How does one know what the nation thinks? By reading newspapers, of course. But which newspapers? Do English-language newspapers really reflect the views of the ordinary Indian citizen? But then who represents the ?ordinary Indian citizen?? The CEO who reads The Times of India which calls itself the newspaper with the highest sales in the world? The half-a-million people who read Hindustan Times in Delhi? According to IRS findings, Hindustan Times leads its nearest rival (guess who) by 3.48 lakh readers with NRS claiming that the lead is as large as 3.98 lakh.
The Chennai-based The Hindu is not in the circulation war but it probably has the most politically sophisticated readership in the country. But they are all English language papers. Does anybody know that in Tamil Nadu over 1.7 million copies of Tamil language papers are sold every day as well as two million copies of magazines? Or that in the last 25 years Malayalam newspapers have been reaching out to 30 lakh readers as against two lakh readers of English newspapers?
Newspapers in Hindi are doing even better. Ask managements of newspapers like Dainik Jagran. Earlier in October, at a seminar organised by the Media Development Foundation and the Australian High Commission in Chennai the question was asked whether the exponential growth of Indian regional language newspapers indicated the vibrancy of the idea of nationhood. Were they vulnerable to the cannibalism of the market place and the vagaries of advertisement revenue? What was their role, relevance and future in an increasingly competitive global market?
What the seminar in the course of discussion found was that, whichever way one looked at it, the newspaper revolution happening in India?with newspapers in 10 different scripts and 13 major languages?was unparalleled anywhere else. As one of the participants in the seminar, Prof Robin Jeffrey, of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University, Australia, saw it, for the past 30 years, the Indian regional language newspapers have provided the hinges for the idea of a nation.
Between 1976 and 2001 newspaper penetration in India trebled and daily circulation of newspapers increased six-fold. In 2005 advertisement spent in the print media exceeded $ 2,000 million?which is hard to believe. The daily circulation of newspapers saw a steep rise even during the 1990s when satellite television had begun to make rapid inroads. Obviously, for all the alleged popularity of television channels, newspapers still continue to sell and there is no substitute for them even when television is rapidly closing the gap with the print media in terms of advertisement revenue and financial clout. What the seminar found was that despite a statistically modest reach, the internet is profoundly affecting journalistic practice. And as Shri N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu noted, issues such as tabloidisation of content, the role of market forces, the devaluing of editorial content and Rupert Murdoch-style price wars and rampant corruption are increasingly under examination.
Some of the points made at the seminar are worth close examination themselves. Thus, for example, Kumar Ketkar, Editor of Loksatta averred that journalism today is less concerned about making readers aware of critical global issues, and market forces have started instrumentalising a de-education process. In Australia, said Patrick Walters National Security Editor of The Australian, newspaper circulations were plummeting due to lack of patronage from young people. That, obviously, is not true of the young among readers in India. According to another Australian scholar, Paul Budde, the convergence among technologies (internet broadband and digital television) content (on-line, print, television, radio and video) and companies (IT and media) were likely to massively impact the future of journalism. Points raised by some other participants in the seminar merit attention. Thus Ashok Malik, Senior Editor of The Indian Express made the point that blog journalism was emerging as an alternative to the editorial content of newspapers and the issue of broad regulations and censorship/monitoring needed to be examined.
N. Murali, joint Managing Director of The Hindu felt that though India had emerged as one of the fastest growing media markets, the growth pattern was ?on the back of flimsy economics?. According to him, predatory price wars and excessive dependence on advertising revenue were disturbing the economic stability of newspapers and journalistic independence. As he put it: ?What is happening in the market place defies all logic and we need to return to sound business principles. Unless newspapers are priced right, the frenetic growth may not be sustainable.?
Chennai Resident Editor of The New Indian Express pointed out that the Indian media was going the American way, with news being increasingly doctored to suit advertisers. Kamalendra Kanwar noted, ? a steady erosion of journalistic freedom and trivialisation of content? necessitating safeguards. As Nalin Mehta of the School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University, Australia saw it, though television helped shape public agenda, the question of how much it had transformed the public sphere needed to be analysed. Ratings rate determined television content and as ratings represented only the urban trends, rural programming had been compromised.
And as Sashi Kumar, Chairman of the Media Development Foundation pointed out, the public sphere should be seen as a qualified and empowered entity and not the least common denominator of the populist mass base. There is no doubt that a lot of hard thinking is going on in media circles everywhere in the world. Journalism is now under the microscope. Is reporting anywhere strictly objective? Where does perception come in?
The Hindu (October 15) quoted Paul Krugman of the New York Times as saying that ?what we really need is political journalism based less on perception of personalities and more on actual facts?. In his regular column Krugman makes an interesting observation. As he put it: ?The big problem with political reporting based on character portraits is that there are no rules, no way for a reporter to be proved wrong. And that makes it all too easy for coverage to be shaped by what reporters feel they can safely say, rather than what they actually think or know?. Well said. Somebody in India must make a study of how our newspapers treat Narendra Modi. For some years now he has been demonised beyond all reasonable limits and many papers find it hard to accept that in the recent Ahmedabad municipal elections the BJP won a resounding victory over the Congress. One Bombay newspaper apparently was so upset that it did not even carry the news. So much for objectivity.