How Kerala’s print media defied corona blues to become the urban reader’s choice

Corona has trumped politics in Kerala. Even party mouthpieces are giving more space to useful COVID-related information.

Kerala’s print media can claim for itself a unique distinction: It remains the most credible source of news and information for Keralites, and Malayalis outside the state. It is not just that it has successfully fought against the electronic and digital challenges. It has had to survive through severe natural disasters that ravaged the state these past few years. The COVID pandemic is only the latest of such challenges that the print media has faced, and overcome successfully.

Nowhere else in the country have daily newspapers instilled the kind of courage and hope among citizens that Kerala’s newspapers have done. It is the only state where print enjoys undiminished primacy even today. Reaching over 30 million readers, including in the gulf countries, the 20 plus newspapers published from the state are adopting ingenious methods to remain relevant and necessary even as they suffer revenue loss from advertisements and circulation lost.

The state’s two largest circulated dailies, Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi (combined circulation over 3 million copies per day) continue to lead the way, helping readers locked in their homes stay safe and channel their energies by trying their hands at different activities from cooking to agriculture, practicing transcendental meditation or online learning of new subjects.

The next line of newspapers like Madhyamam (which had once showed great growth among the pro Jamaath-e-Islami sections of the Muslim community but is not that vibrant now, though it has a circulation of nearly three lakh copies) and Kerala Kaumudi are also offering readers a wide variety of informative content. Other publications like Deepika, Varthamanam, Mangalam and Siraj, though small in terms of sales, still enjoy the patronage of its traditional readers in their pocket boroughs.

Party mouth pieces like Deshabhimani of the CPM (circ 5 lakh, mainly party subscribers), the RSS sponsored Janmabhumi and the CPI mouthpiece Janayugam have also taken a break from 100 per cent political reportage to publish stories on subjects and issues that matter to readers at this time.

Focus shift

Corona turned life literally upside down for readers of Kerala’s newspapers, the main source for quenching their unending thirst for political news. The dailies quickly realised that they needed to take a break from focusing on political controversies.

Subaida, a 63-year-old woman running a tea shop at the port area in the Kollam city, decided to sell her two goats to pay her rent and electricity bill, which left her with a surplus of Rs 5510. Despite having to take care of her husband recuperating from a heart surgery, and a brother, also a heart patient, she donated the money to the chief minister’s relief fund.

Her generous donation found mention in the chief minister’s daily news briefing which is widely followed by Malayalis across the globe, and Subaida became a star overnight. What followed was unprecedented media and public support for such humble efforts. Subaida was gifted five goats by a benefactor from Kozhikode.

Subaida’s story is not an exception. Such proactive stories become the trend. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s request to children to donate their ‘Vishu kaineettam’, the customary gift being given to children by the elderly on the auspicious occasion of Vishu, evoked encouraging response as the print media started publishing photos of children handing over the money they got to district collectors or ministers. Even though a fortnight has passed since Vishu, children and their parents continue to queue up to hand over Vishu kaineetom to the district collectors.

Such anecdotes became staple news, like that of 105-year-old Bhagirathi Amma from Kollam, the country’s oldest student who passed the fourth standard equivalency exam and got the Naari shakthi award this year and donated 10 per cent of her award amount ( Rs.10,000) and her first instalment of old-age pension to the PMCare and CMDRF respectively.

And 96-year-old Karhtyayani Amma of Alapuzha, who had shared the Naari Shakthi award with Bhageerathi Amma, also contributing her old age pension to the CMDRF. Minister for Local Self Government A C Moideen went to her house to receive the amount. Ports Minister Kadannappally Ramachandran donated a box of old coins which he inherited from his mother to the chief minister’s relief fund. Several people abandoned the traditional funeral rites of their near and dear in view of the lockdown and donated the amount meant for the rites to the CMDRF.

All these got wide coverage in print media. Even political party mouthpieces are shying away from publishing political controversies. “A joint press conference by opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, former chief minister Oommen Chandy and IUML leader PK Kunhalikutty on the Sprinklr controversy (a deal with a foreign company to analyse covid data) did not make page one of even Malayala Manorama, a hardcore UDF fan” said Ajith Sreenivasan, bureau chief, Madhyamam and president Kollam press club.

The fact is corona has trumped politics in Kerala. “Being a political daily, we cannot totally avoid politics,” said P Sreekumar, senior news editor Janmabhumi. “But it is a fact that we have shifted our editorial focus to corona”. All papers have been generously supporting government’s anti-corona initiatives.

Readers prefer print

In the initial days of the lockdown and corona scare, print did concede space to the electronic media, especially when it was falsely touted that newspapers could be corona carriers. But as days passed and readers got more stressed over the TV channels endless coverage of virus death and lockdown issues, “people returned to their favourite routine of newspaper reading” said Anil Mangalath, a senior editor at Malayala Manorama.

Though papers had to reduce the number pages, readers were not complaining. “in a way it’s easy to read the paper as advertisement space has reduced” said K M Raveendra Pillai, a college principal. “Compared to visual media we still depend on print media to get authentic information about the Corona virus and its potential threat,” added Pradeep Kumar , an auditor from Attingal. “While electronics media sensationalise the issue, newspapers continue to give a balanced view.”

He however felt that English newspapers were giving more informative, research-oriented reports on corona compared to the vernacular dailies. “Malayalam papers are just filling their local pages with pictures of those who contribute to the CMDRF.”

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