A great newspaper market

Trivialisation of news in India’s national English-language press hides larger trends that are overtaking the media world – taking news to the villages.

In the second most-populous nation state on the planet, the world of newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and the like – in short, the print media – epitomises the size and diversity of the country's billion-plus population. India's press reflects not just the plurality and heterogeneity of the country, but also the deep divisions that exist in its highly hierarchical society. On the one hand, without its many active presses India could hardly be described as a democracy at all. On the other hand, the country's print media portray some of the most crass, crude and commercial aspects of capitalist consumerism.

There are currently close to 60,000 publications of various kinds registered with the Registrar of Newspapers of India (RNI), which functions under the government's Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. Currently, 1900-odd daily newspapers are published in the country – 42 percent in Hindi, 8 percent in English and the rest, a full half, in dozens of other languages and dialects. The total annual advertising revenue earned by all newspapers in India totals around USD one billion. Until the early 1990s, the RNI's main tasks were to register names of publications, and to allocate then-scarce imported paper at subsidised rates. With imports of newsprint being subsequently deregulated, the RNI's role has diminished considerably over the past decade.

The Indian press includes a mind-boggling variety of publications, ranging from neighbourhood free-sheets, to school magazines, to massively read newspapers like the Times of India (TOI), which claims to be the world's most widely circulated English-language daily. But while all of the TOI's editions currently sell more than 1.2 million copies every day, there are at least ten other Indian dailies – none of them in English – that individually sell more daily copies than TOI. Such newspapers include the two largest Hindi dailies, Dainik Jagaran and Dainik Bhaskar, as well as the Malayala Manorama, the Thanthi, the Ananda Bazar Patrika (ABP) and the Eenadu. Not only do many of these newspapers print multiple editions from different locations, at least one, the Manorama, also prints outside of India, in West Asia. ABP, meanwhile, is not only the most widely circulated Bangla-language newspaper, but also has the distinction of being India's most widely read single-edition publication.

No city in the world publishes as many newspapers as does Delhi, with more than a dozen English dailies alone. Delhi's two largest English dailies, TOI and the Hindustan Times, account for roughly three-fourths of the total circulation of all English newspapers printed in the city. Why then do so many other newspapers exist in the capital, when quite a few evidently lose money? This may have something to do not just with individual or organisational egos, but also with the fact that many newspaper organisations are sitting on expensive land that was given to them decades ago by the government on long leases. In comparison to the revenue earned from printing publications, many of these newspapers make a significant return by simply renting out their premises.

All in the family

Despite its size and diversity, much of the Indian press is controlled by a handful of families. When five decades ago Jawaharlal Nehru talked about the "jute and steel press", he was referring to two families in particular: the Jain family, which controls Bennett, Coleman & Company Limited (BCCL), TOI's publisher and former jute millers; and the late Ramnath Goenka, who used to head the Indian Express group and who had made an aborted attempt in the late 1960s to control the Indian Iron & Steel Company. What Nehru was alluding to was that, at the time, publications were often a side business for newspaper proprietors, who would use their presses to lobby for their main business interests. Things have changed substantially since then.

At present, most of the families that control India's largest media conglomerates – the majority having moved beyond print to radio, television and the Internet – focus on media as their main activity. This transformation is due to the media as a whole having rapidly expanded in recent decades, often almost twice as quickly as has the country's economy. Some of the important family-dominated media organisations in India include the Madras-based Hindu group (controlled by the Kasturi family), the Living Media/India Today/Aaj Tak group (the Poorie family), the ABP group (Sarkars), the BCCL/TOI group (Jains), Dainik Jagran (Guptas) and Dainik Bhaskar (Agarwals). A notable exception to the exclusive media focus is the family that owns the Malayala Manorama group – the most widely circulated newspaper chain in Kerala – which also controls MRF, a tyre manufacturer.

As these large media organisations expand, they are increasingly challenging one another's market hegemonies. After the Hindustan Times (HT) successfully conducted its initial public offering of shares and, together with the upstart Daily News & Analysis (DNA), decided to compete headlong with the TOI on its Bombay home turf, Time magazine in 2005 described India as the world's "last great newspaper market".

While publications have, by themselves, become big business for these family-controlled conglomerates, the growing commercialisation of the press has brought with it constraints typical of market-driven journalism. These go beyond the influence exercised by large advertisers on editorial content, although that is still a crucial issue. Advertising revenue accounts for between 75 and 90 percent of the gross revenues of large media groups, thereby ensuring that a subscriber's payment has no relation to the cost of production.

Vanita Kohli Khandekar, a journalist who writes on the media, observed in her 2003 book The Indian Media Business: "It is routine for advertisers to pull out entire campaigns if there is even mildly objective reportage on them. It happens not necessarily to critical stories, but ones which analyze the financial performance of the company and report market perceptions of its weaknesses."

