For 12 years, as it observed and covered a rapidly changing country, the Indian press itself changed at least as rapidly. Three commentators—B.G. Verghese, former editor of the Hindustan Times and Indian Express; Palagummi Sainath, editor, rural affairs, at The Hindu; and Robin Jeffrey, author of India’s Newspaper Revolution—talked to Raghu Karnad about the many ways in which the print media in India has evolved over the past 12 years.
On the biggest trend in the last 12 years
B.G. Verghese: A trend that has accelerated during this period has been the decline of editors. You still have editors who are proprietors of papers, but the status of independent editors—who aren’t owners or proprietors but independent journalists—has deteriorated. If the paper makes money without him, journalists and proprietors say, why do we need the fellow? Let’s just have him there as an ornament, a public relations figure. Editorial control has fallen, leading to shoddy journalism and heavy editorialising in news columns. And there’s no editorial line—it changes like the weathercock, blown around from day to day.
P. Sainath: The biggest trend is the growing disconnect between the mass media and the mass reality. A very tiny Indian press, for a hundred years, served a very large social purpose, and tried to speak for the masses. Today, paradoxically, a gigantic Indian press serves a very narrow social purpose, which continues to narrow everyday.
Robin Jeffrey: The most conspicuous trend is the remarkable growth of the Hindi press and of the rise of some, and the decline of other, mini-empires in the media business.
On the control exercised by advertisers
BGV: Following reforms in 1991, when big money started coming in, managers began to feel that editors needed to help bring in the lolly. The management’s control increased, and the relevance of the market was amplified. It really is a market for news—what makes news? That which the market wants. Produce what the market wants, it will reward you. That syndrome—the TRP of print—came in and we began to see bogus circulation wars. Newspapers have started dumping copies in airports, railway stations, everywhere. They’re no longer looking for readers; they’re looking for eyeballs.
PS: If 80 per cent of your revenues comes from advertising, and 20 per cent from sales—what that means is you’re going to give advertisers four times the importance you give readers. Their preferences and priorities take precedence.
RJ: There never was a Golden Age of the Press.
On the rise of the regional language press
BGV: The rise of the regional language press is a very important and healthy factor. You no longer just have a Gurgaon page but a Gurgaon edition, a Rohtak edition and a Sirsa edition—not at all a bad thing. But too much localisation means you lose national and international perspective, and become parochial. Earlier it was all national and you didn’t know what was going on at the grassroots, and therefore were taken by surprise by ground realities. Now the pendulum may be swinging the other way. Again, this is the lure of the market.
RJ: In my view, you would be a pretty foolish politician in India today if you took the editors of the English dailies for more free dinners than their regional language counterparts.
I think the new emphasis on local news is, on the whole, a good thing: stories that once would have never been told, but should have been told, now get covered. With this come all the risks and pitfalls: blackmail, rumour, intimidation, and sensationalism. They’ve been around as long as journalism.
On the neglect of the poor
PS: You see it in the simplest and most direct way: the organisation of beats. Many beats have become extinct. Take the labour correspondent: when labour issues are covered at all, they come under the header of Industrial Relations, and they’re covered by the business correspondent. That means they’re covered by the guy whose job is to walk in the tracks of corporate leaders, and who, when he deigns to look at labour, does it through the eyes of corporate leaders. Now find me the agriculture columnist—in most newspapers, the idea doesn’t exist any more. If you lack correspondents on those two beats, you’re saying 70 per cent of the people in this country don’t matter, I don’t want to talk to them, they don’t make news. That is, until the elections, when they screw the media’s happiness.
On the quality of writing
BGV: The peaks of journalism are now, in many ways, much higher—there is much better writing, much more forceful, much more analytical and much better researched with the tool of the internet. It’s true, you do have those peaks, and one values those.
RJ: I think I’ve noticed an Americanisation. Instead of the prolixity of imperial English (for example, "Animadverting on the conduct of the DM, the CM opined..."), we seem to be getting more of the "verb at the start of a sentence", Time Magazine style of the US (for example, "Said the CM: ‘The DM’s a dope.’").
On the dumbing down of the press
BGV: There’s nothing wrong with Page 3 and other sections—sport, lifestyle—but the content of those sections hasn’t necessarily been good, as they’re just there to catch the eye. Those sections have a readership, but if they’re at the cost of news—and at the cost of the time and attention that are devoted to it, and the budget too—then you’re getting into trouble.
PS: Everyone keeps dividing journalism into serious and non-serious journalism—it’s a bogus division. What is called non-serious journalism is in fact a very serious business proposition, or at least it’s perceived as that by the media owners. They divide journalism into what’s serious...and what makes revenue.
RJ: Indian newspaper circulations are rising rapidly. Is that a bad thing? Among the Page 3 girls and filmy fluff, if even one tough story, or piece of reporting that someone, somewhere, didn’t want reported, gets into the paper, isn’t that better than the Chinese model where the state can control the front page of every big daily in the country?