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The Real Media Explosion

Headlines from the Heartland: Reinventing the Hindi Public Sphere by Sevanti Ninan;


The Real Media Explosion

Headlines from the Heartland: Reinventing the Hindi Public Sphere

by Sevanti Ninan; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2007; pp 308, Rs 395.


n 1995, no one would have believed it possible that within a decade Hindi newspapers would have grown in circulation to the point that they would dominate the print media in India. No one would have envisaged that one of them would have tied up with a foreign publication, that another would be listed on the stock exchange and that a Hindi media house and a Hindi news channel would have jointly launched an English language newspaper in the most difficult market – Mumbai. Yet, this is precisely the reality of the Indian media today, a reality that has not been fully registered by those who believe that they are born to be the leaders of the media by virtue of the language in which they operate, that is English.

The 2006 National Readership Survey clearly established the overwhelming dominance of the Hindi print media. In the five million club of newspapers (that is newspapers with readerships exceeding five million), there was not a single English language newspaper in the top 10. Five were Hindi and the other five were from other regional languages. Number 11 on the list was Times of India. It is this new world of the Indian media dominated by the Hindi press that Sevanti Ninan investigates in her fascinating book. How and why have the Hindi press and the Hindi channels on television grown so phenomenally as to dominate both print and broadcast?

Literacy and Markets

Some of the growth in the readership of Hindi newspapers can be attributed to the increasing literacy rate in the Hindi heartland. As part of the efforts of the National Literacy Mission in the 1990s, to help neo-literates retain their newfound skills, Hindi newspapers were freely distributed to village literacy centres. This created a demand for newspapers on which the Hindi media could capitalise.

This fact alone, however, does not explain the dramatic growth in the circulation and readership of Hindi newspapers. What Ninan spells out – in a book that is both well researched and well written

– are the overlapping interests of commerce and media. The 1990s were also a period when the economy opened up and companies selling consumerables wanted to tap the potential of the rural market. Here a growing middle class was seen to have the purchasing power but needed persuasion. These companies, many of them leading multinationals, launched their rural strategy by localising and miniaturising their products so that they could be sold at the local tea stall. Thus shampoos and washing powder in small sachets selling at affordable rates could be seen strung up alongside the supari and gutka sachets. In villages where drinking water was scarce, Cocacola was available. Ninan cites the telling example of how Coke doubled the number of its rural outlets from 80,000 in 2001 to 1,60,000 by 2003, claiming by then that 80 per cent of its new Coke drinkers were rural.

It is this convergence of commercial interests and expanding rural markets on the one hand and growing literacy and the opportunity this gave Hindi newspapers to increase their circulation on the other, that contributed to this phenomenal growth of the Hindi media. Newspapers that had previously depended on government advertising and other concessions, as well as subsidies from other businesses, were now able to tap into advertising budgets aimed at rural areas. The companies selling consumerables and the newspapers benefited.

Newspapers that had not envisaged media as a profitable business now saw the possibilities.

The “hunger for news”, as Ninan puts it, also contributed to this growth. The 73rd and 74th amendments and panchayati raj had put in place a local politics that needed a response from the media. A national, regional, or even district level media would not suffice. There was need for greater localisation, for journalism that took events at the panchayat level as seriously as that at the district or state level.

Reporting the Local

These factors together led to what is now termed “localisation”, a phenomenon where newspapers have multiple editions with editorial content that is exclusively aimed at a district, even as some pages remain common for all editions. While Eenadu in Andhra Pradesh claims it pioneered this trend, Hindi newspapers like Rajasthan Patrika,Dainik Bhaskar,Dainik Jagran, Hindustan, Amar Ujala and Punjab Kesari amongst others made the most of this to increase their readership. Higher circulation ensured more advertising. The localisation strategy changed the economics of leading Hindi papers, making them resemble much more closely their English language counterparts that had depended on commercial advertising for the major part of their revenues. These papers also used the tactic of price wars

– begun by Times of India – to undercut their rivals in specific markets.

