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The Indian media formally abdicated from duty that morning in the early 1990s when the Times of India (TOI) threw aside any remaining pretences and put up for sale its own 150-year-old masthead. Readers were greeted with their trusted newspaper proclaiming “Let The Times of India Wait”—an advertiser had been lured to pay for the additional words, with a pointer to the page where the actual advertisement was placed. The Times of India had just done some straight talking: forget the news, the journalism, the matters of public interest; go directly to the ads because that’s the real purpose of your newspaper. More deliberately, it said, everything that the toi name embodies—credibility, integrity, impartiality—is available for a price.
Samir Jain knew his times if not his Times. He took over his father’s company in 1982, and spent the 1980s remaking Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd (BCCLl) into a ferociously aggressive and innovative marketing company. He had sensed the zeitgeist, and was perfectly poised when the liberalisation reform in 1991 unleashed a new Indian with money to spend and immediate desires to gratify. His business proposition was simple: he would connect sellers of goods to this vast market of consumers. To corral and expand this market, he did not need distractions like news journalism, but marketing strategies like undercutting and brand-building. BCCL and TOI have laughed all the way to the bank ever since. Awestruck and lemming-like, Samir’s generation of proprietors has aped his every move, so that today the Indian media industry has unapologetic clarity about the nature of its business: it sells the media platform to commercial clients, not news to readers.
With proprietors not interested in selling what good journalists produce, the crisis in India is not one of the media industry, but of the profession of journalism. This is the reverse of the West, where proprietor, journalist and recipients all agree on the relevance of the journalistic product, but the existential challenge before traditional media houses is how to take—in an economically viable manner—that product to the electronic spaces and mobile devices where today’s generations prefer to receive and interact with it.
India’s media barons are no longer in the news business, but news is unavoidable: after all, you do need something to fill the space between the ads, and must dupe enough consumers into picking up your ‘newspaper’ (or tuning in to your ‘news’ channel), else your real customers—advertisers—will not be interested. So ‘news’ today is sleight of hand: paid news by politicians, private treaties with advertisers, celebrity coverage for a fee, PR feeds masquerading as reportage, the business story slanted to serve the stockmarket, the deserving story not done. Alongside, since the Sensex must never fall, the tone is frothy, jingoistic and feelgood so as to keep the middle classes in permanent chest-thumping and optimistic mode. When—surprise, surprise—reality strikes and an inconvenient aspect of India shows up, then news coverage either reduces it to political sensation or morphs to orchestrate middle-class outrage. Investigation and expose, when it happens, is because someone had a score to settle. Instead of agenda-setters, journalists have become handymen, well-paid but increasingly adrift from the craft and ethics of their trade.
So where does that leave news as we knew it—you know, the story followed for its objective worth? The one based on verified fact and authentic source? That required legwork, questioning and research? That explored the human condition outside of the middle-class consumer bubble? That connected citizen with state?
Such a vision wasn’t so implausible in 1982. That year, while Samir was taking over TOI in Mumbai, the Telegraph was launching in Calcutta. I was 20 and all set to change the world. I had done some thinking, and had concluded that journalism was the most noble calling there could be. If you were intensely curious, concerned about what ailed your country, wanted to make a difference, were intrigued by why things happened and people behaved as they did, preferred to see things for yourself, and revelled in the elegance of connecting word with fact, passion and thought, then journalism alone was it. And in 1982 there were genuine heroes—Arun Shourie, M.J. Akbar, Aroon Purie, Vinod Mehta and S.P. Singh comprised a new generation of editors who had been blooded during the Emergency, and were now shaking the Indian press out of its stodginess with a new investigative, irreverent, attractively packaged journalism.
His Dancing Shoes: M.J. as editor of the Telegraph in his room at the ABP House in Calcutta, 1983. (Photograph by Anand Bazar Patrika)
Akbar launched the Telegraph with a handful of experienced colleagues and 40 wide-eyed kids. With breathtaking audacity, we took on the venerable Statesman, a newspaper generations of Calcuttans had grown up on and which was basking in the afterglow of its heroic stand during the Emergency. And what heady days those were. Akbar—choleric, foul-mouthed, intimidating, inspirational, genius—enabled those of us who could survive his high-stress style to live every ideal. Pursuing the story because it was a story and with no other interest, we investigated crime mafias, exposed government wrongdoing, travelled to fields and slums, and reported in a vivid, urgent manner the big events of the time: terrorism and separatism in Punjab, civil war in Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi’s cynical politics, elections, riots, excesses by the state, assassination. The Telegraph was India’s first modern newspaper, speaking to its readers with a refreshing modular design, a strong emphasis on features, coverage of topics beyond politics, and a willingness to defy convention. Who can forget Akbar’s immortal headline: “Indira Gandhi Shot Dead, Nation Wounded”.
It was too good to last. Carried away by his own stardom and political ambition, Akbar subverted the paper to ingratiate himself with Rajiv Gandhi. Meanwhile, Samir was luring journalists to TOI (in Delhi) where he needed fresh blood to dislodge the editors he had inherited. I spent a desultory year there, observing from the middle ranks the big changes under way at BCCL.
The senior editorial team had an air of impotence, its discussions infused with second-guessing what management might want. Marketing managers clearly had more clout—each one’s worth could be measured in revenue numbers, but other than cartoonist R.K. Laxman, not even the most famous byline among the journalists could directly be linked to circulation figures. BCCL’s corporate interests tailored and constituted news. While company-sponsored cultural events got coverage, there were explicit instructions, for instance, to underplay the death of a famed classical musician. Nostalgia and a sense of community were out, you see, because there was no longer a reader with whom you had a psychological connection, only a statistic.
