India's Top Newspapers Battle for Readers' Hearts and Souls: Choudhury

The Times of India and The Hindu are the two best-known English newspapers in India. Both are well over 100 years old, and are family-owned. Over the decades their gaze on Indian society and politics has made readers impute to each of them a kind of human aura, identified with the cities from which they are published.

The Times is often called "The Old Lady of Boribunder," a nod to the district in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) where the newspaper has its offices. The Hindu is known as "the Mahavishnu of Mount Road," after an Indian god, suggesting not just the site in the south Indian metropolis of Chennai (formerly Madras) where it is published, but also an Olympian gaze and detachment. The Times dominates the west and the north of the country; The Hindu's stronghold is the south. Their cumulative impact on the public sphere is vast. Between them they sell close to 5 million copies daily, in one of the few markets in the world where the audience for printed newspapers is growing.

From around the time of the liberalization of India's economy in 1991, however, these two venerable newspapers have taken sharply divergent routes toward the business of journalism. Today one might say that they stand, respectively, for a journalistic restlessness that verges on self-harm, and a stability that can seem hidebound.

The Times lowered its prices to boost circulation (when I was growing up, in the 1990s, it sold for 1.50 rupees, $0.03 at today's prices; now it only costs 5 rupees, $0.10), thereby pricing out its competitors. It compensates for its losses by aggressively wooing advertisers, embracing a culture of celebrity journalism (spawning what is called "the page 3 culture") and -- in keeping with the spread of the values of the market -- repositioning the reader as first and foremost a consumer. It now unapologetically and often unreflectively speaks the language of the New Economy, persistently interpreting the decisions of people through the impact of such actions on their "brands."

The Hindu, meanwhile, remained mired in the conservatism of the Indian south, and in a left-wing politics that seemed curiously reactionary despite its suggestion of radicalism. To read them in succession can be akin to feeling as if one has just been addressed by a teenager and then a dotard.

Both newspapers also continuously do injury to the medium in which they express themselves, the English language. The Times is awash with empty catchphrases, tasteless puns (on Oct. 7 the headline of a piece on Steve Jobs' demise was "Steve Jobs Takes iWay To Heaven"). They also feature slapdash syntax and creative spelling. The Hindu retails its thoughts in an intensely fusty English that would have been current around 1950, and seems to regard cliches and deadwood as the verbal embodiment of fidelity to tradition.

When one comes across a barbarous construction like "stormy pretzel" in these two newspapers, then, one can read it in different ways. The Times knows what the original phrase is ("stormy petrel," as in the sea-faring bird that can guide sailors to land) but is desperate to modify it to manufacture a pun; The Hindu wishes to activate the original phrase, but is so remote from its sense that it mangles it.

Last week, the English-language public sphere and social media networks in India rippled with excitement after The Hindu launched an attack on its competitor through a stinging print and television campaign. The print ads, running with the common tagline "Stay ahead of the times," mocked the dumbing-down of the news by the Times with lines such as "Because government malfunctions matter more than wardrobe malfunctions" and "Read about political parties. Not Page 3 parties." The video commercials, each lasting a minute, showed a group of young people unable to answer a set of simple questions about Indian politics, business, sport and mythology, but reeling off the correct answers to questions about film stars. Then, they are asked, "Which newspaper do you read?" Their answers are bleeped out, but aren't hard to decipher.

Indian newspapers rarely attack one another, so two pieces of context seemed most pertinent to this unusual salvo. The first was the launch of a new edition of the Times in 2008 in Chennai, the stronghold of The Hindu. The second was the arrival of a new editor last year at The Hindu, Siddharth Varadarajan, a widely praised political journalist and foreign correspondent, and the first person since 1965 to head the newspaper who wasn't a member of the family that owns it.

In the business newspaper Mint, its editor R Sukumar wrote about the matter:

One reason why I like the ads (and I will be honest about this) is editorial hubris. I see The Hindu as a paper that, like Mint, is fighting the good fight.

Another is the aggression on display. For too long, the Mahavishnu of Mount Road has played safe and it is good to see the paper becoming aggressive about what it does and, more tellingly, what it thinks of The Times of India’s style of journalism. [...]

The ads also come at a time when The Hindu has a new editorial and business team in place. I know from my own experience that a new editor, even if he is hand-picked by the old one, will, even as he keeps the core of the paper intact, try new things and experiment in an attempt to put his own stamp on the paper, and that can only help its cause.

And the website ran a piece on the clash in which it quoted Varadarajan:

"In Chennai and in other southern cities, the TOI had an ad attacking The Hindu. This can be seen as an answer to that," says Siddharth Varadarajan, editor, The Hindu. "But the issue that we are trying to point is well beyond that. It is a question of whether the readers are aware of journalism that they are consuming."

Varadarajan has a point. The debate isn't just about differences in the way two newspapers interpret the relative priorities of journalistic subjects -- an equilibrium that is eventually determined by the marketplace -- but about the manner in which the Times has insidiously attempted to move the goalposts of journalism in the last decade. The paper hasn't only blurred the lines between journalism, advertising and public relations, it has attempted to argue to readers that such a move is in their own interest, and in fact represents the forward-looking journalistic practice of a new age.