What of the content of these papers? Ninan’s research reveals that this too has changed to cater to what is perceived as “what the market wants”. So while there are still Hindi newspapers that believe that they have a distinct style and role and should not imitate their English language counterparts, the largest selling newspapers have gone colour, produce supplements on different marketable subjects and have even spawned a Page Three culture. Bollywood, fashion, sport are the predictable mix. At the same time, editors of Hindi newspapers believe that they reflect much more closely the politics and

Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

preoccupations of the majority of people as opposed to their English language counterparts. But that would form the subject of a separate discussion.

Ninan brings out several significant aspects of localisation. On the one hand, multiple editions and village level stringers has meant that more information and news is recorded and reported than ever before. The down side, however, is that what is reported is not necessarily read where it can make a difference. The editions of these newspapers are so localised that news about a particular district gets carried on a page or pages that circulate only in that district. Only news that is considered important enough to make it to the state edition is carried in other editions. As a result, important developments that ought to be read in the state capital, for instance, never make it to those editions, thereby undercutting the impact that such newsgathering can have. Neverthelessthe very fact that somewhere, an event or a development has been recorded creates the possibility of a follow-up, that it could be picked up by television or national newspapers.

The other problem is with the quality of reportage. Localisation has resulted in the creation of a whole new breed of “journalists” – people who have never before seen the inside of a newsroom. These stringers, as most of them are not full time reporters, are people with no journalistic training. They usually have other jobs in the village and are basically expected to gather information and convey it to the news centre through telephone or fax. Initially, much of this kind of “news” appeared unedited and unchecked. Now, the larger newspapers have set up systems to cross-check the facts, particularly of bigger stories before they print them. Still, for the village stringer, the “journalist” tag gives great power and influence in the local community, a power that is sometimes misused.

Localisation has also spawned media giants in the Hindi belt, newspaper organisations that have now become so large that they have the ability to destroy or absorb any publication that is truly local in nature. As a result, a newspaper like the Ranchi-based Prabhat Khabar for instance, a feisty newspaper that is known for its investigative stories on social issues, has faced an uphill struggle to stay afloat in the face of the onslaught of larger media houses that now publish their editions in Jharkhand. Prabhat Khabar has managed to survive but many older newspapers in a state like Madhya Pradesh have virtually folded up or become irrelevant.

A New Public Sphere

An interesting thought that Ninan leaves us with is how these changes in the Hindi media are reinventing the “public sphere” as envisaged by Habermas. She says, that the “decade and a half beginning from the early 1990s saw the expansion and reinvention of the public sphere in the Hindi belt, making it both inclusive and more commercially driven”. She also suggests that Hindi journalism is now more pragmatic and market-driven rather than editor-driven. She locates this new

Indian Statistical Institute International Conference on Comparative Development

New Delhi, India, 18 -19 December, 2007

This conference, in celebration of the Platinum Jubilee year of the ISI, seeks to examine the development implications of emerging fields in economics and to re-examine old questions in the light of new problems and new evidence. The goal of the conference is to bring together new research ideas, new data, and emerging policy debates. Conference speakers include Herbert Gintis (Central European University and Santa Fe Institute) and John Helliwell (University of British Columbia).

Researchers are invited to submit papers, both theoretical and empirical. Please send your paper with an abstract of at most 150 words by e-mail or post to the address below by September 30, 2007. All papers will be refereed. Authors of accepted papers will be informed by October 15, 2007. Accommodation and limited domestic travel support will be provided to participants in accordance with Institute norms.

E-mail address for paper submission:

Postal address for submission:

E. Somanathan Indian Statistical Institute 7 S.J.S. Sansanwal Marg New Delhi 110016 India Tel: (91-11) 41493939 Fax: (91-11) 41493981

Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007 public sphere in the local village chai shop, where people can pick up a copy of the multi-edition “localised” newspaper, or a truly local publication like Khabar Lahariya, a fortnightly magazine produced by a group of dalit women from Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh.

This is an important book and comes at a time when the media world in India is changing faster than most people realise. The English press, for instance, remains stuck in the belief that it is still the most important media. Ninan’s book should be compulsory reading for editors of English language newspapers. For above all, it underlines the change in the location of real politics in this country. Unless people in the media understand and recognise this shift of location, they will write themselves into irrelevance.



Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

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