For the most part of last year, we quite literally went out of print for a bit. With no clarity in the early part of the lockdown as to when normalcy would descend, the publication of the print issue was on the line—and exclusively online—till September 2020. Little did I know, the title of my previous—and only—blog in 2019, would hold much more relevance today to justify a Part 2.
Come the lockdown in March 2020, our heavily paper-based publication process was thrown into the shredder as we scrambled in the few days before to make an enormous digital leap. And leap we did. We have been using a “digital” article management system for many years, it was used more as a system to update and track articles. Meanwhile, we remained faithful to an analogue system with physical copies of the articles moving from tray to tray and desk to desk—little piles of authors’ hopes sprinkled around the office. And yes, we do use software to prepare the print layout, because we are modern like that, but the proofreading and correction processes all happened on paper. I can only wistfully think of the days when I would get to hold the printed article proofs and make those lovely little proofing marks by hand, which, sometimes, much to the consternation of the proofreaders, would become illegible by the end of the week as a fatigued mind and the rush of the issue both peaked by Friday evening, when the last pages of the issue went to the press.
All of this changed on 23 March 2020. We did not even get time to implement the roster system we had prepared. It was a straight shift to working from home and, dare I say it, completely online! All paper trails for our articles stopped short at the office, as we picked them up online, with lots of gaps of course, which have since been filled with the help of authors’ frenzied queries and our colleagues who did make trips to the office once the un-lockdowns began. (There are some of us who have still not stepped foot in the office since the lockdown!) The layout and proofreading teams too had to adapt to paperless processing in a matter of days to ensure that we did not skip the next week’s issue. A new proofing guide for marking up PDF proofs was drawn up. We started using an online workspace platform to pick up the slack.
One thing the lockdown and the push to work from home and go digital made us realise as an organisation was the digital divide among our own staff. Not everyone had access to personal computers or the required software at home. Unreliable access to the internet and even electricity was an issue many faced. Desktops from the office had to be transported to the residences of many of our staff, and work schedules and workflows adjusted to the vagaries of the internet and electricity.
Many all-nighters were pulled in the first couple of months as we awkwardly transitioned to working from home and online to ensure that the most holy of objectives, the weekly-ness of the weekly, would remain upheld. For all intents and purposes, the print issue was being prepared in its entirety week after week, just that it was not going to the printers, but only uploaded online. As fatigue set in over the months, splitting hairs over the print layout and timely publication of an issue that was not being printed seemed incongruous and absurd. We also realised the precarity of our revenues from print ads and newsstand sales, which, apart from a general decline over the years, vanished all of a sudden, something we have not recovered from in all these months. With falling revenues and pay cuts colouring our workdays, we exasperatingly mulled over the idea of whether it was finally time for the weekly to become the Economic & Political Whenever-we-please.
However, we continued trudging through and September was soon upon us, when the post office, printers, and the pandemic permitting, we started printing our issues and began the humungous process of printing and posting our back issues from March onwards. The mighty post office most graciously allowed us but two whole weeks’ time to print and post 20 weeks’ worth of issues to get our regular concessional rates. An even tighter and limited timetable was created with our printers, in efforts to limit the number of days that the printers' staff would need to be physically present as well as the despatch staff at our end.
Through all of this, our authors continued to be a force to reckon with. The fear of the virus may have locked down many things in our lives, but certainly not the "life of the mind." Everyone had something to say about COVID-19. While our revenues, capacity, and endurance declined, the number of submissions shot right up. Reviewing and editing these articles has not been a pleasant way to brave the lockdown and overcome the fear of the virus; though this has no bearing on an amazing range of articles we received and were able to publish on and around the pandemic.
It's been more than a year since the very first lockdown, and the pandemic and submissions to EPW on COVID-19, both are still going strong. As will EPW and, I hope, its tribe of loyal print readers, still listening earnestly for the postman’s step outside their door week after week (lockdowns be damned!), waiting to have the EPW in hand and leaf through its (forevermore) formidably packed and un-stirringly stark pages, before begrudgingly logging on to our website and reading it onli … Oops! New paywall and subscription rates in effect (in our efforts to not go out of print)!
Postscript: We’ve had old colleagues leave without proper in-office goodbyes over samosas and chai, and dense chocolate cake. We’ve had new colleagues join us, with whom we haven’t yet had the chance to share samosas and chai, and dense chocolate cake. As we get adjusted to the “new normal” in the pandemic era, I hope we don’t adjust all that well for the love of tea-time in the office if nothing else (and I think I speak for all my colleagues here, even the coffee-walas).
Views expressed here are personal.