How can a media hawking editorial space to politicians and their parties for personal use, capture the reality for its readers and analyse it with sensitivity and honesty?

To most of the smart whiz-kid managers planning to reinvent the print media as a lucrative multi-language business, the small-town market today is by and large an autonomous phenomenon, somewhat constrained by politics but not reducible to it. This theory has the genius of appearing to bow humbly before the reciprocal issue of how the vernacular media affect and shape local society and vice versa, while actually planning to straddle it, whip in hand.

The vernacular media establishment needs to watch out for such perfect-sounding inventions that never actually do what their labels claim, like diet pills or hair restoring substances. Attractive as the managerial dreams may look, the Hindi media themselves have so far not negotiated on their own terms the actual relationship between the uppity new investor and the class-specific vernacular readership. They lack a specific and clear system that can effectively firewall editorial in case the deal goes sour after an initial positive showing.

Many recent steps redefining news and its dissemination in the newspapers were taken hastily after bypassing the editorial department. They may have introduced lethal and invisible viruses within the system that may corrode and finally kill the newspaper. The vernacular media may be feeling cocky, having pulled themselves out of physical poverty under their own steam, but they have yet to learn how to deal firmly and decisively with another kind of poverty — that of the professional, ethical kind.

One is not being paranoid here. Not too long ago, some major dailies introduced a devilishly cunning scheme of offering what was innocently labelled ‘Ad for Equity.’ This met with loud applause from many managerial bosses all over. But before long the realty, aviation and automobile sectors went into a tailspin, and the scheme left the companies that had adopted it red-faced and holding bags of (economy class) air tickets, empty flats, unsold cars and so on.

A little later, during some of the Assembly elections in 2008, the local editions of several multi-edition Hindi dailies started displaying laudatory and frequently contradictory news items on their front pages about specific candidates contesting from the respective areas. With zero news value, none of these items merited such display, but through the election period the front pages and op-ed pages of some dailies continued to carry the mug-shots of particular candidates, even predicting a record win for him or her.

The dailies may or may not have collected some Rs.200 crore with this little duplicitous exercise in psephology, but a new idea of what has now come to be called ‘political advertising’ was planted across the country, triggering a trend. And soon one heard that the marketing and media marketing managers at several media houses were getting ‘creatives’ prepared about what was on offer, in time for the general elections. Several party functionaries who manned party ‘war rooms’ during the period, when quizzed, confessed to having been shown ‘impressive’ PowerPoint presentations by major newspapers, and in turn professing an interest in the offerings.

The hard copy version of one such offering made on behalf of one Hindi daily published from a rich western Indian State blatantly delineates the phenomenon. The script claims that some 36 Lok Sabha seats in two major cities in the State, including the State capital and the surrounding areas, were ‘feeded’ by the daily. The proposal then lays down a clear sequential map of activities it can spearhead to promote the party or individual candidates, quoting prices. At the local level it addresses the candidate, his or her supporters and well-wishers, the district-level party office, the local MLA or MLC or corporator, other local political leaders, the local advertising agency and the guardian Minister of the ruling party. At the State level it is the State political party office, Cabinet Minister and State-level political leaders, businessmen and industrialists and a State-level advertising agency. At the national level it addresses the central offices of political parties (media cells), national-level political leaders and Central Ministers from the State.

The working modalities include putting in place dedicated teams each day, comprising political or city reporters and correspondents, sub-editors, area advertisement managers and area sales managers, to do the needful. Fifteen days’ general coverage is priced at Rs.20 lakh, while seven days of exclusive coverage is pegged at Rs.25 lakh. Along with this, specially prepared four-page supplements in colour, exclusive interviews, positive views of the voters, positive editorial analysis, “only positive coverage” and “no negative publicity of opposition candidate or party,” and extra copies of the newspaper on payment basis, are on offer — at a price, of course. There is flexibility in making the payment: 50 per cent can be paid in cash and 50 per cent by cheque. The last frame in the presentation, ironically titled The Way Ahead, suggests that the daily would be willing to offer publicity on ‘other occasions’ also, apart from the election-time offer.

What a complex trade! Vernacular media readers are getting younger and more volatile and more demanding. But they mostly sit in small towns where an elegant bank with an ATM stands in the middle of shanties and huts with TV antennae, where after leaving the railway station or the airport one almost always plunges into the darkness of a grim, squalid, pot-holed road, where in the marketplace besides the glittering shop windows with Dior watches and Mont Blanc pens, the unlit windows of local shops lie empty. Private capital that has arrived in small towns, piggy-back riding the Hindi dailies, has only built shining sanctuaries for the rich. The Hindi readership has neither the means nor the intention to develop the rest of the city or ‘cusbah’. Its children cling to dreams of escaping to a big city and making it big there.

How can a media hawking inviolable editorial space to politicians and their parties for personal use during elections, capture this reality for its readers and analyse it with any degree of sensitivity or honesty? To read many marketing-driven Hindi dailies today is increasingly like entering a mind with multiple personality disorders, where endless, fierce and frantic discussions continue over everything from Beijing’s beastliness to Bt brinjal and Raj Babbar, next to cloyingly hagiographic accounts of how Rahul ‘Baba’ alone led his party to triumph in the byelections. Actually there are too many people now in the industry whose answer to the question, “what are the media for?” is, “to make money.”

Certainly there is nothing wrong in a restructuring of the industry, making it more productive and vibrant. The Janata Party government began the process and the BJP and the Congress have all continued to support this process. The government-controlled audiovisual media were certainly too big and lumbering and arrogant and were easily pushed to the margins by the leaner and more efficient private players. But why have the hugely successful Hindi print media that have always been in private hands and quite free professionally, begun to trivialise their own base and con their readership for piffling short-term gains? If this trend continues, the readers will react, and the next round of closures will have more serious implications, not just for those who will lose their jobs but also for the readers’ understanding of where they live and how their reality is inviolable and a part of the nation’s reality.

Hindi newspapers inspired by the capitulation of their big brothers in the media business may dent the case for India’s vernacular press, but cannot demolish it. When it does its job, a professionally run vernacular paper, funded jointly by advertising and paid-for-circulation, remains the best bet as a scrutineer of democracy and the best guard for the inviolable reality of our public spaces.

(Mrinal Pande is a senior Hindi journalist and writer. This is the second of a two-part article. The first part was published on November 18, 2009.)

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