The newspaper industry in Bangladesh is in crisis. Covid-19 has only exacerbated the crisis.The prevailing wisdom is that the print media, by which we mean newspapers, are struggling for survival around the globe. In the West particularly, many reputed newspapers have taken to folding themselves into tabloid forms and at the same time focusing on online versions of themselves.
Innovative measures aimed at helping these newspapers to survive through attracting advertisements and drawing readers have been there for the past many years. Many newspapers can only be read online on subscription.
But if newspapers are in bad shape all across the globe, there are certain exceptions too. Take India, for instance, where in contrast to the fall in readership elsewhere, readership has been going up in the country in the case of both local and English-language newspapers. The situation in Bangladesh, which is our area of concern, is of a different, indeed worrying category.
Even the Prime Minister appears to be aware of the mighty struggle which newspapers in Bangladesh have been waging over the past many years in order to keep their heads above the water. With a few exceptions, newspapers --- which number as many as 700 around the country --- have fallen on hard times. There are of course clear reasons behind this predicament.
In the first place, far too many newspapers, largely brought out by business groups and industrial houses, have been flooding the market, with obviously little to show in terms of policy. In these past few years, newspapers have appeared with a bang, taken vast space for their offices, recruited journalists at salaries higher than those they received at their earlier workplaces and, overall, conveyed a shining corporate glamour to the entire enterprise.
All of that was good news. It was soon followed by the not-so-good news. Before these newspapers could hit the market, the journalists appointed with such fanfare earlier were retrenched.
Some other newspapers, having recruited journalists at incredibly high salaries, soon slashed those salaries by half and in many instances sent the journalists home. There have been examples of editors appointed with due respect before being dismissed in unceremonious manner. It is a trend that is deeply worrying.
In the second place, and more concerning, is the clear insolvency a number of newspapers, upholding policies geared to maintaining secular politics in the country, have been suffering from. As a journalist pointed out to the Prime Minister at her press briefing not so long ago, many newspapers are in a position where they cannot pay their staff. That has to do with circulation, which has been taking a battering because of the emergence of online news portals leading to a decline in newspaper readership.
Again, the paucity of professional journalists --- and we speak particularly of English-language newspapers --- owing to the emergence of new newspapers and the resultant head-hunting, has led to a situation where good reportage and editorial writing have been in a state of decline.
But clearly a most significant reason for the plight in which newspapers find themselves today is the decline in advertisements, both from the private sector and the government. An obvious need for a streamlining of government advertisements to newspapers is in order, given that the methodology followed so far in the distribution of advertisements has been raising questions in the newspaper industry.
A rational dissemination of advertisements, untainted by influence of any kind, is called for. At the same time, it should be the endeavour of the administration to impress upon private advertisers that while they are free to publicise their products on online media, they should also see to the need to have their products brought to newspaper readers at the breakfast table every morning.
To be sure, newspapers cannot expect to survive merely on grants of advertisements by the government and corporate bodies and business houses. There is, in these tough times when they are struggling for the scraps thrown their way, a huge requirement for them to reinvent themselves online on a twenty-four hour basis.
That also calls for journalism that is thorough and professional, which again is dependent on the structures of leadership which newspaper owners and leading journalistic figures can build within their organizations.
In other words, a hierarchy system that allows the growth of journalism in newspapers, that does not have journalists changing jobs frequently for want of satisfying salaries, that clearly has a line-up of media people in place able to articulate and argue editorial positions, is called for.Newspapers have their backs to the wall in these dangerous times. It will take strong will, changes in perception, rational advertisement policies and patent worldviews to help them survive.
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