The Hindu is (or was) a conservative paper and, in a way, so are its readers, conservative. It must be the only paper in India which has a Reader'sEditor, a kind of ombudsman, to receive complaints and attend to them. Recently, a full page of the paper was given over to an advertisement. This, of course, is standard practice and many newspapers indulge in this to add revenues to their pockets. The reader may feel insulted, but the proprietors seldom care.
In recent times, first the Tiruchirapalli edition of The Hindu and then the Kerala and Andhra Pradesh editions carried full page advertisements on the front page, right below the masthead which infuriated many readers who sent complaints to the Readers? Editor.
One reader wrote: ?The Hindu is not a newspaper. It is a tradition. Please do not fall prey to the petty business field and reduce your value.? Another reader wrote: ?First it was a shock, then total shame.? A third reader wrote: ?Advertisements may be regular to you, but they should not annoy regular readers.? Yet another reader wrote: ?(This is ) sacrilege, meek surrender to crass commercial interests.? There were many other angry comments like this one: ?Compromising and trivialising the front page?gross deception?. even The Hindu has succumbed to market forces.?
The Reader'sEditor published all these representative comments in his regular daily column (January 7, 2008). He obviously checked with the management which merely said: ?It is a one-off event, perhaps once a year. All the newspapers in the country are doing this when the advertiser makes the move.? No doubt moved by the anger shown by readers, the Readers? Editor made his own remarks. He wrote: ?In balancing ethical and news values with commercial considerations, responsible newspapers walk the razor'sedge. For The Hindu the task is more difficult because of the sobriety and restraint that have, and continue to, set it apart. Against that background, a full-page ad on page 1 was certainly a departure and it is no surprise some readers were shocked. The reactions reveal the respect readers have for the paper. The addicts young and old, who expect altruism, find it hard to accept reality.?
Then there was a case of a condom advertisement that was in extremely poor taste and which was published on the back page of The Hindu Sunday magazine section. By any reckoning it was indecent, vulgar, shocking and very unlike the tradition of The Hindu. The comment of the Readers? Editor is interesting and even hints at his frustration. He writes: ?Personally, I felt the display was in a bad taste and thought the readers had a point. (Several readers had written to protest against the ad). The Advertisement department said it found (the ad) ?neither vulgar nor obscene and in tune with the changing times. Moreover the use of condoms needs to be popularised against the background of a high incidence of HIV/AIDS in the country.? Such poor excuse.
In the circumstances, one reader sought to know ? the standards adopted by The Hindu to classify between an advertisement, news and advertorial?. The Wikipedia definition of an advertorial is as follows: ?An advertisement in the form of an objective opinion editorial, and presentee in a printed publication usually designed to look like a legitimate and independent news story.? Was The Hindu submitting itself to this form of cheating? No, said the paper'sReaders? Editor, it doesn?t. He emphasised that there were no advertorials in the news pages. But what appeared in the sponsored supplements was not written by the paper'sstaff. And he added: ?The distinction between news and advertisements is the way they are separated with different type faces for each.? But the question remains: Does the reader realise this? Like The Times of India, The Hindu too has gone in for innovations. On December 8, 2007 it announced that within three days ?an innovative free tabloid of the paper'sgroup will be out on the streets of Chennai. ?Titled Ergo, the announcement said that it will ?offer a variety of news, views and entertainment for the ?work hard, partly harder? kind of young adults.?
Frankly, this is catering to a young audience, allegedly not much interested in serious news. The editor of Ergo, Karthik Subramaniam is quoted as saying: ?Ergo will also be much more than a tabloid. It will be a true 21st century media organisation.? It is to feature an extensive, interactive online portal that will host blogs, videos and podcasts to give readers a full multimedia news and entertainment experience. According to N.Ram, editor in-chief of The Hindu ?young readers think differently, live differently, feel differently and expect differently and newspapers today have to engage their audience, be relevant and absorbing, and also be fun.?
One suspects that fun is generally what Ergo seeks to provide. According to the announcement, Ergo will have a lot to offer to any young adult and will be of particular interest to IT professionals, discussing not only career perspectives, but even just the coolest gadgetry. The tabloid is to edited?or put together, as the phrase goes?by a young team most of whom are in their early 20s.
According to Ram, ?while it is by no means the first free sheet in the world, we think it has special characteristics as far as India is concerned.? The time has come, it would seem, for newspapers to differentiate between the needs of adults, the young and the IT specialists. One may, in the circumstances one day expect newspapers, or tabloids, devoted solely to the interests of the retired and of women. What is worrisome is that one should presume that IT specialists are an exclusive lot, not interested in what is going on not only in the world at large but in India, in their own home state and in their district or even their immediate surroundings. And, in any event, how many thousand IT specialists are there in Chennai or, for that matter, in other cities? Besides, what are supplements for, but to cater to special interests? Do we need an exclusive tabloid to cater to the young? Questions, questions.
Times are changing. The old style newspaper which was read by the entire family, from grandpa down to grandson seems pass?. We have entered into a Brave New World with segments adhering to different standards and different needs and a media only too willing to meet them. And, one might as well ask, why shouldn'tthe media do so? Business is business.