By N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief, The Hindu
The Indian press is two centuries old, 223 years old to be exact (if we take the launch of James Augustus Hickey's Bengal Gazette on January 29, 1780 as the founding date). Its strengths have largely been shaped by its historical experience and, in particular, by its association with the freedom struggle as well as movements for social emancipation, reform and amelioration. The long struggle for independence; controversies and battles over social reform, radical and revolutionary aspirations and movements; compromising as well as fighting tendencies; and the long-term competition between self-serving and public service visions of journalism - all these have found reflection in the character and performance of the Indian press over the long term.
Within the press, there was the famous divide between `nationalist' and `loyalist' newspapers, which lasted right up to the time of Independence. The histories of The Hindu and The Times of India exemplify this divide. Six young nationalists led by the upstanding social reformer and economic nationalist, G. Subramania Aiyer, founded The Hindu in Madras on September 20, 1878 as a weekly. It is the oldest surviving major newspaper of Indian nationalism, by which we mean the great socio-political movement that won freedom for India from colonial bondage and helped consolidate the gains of independence in every sphere of national life.
No issues of the newspaper from the first three years have survived as far as we know. Fortunately, we have the text of the first editorial titled "Ourselves". Not surprisingly for the times, no radical vision of freedom for India informed this leader. Indeed the founders of The Hindu identified for themselves a middle ground between "altogether [ignoring] the superiority of Western rule" and "cry[ing] down everything native... and [advocating] as a rule the preferability of Western institutions to those of our country." But the remarkable thing about the editorial was not the identification of such a middle ground. It was the clear-sighted and bold formulation of a role for a weekly starting with a print run of 80 copies - as the creator, regulator and moulder of public opinion. Attributing the absence of public opinion to "the want of a well conducted native press to which the public may look to regulate their opinion," the first editorial proclaimed that "the Press does not only give expression to public opinion but also modify and mould it according to circumstances. It is this want that we have made bold to attempt to supply." The Hindu asked the educated section of "the native community" to fill up "as far as it is possible and practicable the gap separating the governors from the governed." For itself, the newspaper proposed two guiding principles - "fairness and justice." These were to prove crucial for its survival and development over the long term.
It was the freedom struggle that provided a life support system for the newspaper when, in the early years of the 20th century, it found itself in a financial and professional crisis despite an enviable reputation among the educated public. With the partners falling out over socio-political issues, the radical social reformer Subramania Aiyer edged out, a toll taken by libel actions, and languishing circulation and advertising revenues, the big question on everyone's mind during the Silver Jubilee celebrations of September 21, 1903 was whether such a risky "journalistic enterprise that has deterred other men of public spirit from joining" the proprietor in "this noble work" (to quote M. Veeraghavachariar, the proprietor) could survive.
The answer came through the acquisition of The Hindu on April 1, 1905 by the lawyer, political radical, moderniser and shrewd entrepreneur, S. Kasturi Ranga Iyengar. The path of multi-faceted development - based on clear and boldly articulated principles in relation to which the newspaper's performance could be tested - he worked out at the beginning of a new era in India's social, political and economic development proved to be a winner. With the newspaper's survival never again in question, the challenge before his successors was one of consolidation, technological and editorial modernisation, expansion, enhancement of professional values, making serious journalism viable and successful in a business sense, and enabling successful journalism to keep its soul.
Even in the pre-Independence context, The Hindu, like some other mainstream newspapers, learned to act like a player in the major league political and socio-economic arena. Walking on "two legs" serious, independent, quality journalism, and business viability and success along the path worked out by The Hindu's second founder has brought the newspaper to where it is today: the front ranks of the world's major newspapers. Successive waves of technological modernisation, particularly over the past 75 years, have been a key to this achievement.
Journalism in India used to be regarded as a `calling'. Fired by the spirit of patriotic and social reforming idealism, it was able to draw in outstanding talent as the freedom struggle and movements for social change intensified and as new educational and career opportunities arose in a modernising society. As is often the case with such pursuits, the calling was conspicuously underpaid. The transformation of the calling into a profession took place over a long period, mirroring the change in the character of a newspaper like The Hindu from a purely societal and public service mission into a business enterprise framed by a societal and public service mission.
