In April, British journalist and author Susie Boniface, in an article for Mirror Online, asked her readers to take a moment to imagine a world in which there is no journalism. It's a lawless, clueless world, she posits, with no knowledge, no scrutiny, and no democracy or the thousand other things that it precipitates. If the pandemic has taught us anything—besides the priceless value of universal healthcare or the worth of genome-mapping, vaccines and science—it is that journalists, whether you like them or not, play an essential part in your life.
"We're not perfect. We're not your favourite people. We never demand your thanks; we just want you to hear yourselves think," writes Boniface.
This statement remains a thumping endorsement of the profession of journalists. Unfortunately, being essential doesn't make them impervious to shocks like Covid-19. The pandemic, like in other countries, is also stress-testing the strengths and frailties of the press in Bangladesh, with devastating consequences. We get a picture of the situation from a statement issued on August 21 by the Newspaper Owners' Association of Bangladesh (Noab). The newspaper industry, it says, is "nearly on the verge of collapse", thanks to drastic circulation declines (accounting for a loss of two-thirds of pre-pandemic sales figures) and plummeting advertising revenues. The sharp fall in revenues has led to many newspapers closing down or discontinuing print publication and shifting online, mass layoffs, reduction in regular payments, etc. Even multiple cost-cutting techniques employed by the newspapers—such as reducing the number of pages, volume of printing, coloured pages, as well as cutting down on other administrative expenses—couldn't offset the damage.
According to a July 3 report by Prothom Alo, citing data from the Department of Films and Publications of the government, until June, a total of 254 newspapers in Dhaka and eight divisional cities were forced to close down because of Covid-19. As we near the end of August, with the pandemic still showing no signs of letting up, this number is likely to have increased. The abrupt closures coincided with a spike in incidents of harassment using different intimidation tactics and legal instruments including the Digital Security Act. "There is no safeguard for newspapers and journalists," declares a statement by the Editors' Council released on August 24.
These are merely conclusions drawn by the industry leaders and observers, however, not the sum total of the experience of individual journalists. Once you put faces on the stories of sufferings caused by the triple whammy of closures, retrenchments and harassment, you begin to see how uncertain the life of a journalist is in Bangladesh, and how quickly the ground beneath the press—the serious press—is shifting.
Unfortunately, despite their essential services in these extraordinary times, the journalist community remains cut off from the protection they deserve. While they fight to ensure that struggling industries have access to the incentives and stimulus packages announced by the government, their own need for similar industrial concessions remains unaccounted for. While they go to great lengths to report from the field and provide credible, life-saving information—often putting themselves in the path of the virus—their own lives and livelihoods remain precarious. While they continue to give voices to the voiceless, their own stories remain untold. It's not just a cruel irony of fate. It's the cumulative result of years of neglect, hostility and lack of vision suffered by the press.
Noab has made a number of valid demands to the government to offset the impacts of the coronavirus. Foremost among them is the reduction of taxes: as a service industry, newspapers are void of any special benefits and have to pay a corporate tax of 35 percent whereas, despite being a for-profit sector, the RMG industry's corporate tax stands at 10 to 12 percent. Noab has urged the government to reduce the tax for newspapers to 10 percent.
It also demanded omitting the 15 percent VAT on the import of newsprint. Under the Value Added Tax and Supplementary Duty Act, newspapers fall under the list of services that are exempt from VAT, yet they have to pay it. Other demands—such as reducing the Tax Deducted at Source (TDS) on advertising revenues from four percent to two percent and reducing the advance income tax (AIT) on raw materials from five percent to zero percent—also demand careful consideration. Even risk allowance and health insurance for the journalists should not be ruled out. We have seen how the West Bengal government extended health insurance coverage of up to 10 lakh rupees for frontline Covid-19 workers, including journalists.
It suits some politicians to question the need for such concessions and cash injections. But the truth is, journalism is an essential public good. If the press suffers, so does democracy, so does the performance of a government and that of public institutions, so do the people who depend on it to highlight issues vital to their life. This has been the case as far back as we can remember.
But the extraordinary nature of the present crisis is also proof that government support or lack thereof is not the only issue for the press. The plight of the journalists being sacked or furloughed is a concern for all of us, but it's important to understand that darker days may be ahead unless we learn to grow out of our shells. Covid-19 may have caused the "biggest existential crisis" in the history of the press, but the crux of it has long been in the making.
To put it succinctly, the industry has been dogged by a lack of innovative business models as well as quality content for long. Today, advertisements pay for the journalism as we know it—at least, all the journalism that isn't the BSS. The irony of this fact is inescapable: how can an industry expect to be sustainable when its main source of income is not its consumers or audiences, but the advertisers, mostly corporate houses using column space to promote their brands? When the advertisers are in trouble, those who depend on them are bound to be in trouble too. This is why our newspapers, despite record levels of traffic and engagement from online readers during the pandemic, are struggling to survive.
The pandemic has served up a lesson for the industry that to cushion such external shocks, self-sustain and even grow in the future, it has to find a way to shift its dependence from the advertisers to the consumers, who will be its main source of revenue. One way to do that, experts say, is through expanding the consumer-based business model. For example, The New York Times, despite having its fair share of crises created by Covid-19, has seen unprecedented success in this regard. As of the first week of May, the number of its digital subscribers increased to 6 million. Many other news organisations in the US, the UK and other countries have also seen a boost in digital subscriptions. While the key to success in a digital ecosystem is still a mystery to most of us and the income from digital subscriptions (and advertisements) is still very low compared to the revenues needed, there is growing consensus that utilising the customer-based revenue model properly may toss a liferaft to the ships deing torpedoed by Covid-19.
For this business model to work, you need to monetise your content—not just the space or platform you provide. You need to provide quality content, both written and visual, something that readers and viewers would be willing to pay for. This is where the present crisis offers us an opportunity to transition to better journalism, and maybe come out stronger in the end.
But if journalism is to be saved as an essential public good right now, a lot more needs to be done—not just by the newspaper industry itself, but also by the government with public money and proper policy support as well as the global technology companies like Facebook and Google whose disruptive influences continue to afflict the newspapers. Nothing short of a concerted effort by all will be enough to ride out this crisis.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org