July 25, 2020
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Unfounded Rumours Of A Death

The magazine is what led the way. Even newspapers learned from them. And those who like to read magazines will keep them alive.

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Unfounded Rumours Of A Death
Narendra Bisht
Unfounded Rumours Of A Death

Courtesy: Bhawan Singh
In this era of noisy TV debates, “breaking news” and “exclusives” that appear simultaneously on every channel, we sometimes forget that at the head of modern Indian journalism is the magazine. I would go so far as to say that without magazines, there would be no real journalism as we know it and no journalistic icons.

If you don’t believe me, just consider this roll-call of the most celebrated Indian journalists of the last four decades and the magazines that made them famous: Khushwant Singh (The Illustrated Weekly); Aroon Purie (India Today); Vinod Mehta (Debonair and then Outlook); Radhika Roy (who was at the very heart of India Today before she set up NDTV); Shekhar Gupta (Indian Express, India Today, and then again Indian Express); T.N. Ninan (India Today); Shobhaa De (Stardust and then Society); M.J. Akbar (Sunday); Sanjoy Narayan (who came to the Hindustan Times after many years at Business Today); Pritish Nandy (The Illustrated Weekly); Anil Dharker (Debonair and then The Illustrated Weekly); Tarun Tejpal (India Today, Outlook and Tehelka); and many, many more. (This is a random list; apologies to all those I have missed out.)

To understand how important the magazine has been to Indian journalism, you must first recognise how godawful our newspapers were. Hard as this is to believe, it wasn’t till the late 1980s that Indian newspapers even aspired to be world-class. Till that point, the vast majority were poorly written. (Criminals were always “miscreants”; ministers never travelled, they “air-dashed”; “youngmen” was one word, and the cliches jumped up to greet you each time you looked at page one. “Thundershowers” always “heralded the arrival of the monsoon”. Nobody died, every dead person always “breathed his last”. And after every riot, “the situation was reported to be tense”.)

It wasn’t till the late 1980s that Indian newspapers started trying to raise themselves from their stodgy style and insipid reporting.

Nor was there any news in the papers. One reason why nobody minded how terrible All India Radio was because newspapers were no better. Anything the prime minister said, no matter how banal, rated a page-one headline. The inside pages were full of crime stories as handed over by the police spokesman. And often it was hard to tell the handouts from the Press Information Bureau from the news we read in our papers.

This is not to say that there were no giants in the newspaper business. There certainly were: men like S. Mulgaonkar, Girilal Jain, Sham Lal, Frank Moraes and many others. But the way it worked was this: the great editors, with their convent (or public) school educations would sit in their cabins and pontificate magisterially on the edit page. Hours would go in discussing what line the paper should take on the French presidential election in the next day’s leader. And then, when the oracles had dictated their words of wisdom to their loyal stenographers, they would go home—by 5 pm, usually.

As for the news, oh well, that was the prerogative of lowly folk: reporters, news editors and the like. The great leader writers hadn’t attended tutorials at Balliol and King’s to hang around with these guys. So when the editors read the papers the next day, the front pages were as novel to them as they were to the average reader. They simply had no clue what the news was going to be.

Big hits Cricket, religion, communities—these have always been cover material

There were glorious exceptions, of course, reporters who became editors, men like Kuldip Nayar and Inder Malhotra, but they were not part of the Oxbridge elite that occupied the top jobs. Most had to struggle to become editor-in-chief of their papers and were always the subject of snide remarks. (“Have you read his raw copy? I think the fellow should carry a sub-editor around in his briefcase.”)

It’s foolish to complain that the press crawled during the Emergency. The Oxbridge-type editors quickly accepted that it brought discipline.

There is a celebrated story (which could be true, I think) about a famous editor of the Times of India who ran into a very well-informed man at a function. Intrigued by the man’s knowledge, he asked him, “You seem to know a lot? What do you do?” “You don’t know me, Sir,” the man replied, “but I am your chief reporter.”

