Just a few days ago HT Media, publishers of The Hindustan Times, closed down four editions and three bureaus. Some websites reported that the Anand Bazar Patrika group was planning shutdown of some units too. Are these early intimations that the print media in India, like its Western counterparts, is entering the twilight zone?
Let us not rush to a conclusion. Indian media owners and their managers have made many erratic movements in the past. They have closed and reopened editions for a variety of reasons. In the early 1950's the Times of India ventured into Kolkata only to make a hasty retreat on the 31st day, realizing that city was not ready yet to welcome it. In the late 1980's it launched an edition in Jaipur, abandoned it a few years later and revived it still later. The Indian Express once closed down the edition in its birthplace, Chennai, and served its readers there from the Andhra Pradesh town of Chittoor, 160 km away. That was done to teach the employees who had gone on strike a hard lesson.
The HT editions that have closed down are the ones at Kolkata, Bhopal, Indore and Ranchi and the bureaus those at Allahabad, Kanpur and Varanasi. Media managements rarely tell their readers or even the staff the reasons for closures. HT Media has reportedly mentioned two reasons for the latest closures. One is the massive investments it has made in its digitization programme and the other is the impact of demonetization.
On the digital front, too, HT Media has an erratic record. It entered the dotcom business early with a website go4i.com dedicated to the south, which was beyond the reach of its newspapers. Unable to sustain it, the company pulled out quickly.
If demonetization has impacted the media adversely, it should have hurt the less resourceful newspapers more than HT Media, a listed media company which had an income of over Rs 24.57 billion in 2015, the last financial year for which data is available. But there is no report of any small or medium newspaper closing down as a result of the currency curbs.
Election time is a good time for all media. Newspaper circulations keep rising as the political scene hots up and the trend continues until the votes are counted and a new government is installed. Yet HT Media has chosen to close three bureaus in UP when the state goes to the polls, along with neighbouring Uttarakhand which was its part not too long ago.
All these call into question the rationale behind the HT Group’s move. But, then, in the current phase of technology-driven changes our newspapers, especially those in the big league, have not exactly crowned themselves with glory. They have been slow in taking to new technology.
While in the US to attend a seminar organized by the American Press Institute in 1970, this writer spent a week at the Associated Press’s newly computerized Atlanta bureau and the Minneapolis Tribune which had switched over from hot metal and rotary printing to cold metal and offset printing. On my return I tried to impress upon the management of United News of India, with which I was then associated, the need to go in for computerization. “Who will put in the money?” asked G.G. Mirchandani, the Editor and General Manager. “No newspaper will pay us a penny more because we have computerized,” he added. He was right. I could only tell him, “If we fail to upgrade technologically, we will become a back number”.
I assumed the Government’s highly restrictive import policy was the main stumbling block in the way of modernization of newspaper production. The Registrar of Newspapers for India was the designated officer on whose recommendation the Commerce Ministry gave licences for import of newspaper machinery. I told the RNI, who was a personal friend, about the changes taking place in the newspaper industry elsewhere. “You are killing our newspapers by not letting them get new machinery,” I said. He laughed off the allegation and narrated his experience. The Commerce Ministry referred to him two applications for licences to import phototypesetting machines. Both were from commercial printers, not newspaper companies. He held on to those applications and contacted the managements of The Hindustan Times, The Times of India, The Statesman and The Indian Express and asked whether they did not want these machines. None of them wanted them.
He explained his understanding of why they were not interested in new technology. They were chains with many units. Simultaneous switch-over at all centres would mean a huge investment. They felt no compelling need to embrace new technology at a heavy cost.
K.P.P. Nambiar, who headed the Kerala State Electronic Corporation in the 1970's, learnt about the work on newspaper pagination in the West and toyed with the idea of developing a system for Indian newspapers at a much lower cost than the imported product. He placed the idea with great enthusiasm before the leading newspapers. There were no takers.
The Electronic Corporation of India, Hyderabad, developed a machine which can transmit photos over telephone lines. The big newspapers showed no interest in it. The Rajasthan Patrika bought a set and used it to transmit photographs from its New Delhi bureau to the newsroom in Jaipur.
If the media had evinced an interest in the offerings of ECIL and Keltron and the Government had the vision to support them on the research and development side, the newspaper industry, the electronics industry and the country may well have benefited.
The big newspapers adopted the new technology only when they found that small and medium newspapers had taken to it and improved their competitive ability. Udayavani, a new Kannada daily launched by the Pais of Manipal in the early 1970's, was the first Indian newspaper to typeset matter using phototypesetting machines and print by offset process.
In the next stage, that of computerization, too, small and medium enterprises took the first steps. All newspapers, big and small, have now got on to the digital platform but a close study will show that they are not making optimum use of the immense possibilities the new technology has opened up. And the technology is still evolving.
According to published reports, the HT Media closures have rendered about 1,000 persons, journalists and non-journalists, jobless. There are reports that the Bennett Coleman and Co Ltd, publishers of The Times of India – with a reported income of Rs 87.78 billion in FY2015 it is the country’s largest media company – has frozen recruitment and is planning salary cuts. In 2009 it had effected salary cuts in the name of the global meltdown. Now there is a handy excuse in demonetization.
HT Media’s website statement on career prospects adds insult to the injury caused to those who have been thrown out of job. “Media is the sunrise sector and is poised for growth,” it says. “The brand HT Media is a force to reckon with. With a growth rate of 39 per cent, HT Media is the place to avail opportunities and add dimensions to one’s career spectrum.”
( The author is a senior journalist and media critic)