The gathering at the Indian Newspaper Congress 2009, organised by the Indian Newspaper Society (INS) and exchange4media on July 10 in the capital, was witness to some interesting opening comments by the country's minister of state for external affairs, Shashi Tharoor.
Tharoor began on a light note by telling the audience that he belongs to Elizabeth Taylor's school of thought. As she once said, "I shall not keep you for long," he, too, would not tie-down the listeners with an unending sermon.
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As a kid, Tharoor said that along with his morning tea, he religiously scanned at least 7-8 newspapers. On an average, newspapers then had 7-8 pages, unlike today's newspapers, which have as many as 25-30 pages.
He recalled his regular visits to the printing press, especially at The Statesman, where he saw Linotype machines for the first time, and the whole process of letter frames being carved in metal to form a word for printing. Tharoor also mentioned what was then known as the Dak editions - the newspapers that reached rural areas a day later.
Popular publications featuring among the top 10 dailies at that time included Mathrubhumi, Ananda Bazaar Patrika, Malayala Manorama and Indian Express. Tharoor added that in his early days, no Hindi daily was amongst the top 10 list.
The examples and interesting facts highlighted the radical difference that has come about in the print media.
Tharoor then went on to enumerate the positive aspects of the change. First, he highlighted the phenomenon of increasing circulation of print media in the country, unlike most of the other countries, including the United States.
He said that increasing literacy rates and more disposable income in the hands of the people have perhaps contributed to the Times of India (TOI) being the largest circulated newspaper in the world today, and Dainik Jagran being the most widely read newspaper across the globe (after displacing a Japanese publication for the coveted honour).
He stated that it is amazing to see Indian bookstalls being crowded by foreign titles such as Marie Claire, Vogue and Maxim, and the World Street Journal and Herald Tribune selling here at a lesser price than in the west.
All these things prove that the country provides scope for expansion for publications, both horizontally and vertically. New launches prove that media continues to attract entrepreneurs willing to take a risk and invest their capital.
He also added that English language publications enjoy a disproportionate share of advertising revenues as the English reader comes at a premium. However, factors such as print prices and distribution costs may not always work out to be an advantage for the largest publisher. The emerging trend across the globe now is to roll out Internet versions of the publications. A presence on the web imparts loyalty and credibility to print publications.
Tharoor also mentioned that off-shoring and sub-contracting editorial work is the emerging trend. If things can be done cheaper somewhere else, publishers in the United States see no hassle in shipping work to third world countries, especially India.
He also spoke at large on the content revolution in the print media. He remarked that author VS Naipaul, in one of his earlier works, had come down heavily on political reporting, which he believed lacked merit as write-ups were nothing but a rehash of press briefings by political parties and ministers.
However, Tharoor said that today, reporting and coverage of events as well as political beat have come a long way. There is undoubtedly more depth, range and complexity in the coverage of events.
As the man-in-charge of external affairs, he asserted that what concerns him is the ways in which media can contribute to India's engagement with the outside world. He added that earlier, the coverage of events came with a hangover of a colonial point of view. Today, the influence has more or less become non-existent.
Giving an example, he said, "There was a time when Indian newspapers preferred devoting more column centimetre space to the coverage of the news related to the Queen's Coronation Ceremony in England, rather than devoting space to a visiting head of the state from our neighbouring country, Sri Lanka."
Even at the time when the Foreign Exchange Regulation was in effect, Indian publications had foreign postings in three-four strategic countries. With all the economic growth, Tharoor said he saw no marked change in the physical presence overseas, which is directly responsible for exhaustive news events coverage.
Although he admitted that it was expensive to maintain correspondents abroad, he said that if it could be done earlier, publications can definitely do better now, with more resources and finance in their hands.
Looking forward, Tharoor said that the international news coverage in the Indian media needs to move beyond the confines of single page coverage. It has to move beyond being trivial to being well researched and exhaustive. Citing the example of a myopic media and its obvious fallout, he said that a self-obsessed media in the US found itself at fault looking for answers/explanations in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Tharoor concluded by saying that the world today is a small global village. What happens in one part has a close bearing on the situation in another part. An informed citizen is what our newspapers and magazines need to aim for, and this can be achieved by the media through more investment in what's happening on the other side of the world.