It is fitting, in a sense, that we should be celebrating magazines in the year that marks the 40th anniversary of the Emergency. I think it’s fitting, because it was the Emergency that finished off old-style newspaper journalism (though the papers themselves took ano­ther decade to adapt.)

It is foolish to complain that the press crawled when it was asked to bend (to borrow L.K. Advani’s celebrated phrase). Given the way newspapers worked in that era, there was never any doubt that editors would toe the line. The Oxbridge types and the leader writers quickly accepted that “the Emergency has ushered in an era of discipline”.  Only a few, chiefly those who had risen from the ranks (Kuldip Nayar, for instance) defied the orthodoxy and went to jail. And among the proprietors, only those with an expressly political agenda (such as Ramnath Goenka of the Indian Express) dared risk everything to fight Mrs Gandhi.

But if the Emergency marked a low for the press, then the post-Emergency period marked a resurgence. The Indian Express  had its revenge on the Congress (and Kuldip Nayar went on to write a best-selling book about the Emergency) but the task of rep­orting what went on during that era fell to a new generation of magazines: Sunday, India Today, Outlook and so many others.

The new generation of editors who took charge of newspapers were completely hands-on. They wrote headlines, even checked pages.

Not only were most of these publications edited by people who disregarded the old distinctions between well-educated editors and lowly-paid reporters, but the new generation of editors were completely hands-on. They wrote headlines. They checked pages before the magazines went to the press. And they were obsessed with quality. The cliches dried up. The poor English began to disappear. And the benchmark came not from our sad little papers but from international publications: Time, Esquire, Newsweek, the Economist and the like. It helped that the Janata regime, which followed Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency government, could have been designed by a cartoonist.  Ministers fought openly in public; many were jokers and buffoons; and every day, there was a new scandal to cover. So when newspapers tell you that they are a century old or whatever, smile politely but pay no attention. The truth is that modern Indian journalism was only born in 1977. And the magazines were its parents.

Because magazines transformed political journalism in the late 1970s, we sometimes forget that there were other kinds of journalism too. In the 1950s and for part of the 1960s, the Times of India was run by an extremely powerful (though now-largely forgotten) man called J.C. Jain (no relation to the owners). Stories of J.C. Jain’s dictatorial tendencies were legendary in those days, but they were whispered behind his back because he was so feared by his journalists in that era. JC was a dapper and polished fellow who was widely regarded as a ladies man and an urban sophisticate. At some stage, he decided he would take the Times Group into the magazine business. He launched India’s first proper women’s magazine and called it Femina, apparently after an Italian magazine he saw on a visit to Rome, which may explain the strange name. He also fell in love with the film industry and created both Filmfare and then, the Filmfare awards. Jealous journalists said that this was because JC wanted to meet actresses (such foul slander!) and was starlet-struck. Say what you like, but Filmfare was an instant success, offering the industry an established alternative to Baburao Patel’s scurrilous Film India. (After Filmfare took off, Patel, a dedicated ‘Hindu nationalist’, bravely turned his magazine into Mother India, offering a Hindu view of the world and predating Narendra Modi’s Gujarati Hindutva by over half a century).

Light bulb man Khushwant Singh, editor of the Illustrated Weekly, with writer Ved Mehta. (Photograph by The Times Of India)

For as long as he ran the Times, JC was king of Bombay and of filmdom. He even visited Hollywood and was received by the stars, leading envious journalists, who could make fun of JC only on the basis of his very high-pitched voice, to make up wicked stories about his visit. There were jokes aplenty.

(OK, so you want to hear them. Well, according to one, JC met Johnny Weissmuller on the sets of Tarzan Goes To New York. “I’m Jain”, he told Weissmuller, who was still in full loincloth costume. “That’s okay” the actor replied, “I’m Tarzan.” Or this one. JC bumped into Lauren Bacall, a statuesque star in a fur coat who was smoking a cigar. “Tell me, Madam,” said JC flirtatiously, “have you ever been mistaken for a man?” Bacall blew smoke in his face. “No,” she said throatily. “Have you?” Lies. Such lies!)