When the history of early 21st century journalism in India is written, perhaps the most revealing primary source will be "Medianet: In pursuit of newer streams of content." It was published by The Times in 2003 to defend its unconventional methods of newsgathering and presentation, methods that have since infected large swathes of Indian journalism, as a scathing recent report on the phenomenon of "paid news" in India revealed.

In a long, rambling, three-page farrago of non sequiturs and limping summaries, written in an English that hovers on the edge of illiteracy, the Times article asserts that the old model of journalism is obsolete. What a newspaper supplies to the reader is information, and therefore, to quote the newspaper's own tortuous and thoroughly disingenuous line of reasoning: "How does it matter whether information comes from the PR agencies or ad agencies so long it is of interest and utility to the reader?" The paper announces its decision to allow such agencies to pay for content in the newspaper through a channel called Medianet. Practically every sentence is rich with rationalization:

The basic thrust of the newspaper is to provide the readers with infinite information choices, whether through local reporting, news sources, advertising copy, advertorials, or sponsorships, so that today's assertive readers can make their own choice. [...]

Conventional newsgathering has not been able to capture the ever-emerging new areas of interest to the reader [...] Newspaper reporters tend to show a greater penchant for conventional subjects of nation and state, which often results in society, lifestyle and entertainment getting the short shrift. [...]

Today the reader not only expects just the editorial line or comment on issues of nation and state, but also on a range of information in the lifestyle, fashion and entertainment realms.

The reader wants to stay connected to local happenings, local dynamics, local events, essentially localness in everything. It is in this context that PR agencies have come to play a bigger role in providing copy to the newspapers. As a consequence, PR agencies are no longer an anathema. (sic) [...]

A reader has never been averse to paid copy or a sponsored serial, as long as due disclosures are provided. [...]

Content and message have always shared a symbiotic relationship. The divide between the two is increasingly getting narrowed because message is information (sic) and information is message (sic) and the two together satiate the appetite of the advertiser and the reader.

Suppose we accept that "A reader has never been averse to paid copy or a sponsored serial, as long as due disclosures are provided." Does the Times honor the revised standards it has set for itself and perhaps projected onto its readers? Sometimes not, as a recent piece published on the website of the Wall Street Journal pointed out with reference to a story about "Functional Manual Therapy" that appeared on the front page of both the Times and its sister paper, The Economic Times.

And even when such disclosures are provided, it's hard to escape the impression, reading the Times, that debate on issues of great importance is being skewed by interests that have the money to do so, and can buy credibility through the mass medium of a respected newspaper. A case in point is a recent full-page story that the Times ran on Aug. 28, 2011 about the Indian arm of the multinational biotechnology company Monsanto Co.

I came across this story on that day while in the south Indian city of Bangalore, on page 13 of the local edition of the Times. Called "Reaping gold through BT cotton," the report by a correspondent, Snehlata Shrivastav, addressed in a few slack, airy paragraphs the complex and controversial issue of farmer suicides in the cotton-growing districts of the Indian state of Maharashtra, and their alleged relationship to economic distress caused by the use of BT cotton seeds, a strain sold in India by Monsanto. The article began:

Yavatmal district is known as the Suicide Capital of the state [of Maharashtra], but two villages - Bhambraja and Antargaon - are an aberration for the better. Not a single person from the two villages has committed suicide. So much so, several families have shut the door on private moneylenders and started side business. The turnaround has been brought about by BT Cotton, Snehlata Shrivastav finds out.

The piece ended with the blithe disclosure, which would trouble any serious journalist, that "The trip to Yavatmal was arranged by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech." Further evidence of conflict of interest was supplied at the bottom of a box accompanying the text. The box provided pen-portraits and photographs of farmers and families from Yavatmal who had become prosperous through the use of BT seeds, but ended with the admission that this story had appeared in an earlier edition of The Times in Nagpur, on Oct. 31, 2008, almost three years before.

What might have happened to the farmers in the time between October 2008 and August 2011? The Times wasn't interested in knowing. Or, as Akash Kapur wrote in a recent piece in the New York Times, "In India, sometimes news is just a product placement."

From these examples, one might conclude that the Times has supplied a new, entrepreneurial spin on the idea of "due disclosure" in journalism, and that this revised conception of integrity has led to the paradox of it being an especially untrustworthy guide to what is happening in India today. One senses that The Times would like to present itself as the Great Gatsby of India's emerging Gilded Age, in which all traditional values are being churned and a new definition of success based on materialism is emerging -- an ideal to which it must itself subscribe if it is at all to understand what is happening around it.

But in truth it may be closer to a journalistic incarnation of Balram Halwai, the clever, cocksure, coolly amoral protagonist of Aravind Adiga's bestselling novel "The White Tiger." It is possible, then, to see the recent war of words and images between The Hindu and the Times as a battle not just for market share, but between two different ideals of journalism: one that, for all its problems, discloses facts about the world, and another that explores the opaque idea that message is information and information is message.

(Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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    Chandrahas Choudhury at

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