When the Old Lady takes on the Mahavishnu

ARVIND SWAMINATHAN writes from Madras: “Unprecedented” is the most misused and abused word in Indian journalism. Anything—almost everything—that the desk couldn’t check if it had happened before, is effortlessly slapped with the label “unprecedented”.

But 14 April 2008 will truly be an “unprecedented” day in the annals of Indian print media when the first bundle of The Times of India is shrunkwrap in its Madras presses and loaded on to a waiting truck.
It will be unprecedented for at least five reasons:

# It will establish The Times of India as India’s first truly national newspaper brand.

# It will breach the unwritten no-compete “arrangements” between print media behemoths.

# It will test if Madras is really an orthodox, conservative City as the world thinks it is.

# It will pit “serious journalism” versus anything-goes, chalta-hai, page 3 pap.

# It will be a battle that will establish if content is king, or if reader loyalty is hogwash.

Each of those claims are worthy of attention.

The Hindu advertises below its masthead that it has been “India’s national newspaper since 1878”, but the national there only refers to its role in the freedom movement, not its geographical spread. The undivided Indian Express, with 23 editions, claimed that it was “India’s only national newspaper” although it did not print in the East. But ToI‘s Madras edition, on top of editions in Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta makes it “The Masthead of India” (as its TV commercials claim), with editions in all four metro centres of the country.

For the Jains, Samir and Vineet, whose bhagwad gita is the advertising rate-card, that is of enormous signficance, especially if it can take their mother Indu Jain a few notches higher on the Forbes‘ list of Indian women-billionaires.

Second, the buzz, for a long time, was that there was a mutual agreement between the nation’s English media moguls that they would not enter each other’s “profit-centres”. It was first broken when the Hindustan Times went to Bombay three years ago. But Madras had remained a turf of The Hindu through and through. That stranglehold was slightly broken when Deccan Chronicle launched an edition a couple of years ago. But it is only ToI‘s entry on Monday, after several promised launches, that will break the monopoly fully, formally and finally.

However, these “unprecedented” feats are nothing compared to the real thing, which is the battle for the soul of Madras between two centenarians. In that sense not only is the ToI launch unprecedented, it is also historic.

Unlike bindaas Bangalore, Madras prides itself on being a literate City that values the word—or at least The Hindu paints its reader as a literate one who values the word and drinks buttermilk and goes to bed every night after attending a katcheri at the Academy in the evening.

Grim and correct, the “loyal” Hindu reader is said to be a serious, substantive character, not given to frivolous, titillating stuff that captivates the rest of us.

Kosovo more than Kodambakkam; abstract not tactile.

The arcane details of a bilateral contract between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot, the full text of the CPI(M) resolution on the 123 agreement, an MP3 of an anti-globalisation Nobel laureate’s speech, report of the expert group on agricultural indebtedness, a (preferably TamBrahm) bureaucrat’s defence of red tape… this is the kind of stuff that The Hindu, as the “paper of record” thinks its readers are dying to read every morning, and this is what its reporters and editors purvey with pride.

V.R. Krishna Iyer‘s fulmination, howsoever mediocre, M.S. Swaminathan‘s latest “note”, howsoever silly, Subramaniam Swamy‘s latest diatribe, howsoever mad, all get full play in the name of seriousness. Its reporters take down notes from railway, election, electricity, forest, and other officials as if they are receiving The Word from God herself.

The more boring the output, the more gray the presentation, the more serious the content, and therefore the more credible the newspaper was the inherent assumption.

Whether the reader really wanted such stuff, we don’t know because he was a hostage; he had no choice. Whether this was all Madras (and India) had to offer no one knew, because there was no other way to know. Whether this was how it was to be presented, in turgid unreadable prose, no one could argue.

The Hindu landed at his doorstep as regularly, and with the same consistency of his sachet of milk. You couldn’t argue with the milkman, you couldn’t argue with the hawker.

That comfort zone gets altered with the arrival of The Times of India.


The Hindu has had plenty of time and examples to prepare for this, the greatgrandmother of all newspaper battles. On the one hand, it has seen how ToI entered other established centres and tried to break the existing reader habit.

