As newspapers reduce or fold, the elderly find themselves with less connection to their community and at risk of misinformation in an online world that is unfamiliar.
JAFFNA — For the last 30 years, Thambiah Paraparam, a retired tea factory officer, has been spending most of his evenings at a local library in the town of Inuvil in Jaffna district, reading newspapers. Before the economic crisis, there were plenty of newspapers in the library for him to read, publishing a variety of content. At 80, Paraparam thinks about his health often and mostly relied on newspapers for health-related content. But all that has changed now.
“Such information is not being published every day,” he says.
Beyond reading newspapers, visiting the library held a deeper significance for Paraparam. It was a way to stay connected with other elderly people who visited for the same reasons he did. Reading at the library was also a way for him to bond with his grandchildren.
“They [newspapers] used to publish children’s stories on full pages. I used to read them and share them with my grandchildren every day,” he says.
But since the economic crisis, some newspapers in Sri Lanka have folded while others have reduced the number of pages they print and cut back on the content they publish, including children’s stories. To keep his tradition going, Paraparam uses his imagination to invent stories, then he narrates them to his grandchildren.
Some of the newspapers he used to read in the library have shifted online, but Paraparam finds reading online platforms challenging.
“Even though I have a phone, I’m not tech savvy enough to watch the news on a phone,” he says.
The decline of the industry
An overwhelming majority of Sri Lankans, approximately 77%, consider news to be highly important, according to a 2019 survey and report from International Media Support, a Denmark-based organization working to strengthen the capacity of media to reduce conflict. The same survey found that 39% of Sri Lankans regularly read newspapers.
But this industry — which has been on the decline in other countries due to low advertising revenue and circulation, among other reasons — is facing a unique threat in Sri Lanka, triggered by the economic crisis. In 2022, the country’s economy plummeted as a result of depleting foreign exchange and massive debt. The coronavirus pandemic and the war between Ukraine and Russia — both crucial trade partners to Sri Lanka — also made the situation worse. Sri Lanka imports its printing paper from Russia and Ukraine. All these factors affected the importation and cost of printing paper.
As a result, print media in Sri Lanka is at risk of declining and an overlooked consequence is emerging. The elderly population, which has limited access to digital media and relies on print newspapers for information and community connections, is struggling because print newspapers have become either too expensive or unavailable.
Yarl Thinakkural, a national newspaper headquartered in Colombo, has had to reduce its pages from 24 to 10 and suspend some of its reporters because of the shortage of paper, says associate editor Arumugararaja Sabeshwaran. The shortage, Sabeshwaran says, is due to a high import tax and shipping delays.
“Earlier we used to publish special articles on political issues. Now we do not publish them,” Sabeshwaran says.
Previously, the media company was importing one year’s worth of printing paper. Now they can only import enough for a month, Sabeshwaran says, adding that prices change day to day. The cost of 5,000 metric tons of printing paper is now equivalent to the cost of 20,000 metric tons of paper before the pandemic, he says. The number of advertisements has also decreased significantly. He is not optimistic that the issues will be resolved soon.
Some newspapers have had to cancel special editions. For example, between 2021 and 2022, Virakesari, a leading Tamil newspaper, discontinued its special editions — Sothida Kesari, Sugavaalu, Mithiran, Vidivelli and Metro — due to the shortage of printing paper, says manager Sivasubramaniam Nakkeeran.
Thambiah Paraparam says newspapers have cut back on some of the children’s stories he used to read and share with his grandchildren.
VIJAYATHARSINY THINESH, GPJ SRI LANKA
The economic crisis
The economic crisis has exacerbated challenges the industry was already facing. According to the Sri Lanka Media Sustainability Index for 2019, the price of printing was already increasing in the global market, coupled with the Sri Lankan government’s decision to increase the tax on imported newsprint, which doubled the cost of printing between 2018 and early 2019.
Even before the pandemic and the economic crisis, some newspapers had already closed shop, including The Nation in 2017, and Rivira and Lakbima News, both in 2018.
Baleshwary Thenarence, a 58-year-old radio presenter from Kondavil, a suburb in the city of Jaffna, started reading newspapers long before she was a teenager.
“At home, my husband, children and I read newspapers,” she says.
Her family used to buy four types of newspapers just to make sure they got a better picture of what was happening in the country, but prices have increased. Now, four newspapers sound like a luxury given the rising cost of all commodities. At some point, they even tried cutting costs by sharing copies with their three neighbors. Most readers in the Northern province, about 77%, share newspapers rather than buy their own, according to the International Media Support report.
“Now we have stopped that too,” Baleshwary says.
They now get their news through the phone or over the radio, but Baleshwary says that newspapers had some unique content that these other platforms do not have. For example, her family relied on newspapers for news of deaths.
“Now that we have stopped buying newspapers, we do not even know if people we know have died,” she says.
The internet is too unregulated
With some newspapers shifting online, Baleshwary could turn there too, given the relatively high internet access in Sri Lanka: about 52.6% of the total population. But digital media is a completely different ballgame. She has limited access and doesn’t really like the online space for various reasons. For one, a newspaper is tactile. She says she likes the feel of it in her hands.
Baleshwary also doesn’t have much trust in the internet as it is too unregulated, she says, which sometimes paves way for violent material, such as uncensored photographs of road accidents. Already, she is feeling the effects.
“Ever since I stopped reading newspapers and started reading news on websites or Facebook, I have been facing psychological problems. The newspapers are bound by media controls. But social media is not like that.”
If digital platforms that many now rely on for news in the absence of newspapers fail to uphold certain ethical values, Baleshwary worries about misinformation, depression and high stress among the elderly.