For Hindi journalism, the expansion in numbers has coincided with a change in the nature of content, confirming an earlier thesis of the creation of a ‘new public sphere’

In 2005-2006, the late Prabhash Joshi and Ajit Bhattacharjea – doyens of Indian journalism – visited Tilonia in Rajasthan. An advertisement for Reliance Mobile was splashed on the back page of Dainik Bhaskar, declaring that one could speak to anyone, anywhere in the country, for a rupee. The same ad slogan appeared on the front page of the same paper, in the same edition, as the news lead.

The local editor of the paper came to meet Mr Joshi, and told him, “The ad came to us on the condition that we would provide them editorial support.” In English, this was called creating a ‘favourable editorial context’. Mr Joshi was to remark that not only were advertisements being published, there was an effort to control the space around it as well.

Last week, Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) released figures of newspaper circulation for the final six months of 2012. It confirmed a trend that is now well established. Hindi newspapers sold the highest number of copies among dailies in all languages in India, clocking a circulation of 15 million copies in the July-December period.

In a seminal book published in 2007, ‘Headlines from the Heartland’, the media critic, Sevanti Ninan has attributed this massive expansion in the Hindi ‘public sphere’ to a mix of factors – rising literacy, increase in purchasing power, the political churning with the Mandal and Mandir agitations in the Hindi heartland, the advent of TV which created a hunger for news, technology, push by market forces and localisation of news with proliferation of district editions.

A recent book, Hindi Mein Samachar, News in Hindi, by researcher Arvind Das, argues that while there has been a rapid expansion, this does not correspond with a similar qualitative transformation for the better.

Das studied journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), and then enrolled in Jawaharlal Nehru University for his PhD. For his doctoral work, Das decided to examine the evolution of Hindi journalism by doing a rigorous content analysis of the Delhi edition of a single newspaper, Navbharat Times, published by the Bennett Coleman. There have been more changes in the Hindi press in the last 20 years compared to 185 years before that, he argues.

Compared to 1986, Hindi papers in the last decade have more pages, more frequent and regular supplements, more photos, colour, graphics, design, and visuals. The ‘look and feel’ of papers had altered. In terms of content, an average front page story in 1986 was eight columns and politics dominated the coverage. Now, there were fewer and shorter stories; political and international coverage had reduced. Instead, economic/business news and sports coverage had increased by a significant proportion. ‘Khush khabri’, good news, is give priority.

Issues related to Dalits, farmers, and workers neither found space then; nor does it now. There is a tendency to promote Hindu religious customs and idioms. There has however been an increase in the coverage of ‘women’s issues, even though stereotypes about representation remain and ‘sensitivity’ is missing.

Das also examined the use of the language, and found that two decades ago, the Hindi used in print was ‘clear’, ‘crisp’, ‘conversational’, and more ‘Hindustani’ in nature – using words derived from various other linguistic traditions, like Sanskrit and Farsi, without compromising the integrity of the language. Words used in popular literature were borrowed. In 2005, there was a far greater use of English words, including full sentences – even when ‘unnecessary’. A new ‘Hingrezi’, mix of Hindi and English, language was being devised with strong influences of the market and Bombay cinema.

Despite not being a language purist, the author contends this does not meet the needs of the Hindi-speaking belt, especially first-time readers who do not have other language skills and access to other sources of information. He told The Hindu, “Hindi does not have a vast idiom of social science research. Knowledge production still mostly happens in English. In that context, the media – now that it has resources – could play a role in giving us that language.” Das adds there is similar no investment in improving content. “Why does no Hindi paper have a foreign correspondent anywhere?”

Theorists have spoken of how inherent in the transition from elite to a mass based public sphere is the degeneration of discourse. Das appears to subscribe to this view. But few can doubt the positive implications of the growth in Hindi journalism. In her work, Ninan convincingly argued that the public sphere had become ‘truly public’ in the process. Newspapers have democratised debate, widened information horizon, and raised public expectations vis-a-vis the State.

But the role of the market, which has partly made this shift possible, remains a source of anxiety. Prabash Joshi narrated to Das an anecdote, in 2008, a year before his death. A news bureau was auctioned off in Ratlam of Madhya Pradesh for Rs 5 lakh; the role of the ‘bureau chief’ and the ‘boys’ he hired was not to collect news, but revenue for their own pockets and the newspaper management. The ability of Hindi papers to sustain their growth, contribute in expanding public sphere – while remaining true to journalism – will define their future.

More In: Society | Metroplus | Delhi