Closures, slowdown & retrenchment hit Indian mainstream media hard

Indian mainstream media is undeniably going through one of the worst phases since Independence. The future looks both tense and uncertain

Representative Image (social media)
Representative Image (social media)

Mrinal Pande

Is the media as we know it, dying a slow, invisible death?

Maybe not. But what is irrefutable is that it is increasingly beleaguered by a climate of financial uncertainties and growing intolerance to independent or adversarial journalism and to dissent and varied opinion. Add to this the indiscriminate use of criminal defamation laws and threats against the media, and not surprisingly, media men and women are very worried about the future. Their own and the media’s.

The World Press Freedom Index compiled by the French-led Reporters Without Borders, has expressed concern over India slipping down for the last two years. It now stands at the 140th place out of a total of 180 countries examined for press freedom.

On 3rd May this year the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) demanded that Parliament take note of this and frame laws to protect free media, create fast track courts, make payment of risk insurance for reporters reporting from conflict zones mandatory and curb the misuse of social media by political parties and corporates to spread fake news and releasing morphed video images .

The new digital technology is also causing redundancies within the media. In October 2018, prominent news agency Press Trust of India had to lay off 297 non journalists (typists, teleprinter and telex operators) whose services were no longer required.

Of late there has been a spate of closures as well. First, the Anil Ambani owned @BTVi, a business news channel, shut shop wishing friends and well-wishers a sad farewell. Then came news of the closure of two other news channels launched on the eve of the 2019 elections, NaMo and Tiranga TV. NaMo was first launched on YouTube and telecast the Prime Minister’s rallies and speeches nonstop. It was later shifted to the DTH platform Tata Sky before it was closed down abruptly. The CEO of Tata Sky told newsmen that it was a ‘free special services channel”.

Since then Tiranga TV, which had some well-known TV anchors like Karan Thapar and Barkha Dutt also closed down amidst rumours of acrimonious exchanges between the owners and one of its anchors over unpaid dues.

Things are also grim for the print media. The Zee group recently shut down its English language multi-edition daily, the DNA. The group has announced that it will now be a totally digital news portal in “a new and challenging phase”. It had already closed its Pune and Bengaluru editions in 2014 and now has shut down the Mumbai and Ahmedabad editions as well.

From Agra comes the news that a Hindi daily DLA (to commemorate the founder of the Amar Ujala group Dori Lal Agarwal), launched by Anil Agarwal, one of late Shri Agarwal’s sons and one of the ex-owners of Amar Ujala, has also downed its shutters.

The Indian multimedia today is serving close to a billion customers through print, radio, Net and outdoor segments. The first-quarter revenue for most of these have revealed a dip although vernacular print still shows growth, but it is less than what it was the year before.

The Hindi print media (in a total reversal of trends up until 2010) is garnering much more by way of advertisement revenues, particularly from the government. Times were when they were way behind the English dailies. But today the sheer bump in their number has increased their value for corporates keen to enter smaller towns and rural markets, and politicians keen to reach out to voters in the demographically rich Hindi belt.

However, most major Hindi dailies are also fast retrenching excess staff in bureaus and newsrooms and using digital news aggregators and intermediaries for both their print and digital versions.

The crisis doesn’t show signs of abating.

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