Eve’s Weekly, a Femina rip-off, and Star & Style, a nastier version of Filmfare, were the creations of J.C. Jain after he’d left the Times.

JC squabbled with the Times and left to start two rip-offs. Eve’s Weekly (a Femina clone) and Star and Style, a nastier version of Filmfare whose star was the columnist Devyani Chaubal, who went on to scandals of her own, including an intense relationship with Rajesh Khanna and the startling claim that Dharmendra had once exposed himself to her. (He denied it, needless to say.)

But film magazines only took off in a big way when Nari Hira, the head of an ad agency called Creative Unit, persuaded a former ex-model and copywriter called Shobha Rajadhyaksha to start a film gossip magazine with him called Stardust. In my view, India Today and Stardust were the two most influential Indian magazines of the 20th century. Because, unlike JC, who actually liked being popular with stars and starlets, Hira and Shobha did not give a damn about what the stars thought, so they went for the jugular, month after month. They printed gossip that the whole industry knew about but which never made it to print because of a code of omerta.

More significantly, they invented a language of their own. Stars got Hindi-English nicknames. Dharmedra was Garam Dharam. Shatrughan was Shotgun or (less kindly) Double-Bore. The plump Yogeeta Bali was Asli Ghee. And the gossip column Neeta’s Natter, which Hira and Shobha wrote, based on gossip from such hard-core film journos as the late Mohan Bawa (they didn’t know any gossip themselves, so it had to come from film journos who were too timid to use what they knew under their own bylines) made such phrases as “from one cat to another” part of the vernacular of college girls in the 1970s and 1908s.  Stardust had its imitators, so by the 1980s, Hira and Shobha launched Society, creating India’s first people magazine. (It was going to be called High Society, till Hira discovered that there was already an American magazine of that name!) Both Stardust and Society created a formula that has been widely copied, but decades later, they are still around and both Hira and Shobha (now Shobhaa De) remain at the pinnacle of the profession.

JC the MC The Filmfare Awards in 1958, with J.C. Jain speaking. Dev Anand, Vyjanthimala and Nalini Jaywant look suitably bored. (Photograph by The Times Of India)

Nearly 30 years ago, when I became editor of Sunday, one of the first articles a well-wisher sent me was a piece from an American journalistic publication headlined ‘The Newsmagazine: Is The Species Doomed’. It made the gloomy predictions that are still current today: nobody cares about newsmagazines; they will all die etc.

Magazines, it must be said, benefited from a certain class that liked them because they didn’t want to plough through newspapers daily.

I laughed off all those gloomy prognostications in public. But in private, I began to worry. I went to New York, visited the offices of Newsweek (then, as pretty much always, on the brink of bankruptcy) and Time (prosperous, cheerful and upholding Timothy Crouse’s 1973 dictum: “If you swapped the senior editors of Time with the board of Citibank, nobody would be able to tell the difference—at either place”). My sense was that the American newsmagazines were okay for the next decade or so (at least). But I thought we had a problem in India.

My fear was that newspaper proprietors had woken up to the fact that their papers were pathetic and decided that they would begin to steal talent and ideas from the magazine sector. That is pretty much what happened. T.N. Ninan revamped the Economic Times and created the modern Indian business paper; Shekhar Gupta went off to the Indian Express; Vinod Mehta went from newspaper to newspaper (before returning to the format he understood best), Pritish Nandy went to the Observer group and so on. (It took me a little longer, but by 1999, I went off to the Hindustan Times.) Once that hapened, the newspapers got bigger and better. The journalism improved and so did the presentation. And magazines ceased to be islands of excellence.

Faded paper Bombay was from the India Today Group; Surya was edited by Maneka Gandhi

There was a second factor. In 1978, when Aroon Purie planned Bombay magazine (and made me the editor), he had offered a sound commercial calculation. More and more products were flooding the shelves, and advertisers were looking for media that offered scope for colour advertising. But, by the end of the 1980s, it was clear that newspapers would soon go all-colour. Would magazines still seem as attractive to advertisers when they could access the larger circulations—and one might say the size—of daily newspapers?

