Sri Lanka

A Surprisingly Fragrant Way To Save The Newspaper Business

In Sri Lanka, take a whiff of that newspaper. Its ink can help shoo away deadly mosquito-borne diseases, one of the more improbable ways to save the printed press in our digital era.

Approved by Bill Gates
Approved by Bill Gates
Julien Bouissou

COLOMBO In markets stalls in the Sri Lankan capital, and elsewhere in the world, they are used to wrap fish. But that is just one daily use for newspapers beyond reading them, there are others.

Saranga Wijeyarathne, chief of marketing of the Sinhalese-language dailies Mawbima and Ceylon Today, had been thinking for months about the possibility of adding a special "scent" to the day's news pages to help increase circulation.

Wijeyarathne was waiting for the perfect opportunity, which came on April 7 with annual World Health Day. That day, the first-ever citronella-scented newspapers rolled off the presses, with the aim of protecting readers from mosquitoes. It is a new way to fight the spread of mosquito-borne dengue fever, which can be fatal and affects up to 30,000 people every year in Sri Lanka.

The time of day when newspapers are typically read — in the morning and evening — coincides with when mosquitoes are the most threatening. In the first days of this trial, newsstands around the country sold out a special printing of 200,000 copies, 30% more than ordinary days.

The Ministry of Health welcomed the initiative, as did Bill Gates, who praised the project on Twitter.

I like the ingenuity… mosquito-repellent newspaper helps fight dengue in Sri Lanka: via @ozy

— Bill Gates (@BillGates) July 11, 2014

The first mosquito-repellent newspaper in the history of press was not easy to develop, starting with the choice of repellent. Citronella oil, which is extracted from the leaves and stems of lemongrass, was chosen for its scent, considered pleasant and easily identifiable. Instead of spraying it onto the newspapers, it was decided that it would be mixed with the ink to make the scent more persistent. A chemist was hired to set the dosage, while mechanics made sure the liters of citronella would not damage the printing presses.

At the beginning of the operation, citronella-vaporized posters showing insects stuck in the Sinhalese letters were installed at busstops.

"Daily newspapers are not dead, as long as we innovate and believe in the future of this format," says Wijeyarathne. "Since newspapers across the country started innovating to modernize the image of this medium and make it attractive, sales stopped declining."

The first 3D newspaper, or one that could be used as a flag, published on the National Day of Sri Lanka, were also launched in the country. In Ecuador, a daily printed on laminated paper, to provide shelter from rain, also came off the presses.

It's not the paper

Although it was successful, the mosquito-repellent newspaper cannot be published every day because of its high cost. “Above all, the newspaper wanted to raise awareness among the general public about dengue fever, and we wanted to generalize the use of citronella, which is a natural insect repellent, but less and less used,” explains Ranil de Silva, the head of the advertising agency Leo Burnett in Sri Lanka, which took part in the operation.

Wijeyarathne is thrilled that his mosquito-repellent newspaper got noticed in big places abroad. "The problem with newspapers is not paper, but the lack of ideas," he says.

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