Saturday, April 7, 2012

The TOI: Rendering itself Redundant?

I have a weekend newspaper ritual. It isn't particularly original, involving some combination of early mornings, tea, music and solitude. I spent a better part of this day with the eminently readable Mint Lounge, perusing an issue brimming with nostalgia pieces about summer-time - summer foods, summer drinks, summer fun and summer boredom. Oddly enough, this set me thinking not about summers, but about newspapers.

The newspapers of my childhood included a children's weekly (its name lost in the mists of my past), The Asian Age (packed MJ Akbar's punch and was guaranteed to leave inky rub-offs on one's fingers), The Mid-Day (with sports pieces penned by Khalid A H Ansari, who I noticed was more of a quoter than a writer) The Afternoon (helmed by  BusyBee, as whimsical a chronicler of cricket and Bombay as one could wish for) and of course, The Times of India.

The Times of India. Reassuringly large and thick, crammed with content and columns, boasting of pedigreed names on the masthead (a sprinkling of whom remain). The paper one read to improve one's vocabulary, to learn about the world, to feel grown-up. Even the Bombay Times of the past was an institution of sorts, run by Malvika Sanghvi, with contributors ranging from  Nikhat Kazmi to Deepa Gehlot to Anil Dharker to the D'Cunha's. One went to it for party pictures but also for a point of view about the city and its culture.

But things changed, and how. The paper became smaller and thinner, uncomfortably so. The Bombay Times featured the faces of new columnists. Grammar and spellings became suspect. There were more colour pictures and more ads. The editorial featured not one, but opposing points of view on the same page, as if the idea were to demonstrate even-handedness and a perverted sort of fairness. And then there was the open allegiance to info-tainment, which meant nothing at all to the average Indian till the Times chose to define and elaborate the concept.

Info-tainment meant news delivered with lashings of masala, it meant spirituality delivered in convenient capsules every Sunday, stories accompanied by separate blurbs articulating the 'Times View' (a function the editorial no longer performed), it meant civic dialogue moderated by the reliably acerbic Bachi Karkaria under the arc-lights at St.Xavier's College, broadcast live on Times Now. Lately, it has come to mean adopting one or more populist initiatives every year (for what good is a newspaper that is not an Agent of Change), having an editorial director rather than an editor, proclaiming every 'first,' and every 'record' number hit as if the paper is the news, not a vehicle for the news.    

The best that can be said of the Times is that it is transparent. It proposed to create and set new standards for journalism and it has delivered on this promise. Profits sit above principles in order of priority, mediocrity beloved by many is merit, stories must entertain rather than move, and Chetan Bhagat is accorded the same status as Swaminathan Aiyer. If you can't out-reason them, out-shout them. And while the Times still has reporters worth reading, I find traces of a deliberate self-consciousness in their writing. There is too much cheekiness, too many clever asides, too many (metaphorical) shrugs of shoulders and turning away from conclusions to be entirely accidental.  

The Times doesn't take itself too seriously. It takes the paper to the people and gets them flashmobbing.  It's a formula that works - the Times media empire is going from strength to strength and other newspapers - the HT, the DNA - are attempting to imitate some elements of this formula - the citizen initiatives, the Bollywood chatter, the glossy pullouts. The Times is clearly giving us what we want, and what's wrong with that?

What's wrong with that is that we can get what we want anywhere - it's a consumer's world, and almost everyone is retailing some object of desire or perceived necessity. In positioning its paper as a product, the Times is inviting itself to be judged by a consumer's standards - and these standards are fickle at worst, cyclical at best. Entertainment, no matter how influential and beloved, comes with a shelf-life.

A newspaper can reinvent itself, adapt to new formats (notably digital), juggle price-points and find interesting ways in which to relay content. But it is still a resource, not an FMCG product or a television show. For the most part, people read papers not to be entertained but to learn about goings-on in the world, and perhaps to understand how to interpret these on-goings. Of course most readers want to read something engaging rather than stilted and stultifying. They are likely to prefer publications whose sympathies are closely allied with their own. Who wouldn't?

But the question of how one informs is very different from the question of whether to inform. A newspaper's power lies in informing, in knowing and communicating. This is its sphere of influence - the only one where it can hope to excel and succeed. In giving us what it thinks we want, the Times circumscribes its own clout. We are told we live in a knowledge economy, that the creative class is rising, that three thousand rupee tablets and affordable technology will fuel our fierce ambitions. In this world, what we will want, over and above our other wants, will presumably be to know. And where will that leave the TOI and all the papers that are following its lead?

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