Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why The Hindu would never be ahead of our Times

The month gone by witnessed quite a few amazing developments. Amazing, simply because these were unprecedented.
The Hindu, for long, had been seen as the Doordarshan of the print media. The Sultan of the South, barring the little pinprick around Hyderabad made by the Deccan Chronicle, had been the Chris Tavare of the newspapers; classic and copy-book. That was true till about a few months ago when The Times of India, world's largest read English Daily, decided to do an Ala-ud-din Khilji to the South.

I remember the early years of my adolescence spent in the hinterlands of Tamil Nadu. The term Newspaper was synonymous with The Hindu. For long, The Hindu's only real competitor was the Indian Express. But then, the Mahavishnu of Mount Road ensured that Indian Express' default denotation changed to that of a sobriquet for two of the aces of India's rich Tennis legacy; Lee and Hesh. For the few years that I spent there, the Hindu had a tremendous run. From serving as a the paper plate to a hawker's Ring Paranthas and Rasam, to playing the role of a poor man's mat in offices and parks, the thin, black and white parchment was omnipresent. The readership, of course, was outstanding. The monotonous black and white ink failed to dampen the spirits of the average South Indian reader, whose morning tea was incomplete without the news of the inauguration of a new Post Office in Erode, mill workers' strike at Salem and the mass polio vaccination drive at Thirupur. The entire paper, sans complements, thinner than the thinnest notebook of a Physical Education student, was sleek, sturdy and rather convenient to carry; one of the less apparent USPs. The content was mostly newspaper-like. Concise and to the point on the Edit Page and factual, expository and descriptive otherwise. Guest Writers were few, and far between. Paul Krugman, the noted economist and the late Peter Roebuck being the notable exceptions. It was as if the Editor had entire faith on his staff and backed his correspondents to possess and express the insight of the guest writers.

Back then, as a sixth grader, newspapers never amused me too much. Also, it took more than just will and interest to understand what was printed in The Hindu. Back then, Oxford English Dictionary didn't have an online version with which you could automate the search for words. Wouldn't really have mattered much as I didn't have a computer that time. As such, The Hindu was more of an enigma than an apprentice and an aide to me.
Then came Delhi. The journey home from the railway station was a sign of things to come. Every second roadside advertisement hoardings screamed 'Times of India'. Those that didn't and displayed social messages instead, were sponsored by the Times of India.
Next week, the newspaper boy came to our quarters to ask for our preferred choice of Newspaper. 'TOI', I cried, Instinctively.

That was Delhi. In Chennai, a few months ago, the Times of India launched, what was to be the crusade for the Final Frontier, the South. With it came a flurry of frenzy marketing gimmicks right out of the star marked page of the Delhi Times Booklet of Advertising. A crusade against an establishment and its establisher.
The onslaught continued. For weeks. For months. Blows were delivered, most of them were below the belt. The kingdom though, took everything in its stride. But then, the reins changed hands. The new leadership refused to take things lying down. The counter-attack began.

Studs (read unknown actors) were found and asked elementary common-sensical questions like the name of the Home Minister of the country. Deathly silence followed. Then came a barrage of questions like the pet name of a famous Bollywood actor, the actress famous for her size zero, and the gender of India's de facto first couple's newborn baby. Sure enough, the studs answered these correctly. Sure enough, these studs were the ones who read the most read newspaper whose name was, of course, beeped out, but with the added adjective 'most read' leaving nothing to imagination. This was succeeded by a succession of snapshots gleefully declaring that The Hindu 'also had pages 1,2,4,5,6 and 7', spread 'sense, and not sensationalism', featured 'current affairs that go beyond Bollywood affairs' and finally, hold your breath, focused more on 'government malfunctions than wardrobe malfunctions'. In this way, Vidya Balan of the South finally had her Dirty Picture moment! The Doordarshan had finally turned (it) on.

As a seasoned Times of India reader, I found the campaign really amusing and at at times, really amazing. The points raised were apt. The Hindu had hit where it hurt. And hurt, it did. I reconsidered my commitment and loyalty towards the newspaper that had grown me up yet grown up with me, at least for the last eight years. Every bit of accusation levelled against the Times was true. I had to make a decision. A fraction of second was all it took for me to decide.
I couldn't live without The Times of India. And I wouldn't.
I didn't.
TOI is hashish. First you like it, then you love it, then you get used to it. It's Shawshank.

Yes, it has advertisements-disguised-as-articles on the front page. Yes, it has weekly columnists like Chetan Bhagat. Yes, it carries full page ads of Arindam Chaudhary. Yes, it even contains expert opinion of 'are-you-ready' Ravi Shastri.
But, eventually, it presents to us what we desire. Perhaps calling it Delhi Mirror wouldn't be wrong.
We ask for it, TOI shows it. It is shoddy journalism, no doubt. But isn't that what we are? Shoddy?
Yes. Chetan Bhagat, despite his numerous shortcomings as a writer, is still India's best selling English novelist. He might not know everything about the Babri Masjid demolition, say, but just seeing his name, his famous name, beneath an article on the Edit Page, one gets tempted to read what he's written. Thus, the average Indian reader becomes aware of the issue, forms his opinion, and spreads the information. I am sure, the same article published by a staff correspondent at The Hindu wouldn't generate such an interest. Even if it does, it wouldn't have such a response. The Hindu, I reiterate, isn't for the average Indian reader.
Yes. Arindam Chaudhary, despite his repulsive personality, the disgusting smile and the senseless titles that he's given to his books, is ought to be treated as an icon of sorts, self-proclaimed or otherwise. Moreover, the average Indian is swayed by vividness, the sheer magnitude of the size of the paper carrying the ad. I am sure, the same ad, if published in The Hindu, wouldn't attract so many eyeballs. Even if it does, it wouldn't have such a response. The Hindu, I reiterate, isn't for the average Indian reader.
Yes. Ravi Shastri, whose voice is a nuisance for the eardrums, and his writing may not be a purists delight. The Hindu knows it. That is why Shastri doesn't write for The Hindu. For if he does, no one would read him. Those who read The Hindu, do not want to read Shastri. But then again, Shastri anchors every big (or small) cricketing event, clearly stating how popular he is to the average Indian. That is why, The Hindu, I reiterate, isn't for the average Indian reader.

Add to it the fact that Times of India is more colourful, cheaper, and has more pages. If not anything else, at least it outweighs The Hindu, sometimes literally, usually metaphorically.

And finally, TOI has been the pioneer of Corporate Social Responsibility in the print media. It has spearheaded numerous campaigns like Teach For India, Play for India, Love over Country, Aman Ki Aasha among others. The means may be wrong, or rather unconventional. The motto, at least a part of it, isn't wrong.

From a pure Business point of view, TOI has created a mini revolution in the field of print advertising. In India, one of the few countries in which the newspaper circulation is on an upward spiral, this mini revolution has shown the way for the organisations to have a mass appeal yet be profitable and dynamic; adjectives thought to be mutually exclusive till sometime back.

And this makes me feel that despite its shortcomings and despite the pithy campaign followed by a worthy rival, the The Old Lady of Boribunder would continue to consolidate its position at the summit. Whether it would conquer the final frontier, is debatable and as such, very difficult to predict.
For the time being at least, the Mahavishnu of Mount Road can live in peace in its own little Shangri-la, well aware that things won't be quiet for long.

With stats and inputs from

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