This is an expanded version of a column which appeared in Mint, April 12, 2012
Two newspapers were started, back in 1947, in towns of the Hindi belt not that far from each other—Jabalpur and Jhansi. Last week, one acquired the other. In their 65 year trajectory one became known for producing some of the tallest Hindi journalists the country has known, the other for its growth which has eventually made it the most read and second highest circulated paper in the country. No prizes for guess who acquired whom.
NaiDunia which has been much romanticised for producing Rajendra Mathur and Prabhash Joshi, towering figures in Hindi journalism, and nurturing a culture which set the journalistic benchmark for the Hindi press, finally succumbed to market realities with the original owners selling out. It suffered huge losses in the last few years after opening a Delhi edition. But it began to lose the battle a long time ago.
In early 2005 Ajay Chhajlani, the man who had presided over NaiDunia’s heyday, explained to me how the paper came to lose out. In 1967 it was the first newspaper in the country to make the technological shift to offset printing. From the early 1980s to mid-1990s the paper was in technological transition, even as its three original owners died over the same period. Around the same time newspapers across northern india were becoming multi-edition. “By the time we thought of multiplying, newspapers had become capital intensive.”
There was another factor not mentioned then. Whereas the third generation of other leading newspaper families in the Hindi belt entered the family business, Ajay’s son Vinay went into the software businesss. When things became critical in the family newspaper after an expansion to Gwalior he came in, got an infusion of finances from a leading business house, (widely believed to be Mukesh Ambani’s companies, but that is neither confirmed nor denied) and led a short-lived expansion which included an edition in Delhi. But the losses only mounted till the industrialist’s backing for Vinay Chhajlani dried up.
Dainik Jagran meanwhile was less about scaling the heights of journalism than about expanding from early on, and getting masses of readers. Some years ago it was the first to start the notion of sms feedback from readers, doubtless a new age vulgarity for those who cherish the institution of letters to the editor.
The editor of Prabhat Khabar Harivansh, a noted figure in contemporary Hindi journalism, recently wrote a long, long piece over three days extolling the high-minded, spartan living tradition of NaiDunia’s early editors. One took no raise for 8 years on a salary of Rs 150 a month. The other, coming after him, asked for a salary of Rs 75 a month. He wrote at length about NaiDunia’s glorious contribution to the intellectual life of the period.
But that was in the past. Is small now unviable?
Harivansh’s essay invoked Marx, Engels and Darwin among others to warn that it was inevitable in market economy that the big fish would gobble the little fish. And went into a long prognosis of the changes in the newspaper industry which are making it near impossible for the small, family- owned newspapers of yore to survive. Rising costs of raw materials including newsprint, the dependence on advertising, and the dynamics of whom the advertiser favours-- big publications. He describes the age of Saskhi and DNA, where it needs an investment of upwards of Rs 1000 crore to launch a newspaper in a crowded market.
Tears are being shed for NaiDunia and its exasperated new owner is wondering why. The way Sanjay Gupta, India’s leading media baron sees it, he is not gobbling up NaiDunia, as is being made out. He is giving it a capital infusion which will put it back in the race for readership in Madhya Pradesh.
“I am not gobbling them, I am making them grow strong. I am giving them their right place to survive in the market. If Bhaskar buys them they will close it down. I am buying and mentoring an old brand which would have withered away. Today a Mid-Day is standing up to a DNA and HT onslaught and even a Mumbai Mirror because I have given them an infusion of capital.” (His company acquired Mid-Day a couple of years ago) He adds, “If a newspaper is about an idea of journalism and not able to survive it needs to go and sit in the lap of a media group. Whatever its tradition, it is going to be a stronger paper.”
Gupta says, today the debate is twofold. Should you earn out of journalism, and if so how much should you earn. “I don’t think we should start disowning capitalism and start moving towards socialism.” And he adds dryly, today nothing can be small or you will be gobbled up. ”This logic was applied in our family 30 years back. Expand, or perish. We began in Jhansi and then in time we launched in Gorakhpur.” They were not an entrepreneurial family backed by large funds but they were clear that it was a business. “Back in 1947 it was also to make money. We were not some kind of an NGO.”
And for one journalist involved the wheel has come full circle. Shravan Garg who has now taken over as NaiDunia’s chief editor to help the newspaper regain ground from Dainik Bhaskar, was the man who in September 1993 took over running Bhaskar in Indore and oversaw its overtaking of NaiDunia in that market. The challenge is now reversed.