Today the news media have become fairly big business. Journalism has become a high profile profession that draws its share from the national talent pool, even if it is not among the professions offering the highest monetary rewards. The reach of newspapers in society has grown impressively. Daily newspaper circulation is approaching the 60 million mark (if we accept the somewhat inflated circulation figures reported, under the law, to the Registrar of Newspapers in India). According to the latest National Readership Survey, there were 156 million readers of daily newspapers in India in 2002. While the absolute number is gigantic, it must be seen in social context, against the 500 million Indian adults who do not read any daily newspaper, among them 248 million literates or neo-literates. There is also uneven dispersion of newspapers between men and women, urban and rural readers, and among social classes.
The political scientist Robin Jeffrey's scholarship on the growth of successful newspapers in a dozen Indian languages over the past quarter century highlights a lively and buoyant situation where, essentially, five factors have been capitalised on. They are improved technology, which enables the production and distribution of larger numbers of more attractive newspapers; steadily expanding literacy; expanding purchasing power; aggressive publishing that is driven by profit, power and survival and seeks expansion; and political excitement. For the English language press, some of these factors seem more potent than others.
The past decade of economic liberalisation has been a time of accelerated growth for Indian newspapers, with a sea change taking place in their production, distribution, marketing, profitability, and overall operations. The Hindu's circulation virtually doubled between 1993 and 2003; it is now approaching the million mark. The newspaper launched 125 years ago by six young nationalists with a borrowed capital of a rupee and three quarters is today published by a Rs. 400 crore company. The dependence of all the Indian news media on advertising has long been critical. For a large mainstream newspaper like The Hindu, it has become extremely critical, with advertising revenues now accounting for 80 per cent of total revenues. In the contemporary age, there can be no walls separating editorial functions within a newspaper. Nor can there be walls between the editorial and marketing functions of a newspaper in the sense of ruling out exchange of information and experience, consultation, and cooperation.
The other side of the coin to the buoyant growth of Indian newspapers in recent times is a new combination of pressures on the core values of journalism, pressures generated by intensifying competition, by business success, and sometimes by political ambition. In the name of the omnipotent market, a new kind of demand is made for manipulating news, analysis, and opinion to suit the owners' financial and political interests and for tailoring the editorial product to subserve marketing goals. Murdoch-style price wars and other aggressive practices tremendously strengthen these pressures. There is also evidence of creeping corruption in Indian journalism.
The Hindu has recently argued editorially that the only answer to all this can be journalism of high quality, rooted in well-defined core values, clear-sighted, ethically and professionally sound, determined to put editorial values first, responsive to the needs of readers and the market within clearly worked out journalistic parameters, willing to transform its methods and practices to keep up with changing technology and times. It is clear that in order to flourish, such a journalism must go hand in hand with good, state-of-the-art business practice, which bases its long-term strategy on a subtle appreciation of the fundamentals and core values of journalism as well as the evolving needs of the market. The Hindu has also asserted editorially that great newspapers with a soul know where to draw the lakshman rekha and how to give primacy to the editorial functions. The challenge is to internalise this knowledge in the profession of journalism.
The founders of The Hindu centre-staged two guiding principles: "fairness and justice". That other principles, functions and themes have been implicit in the practice of serious, quality journalism becomes clear by taking an eagle-eye view of the newspaper over 125 years. One theme is the interplay of continuity and change. Another is the tension, which can be converted by good leadership into something creative, between tradition and modernity. The functions that a serious newspaper can perform with benefit to society are the credible-informational, the critical-investigative-`watchdog', the educational, and the agenda-building functions. Unfortunately, a propaganda or `manufacture of consent' role is also played from time to time, a negative function that harms society and the people's interests.
But in the final analysis, journalism with a soul, journalism that claims to be socially responsible and ethical, needs a template of clearly defined principles on which to work. The Hindu recently proclaimed editorially that in keeping with the values of India's historical civilisation, which has respected, cherished and conserved diversity and pluralism, and in keeping with the universal modern values of enlightenment, democracy, secularism and justice, it has worked out a set of five principles to guide its future. These principles are worth reiterating: truth telling; freedom and independence; justice; humaneness; and contributing to the social good. It would be unhistorical for any institution to claim that there has been a total and undeviating adherence to all these principles all the time, especially over a century and a quarter. Such a claim would also lack credibility in the journalistic sense. However, The Hindu is clear that these principles constitute a sort of Panchsheel for itself and, going beyond the future of one institution, for the press and news media in India.
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