India’s Newspaper Revolution: Capitalism, Politics and the Indian Language Press, 1977-99
by Robin Jeffrey
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000
Price: INR 545, Pages: xviii+234
ISBN: 019 565392 0
In India, regional language news papers were once the poor cousins of their English counterparts. But in the last quarter of the past century, these ‘lower castes’ began coming into their own, and now enjoy considerable clout. Robin Jeffrey’s India’s Newspaper Revolution is about how these language papers— the Eenada’s and the Punjab Kesari’s—have become an important part of life for a vast constituency of Indians. But more importantly, it is about the forces that are at play behind the making of a newspaper.
The print economy
The advertiser looms large in Jeffrey’s work. The obvious fact is that it is advertisement revenues, and not any missionary zeal, that drive most newspapers. Newspaper proprietors are constantly in search of advertisers, to whom they flaunt readership figures and the buying capacity of their readers. “I sell my news and views to the reader, and I sell my readers to the advertisers,” Jeffrey quotes the managing director of a Marathi newspaper.
For decades after Indian Independence, advertisements were the preserve of the English language papers. Advertisers felt that only English readers had the disposable income and purchasing power. But much has changed since then. As local language papers burgeoned, and their reach and quality improved, national advertisers came to realise the value of the regional market and adapted to it. So the well established local language papers had it good both ways—from the national advertisers as well as the local advertisers. Jeffrey cites the example of the Telugu daily, Eenadu, which broke new ground in seeking out new advertisers and kinds of advertisements. It introduced the concept of “district dailies” (tabloid inserts, each focusing on a single district), which helped the paper develop a readership in small-town and rural Andhra Pradesh. This also created a new breed of small local advertisers.
By the early 1990s, Eenadu had thousands of its marketing people going from door to door to push the virtues of advertising. The effect was sometimes comical. An Andhra farmer mourned the death of a stud bull in a full page ad. Local advertising, indeed, had arrived. Eenadu then went on to do matrimonials, real estate ads, obituary notices, and anniversaries. Notes Jeffrey: “Obituaries required delicate negotiations with the deceased’s relatives and friends… obituaries had added reward because various ceremonies after the funeral might also be advertised. A single death, uniting a notable deceased with an energetic Eenadu agent, could even generate a sixteen-page supplement. Salesagent banter included speculation about how many pages of obituary supplement a particular politician might be worth.”
As for matrimonials, Jeffrey says, “Matrimonial advertisements, solicited in consultation with wedding photographers, could be extended into a regular earner by keeping track of anniversaries and birth of children… Eenadu in Vijayawada kept much of this information on computer and fed details regularly to its agents. Able salespersons kept their own notes and reminded potential advertisers in time to take an ad to celebrate a wedding anniversary, a birth or a birthday.” And it was not merely Eenadu which was breaking new ground in advertising. Up north, Punjab Kesari, “the largest circulated Hindi daily”, started putting out lottery ads and classifieds.
Advertisements have come to rule the roost, and is in no way considered “useless” as Mohandas Gandhi had regarded them. The other Congress leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, too, was suspicious of making “people buy things they do not want”, and seems to have got it right when he said advertisers “manipulate the manipulators”. But the fact of the matter is that the print media advertisement nexus is an inexorable one. Advertising has taken newspapers to the remoter nooks, turned readers into consumers, and given locals a paper of their own, one which apparently carries their own views or those they can easily identify with.
Things were very different for the language papers before the late 1970s. It was both a technical and economic struggle, and it needed a particular set of “technical, political and economic circumstances” to fuel the newspaper revolution in a country with 19 official languages and 10 major scripts, and where half the population did not know how to read or write. For many years, the prohibitive costs of printing in different scripts stunted the growth of the language press.
By the 1980s, however, things had changed dramatically.
The newspaper revolution began with the arrival of new print-ing technology. Printing in the Indian languages was never easy, as the Indian scripts proved to be unwieldy for the Guttenberg press. As Indian scripts have a symbol for every spoken word, the number of characters required ran into the hundreds. While a printer’s “case” for an English font would consist of 80 “compartments” (for 26 uppercase and 26 lower-case letters, and numerals from zero to nine, as well as punctuation marks), the “case” for an Indian language font had to consist of a minimum of 300-400 compartments. To create type in Indian scripts meant a great deal of effort and money.
The new combination of off-set press and computer finally gave Indian scripts the visibility of its Roman counterpart. Ironically enough, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency (1975-77), set up a situation that transformed the language press forever. The censorship of Emergency created insipid newspapers and falling readership, but when it ended, the curiosity level had risen so high that proprietors started looking at the newspaper business as a potentially profitable one. It helped that by the late 1970s, there were millions of Indians with relatives abroad who repatriated money and ideas. For its part, the Indian government began to ease controls, which meant that printing equipment could now be imported. This “liberated” the Indian script. By the 1990s, the situation had changed so dramatically that villages which had rarely ever seen the face of a newspaper, found it arriving by the early morning bus. The publication centres themselves were no longer confined to state capitals; like the post office and hospital, a newspaper office became a landmark in small towns.
