What keeps one newspaper vendor going despite increasingly tough times
At 4am every day, while most people are deep in slumber, 64-year-old Rathnakumar Chokkalingam is at the height of his work day, zooming around on his motorcycle and walking briskly in the Beach Road area trying his best, weather permitting, to keep to a tight schedule of delivering newspapers to subscribers’ doorsteps.
Mr Kumar, as he is called, is one of 390 newspaper vendors distributing SPH Media’s six news broadsheets who are now grappling with problems with their livelihood: Their operating costs are rising due to factors such as sky-high prices of fuel and certificates of entitlement, while newspaper subscriptions and circulation are declining as digital media claims an ever greater share of the market.
“In the 1990s, I could afford to hire four part-timers and drive a van, distributing around 1,800 copies of the papers a day,” said Mr Kumar, who has seen the boom and decline of print sales during his 42 years as a second-generation newspaper vendor.
He currently works with one part-timer. His youngest son Viknesh, 34, helps out occasionally when he is ill.
They collectively deliver around 450 copies of newspapers to establishments like Raffles Hotel and Fairmont Singapore, office buildings, and to both private and public residential housing in the Victoria Street and North Bridge Road areas. This is 75 per cent less than what he used to deliver during the heyday of newspapers.
While print sales have steadily declined over the decade, Mr Kumar said the biggest blow to the business was dealt by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Offices and hotels started to decrease or even cancelled their print subscriptions because employees and customers were not coming in,” he said.
At the lowest point, he was delivering just over 100 copies of newspapers a day. After the pandemic eased, many establishments did not renew or resume their subscriptions, he added.
However, most of his elderly customers living in the public housing areas like Crawford Lane and Waterloo Street kept their subscriptions and depended on the physical newspaper to keep up with the news, especially during the pandemic. This reflects the importance of print for this demographic, he said.
“Youngsters probably don’t want to be seen with a newspaper in their hands, but for the older folk, nothing beats holding a physical paper to read,” he said. “It’s not about the nostalgic factor – there are still people who depend on the physical paper to get their information.”
In October, the Singapore News Vendors’ Association and the Singapore Newspaper Distributors Association – which represent the majority of newspaper vendors and distributors – met to discuss how to help their members in the face of these problems.
One suggestion from vendors was to raise delivery fees to help defray some of their operating costs.
Mr Kumar is concerned that if delivery costs go up, the elderly, especially those from lower-income households, may cancel their subscriptions. He feels a higher commission might be a better solution, but acknowledges the difficulties of increasing the commission.
The veteran vendor who plans to retire in five years laments that this is a dying trade.
“I worry about the younger vendors who would face difficulties finding another job in other sectors,” he said.