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Media without Journalism?

Sevanti Ninan
August 5, 2007

The media are expanding in India at a frenetic rate with new television channels and newspapers debuting almost every month. But the question to ask in the face of all this growth is, can the country's journalism keep pace? Media is an industry, journalism a vocation, and nurturing it is not easy in a country where aspiration and upward mobility is fuelling the demand for media. The group editor of one of the two most widely read newspapers in the country, Shravan Garg of Dainik Bhaskar, summed up the change when he said at a public forum in New Delhi in May, "Earlier the relationship was one of newspaper and reader, now it is of product and consumer."

India's media growth is riding on a consumer revolution. Advertising is booming in a country where the economy has been averaging more than 8 percent growth over the last three years. In 2006 spending on advertisements grew by 23 percent over the previous year. Advertising underwrites media expansion; as a result, both newspapers and television channels look and sound very different from the way they did a decade ago. Youth is at a premium, in order to appeal to a market that is predominantly young. Television anchors are youthful, and compensate for a lack of knowledge and experience with a flood of bubbly prattle.

News on satellite channels targeted at mass audiences is heavily tilted in favor of crime and entertainment news, with food, shopping, personal finance, and home improvement shows thrown in. And newspapers, particularly outside metropolitan cities, have transformed themselves to appeal to an upwardly mobile reader. They have glossy color supplements, sports and film stars on their mastheads, and English headlines written in the Nagri script that Hindi uses. When media is a product, it is also marketed as one, enticing consumers with gift schemes and incentives.

Media and entertainment are merging. Two television news companies, New Delhi Television Ltd. and Television Eighteen India Ltd. have recently made forays into entertainment and film. Two other news channels are part of the two largest entertainment bouquets on satellite TV. The news offered on television is increasingly purveyed as entertainment. The recent wedding of India's top actress Aishwarya Rai saw intense daily coverage, as did the Liz Hurley-Arun Nayar socialite wedding held in Jodhpur in Rajasthan. India's news television is developing tabloid propensities, though the channels do not as yet pay vast sums of money for access or sensational pictures.

For newspapers that are expanding quickly due to literacy growth in parts of India, the crisis in journalism has a different genesis. The Indian language media is expanding by localizing, printing several editions at the district level with local page inserts, and dispatching them to far corners of each state. The foot soldiers of these big, multi-edition newspapers with rising circulations are what used to be called "stringers," and are now called "citizen journalists" in media parlance. Papers draw them from the local community and employ them by the hundreds, usually without much training and often without fixed salaries. But it is their reporting that fills the next morning's local pages.

The owners of these papers like to say that old style journalism, headed by an editor wedded to writing editorials, is no longer the need of the hour. The new editors oversee such large reporting and editorial operations that they serve as managers. In June, Dainik Bhaskar (a paper with 37 editions) began courses for its news editors at one of India's institutes of management at Indore in Madhya Pradesh. They will learn international trends in media development, and edition management.

While this is the approach at the top of the pyramid of the conventional newspaper structure, at the bottom of the pyramid are those foot soldiers mentioned above. While at the big Hindi newspapers—Jagran, Hindustan, Dainik Bhaskar, Amar Ujala, and Rajasthan Patrika—there is talk of making this level more professional, it is easier said than done. If too much money is spent on them, newspaper expansion will not be as financially viable as it currently is. At present the most rapid growth has been essayed by these newspapers. Three of them rank among the top five in readership charts, while the biggest English language newspaper, The Times of India, which likes to call itself the highest circulated English broadsheet in the world, figures at around number eleven on these charts.

At the forum mentioned above, politicians and journalists came together to debate the merits of the flowering of newspapers in India's smallest towns and largest villages. Digvijay Singh, a former minister and an opposition member of parliament referred to the recently concluded elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh, saying that his party workers would insist that they could get no coverage for their candidates unless the local press was "managed." But Sachin Pilot, a young member of parliament from the Congress Party which heads India's ruling coalition, talked of how corruption had come under check to some degree at the local level, because there were now so many local reporters competing for stories. However, he rued trivialization, as well as the biases of these citizen reporters. Bias is also a polite word for casteism, which resident editors of Hindi newspapers describe as a major problem. Journalists drawn from the community tend to be from the upper castes, which colors their reporting.

Local journalists who spearhead newspaper penetration into India's hinterland are vulnerable in the face of local pressures. The media in Delhi are free to criticize the Prime Minister but the stringer in the countryside dare not write against the chief constable in his area. If you cannot ensure the stringer's safety, you also cannot ensure the freedom of his pen. With no job tenure, no organizational back-up, no editorial training, and no guidance on basic ethics, journalism is becoming a casualty of India's media boom.

Harivansh, the editor of a Ranchi newspaper Prabhat Khabar, makes the point that with the infusion of capital into the newspaper industry, newspapers should be able to better train and equip this cadre of reporters. Two major Hindi newspapers, Dainik Jagran and Hindustan, belong to media groups that have both become listed in the stock market as well as received direct investment from media groups abroad. Increasingly Indian newsrooms are becoming spiffier and better equipped, but will the capital available for investment trickle down to journalism's unpaid foot soldiers?

Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, editor of the, and author of a new book on the Hindi press, Headlines from the Heartland: Reinventing the Hindi Public Sphere.

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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