Published on 4 October 2015
Updated 12 March 2022
With the growth in population, literacy rate and disposable income, the circulation of newspapers has zoomed in the last two decades, especially those published in the Indian languages. It is not rare for chain newspapers to claim a daily circulation is excess of a million copies. A newspaper selling less than a hundred thousand copies is considered a small daily now-a-days.
The paradox is that even as the newspapers’ circulation is increasing, their influence is decreasing. Journalists realise that their writings or broadcast do not command the same impact that they would, say, two decades ago. The respect for printed words has gone down. Certain developments have changed public perception about the Fourth Estate.
- Journalists were caught with their pants down on several occasions, especially when they are expected to stand up to the powers that be. It happened first during the Emergency. And readers have seen it happening, again, during the Covid pandemic.
- 24-hour news channels took dumbing down of journalism to a new low, wiping off all pretentions of intellectual pursuit. It looks so cheap that even tabloid journalism would blush.
- The credibility of media, its most valuable asset, took a body blow with the advent of paid news. Corporate lobbyist Niira Radia’s tapes proved final nail in the coffin. People listened to, as a commentator described it later, “in morbid fascination, her seductive, threatening, charming and cajoling voice in flagrante delicto with the who’s who of Indian journalism”.
Respect for media
Not long back, even newspapers and magazines with relatively smaller circulation were capable of changing the course of public discourse. Respectable magazines like Economic & Political Weekly and Seminar commanded influence far disproportionate to their small circulation.
Three decades ago, I was the State correspondent for Indian Express, based in Bhopal. The newspaper used to sell a measly 1,900 copies even in the golden Arun Shourie era. Yet, a single report in the daily was enough to make an errant minister lose his job.
Congress leader Hazarilal Raghuvanshi told me once that he lost his job as the Home Minister of Madhya Pradesh because of one report in the Express — at least that is what then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told him.
Even two decades ago, a small paragraph tucked away on page 124 of India Today, for which I was working then, was enough to cause ripples in the corridors of power.
Resorting to gimmicks
Unable to recreate that magic, desperate media houses are resorting to all kind of gimmicks to reclaim the lost ground. There are now specialised departments to generate and gauge impact of the editorial content. News is advertised on electronic and digital media, accompanied by obscene chest-thumping. It is not uncommon for newspaper managements, unsure of their own influence, to ask the reporters to post their stories on social media sites and tweet about it.
The problem is that media houses want not only impact, but impact among a particular class of readers. The media houses want to capture the affluent and young readers. They believe that those who are able to capture the maximum eyeballs of category A readers will walk away with the largest chunk of advertisements.
India Today group launched Mail Today, now defunct, a decade ago. The management had clearly told the sales department that they should avoid the down-market east Delhi and focus only on affluent central and south Delhi. This was what a former Editorial Director of the group told me.
I receive almost 14-15 newspapers every day at my home in Bhopal. I buy only a few of them. Most are supplied free. I live in an area that is heavily populated by ministers and senior government officers. Like me, many of the houses in the locality receive these free newspapers. They are distributed free in the hope that if the ruling politicians or the officers would read their newspapers, its content will have a better impact.
The hunt for the eyeballs of the rich and influential people has resulted in media’s disproportionate obsession with the lives of the upper middle class. The Indian language newspapers, specially, try to outdo each other in catering to the affluent classes.
A cracked mirror
As a result, Indian media today presents a grotesque picture of the society that it serves, far removed from its harsh realities. The 276 million poor inhabiting this country, those at the bottom of the economic and social ladder are also marginalised in the media. These are the people who are not newspaper readers. These are the people who are on the other side of the digital divide.
The managements think that their lives, their problems are not sexy enough to sell newspaper among their upwardly mobile young readers, high on the adrenaline of money-making. As for news networks, they have metamorphosed as an arm of the entertainment industry in India.
Arun Shourie, as Executive Editor of Indian Express, launched a massive campaign in the 80s to help free lakhs of underprivileged undertrials who were languishing in our prisons for decades because they were too poor to afford legal help. Poor women are bought and sold like cattle. Shourie could shake the consciousness of the rich by telling them that a woman commanded less price than a buffalo.
The media, probably as a result of its guilt, has taken to shouting from the roof top about its social responsibilities. It leaves no stone unturned to prove that it takes its responsibility to the society seriously. It is prone to launching high-decibel campaigns from time to time to tie up with its readers, as advised by their marketing strategist. Naturally, all these campaigns steer clear of controversies and cater to the sensibilities of the middle classes.
So, we have campaigns to save water, save environment, save tiger etc. To establish their organisations’ social credentials, journalists can be seen distributing plants to make cities greener, and handing out earthenware to provide drinking water to the birds in the summer, teaming up with traffic cops to force motor-cyclists to wear helmets, collecting donations for victims of flood or earthquake. Once I saw an Editor of Patrika singing patriotic songs with aplomb in the streets of Raipur.
Who is responsible?
Who is responsible for this shrinking space for the poor and their lives in the media? Talk to the senior journalists responsible for content of the newspapers, and they are quick to point an accusing finger at their managements.
I beg to disagree.
It is true that the face of journalism has changed vastly. It is true that journalism is governed by market forces. It is true that newspaper managements have their own priorities and ideas about what they want get published. But I never faced much problem in carrying these “down market” reports.
And mind it, I was not part of the alterative journalism set. In my career spanning four decades I was very much part of the corporate media houses —- Hindustan Times, Indian Express, Dainik Bhaskar and India Today.
An editor gets the freedom that he deserves. One has to fight for it.
Published on 4 October 2015
Updated 12 March 2022