With the ‘locals’ on the way to being hooked, the next step was to localise the content of the paper. As proprietors began competing for readers by spreading into the ‘suburbs’, it became apparent that readers wanted to know more about their locality in a language that they could understand and enjoy. While national and international news still held an important place, it was in the area of local news that newspapers made giant strides. Hundreds of stringers were hired, with the result that unlike in the earlier days, when news from the remoter districts came to be carried days after an event, now it saw the light of day the very next morning. Local events thereby acquired as much importance as major national events. At the very beginning of the book, Jeffrey recounts a conversation with an Andhra Circle Inspector who says that “newspapers have made the police’s job more difficult. Once if one policeman went to a village, the people were afraid. Now, six police may go to a village and people are not afraid. Newspapers have made them know that the police are not supposed to beat them.” “I’ll go to the newspapers” has by now become a common enough threat.
Compared to other countries, the ownership pattern of Indian-language is quite diverse. These owners, Jeffrey says, are the “linchpins of the Indian state” who connect their regions to India, and India to their regions. But national integration is not their primary objective, rather it is profit and influence that these regional newspaper owners seek. As their newspapers’ reach grew, most of the proprietors who were once traders with printing presses, transformed themselves into capitalists, and began enjoying tremendous influence among politicians and bureaucrats. In much the same way that advertisers began acknowledging the purchasing power of Indian-language readers, politicians realised that their vote banks were being swayed by what newspapers wrote.
The diversity of ownership stems from the diversity of Indian languages. While in theory it might seem workable that an owner could run a paper outside his area, in practice, this threw up hurdles in a business that “depended on language and local knowledge”. As a consequence, smaller proprietors could not be gobbled up by the big fish. And since there were several players in the market, newspapers could carry a wider variety of news and views, something so essential to a democracy.
This, of course, could have given rise to the possibility of centrifugal and secessionist tendencies in a country of so many different cultures. That this did not take place, and instead the press traversed the other direction of promoting and strengthening Indian unity, was partly due to the self-image of the proprietors. Writes the author: “The twenty or thirty owners of the largest newspapers in Indian languages saw themselves as members of an Indian elite. As capitalists in a difficult industry on which India’s chafing economic controls had often impinged, they frequently banded together to defend their interests. Moreover, …they basked in the influence they increasingly wielded in New Delhi and the deference and respect shown them by national bureaucrats and politicians.” Owners were also impelled by the realization that profitable newspapers needed national and multinational advertisers.
But this is not to suggest that Indian-language newspapers only propagated the legitimacy of the Indian state. Far from it. The content was also “subtly local”, and, in some cases, proprietors have supported political parties and movements opposed to the central government. Even so, they were always subliminally pushing “the legitimacy of an Indian state and an Indian nation”. All the papers use national news agencies to report “Indian weather, Indian cricket, Indian stock-market prices and Indian politics” and forever remind readers editorially that they are Indians first and foremost.
Jeffrey makes the important point that the secessionist movements in Punjab, Kashmir and the Northeast owe much to the underdevelopment of local capitalism and the absence of successful newspapers. He cites the case of Assam, where, in the mid-1990s, the ratio of Assamese language daily papers to Assamese speakers was about 11 per 1000, whereas the national average was three times greater. And in the smaller northeastern states, there are no newspapers big enough to find mention in the Press and Advertisers’ Yearbook, the holy book of national advertisers. Kashmir, too, had done without long-standing dailies, while in Punjab, the most successful Indian state in terms of capitalist agriculture, an established daily press in Gurmukhi (the script in which Punjabi is written) evolved only lately. Says Jeffrey: “The places where the newspaper revolution did not begin in the 1970s were more likely to produce challenges to the Indian state. In such places, the absence of thrusting, capital is trun, India-focused daily newspapers meant that a large number of people did not have the sense each morning that they were sharing over their newspaper the experience of India with tens of millions like themselves.”
Content and profile
The proprietors of course call the shots, but it is the editors and reporters who shape what goes into a newspaper. There was a time when Indian-language editors were powerless, given the government’s exclusive preoccupation with English papers. But now they have come to exercise immense influence. Jeffrey quotes the resident editor of the Hindi-language Pun jab Kesari, Ashwini Kumar, who recalled a phone call from the prime minister: “So [Prime Minister Narasimha Rao] rang me up. He said, ‘I read your editorial… How can you say [I’ve not achieved anything]?… I want to tell you that I have done this, I have done that.’ “This is [a] very important thing. Earlier, the politicians never used to do this with Hindi editors.” This exchange between the editor and the prime minister is a reflection of the status and prestige the Indian-language journalists have acquired. Unfortunately, there is a downside to this success of the “language press”. As “gatekeepers”, local editors and reporters are also liable to carry their prejudices, biases and ulterior motives into the newspapers. Jeffrey cites the instance of the police firing in Ayodhya after Hindu zealots razed the 16th century mosque there: “In the most bizarre example a gatekeeper of Swatantra Bharat, a Hindi daily, inserted a handwritten ‘1’ on the offset plate—in front of ’15’ in a front-page headline to inflate the number said to have been killed in police firing…”
Meanwhile, with newspapers reaching out to newer territories and readers, the number of journalists and stringers have grown exponentially. Jeffrey notes that the average number of journalists per newspaper was up from about 15 in the early 1960s to 40 in the 1990s. But diversity of social representation leaves much to be desired. Dalits and women remain quite peripheral to the press. Although Dalits constitute 15 percent of the Indian population (totalling roughly 150 million) in the 1990s, barely a handful worked as reporters or sub-editors, leave alone as editors in all of India.Stories about Dalits therefore lacked the insight that a Dalit journalist could have given.
