Understanding the language press

Print edition : February 17, 2001

India's Newspaper Revolution by Robin Jeffrey, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000; pages 234, Rs. 545.

IN 1947, any reference to the Indian press would have been taken to mean the English language newspapers published from the metropolitan cities. A few lesser towns did have English dailies, but their fame rested more on their association with some eminen t personalities than on their size or strength. There were vigorous publications in some Indian languages, too, but they counted for little in the national scheme. Two or three decades later, the provincial newspapers in English and several Indian langua ges were powerful enough to compel the attention of political and economic interests. Still later the Indian language press acquired clout as a national player. In India's Newspaper Revolution, Robin Jeffrey chronicles the changes in the media lan dscape since Independence.

Jeffrey, who is Professor of Politics at La Trobe University, Melbourne, has a just reputation as a chronicler. A keen student of Indian affairs since the 1960s, he has documented through extensive research such political and social developments as the r ise of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu and the decline of Nair dominance in Kerala. The latest chronicle is a product of long years of study, including more than a decade devoted specifically to the Indian language press. The 250-odd interviews that he cite include one dating back to 1977. Most of the interviews, however, were conducted during 20 weeks in 1993-94 and 1999 when he visited newspapers in 20 towns all over the country. Quite naturally the book is a mine of information.

Jeffrey traces the growth of some highly successful institutions such as Malayala Manorama of Kerala, Eenadu of Andhra Pradesh, Sakal of Maharashtra and Punjab Kesri of Punjab and Delhi. Apart from seeking to explain how they attained their present size, he examines their ownership and control. Editorial aspects, too, are touched upon, but growth is assessed in quantitative terms without reference to quality. Consequently, the book is of little help in judging the validity of the criticism voiced by media professionals that even as newspapers have prospered, journalism has declined.

From Malayala Manorama's sensationalist coverage of naxalite adventures to Eenadu's intensive exploitation of the potential of the countryside through district supplements, varied techniques have been employed by newspapers to expand their readership. A common element running through the case studies is the universal acceptance of the circulation figure as the sole determinant of success. A newspaper straddles two different markets: one comprises the readers who buy its copies, and the oth er the advertisers who buy space in it. An inquiry to ascertain which of these markets drives the newspaper will show that by and large advertisers have replaced readers as the main force. Readers are important only to the extent that they are needed to attract and hold advertisers.

Jeffrey examines the process of localisation that has played a big part in the readership explosion. Very often this process has been accompanied by trivialisation of newspaper content. This aspect does not come under scrutiny since the book is not prima rily about the content of the newspapers.

The focus is elsewhere as is evident from the book's subtitle, "Capitalism, Politics and the Indian-Language Press 1977-99." The period of study is one that saw the large newspapers shed the qualities of service institutions and acquire the characteristi cs of industrial and commercial undertakings. Jeffrey looks at this transformation and related developments in the light of Western studies that have established the link between print and political changes. Providing a portrait of the Indian language ne wspaper owner as a capitalist and a power-wielder, he suggests that the expansion of capitalism in the country can probably be seen more concretely in the newspaper industry than anywhere else. The development of Indian language newspapers, he says, "pro vides a thermometer for taking the temperature of Indian capitalism".

Long before the newspaper owners discovered the joys of capitalism, the capitalists had discovered the virtues of newspaper ownership and picked up whatever publications were up for grabs. As a result, some of the large English language newspapers became a part of the big industrial houses in the early years of Independence. Some of them attempted to extend their reach from the big cities to the small ones and from English to the Indian languages. However, the local institutions were able to hold their own. The most ambitious of the empire-builders, Ramnath Goenka, planted his flag in a dozen towns and half a dozen languages but could not achieve primacy anywhere.

While the English newspaper chains spread out from big cities to smaller ones, the Indian language newspapers moved in the opposite direction. Many of them had their origin in the humble setting of small towns from where they extended their sway over the entire region or State.

The phenomenal growth of the newspapers was made possible by a combination of factors: rise in literacy rates, spread of the reading habit, increase in purchasing power and so on. Since these factors have not fully worked themselves out, the newspaper re volution that Jeffrey set out to chronicle is certain to roll on for a long time yet. Recognising this fact, he refrains from presenting his story as one with an ending. However, he expresses the hope that his analysis, covering such aspects as what driv es the industry, the people who own, operate and seek to control it and its wider consequences, will prove durable.

The ground realities militate against the assumption that the trends of the past will continue. Even as city-based English newspapers penetrated deep into the country, a powerful provincial press could emerge, as the advertisers, eager to tap new markets , patronised State-level newspapers, including those in the local languages. If the earlier trends persist, advertisers must now turn to publications in smaller towns to reach out to newer markets, leading to the blooming of the district press. However, with State-level newspapers tightening their hold on the districts, that possibility is being foreclosed. Thus the odds are that the monopolistic tendencies that are in evidence in some areas will grow in the coming years. Also, with television providing an opportunity to reach out to small-town and rural consumers, advertisers may not attach as much value to the district papers as they did to the provincial papers.

Jeffrey dismisses suggestions that the press is in peril from monopoly ownership, pointing out that newspaper ownership in India is "fairly widely dispersed" when compared with Australia, Canada and the United States. That things are not as bad as in the se countries must not lead to complacency. To assume that diversity of languages will inhibit replication of the monopoly conditions of the West, as Jeffrey does, is to underestimate the potential of the capitalist forces gaining strength in the India me dia.

The Indian newsroom does not reflect the country's social diversity. Jeffrey notes that two categories are grossly under-represented: Dalits and women. Many newspapers recognise that women constitute an important market segment that needs to be tapped. C onsequently, they are now more inclined to employ women than before. A similar understanding of the Dalit situation is lacking. With urban sophistication, owners and editors claim lack of interest in the caste origin of the staff. They constantly look to the West for ideas on everything from newspaper title to stories and pictures. Yet, they are loathe to follow the salutary principle enunciated by the American Society of Newspaper Editors that the newsroom must be representative of the society that it seeks to serve.

Robin Jeffrey illuminates an area of darkness, revealing many facts that help us to improve our understanding of the working of a powerful institution with growing influence on national life.

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