Sun shines on Indian newspaper industry
It's a boom-time for the press in India. And with six out of 10 people now literate, it's only going to get bigger, say Chetan Chauhan and Jonathan Brown
Monday 13 December 2004
Anyone who believes the buzz has disappeared from the British newsroom in recent years should pay a visit to the sweltering offices of Delhi's biggest-selling broadsheet. By seven o' clock, the offices of the Hindustan Times are reminiscent of a madhouse. The cavernous office, practically deserted during the day, has been filling steadily since early evening with the newspaper's 120-plus Delhi-based reporters, who have been out on the beat since lunchtime, chasing stories in temperatures of 45C.
In the three-month monsoon, 178mm of rain can fall in a single day, bringing severe flooding. And in a city of 15 million people where the public transport system is highly unreliable, simply getting about is not easy. Journalists are given special government bus passes, although most prefer to avoid the crush and travel by autorickshaw or weave their way through the city's three million vehicles on private motorbike.
Coming face to face with the key figures within India's giant bureaucracy and swollen political class is also never easy. Access is normally granted after persistent pleas with secretaries. Meetings are normally limited to 15 minutes, and the reporter will seek to arrange as many of these before returning to the office in the evening to file their stories.
"Khogen, Ashu come over," bellows Yashwant Raj, the news editor, above the hubbub as he sketches out a dummy page, surrounded by senior staff. He is joined by Ashu, the graphic editor, who calls for the master illustrator Jayanto. He ambles over dressed in a long kurta over jeans and slippers. His job will be to draw plans for a new Delhi metro line.
Next Yashwant disappears into the reporters section, hunting for other reporters whose stories are destined for the front. Unlike in Britain, reporters are not permitted to take a byline on a story written from a press release, an open briefing or reworked wire copy. A front-page story brings with it recognition.
Yashwant returns from his trawl with Shekhar Iyer, a senior special correspondent from the newspaper's political bureau. Leaning back in his chair, he asks him to take him through his story on the day's biggest event: a successful bandh - nationwide strike - called by Vishwa Hindu Parishad to protest against the arrest of a Hindu priest Kanchi Shankaracharya on a murder charge. Satisfied, Yashwant gives him an hour to file 400 words.
The Hindustan Times began life as a family-owned newspaper in 1924, from a small office in Connaught Place. Today, it is still a family affair. K K Birla is the chairman while his daughter Shobana Bhartia runs the paper which prides itself on its hard news coverage, but which has recently added lifestyle and Delhi sections focusing on Bollywood gossip and parties. What has not changed is its support for the Congress Party, which has ruled India for 40 years, taking India through independence, partition, riots, emergency and the assassination of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi - not to mention the threat of nuclear war with Pakistan that looms over the subcontinent.
Now selling 900,000 copies a day, the Hindustan Times is bucking the trend seen in Britain, where, with a few notable exceptions, circulation is firmly downward. The HT is on the rise: in the past five years circulation is up 30 per cent. Trends are similar for its rival paper, The Times of India.
Professor Dinesh Sharma, of Delhi University's department of sociology, says that India has seen a massive surge in its media market in the past seven years. "Both newspapers and television are growing. With the population of the cities rising abnormally, the circulation of most English-language papers will increase," says Professor Sharma.
That ties in with the growth of the Indian middle class, driven by technological expertise in rapidly developing urban areas such as Delhi and Mumbai. The average annual income in cities is now close to $12,000, as opposed to the $4,000 in rural areas.
This boom in newspaper circulation means they can charge a high advertising rate. Many papers offer a decent rate for advertisement in all its editions covering almost entire country. This means it can use its low cost base to keep the cover price down. A weekday copy costs Rs 1.50, less than 2p. On Sunday, when it is close to 60 pages, it costs Rs2. Pay for reporters is Rs15,000- Rs40,000 (£177-£472) per month, depending on their seniority, but the hours are long. The high revenues have created a fully automated newspaper after much recent investment in technology.
That said, there remains a vast and untapped potential for newspapers which serve the non-urban Hindi-speaking masses, as well as the 14 other languages spoken in this giant country. In a population of more than one billion, six out of ten people are now literate, and almost all villages are covered by the education programme, offering a potential newspaper market 10 times the size of Britain. The economy is stable and growing at about 8 per cent a year.
"The danger for the English-language print media is that their readers are limited to the cities," says Professor Sharma. "The vernacular-language papers have a bigger market in smaller towns and rural India, and that market has yet to be tapped to its full potential."
Good news for the BBC staff facing the axe. A place in the sun, perhaps?
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