, "Overall, people are getting influenced by various myths and rumours circulating in social media about newspapers being carriers of COVID-19," says M V Shreyams Kumar, joint managing director, Mathrubhumi

M V Shreyams Kumar
M V Shreyams Kumar

To tackle the issue, Kumar says, they decided to make a video, "We have produced a video, which depicts our efforts in the hygienic production of the paper. The video showcases the hands-free, automated process of printing, sanitised wrapping and bundling. We are also following strict protocol in the distribution of our newspapers. The entire transportation and handling, right up to the newspaper distribution, is done in fumigated trucks with masked and gloved handlers.

"Kumar feels one should only go by WHO or the Ministry of Health, government of India recommendations, and not WhatsApp forwards and social media buzz. "Neither the WHO, nor India’s Health Ministry, has issued any directives against the distribution of newspapers to arrest the spread of the contagion. On the contrary, both the central and state governments have lauded the role of the print industry in disseminating authentic and curated information, and updates on the pandemic," he asserts.

Mumbai: Most affected

After they get printed and bundled, the newspapers get transported to various depots. In Mumbai alone, there are 80 depots from where the vendors collect the newspapers and display them at their stalls for over the counter sale. Most of these stalls are in railway stations, near bus stands, or in busy public places. Trains aren’t running anywhere in the country. The best service in Mumbai is disrupted and no one is stepping out. So, that channel of distribution is completely defunct.

Sanjeev Bhargava
Sanjeev Bhargava

The other important channel (or, the most important channel) is the network of delivery agents who pick the newspapers up from the depot and deliver it to your doorstep. "The lockdown has, naturally, impacted the lives of the delivery boys, and because of that, our delivery system has got impaired," says Sanjeev Bhargava, director, brand - TOI. He adds, "Mumbai is the worst hit. The distribution will start only by April 1 (tomorrow)."

The Brihanmumbai Vruttapatra Vikreta Sangh (BVVS), the union which represents all 80 depots in Mumbai, had decided that it will stop distributing newspapers for two days on March 23. The distribution has not resumed since. Hari Pawar, principal secretary of BVVS, says their demands were not met by the publishers and that is why they had to stop distribution. "We wanted masks and gloves for the delivery boys, travel allowances for the safety and security of vendors. We also made it clear that if any of the delivery boys, or vendors, who will have to step out to distribute newspapers, get infected, the publishers will have to bear the entire treatment cost. The publishers and we could not reach an agreement," says Pawar.

"The Times Group is at the forefront of discussions with the trade unions that manage the last mile. We are also at the forefront of getting the most relevant concessions for the delivery boys in terms of movement permits," counters Bhargava.

It is not only the Corona scare that is an issue in Mumbai, says Pawar. "In Maharashtra, the vendors get 30 per cent commission, while we get 25 per cent, and it has remained the same for so many years. Our demand is that the commission must be increased, especially during the pandemic, we must get more," he adds.

April first onwards

The distribution of newspapers will now resume tomorrow. In a meeting between Maharashtra’s industry minister Subhash Desai, Pawar and the publishers, it has been decided that the circulation must continue. So, from April 1, the vendors will let the publishers know how many copies they want and, if some remain unsold, the publishers will buy them back.

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