In the 1980s, after Sameer Jain became the executive head of BCCL, the rules of the Indian media game began to change. Besides initiating cutthroat cover-price competition, marketing was used creatively to make BCCL the most profitable media group in the country – it currently earns more profit than the rest of the publishing industry in the country put together. In the process, many believe a stiff price has been paid, by sacrificing good journalistic practices and ethical norms (see Himal August 2006, "The Times of India's final frontier"). With careful planning, newspapers like TOI and the Economic Times now focus exclusively on upper-crust readers. For the TOI owners, its readers are citizens of the 'Shining India', who want to read about luxury, entertainment and, not least, themselves.

Sell the news

This transformation is going back on a long and crucial history of the Indian press. A number of newspapers that are now into their second century of publication were integral to the country's freedom movement. For Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Nehru and many others, newspapers were the only means of spreading their messages to large numbers of people. During the 1950s and 1960s, a few publications (including Blitz weekly) had well-deserved reputations of taking on the establishment and exposing acts of corruption.

For the first and only time in the history of independent India, during the 19 months of Emergency in the mid-1970s, the Subcontinent saw its press severely censored by an oppressive state overseen by Indira Gandhi. Wiser with hindsight, her most ardent admirers would concede that press censorship was a major mistake, and one that contributed to her electoral defeat. Today's newspapers in India, however, deploy more subtle forms of censorship – those driven by the market, or by those in power who can bribe journalists with subsidised housing or lavish international junkets.

At the same time, media houses have become less censorious about what they are portraying as newsworthy. The media phenomenon that has perhaps caused the most outrage in recent times has been BCCL's 2003 decision to start a "paid content" service called Medianet, which, for a price, openly offers to send journalists to cover product launches or personality-related events. When competing newspapers pointed out the blatant violation of journalistic ethics implicit in such a practice, BCCL's bosses argued that such 'advertorials' were not appearing in TOI itself, but only in the city-specific colour supplements that highlight society trivia rather than hard news. There was another, more blatant justification of this practice. If public-relations firms are already 'bribing' journalists to ensure that coverage of their clients is carried, BCCL argued, what was wrong with eliminating the intermediary – in this instance, the PR agency.

Besides Medianet, BCCL has devised another 'innovative' marketing and PR strategy. In 2005, ten companies, including India-based Videocon and Kinetic Motors, allotted unknown amounts of equity shares to BCCL as part of a deal to enable these firms to receive discounts for advertising in TOI-owned media ventures. The number of companies said to have become part of the scheme has since gone up considerably, and many observers say the relatively audacious move will further serve to undermine TOI's competition.

Mohalla correspondents

Not every aspect of the Indian print media is so bleak, and several important trends are taking hold that could balance out the negative aspects of an increasingly commercialised press. Even as newspaper sales are declining in most developed countries – reportedly by 5 percent a year in the United States – the Indian newspaper industry is growing robustly. The sector is projected to grow by 10-12 percent per year until 2009, against an overall growth rate of 7-8 percent of the Indian economy as a whole. The nearly 60,000 registered publications in India currently receive around 40 percent of the country's total advertising expenditure – although this proportion did come down from 63 percent in 1993, during which time television's share of advertising expenditure doubled to around 48 percent.

A large part of this growth in the print media is on account of rising literacy rates. In addition, those with disposable incomes are increasingly buying more than one newspaper. Niche magazines have also suddenly exploded; few could have imagined even a just few years ago that India would soon have magazines devoted to pets, parenting, golf and housekeeping.

In 2002, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government reversed a 1955 decision that had barred foreign investment, allowing for foreign ownership up to 26 percent of the equity capital in Indian companies publishing newspapers. In June 2005, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government lifted the ban on printing foreign newspapers in India, after the International Herald Tribune exploited a grey area in the law by printing in Hyderabad. Contrary to earlier fears, there has not been a flood of international players to India. Current government policy still does not allow non-Indians to hold key editorial positions in print organisations, and no major policy shift is expected.

One of the less discussed trends has also been the growth of regional-language publications, and the spread of newspaper readership in rural areas. Thanks to modern technology, more Indians living in villages are receiving information in their newspapers that is of special interest to them and their region. At the moment, some newspapers may have extended the logic of localisation too far, by depending on stringers or mohalla correspondents for news. These are often not only ill-paid, but also the most vulnerable if their investigative reports hurt the interests of local elites. Nonetheless, the expansion of editors' horizons and readers' interests can only strengthen the Indian press – and India itself – as a whole.

The Indian media in general and newspapers in particular have often been accused of being excessively insular or inward-looking. But this trend may undergo important changes with greater coverage of regional, national and international news, as readers continue to widen their mental horizons. The localisation of news coverage, meanwhile, will mean publications putting greater emphasis on development issues that concern the proverbial common person, rather than focusing on titillating trivia.

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Himal Southasian