There was a final worry. Though my peers hated me for saying this, I genuinely bel­ieved that newsmagazines had benefited from the growth of a new middle class. These were people who had grown up in homes where nobody read newspapers every morning. They liked newsmagazines because they allowed them to seem well-inf­ormed without having to plough through a paper every day.

Just as people who like books haven’t stopped reading them, those who like magazines will continue to read them, in print or on tablets.

My view was that this class would increase in number as economic growth rates went up. But given that they did not like reading anyway, wouldn’t they eventually give newsmagazines a miss and just watch television to gather what they needed to know? That way they would seem well-informed without having to read anything!

As time went on, I became worried about a new phenomenon. Magazines need to charge high cover prices to break even. But the economics of the Indian newspaper business are such that publishers charge ridiculously low prices for their papers (they virtually give them away) and make their money from advertising. So, in an environment where TV news was more or less free as were newspapers, would people still be willing to pay good money for magazines?

All these fears dated from a pre-internet era. My feeling was that magazines were already at risk long before smartphones, tablets and other handy devices became India’s preferred way of accessing the internet. So what happens now? Is the party really over? The short answer is that nobody knows. But I have some theories.

My guess is that the internet represents a greater threat to newspapers than it does to magazines. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just look at the West, where so many great papers have either closed down or are struggling to survive. Alternatively, examine your own behaviour. Is there anything you read in the paper in the morning that you don’t know already? Even the shouty-fighty kind of news TV we have in India manages to communicate everything we want to know. And as for opinion pieces, don’t you get an overdose of opinion on TV every night anyway?

New rules Stardust, from the Nari Hira stable, took on Filmfare by using a new ‘language’ of its own

If that doesn’t convince you, look at the behaviour of younger people. How many of them read the paper religiously every morning? How many of them have news alerts on their phones? Don’t they know everything they need to know in real time?

So the newspapers are in trouble. And my guess is that eventually people will get fed up of this WWE-style of TV where nobody bothers to report anything and the same 25 people go from channel to channel saying the same things (usually in the same evening!).

Fifty years ago, Paul Simon sang ‘I get all the news I need on the weather report’. One just has to substitute “smartphone” for “weather report” and we get where we are headed. As broadband speeds increase and new technologies kick in, we will access video on demand on our phones wherever we are. We don’t need papers. And the shouty-fighty TV shows will go the way of WWE—it is still around but it is hardly the popular phenomenon it once was.

Two forms of traditional media will, I think, make the transition to new technologies. The first is the book. People who like books still want to read them. Journalists may be losing their jobs but E.L. James, Chetan Bhagat and Amish are making new fortunes. People may read their books on their iPads or their Kindles or tablets. But they do read them. I’ll give you an example from personal experience. I had a book out a few months ago. And while many people tweeted their frustrations about distribution to me, the happiest tweets came from a surprisingly large number of readers who had either bought it online or read it on Kindle or similar devices.

Call me naive. But I think the same sort of thing is happening to magazines. The core magazine reader is a person who likes reading. (If you’ve got this far into this piece, then you are one of those people). He wants more than just the news in bullet points. He or she wants anecdotes, colour, detail, analysis, sober reflection and a sense of depth—all things that you can’t get on TV or in Indian newspapers.

Perhaps some people will prefer to read their magazines on paper. And perhaps some of them will read them on tablets or other devices. But just as people who read books have demonstrated that they are not ready to give them up, so people who like reading magazine pieces will stick with them. Yes, the magazines that are badly-written summaries of the news will die out. But those that interpret our world with style, ins­ight and readability will flourish.

Technology changes the way we access things. But it does not necessarily change the things we like. And so a glorious magazine tradition that goes back decades will metamorphose and shape-shift. But as long as there are people who can read without moving their lips, magazine journalism will never die.

Vir Sanghvi, columnist and senior journalist, has reported for India Today, edited the iconic Sunday magazine and later the Hindustan Times. He has also hosted talk shows on TV. He’s the author of Mandate: Will of the People.

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