In Bangalore, Deccan Herald let ToI run all over it. In Delhi, Hindustan Times tried to compete but gave up after a while (after which Shobana Bharatiya was decorated with the ET Businesswoman of the Year). In Hyderabad, Deccan Chronicle played ToI‘s own game better. In Calcutta, The Telegraph has put up a stiff fight.

If The Hindu has learnt anything from these jousts, will be known shortly. But it has certain shown that it is up for a fight.

It got Mario Garcia to put its very old wine in a spanking new bottle. It has launched new supplements like “nxG” for the next generation, and a free tabloid called “Ergo” along the IT corridor. It is even tying up with NDTV to launch a Madras-centric channel called “Metro Nation”. Last week, its staff got generous hikes ranging from 60 per cent to 100 per cent.

Will all that help The Hindu to stave off the challenge?

If history is anything to go by, it has a good chance. Deccan Chronicle, a paper which copied The Times‘ editorial and marketing strategy and kept the ToI challenge at bay in Hyderabad, entered Madras with the same grandiose notion of upsetting The Hindu.

On paper, it clocked a circulation of well over a couple of lakh on a one-rupee cover price which was two full rupees less that of The Hindu, but The Hindu has lost none of its numbers even at the full cover price.

So, a price differential which ToI might offer through an invitation price (Rs 170 for six months, Rs 299 for a year) might not necessarily work wonders, especially in a year when ToI cannot afford to “dump” copies as it usual does, as the group has taken a Rs 400 crore hit on its bottomline because of soaring newsprint prices.

But where ToI differs from DC is in its content. Although its marketing men pride themselves on making the editor irrelevant, ToI is like a chameleon, which can tailor the kind of “serious” coverage that might suit a supposedly serious readership like Madras’.

Plus, it can offer reams and reams of job advertisements and “news you can use” classifieds through all its many partnership deals, which in a consumptive age is not to be sniffed at.

And then there is its marketing muscle. Having firmly embraced the advertising model, ToI sells its thick papers like toothpaste or soap. Its hoardings, its sales executives all dressed in newsprint attire with the line “Next Change” have been the talk of the town, peering from every building and apartment.

Will orthodox, conservative readers who claim to adore serious stuff be able to avoid the temptation of peering into an almost-free publication with plenty of colour, glitz and glamour? Or will only “outsiders” in Madras—the young and unconnected who have come here to work—shift to a paper which they are used to seeing in their hometowns?

The Times‘ executive president Ravi Dhariwal has told a fellow publisher that the paper is aiming at a print order of between 175,000 and 200,000 on day one. That will straightaway establish it as a No. 2 in a market where the revamped Indian Express sells in the low thousands, and DC‘s numbers few believe or care for. But ToI is not coming here to be No. 2, it’s aiming to be No.1.

Through its contemptuous disregard for reader interest in the coverage of Nandigram and Tibet, in particular, The Hindu has shown that it is stuck in an ideological Cooum. Through its disconnect with a changing India, a changing Madras, and changing reader profile, it has taken the high moral ground.

Yet, readers have stuck to it through it because they had no other choice.

And on top of all that have been the increasingly shrill accusations of bias. First an anti-right, anti-BJP bias under Malini Parthasarathy (which was supposed to be alienating the core readership), and then a full scale pro-left bias under N. Ram (whose reinstallation was supposed to provide the course-correction).

But a battle with The Times of India is not about morals; it’s about money and muscle.

In Madras, from Monday, it’s the battle of two worldviews between two centenarians.

In one corner is a left-of-centre 128-year-old which silently says we are right, this is what the official/minister told us; which says the world is falling apart, take our word for it; which says the movie to watch this Friday is a long-lost Francois Truffaut , and have you heard the Subramanyam Bharati number which M.S. Subbulakshmi didn’t record?

In the other corner is a 170-year-old will o’ the wisp which says screw farmers, the world is a great place if you just keep buying the stuff our advertisers sell; corruption is here to stay yaar, why bother, I’m OK you’re OK; which says the individual is bigger than society; which says Munnabhai MBBS was great but Lage Raho should have got the Oscar.

In its own ways, The Hindu has shown it won’t change. Its readers?

Also read: When my newspaper is no longer my newspaper

Blogger Views: How will The Hindu react?

The Hindu versus The Times of India

Yuck, ToI is coming to Madras

The Hindu is afraid of The Times of India

Image: courtesy AgencyFAQs

Cross-posted on sans serif