Decoding the 'deep-going' changes

BY Sanjay Bharthur| IN Media Business | 23/10/2013
The Hindu may wish to reaffirm its position and send a message that family owned enterprises led by professionally qualified and inclined family members are acceptable,
says SANJAY BHARTHUR. PIX: N Ram (L) and N Ravi. Image: FirstPost

Changes in The Hindu indicate a return of the editorial and business functions to the family fold.  The newspaper captioned these changes under its emblem. In consequence, as the paper stated, Siddharth Varadarajan who was made contributing editor and senior columnist submitted his resignation. He tweeted:

“With The Hindu’s owners deciding to revert to being a family run and edited newspaper, I am resigning from The Hindu with immediate effect.”

Family owned media enterprises, particularly in the print sector constitute a major form of ownership and management structure. Relationship between the owners and editors has been a subject matter of post facto reflections in the past, particularly by the editors. Laudatory references to the owners upholding independent editorial values have also been made.  Notwithstanding critiques, the identity of editors in newspapers was more evident to the readers than the ownership structures. However, post restructuring of media enterprises and commoditisation of content, editors with whom we can associate is difficult, if not impossible. This is no reflection of journalists and their ability. What it suggests is that they perhaps cannot be legitimately incorporated into strategic decision making that reflects the interests of the ownership structure. Kasturi and Sons limited (K&SL) by affecting the changes signals and falls in line with similar media enterprises:

The decision to make deep-going changes was made chiefly on the ground that there were recurrent violations and defiance of the framework of the institution’s longstanding values on the business side and recurrent violations and defiance ofLiving Our Values’, the mandatory  Code of Editorial Values applicable to The Hindu. The whole effort is to restore employee morale, good industrial relations and the trust of this newspaper’s more than two million readers.

The celebrations of these changes by the employees reported in the newspaper reflect their disenchantment with what they described as the corporate governance. “The employees will get a goodwill incentive payment of Rs. 41,600 in addition to a bonus of 20 per cent of wages this year.”

Semiologists may deconstruct the above articulation in many ways. The consequential resignation of Varadarajan implies a certain direction of the discontentment of the management, although many other changes in the business side of the group have also been affected and returned to the family fold. This change needs to be seen against the backdrop of how the group made the temporary changes in the first place. It was in May 2011 that the board decided to bring in a professional editor against the backdrop of what is described as a family feud. The editorial succession that brought in Varadarajan was described as a long process initiated in July 2011. It did not go well with the rest of the family and one of the tweet threads attributed misogyny among other reasons for his appointment, as he was considered far junior to the family aspirant. It missed the point that editorial succession meant balancing family equations. The imminent retirement of N Ram seemed to have sparked off the impetus for changes initiated through a majority view of the Board. The sharp reactions by N Ravi through his response to the employees, including raising the issue of seniority of professional association with the newspaper, although expected, brought forth an apparently justified position. In his briefing to the Department heads as reported, N Ram explained the rationale to modernise the management. Listing top newspapers he cited that only the Hindu and the Telegraph have family editors. This separation was however termed as camouflage by his detractors in the family.

More than 22,100 results came up when googled about this change. Views may be similar. Reactions may harp on speculation and attribution of motives and or justification. What was evident during the brief experiment with a non family editor was on and off reactions by readers with regard to certain news items and perceived editorial slant. The Readers’ editor now and then through his columns dipped into critical and academic literature including media text books extolling objectivity and balance and striving hard to offer countervailing responses to negate the bias against a particular political party and its aspirant for the Prime Minister’s post.

What aberrations and shifts were seen as justification for this change may well remain within the inter family domain. Public articulation has nevertheless made their disenchantment clear. The Hindu often acclaimed as a standard and highly valued newspaper may wish to reaffirm its position and send a message that family owned enterprises led by professionally qualified and inclined family members are acceptable. In the past its editors, particularly N Ram, have articulated scholarly positions on Indian and world media and also fiercely opposed FDI in print media and grudgingly accepted the changes triggered by other media groups.

To the staid followers of The Hindu dispersed in small towns and urban pockets, the hereditary changes and transition makes no difference. Maha Vishnu of Mount Road rolls on.

Prof Sanjay teaches Communication at the University of Hyderabad and is on leave. He is currently on assignment in Tamil Nadu.

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