As for women, Jeffrey points out that in the 1990s, they held about eight percent of the jobs in Indian newspapers, and were constantly at the receiving end of “conservatism and gender bias”. It was easy to deny jobs to women on the ground that they “marry and leave”. In what is surely the most striking travesty, Vanitha, a Malayalam women’s magazine, had only one woman working in its editorial staff. A woman journalist’s task, the male establishment concluded, ought to be fiction and soft stories on art and culture. And working in small-town papers was seen to be precisely what ‘respectable’ women ought not to be doing, because these papers were associated with the “owner trader-politician-criminal nexus”. The presence of woman also called for special ‘infrastructural’ changes. Thus a time came when the Marathi newspaper Sakal’s office could no longer do with simply a ‘staff toilet’. And its management even decided to have flower vases, to perhaps acknowledge the presence of six women journalists on the staff.
Controlling the power of print
The power of the printed word is such that there are always forces trying to control it. In the newspaper world, Jeffrey contends, the contest for control takes place in two broad areas. The first is between the newspaper and the state, with the state attempting to rein in newspapers ostensibly to protect citizens by preventing outrageous and harmful matter from being published. The other area of conflict involves individuals seeking to control publications, and journalists trying to eke benefits on the basis of their control over reportage of news.
The first case of running a newspaper in the state’s threatening presence, Jeffrey likens to dancing with a bear—”distance and formality are essential, for one partner at least”. Jeffrey says Indian newspapers have been waltzing with the bear for two centuries. In the second case, the individuals trying to influence a paper’s editorial policies could represent any of a number of interests— radical politics, criminal lobbies, advertisers, politicians or businessmen.
Other than these two broad areas of contest, two other types of control too are at work. Newspapers obviously try to influence the readers, and proprietors try to make newspapers their mouthpieces. The contest between the journalist and the proprietor is constant—”journalists want to determine the nature of what they produce”, while the proprietors want the newspaper to reflect their own requirements with the refrain “whose newspaper is it anyway”. So with the various equations of control over newspapers, such as governments seeking to interpretwhat is good or bad for the readers, or with politicians, insurgents and criminals attempting to get the newspaper to tell their version of an event, it is a challenging game for proprietors and journalists, themselves often working at cross purposes. In some cases, if a proprietor or journalist does not toe the line of a particular pressure group, it could even mean physical harm, while the rewards from playing along, could be significant.
Jeffrey highlights the fact that the expansion of capitalism in India is best reflected in its newspaper industry—” the development of Indian- language newspapers provides a thermometer for taking the temperature of Indian capitalism”. According to Jeffrey, the Indian newspaper industry, with its unceasing wooing of advertisers and other players in the market, has borne out the worst fears of India’s freedom fighters, that of “ceasing to be a mission and becoming a trade”.
But at the same time, as Jeffrey is quick to reminds us, the Indian-language papers have triggered a “million mutinies” by carrying the voices of millions of Indians rebelling against their circumstances. Newspapers give space to more and more people to “air grievances, demand remedies and organise action”. However, such public-spirited activity need not always be liberal. Such activities also bear the capacity to promote biases and communal behaviour. Just as a public park can be occupied by all kinds of elements, a newspaper is a vehicle of different views and news. But whatever may be the case, it is obviously important to safeguard this “freespeech public sphere” from censorship.
Looking into the future, Jeffrey dwells briefly on television and its impact on print’s future. Citing the case of the United States, he points out that surveys have shown that two-thirds of households with television sets also bought newspapers, while less than a third of non-TV households were newspaper subscribers. He believes that the ‘language’ newspapers will be able to adapt and ride the television revolution. The future of print journalism is assured, he says, simply because the growth of literacy in Indian languages is “slow, unstoppable and immense”. Although in terms of advertising revenue, it is television that has a larger share, the fact that advertising volumes continue to rise, suggest that Indian language papers will not lose their share of advertising any time soon, particularly as advertisers become more “ethnocentric”.
Jeffrey’s work on the ‘language press’ is grounded in meticulous research and hard analysis of a trend that will become even more vital for India and South Asia. This is indeed a path breaking study from the Australian scholar, whose ability to marshal an argument with a rich mixture of information and anecdote has ensured that it is more than just an academic tome strictly meant for the arcane world of research.