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An interaction with media critic Sevanti Ninan

She claims to be no Aesop, but her writing skills and commentary on the media do more than just talk. Sevanti Ninan, a columnist based in New Delhi, is a multi-tasker


She claims to & #BANNER1 & # be no Aesop, but her writing skills and commentary on the media do more than just talk. Sevanti Ninan, a columnist based in New Delhi, is a multi-tasker. Besides being a contributor for 'The Hindu' and 'Hindustan', she maintains a website, called TheHoot.org, which intends to revive journalistic ethics in the country. On meeting her, you immediately realise that she is a voracious reader, an eloquent talker, a prominent writer and an insightful researcher. She has recently brought out a book called 'Headlines from the Heartland'.

Robin Jeffrey, professor, Australian National University, has words of praise for Ninan. He says, "Ninan strives to connect her richly woven stories into the larger pattern of media and newspaper development throughout the world in the past 200 years."

In a rendezvous with Ninan in her tidy home at Shanti Niketan, a plush part of south Delhi, she started off the conversation by sharing her experience on her fourth title. She calls the whole process of writing the book a rigorous exercise to reach India's hinterland and conduct research at the grass-roots level. "Four years is what it took me to jot down all the interviews, facts and figures," she recalls.

"Apart from my three titles, I also have co-authored a book titled 'Plain Speaking' with N Chandrababu Naidu, but I don't wish to own the title," says Ninan.

Summarising the content and objective of the book, she says, "'Headlines from the Heartland' is a comprehensive account of the changes brought by the newspaper revolution in India's Hindi speaking states. Journalism, especially the Hindi press, has flowered in unexpected and unorthodox ways in India's districts, with colourful media marketing unfurling across villages from Bihar to Rajasthan. Civil society, politicians, panchayats, no one has been left untouched."

In her book she talks about how, in the 1990s, a newspaper revolution picked up pace because of growing literacy, communications expansion and rise in purchasing power in the Hindi-speaking states.

Sevanti Ninan
"Newspapers follow literacy and high spending readers in small towns and villages and set up their shops there. For instance, I once came across a very interesting fact while I was researching in Patna: there were more Internet users in Patna than in Delhi. It is these hidden facts that pull newspapers across the length and breadth of the country," she asserts.

But, didn't localisation carry some cons with it?

"Nothing is flawless," she says. She fully backed the localisation drive of newspapers, playing down the credibility, or lack of it.

"Most Hindi newspapers have hired stringers in the rural areas for little or no money, mostly local businessmen or farmers, and a very small portion of them may be carrying advertorial stories, but that doesn't make the entire localisation drive implausible," she explains.

Although she doesn't talk much about television in her book, Ninan draws a quick comparison between sensationalism in television and print journalism. "Far-fetched is the word you think about when you watch any news channel, especially the Hindi ones. Print isn't as far-fetched or creative as far as stories go, but surely, if television is playing some rubbish story 12 times a day, it does put pressure on print to give it some space next day in the newspaper, even if with a different angle," she adds.

Despite reaching the interiors, she feels that there is a lot of scope for Hindi newspapers to explore and reach further into rural India. "In the book, I have talked about how many small villages aren't yet connected by road and are hence deprived of local newspapers. Newspaper can reach further, as a big chunk of the rural population still isn't well-connected," she adds.

The author of 'Through the Magic Window: Television and Change in India' (1995) and 'Broadcasting Reform in India' (1998), Ninan isn't just writing books and columns, she is devoting a portion of her time and money on her dream project, TheHoot.org.

"I have big plans for TheHoot.org. New designs are ready, it's just that due to paucity of funds, it can't take off the way it should," she says.

Initial support for this portal came from UNESCO, and from individuals, but donor support thereafter for the core activities of The Hoot has been very hard to come by. It is currently running on a grant from a small British charity that prefers to remain unnamed.

"There are various portals dedicated to media and advertising, but nothing particularly on journalism. There are various news columns on media, but all are on television and nothing on print. With The Hoot, we wish to have a separate property dedicated to journalism," she concludes.

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