Monday, April 14, 2008

The Times, they are a-changin'

When I was growing up in Delhi, the two major English-language papers were The Times of India and The Hindustan Times. The latter was, at the time, regarded (by the people I knew) as superior in classified ads, and in little else. The ToI was the "serious" paper; but by the mid-80s its decline was already becoming apparent, and its concern was clearly with selling the product rather than being newsworthy. So when the Hindu started publishing in Delhi, it was a breath of fresh air. It never topped the circulation charts but it rapidly found a strong readership, not just among south Indians.

Some months ago we stopped buying The Hindu because of their ludicrously biased coverage (both news-wise and editorially) of the Nandigram affair. We switched to Deccan Chronicle, a far worse newspaper than I ever remember ToI being, but I still prefer it to The Hindu.

Today the Hindu's Reader's Editor discussed the latest controversy about the Hindu's biases: its recent coverage of Tibet. It's worth reading in full.

This quote from the Editor-in-Chief, N Ram, says it all:

The Dalai Lama's statements were edited because he isa separatist and tended to justify the savage and murderous riots in Lhasa.

So presumably the Hindu would have edited statements from Gandhi, who was a separatist. And note the weaselly words "tended to justify" -- did he justify the riots (I haven't seen a news report of this) or didn't he?

Today, also, The Times of India entered Chennai. I am tempted to subscribe. And I am very interested in seeing what this does to the circulation figures of The Hindu. As far as I can tell, The Hindu has now alienated the following classes of readers:

  • Readers interested in local news who don't like the blatant pro-DMK slant
  • "Traditional" (conservative) Tam-Brahm readers who believe they don't find enough respect for their religion or culture
  • The Hindutva right-wing, for the same reasons as above
  • The liberal left, who are appalled by the coverage of Nandigram and Tibet
  • People who want new and original reading matter, not rehashes from The Guardian and The New York Times (which are now available online to anyone)

Is there anyone left out above?

The ToI has two paths to building its readership: first, building a quality product; second, pandering to as many of the disenchanted categories above as possible. I think the latter will be easier.


km said...

I keep hoping some Indian entrepreneur will spot the glaring market gap and publish a truly outstanding newspaper...but then I also think hoping is for idiots. (Sorry, Barack.)

//N. Ram needs to go.

Space Bar said...

The Hindu is unbearable (and the DC is laughably bad). I'd rather not read any newspapers at all, actually.

In your list you're forgetting the category of people who wished they had more spice and gossip. The Hindu is trying hard but it just doesn't know how.

Sunil D'Monte said...

I'm wondering whether to stop my hindu subscription completely and simply not get a newspaper at all. Thinking about it now, there's hardly anything I read in it - it's just one of those morning rituals. Btw km, I once asked my uncle that same question (he's a former TOI editor, from the "good days") - his view was that there is definitely a market gap for such a paper, but you'd need to have very deep pockets to sustain a loss for 1-2 years because that's how long it would take.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

sb - yes, I left that out. But that was never part of The Hindu's "core" readership. Some years ago they didn't even carry cartoon strips. I suppose they're feeling threatened by DC and, now, TOI.

km, sunil - yes deep pockets would be necessary and, also, the paper would need to cost a lot more per issue. Newsstand price is Rs 1.50 - 4 in most cases, where the news stand prices of NYT, Guardian, Le Monde etc are about a dollar or an euro. (Subscriptions are much cheaper but the ratio of prices is about the same, I think.) I don't believe the price difference is entirely explained by differing labour costs and production costs. It would cost serious money to produce a quality paper. And India's newly rich are unlikely to be interested in such a thing.

Rahul Basu said...

To your question

Is there anyone left out above?

the answer should be obvious - -- the letters writers and their ilk who last week mounted a spirited (I am trying to use a parliamentary word here) defense of the Hindu Tibet policy, by countering the blatantly imperialist and neo-liberal claims in the letter by Ram Guha, Shashi Tharoor et al. ;-) Being acquainted with many of them, I suspect (nay, I am certain) that they think the Hindu is the only newspaper to provide balanced coverage of all political matters.

Unfortunately, I am not so sure you can keep a circulation going on the backs of these people.

By the way, (since you might just see the name 'Rahul' on top) this is Rahul Basu so this comment is not a case of Rahul Siddharthan talking to himself :-) :-)

Rahul Siddharthan said...

The alacrity of the response of Ram's defenders is indeed impressive.

Ram says "Not many letters were received other than what we published." What, you don't believe him?

Perhaps The Hindu will survive, with the circulation of Mainstream in N.C.'s days (does it still exist?) Or perhaps Ram will be the victim of another coup. After all, his mandate was to "trengthen the quality and objectivity in opinion and news reports" (that had supposedly suffered under Ravi/Parthasarathy). Nice try.

km said...


Perhaps the New Yorker business model is of some relevance here?

Rahul Siddharthan said...

km - what's the New Yorker model?

Anyway, magazines are easier: Outlook came out of nowhere to challenge India Today, back when Sunday, Illustrated Weekly etc were dying. Tehelka is doing well too, despite its legal troubles. Magazines can pick and choose what they write about, and take their time over it. A newspaper needs to cover the same day's news reasonably comprehensively: that's much harder. And the New Yorker isn't even a news magazine, for the most part.

km said...

Magazines like Time/Newsweek cater to ~4 million readers per week.

Then there's the New Yorker, catering to only 1 million readers. But this segment is (qualitatively) very different from Time's 4 million subscribers. Narrower market, more affluent readers, more diverse reading interests (poetry, fiction, essays, art..)

So my point was, with all the wealth being created in India, why aren't newspapers (and magazines) targeting that market?

(WSJ caters to that market here in the US. Smaller subscription base but deeper content.)

Rahul Siddharthan said...

km -
So my point was, with all the wealth being created in India, why aren't newspapers (and magazines) targeting that market?

Because (as I said above) the nouveau riche in India are not interested in that sort of thing?

I shouldn't generalise of course. There probably is room for something like The New Yorker, if someone wanted to try. But a newspaper, unlike a magazine, does need volumes to survive. I really don't think the market exists for a quality newspaper.