Foreign Policy Blogs

Paper Wars

It’s all-out war, and yes, South Indians plan to relish every minute of it.

After all, it is rather gratifying to see the dignified Hindu getting down and dirty with the more boisterous Times. In a recent series of much-discussed ads, The Hindu wittily takes on the Times’ penchant for sensational and tabloid-centric news, urging readers to “stay ahead of the times.” The adverts sharply smack Times of India’s readers for being clueless about everything except inane Bollywood gossip.

Yet, the ads are another sign that South India’s grand old paper itself is finally catching up to the times. Established in 1878, and run by the family-owned Kasturi & Sons, The Hindu is one of India’s oldest English-language newspapers. Generations of South Indians have woken up to the paper’s steady, staid and reliable coverage of the news. Describing the paper, Jawarharlal Nehru once wrote that it reminded him of an “old maiden lady, very prim and proper, who is shocked if a naughty word is used in her presence. Not for it the shady side of existence, the rough and tumble and conflicts of life.”

 

Paper Wars

Source: The Hindu

That steadiness has worked in the paper’s favor for well over a century, making it South India’s preeminent daily and India’s third largest English newspaper with a circulation of over 1.5 million. Yet, that preeminence is slowly being threatened by a new readership that perceives the paper as being overly conservative and orthodox. Unlike the West, India is enjoying a boom in print media circulation rates. The paper was already facing competition from less-priced dailies like The Indian Express and the Deccan Chronicle when the Times of India (TOI) decided to make its South Indian debut by launching in Chennai in 2008. Though TOI – published by Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd (BCCL) – has long enjoyed the widest circulation across India, with a readership of over 7 million, it has traditionally avoided the South Indian market. Since 2008, however, the paper has been slowly making inroads into The Hindu’s turf in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Over the last three months, TOI has bombarded its Southern rival with a fantastic ad that accurately hits The Hindu for its soporific treatment of the news.

For The Hindu, this external threat has been compounded by internal issues that have roiled the newspaper’s management. As a family-run establishment, the paper has traditionally been run by the extended members of the Kasturi clan, with the top leadership positions, including editor-in-chief, going to family members. Last year, however, the paper’s most visible face – its indomitable editor-in-chief, N.Ram – ran into significant family opposition when he attempted to “professionalize and contemporize” the paper by choosing a non-family member to succeed in his place. Court battles ensued, dirty linen was washed in public, and accusations and counter-accusations flew fast and furious. Circumstances have finally forced the old maiden to enter the rough and tumble and conflicts of life.

The dust has finally settled, with a few unhappy family members and a new (non-family) editor-in-chief, Siddharth Varadarajan, on board. The new chief is already getting kudos for his emphasis on journalistic standards. He recently apologized to readers when a Delhi edition of the paper carried a full-front page ad extolling Congress chief, Sonia Gandhi. Writing on (where else?) Facebook, he said that “this sort of crass commercialisation compromises the image and reputation of my newspaper.”

Journalistic standards or not, the newspaper is apparently sharpening its claws in response to the TOI threat. Insiders promise “more photos, sharper content and definitely fewer events coverage that Hindu is kind of known for.” It is a smart strategy, and it is gratifying to know that the paper isn’t dumbing down its news in response to the Times threat, but rather is being smarter about its substantive coverage of the news.

 

Author

Aarti Ramachandran

Aarti Ramachandran is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in International Affairs at Columbia University, New York, where she is specializing in energy policy with an emphasis on South Asia. She previously worked as public and government affairs advisor in the energy industry for five years. She holds a Masters degree in environmental engineering from Northwestern University and a Masters degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, Columbia.

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