I’m no expert on Indian newspaper journalism, but for the last two weeks, I’ve been an avid reader of the country’s English language press and have thoroughly enjoyed my fleeting encounters with the Times of India, the Hindu, the Deccan Chronicle, the New Indian Express and several other titles.
There are plenty of things to worry about when it comes to the status of newspaper journalism in India, even as the industry in contrast to its peers in many Western countries is enjoying rapid growth in circulation and revenues—problems include the proliferation of paid coverage not only of commercial ventures and in reviews, but also in politics (“no money, no news”), various fights between the editorial and the commercial side, plus the frequent harassment of journalists by local authorities, political activists, criminals, and sometimes the military or the police.
But boy can they write, and can they write about politics in particular—riveting accounts means that even now, after my return from travels in South India, I find myself frequenting their websites—trawling for news about Prime Minister Singh’s possible involvement in the 2G scam, following the twists and turns of the fall of Chief Minister B. S. Yeddyurappa in Karnataka after a judicial inquiry connected him directly with widespread illegal mining in the state, reading about how Ms. Jayalalithaa’s newly elected AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu is cracking down on their defeated DKM predecessors on numerous charges of land grabs, corruption, and the like.
All this is so interesting partially because the substance matter is so serious, so clearly worth ones’ time. (On my return I found by contrast that the London Times had seen fit to write an editorial about Prime Minister Cameron’s decision to, while on holiday, wear black shoes without socks. The Times editorial writer thought one should always wear socks when wearing shoes, though conceded that one could be forgiven for wearing flips flops or even loafers without socks. Riveting stuff, really.) The 2G scam, for example, is estimated is estimated by some to have cost the Indian state almost $40 billion in lost revenue.
This kind of stuff matters, and even without independent investigative work, simply reporting the work of judicial investigators, non-profits and others looking into this, and how elected officials talk about it is important and commands attention. Even as a complete outsider, on many days, I’d find as much of interest in the daily edition of a 24-page newspaper sold for 3 or 4 Rupees (about 5 pence) as I usually do in the UK in daily newspapers often approaching a hundred pages all included and sold for a pound.
The journalists and editors who write all this surely face many challenges as their industry and profession develops alongside so many other changes in India—let me just say I enjoyed my brief brush with their work and wish them and all their colleagues working in broadcasting, online, as well as in Hindi and numerous other vernacular languages well.
N. Ravi, former editor of the Hindu, and still a director at the company that publishes the newspaper, wrote a letter after resigning from his position that got a lot of play, and Roy Greenslade has now posted some further analysis from Ravi about the state of Indian journalism–obviously from someone who knows the region, its history, its media, and its journalism much better than I do–it is here , and well worth reading.
There is one passage, however, that I do not like very much, which is quoted in part below:
Negative trend two – competing for the ‘average reader’
“The second [destructive] trend is the competition for the “average reader”, with newspapers at both the higher and the lower ends of the quality scale tending towards the middle. Such tabloidisation is apparent in the changes in design that assume that readers need quick summaries and bullet points and should not be taxed into reading a report from the start to the finish. It is also seen in the inclusion of more snippets and short pieces and in the overall tenor of reports that aim to be clever and snappy rather than thoughtful and analytical.”
I value up-market journalism (verbose or less so) as much as the next well-educated, affluent, urban guy, but this view I think is a dangerously elitist view of journalism and its role in society, in particular in country where 25% of the adult population can’t read. “Give light and the people will find their own way” is partially about giving light, but also about giving light to as many people as possible, and that includes reaching “the average reader” too.