It's official that newspapers are America's fastest-shrinking industry, but something more worrying is happening in Kerala, where newspaper distribution has come to a trickle since March 20.
The development comes after months of mud-slinging between newspaper managements and vendors, which apparently began when vendors began charging a service fee of Rs 10 per month from subscribers. What was thought to be molehill has now become a mountain of trouble for newspaper establishments in Kerala, with distribution having come to a stop almost across the state over the past four days.
It has been difficult to gather information on the subject because newspapers are largely mum about the matter (perhaps fearing that advertisers will desert print because circulation on any given day is not guaranteed). What is generally known is that the vendors have raised five main demands, which are (1) raise commission to 50% of cover price, (2) give extra commission for distribution of supplements, (3) provide newspapers with supplements inserted from the press, (4) if supplements have to be inserted by vendors, provide extra commission for that job, and (5) send only the number of copies requested by each vendor.
Newspaper managements allege that the vendors are now distributing only papers with political affiliation, like Deshabhimani, Veekshanam, Chandrika, Janayugam and Janmabhoomi. The situation is so bad that chief minister Oommen Chandy has directed police to take stern action against the striking union of dealers for 'selectively' disrupting distribution of independent newspapers. The Gulf Today's Ashraf Padanna quotes Chandy as saying, “Everybody has the right to strike. But they should respect the rights of others to work as well. Several bundles of newspapers have been thrown away or burned, which could not be tolerated. I have directed the police to take stern action against them.”
Except in Thiruvananthapuram where circulation is more or less normal, the situation is alarming (for newspaper establishments and advertisers) in the rest of the state. This is the reaction I got from contacts in Kochi and Kozhikode:
Male, aged 52 (Kochi): I subscribe to five papers at home, but I've got only one these last four days. I now realise how much time I was wasting in the morning. I can really have some conversation with my wife in the morning, with the morning cuppa.
Male, aged 51 (Kozhikode): I subscribe to six newspapers and have been getting only Deshabhimani these days. I think a few days without newspapers may be like a few days off smoking. One may kick the habit after the break. I understand that distribution of papers is hardest hit in Kozhikode, Kannur and Malappuram.
Print journalists in Kerala now have the unenviable task of asking around if their stories have been carried because they cannot get a copy of their own newspaper -- and of course, live with the fact that almost no one else is reading their stories either, because papers aren't distributed. That is one story no journalist would want to break.