J-POD || Podcast || “Kannada newspapers’ circulation is down from 25 lakhs to 5 lakhs due to #Corona. No ads, no sales, no newsprint. It’s unimaginable; a grave existential crisis” || ‘Vishwa Vani’ editor and owner, Vishweshwar Bhat

Media management in India doesn’t present a pretty sight on a day when the “Old Lady of Bori Bunder” rides on little #Corona to announce salary cuts and defer increments, opening the floodgates, as it were, to less-endowed groups lower down the food chain.

As each day dawns, the full scale of the havoc wrought by #COVID on Indian journalism becomes clear (see here, here, here, here, here).

The picture gets darker and gloomier as you step away from the gated, gentrified climes of English journalism and step into the thickets of languages.

In this episode of J-POD, a podcast on journalism, Vishweshwar Bhat, the Editor-in-Chief of the Kannada daily Vishwa Vani (who was previously the Editor of Vijaya Karnataka of The Times group, and Kannada Prabha, which belonged once to the New Indian Express group), discusses the situation in Kannada media.

# “In the early 2000s, the combined circulation of the four big Kannada dailies was around 5 lakh copies per day. With the emergence of four more dailies, it had risen to around 25 lakh copies. Not a war or a natural disaster, but an invisible virus has brought it back to 5 lakhs. It’s unimaginable. A grave, existential crisis.

# “With no advertising revenue and with distribution problems, most Kannada newspapers have cut their print order by 75-80%. Because readers and vendors fear contamination, 32,000 copies of my own newspapers were returned on one day.

# “TV news consumption has soared during the crisis, but not a single advertisement is coming in. It’s like scoring a triple century in a drawn match…. On some days the actual page one of The Times of India used to be after 12 pages. Today the whole paper is 14 pages.

# “Newspaper circulation had been built up with all kinds of schemes and incentives. All that has come crashing down because of Coronavirus. We will have to start all over again. But the question is, whether readers will come back in the same numbers. After all, as they say, it takes 21 days to form a habit.

# “Earlier newspapers had just four holidays in a year: Sankranthi, Ugadi, Deepavali and Ayudh Pooja. The day after used to be like mourning, with no newspapers in the morning. I wonder if readers are missing us or whether they have got used to our absence. Have they found new ways of receiving news and information?

# “Governments, whether at the Centre or in the State, are in no position to bail out newspapers, especially when they themselves are begging for donations, and when every other sector too is seeking help. Too much dependence on government for advertising will also impact the freedom of the media to do its job.

# “If the lockdown is extended beyond May 3, as Singapore has done, then Kannada newspapers will be in further trouble because of newsprint shortage. Only two or three of us have sufficient newsprint stocks to last beyond that.

# “Kannada journalism still has a future. A small state like Kerala has a combined newspaper circulation of 40 lakh copies. Karnataka which is twice its size has enough room to grow. Our style of functioning, the way we look at news and the way we package  it has to under go a transformation.

# Kannada journalists haven’t deeply examined the crisis beyond their own jobs. Journalists who are laid off can explore digital media options. There are over 100 websites across Karnataka generating 2-3 hours of content. They can provide their expertise, write books, freelance. Over 75 Kannada journalists with more than 15 years’ experience have been let go in the last few months. They aren’t all rotting.”

Also listen: Former Jansatta editor Om Thanvi on the state of Hindi journalism