I reported from Ayodhya in 1990 on a storming of the Babri Masjid, the police firing, the many deaths, the mayhem. After filing my story, I called my wife to let her know I was safe. While BCCL was raking in record profits, the accounts department refused to reimburse me the few rupees for that call. The expense statement went all the way up to the general manager, who did not approve. On another occasion, a colleague covering an election in a sprawling constituency had his taxi bill turned down on the ground that he could have used a rickshaw. That epitomised the contempt for the newsgathering process of a paper that the BBC mysteriously certified as one of the world’s six greatest.
As a tribe we were still self-deluded. “How can you leave the best address in Indian journalism?” senior colleagues asked in surprise when I quit TOI for the uncertainties of the Pioneer. There, Vinod Mehta bravely created a space where we could still practise professional journalism. It was a welcome prolonging of innocence.
Gentleman-businessman: Aveek Sarkar, the proprietor of the Telegraph, had a reputation of being an editor first. (Photograph by Indiatoday Images)
Aveek Sarkar, proprietor of the Telegraph, persuaded me to return to Calcutta in late 1993 as his deputy editor. Aveek had the reputation of being the best proprietor to work for because of his endearing self-image, at least in those days; that he was an editor first and businessman second. The Telegraph was just over 10 years old, and was now nipping at the heels of the Statesman. It needed a final push. And there was a potential threat: Akbar was back in town, launching his own paper, the Asian Age. In a great example of how I think editorial and marketing teams can work together, Aveek, the ABP’s senior managers and I revamped the paper with a new set of daily feature sections focused on assessed reader needs, expanded pagination, a redesign, technology upgrade, and yes, investment in the training of our younger journalists. The Asian Age never took off, and in 1995, the Telegraph went past the Statesman.
It is safe to say that the Telegraph defeated the Statesman with its editorial package—unlike the fierce battle in Delhi, where TOI took on the Hindustan Times (HT) on the basis of a price war and marketing gimmicks. But Samir’s mouthwatering commercial success made his formula contagious. Aveek at ABP, Shobhana at HT, and a savvy new generation of regional media proprietors all adopted his model.
To Market, To Market: Faced with a ruthless onslaught from TOI, HT’ S Shobhana Bhartia replicated her adversary. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)
Through the mid-’90s, I observed the ABP management’s snobbery about Samir’s methods turn to grudging admiration, then sheer awe. The Telegraph now went in for the kill. Pandering to the new dictum that news must only entertain, I colluded in trivialising the front page. My greatest day of regret was one of the Telegraph’s best days of sale: a front-page banner headline I wrote during the 1996 cricket World Cup that screamed, “India Forces Pak to Surrender”. The headline could not have been any different or any bigger had it been a story on an actual war. The internal equations quickly shifted. The marketing department, represented by an empowered executive, was now directly advising Aveek on editorial strategy, while he reduced the stature of the editorial side by slicing the paper into sections to be managed by departmental editors. Branding events replaced newsroom initiatives as the means to expand readership, and advertiser imperatives routinely trumped over editorial sensitivities.
Instead of looking at the many aspects of an unequal nation in transition, the media indulged in petty deceit.
Shobhana had offered me the executive editorship of HT in 1996, which I had turned down for no other reason than Calcutta hubris. Now, in 1998, she asked me to edit her Sunday edition. Shobhana faced a ruthless onslaught from TOI even while contending with an entrenched bureaucracy, active unions, and much else internally. Her response was to replicate whatever TOI did, editorially or marketing-wise, so that very quickly there was little to differentiate the two papers except that TOI moved first. Shobhana, however, was gentler on her journalists and lacked, at the time, a well-oiled marketing department; this meant that I could push the envelope with the Sunday paper as long as I kept clear of the family’s traditional holy cows.
Say Cheese: Vir Sanghvi, left, with Samir Jain of TOI at the 75th anniversary celebrations of HT in 1999. (Photograph by Gireesh G.V.)
Then she brought in Vir Sanghvi as chief. Not a newspaperman, his career had been built around his access to Delhi and Mumbai’s A-listers, his celebrity talk show, and his column that delectably celebrated wines, cheeses, fine food, glamour and power. This was possibly Shobhana’s counter to the BCCL’s marketing arsenal, and her hope presumably was that Vir would attract high-end readers for high-end advertisers.
By now I was marking time. The space to practise genuine journalism depended too much on quirk of circumstance—a momentarily benevolent proprietor, or refuge in a niche not yet in the sights of the marketers. The choices were to swim with the tide, go guerrilla like Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka, or opt out. When an opportunity came, I withdrew—from the Indian media, but not from the attributes that made me a journalist. I am now more deeply immersed than before in the intersection of development, public policy and current issues, but free of the tyranny of the 500-word limit and the shrill headline. I am still the journalist, using my skills to assess political risk and stakeholder concerns in order to help improve the quality of development projects.
The Indian media has expanded exponentially—newspapers have opened editions all over, TV and cable have taken off, the web and social media are in. In a booming sector of a blossoming economy, proprietors would have made their money anyway. All the more tragic then that they had the most exciting, saleable story on their hands, but have missed it entirely: this unique historical moment when India is at once a rising power and a poor, misgoverned country. Instead of examining, probing and deliberating on the many fascinating aspects of an unequal nation in bold transition, they indulged in petty deceit of their public. (‘Consumers’, I firmly believe, never ceased being citizens, and have craved credible explanation and context; just load those market surveys with the right questions!) Nifty marketing of quality journalism—what a winner that would have been.