Mumbai’s newspaper bounty

IN Media Practice | 10/09/2005
The paper with the most aggressive advertising has proved to be the most disappointing.
By a correspondent


From a drought to a glut. That’s the situation today for Mumbai’s English newspaper readers.

For long, Mumbai’s discerning readers longed for a third newspaper. The Old Lady of Boribunder was in deep slumber except for its edit page. The Express, including its city supplement Newsline, kept up its investigative, crusading image, but lacked the comprehensive reach of the Times.  The situation was ripe for a third newspaper. (Here we are not counting The Asian Age as a serious contender.)


What we now have are four new papers: the Dainik Bhaskar group’s DNA, the Hindustan Times, the Mumbai Mirror - and a new Times. Whether it was DNA’s aggressive advertising campaign or the fact that Times’ former big gun Pradeep Guha was hiring journalists for it, the Old Lady suddenly went in for a make over. The result: city readers finally got what they had been looking for - six pages of city news presented in relatively well-informed articles, and written as if the writers knew English; city-related columns (though their frequency seems erratic), and a racier layout. The full-page focus, a staple of Sunday newspapers, became a weekday bonus. And occasionally, one got to read that rare journalistic treat: a report written with just the right mix of passion and restraint, that reassured you that journalism was still about that lost citizen whose life was so easily ruined by the powers that be.


The make over however, ruined what had been the Times’ main strength: its edit page. Shunted to the new International section, its liveliest sections: its middle, the Letters and the Q & A interview, reduced by half; the pompous `Times view and counter view’ encroaching upon prime space; it remained readable only because the lead article continued to combine style with substance.


By changing itself, the Times ensured it didn’t lose readers to its new rivals. To make doubly sure, it launched its own rival to Mid Day, the tabloid morninger that had been its closest competitor.  Mumbai Mirror is a Mid Day clone, except for more sex, a few decent exposes, and a couple of well-written columns on Mumbai’s neighbourhoods. Its success can be gauged from the fact that even after 100 days of its publication, the Times continues to give it free.


All this made it even more difficult for the newcomers to make an impact. The Hindustan Times made a quiet entry, giving the city a distinctive Capital flavour. It also brought back old city favourites like Khushwant Singh. But its best feature was its layout. HT is the now the best looking paper in Mumbai, reminding one of The Indian Post.  Only a few of its city stories have been good, but they are all presented in the most reader-friendly fashion, their brief intros either inviting you to read more or preventing you from wasting your time.


HT has another advantage. Its editor in chief is a former Bombayite, and has been able to connect to the city’s readers from Day I. Thanks to him, Mumbai’s concerns have become the concerns of this essentially Delhi paper, whether it’s the opinions of Mumbai’s environmentalists after the July 26 deluge, or the continued denial of justice to Mumbai’s riot victims.


Surprisingly, despite almost the entire staff of DNA being pucca Mumbaiites, the paper with the most aggressive advertising has proved to be the most disappointing. There’s hardly anything right about it: the front page looks uninviting; its layout is worse than the Times: too much colour, too little design and hardly any white space; Page 2 called `Speak up’ is plain stupid - the first issue, four days after the flood, was in sheer bad taste: a 4-column pic of yuppies seated in an upmarket restaurant discussing the deluge. The quality of reporting is at best mediocre; the style uninspiring.  The positioning of stories is mystifying: news features are camouflaged in the middle of reports;  a bottom of page `story’ may turn out to be a three-para comment; some good city stories are buried inside whereas a news page lead was once a story titled `Thane takes off shirt, dons kurti.’


 Its edit page however, is its biggest enigma. The main piece is almost always too technical for the lay reader; the edits are, to put it mildly, pedestrian. And this must be the only broadsheet without politics.


Finally, the Express. As if immune to the competition, the Indian Express has remained the same, ie, uniquely different from the rest, making it difficult for regulars to give it up.


Have DNA and HT damaged the TOI and the IE? Their initial subscription offers have had many takers, but it’s difficult to predict whether they will last.


26/7 and its aftermath were a good test for the city’s papers. There were enough stories for everyone to get their share. DNA was the worst thanks to its poor presentation; the TOI the most comprehensive, almost running a campaign; again, Express was the most hard-hitting, with HT a close second. HT’s best report was its across-the-page lead picture of animal carcasses rotting in the open three weeks after the floods.


On one count, Express was way ahead of the rest. It was the only one that didn’t stoop to PR.  HT and DNA did PR jobs for two of the main culprits in the city’s flooding. HT moaned about the  `beleaguered and emotionally bruised’ CM ; and DNA, in its inaugural issue, let T Chandrashekhar, Jt Commissioner of MMRDA, wax eloquent about his blinkered vision of Mumbai. HT even thought fit to do a gushing `Day in the life of’  the state health minister at a time  when Mumbai was reeling under an epidemic caused by government negligence. Contrast that with the tongue-in-cheek profile of Municipal commissioner Johny Joseph by TOI.  As if to make up, Times came out with an eulogy of  Sharad Pawar, who threatened to come down from Delhi to set things right. Mumbaiites haven’t yet forgotten what happened when Mr Fix last came down to do the same, during the 1992-93 riots, when he was defence minister.


That’s part of the downside to this glut: nothing’s changed. Villains keep getting treated as heroes; while those who bear the brunt of the villains’ actions, the hawkers whose means of livelihood perished in the deluge; the slum dwellers rendered homeless by the ``I-am-not-responsible" Chief Minister, barely get a mention. Women continue to be referred to in headlines as `damsels in distress’ and `the fair sex’.


  The real tragedy is that though every one of these papers (except Express) is a good 30-40  pages each everyday (thanks to supplements), this abundance of editorial space hasn’t meant more coverage of non-sexy areas. On the contrary, we now have Page 3 everywhere. Sexy Sania is all over the place, but Anju George didn’t make it to Page One even after winning the Asian Gold, despite her good looks. The kind of coverage given to bar girls in the wake of the ban on dance bars made them out to be an institution in Mumbai’s life; but there still hasn’t been a single story on the effect of the deluge on families where women are the only breadwinners.


In Mumbai, the majority of English newspaper readers live in 500 sq feet homes and commute to work packed like sardines. They neither have the space nor the time to read 40 pages everyday. No wonder then, judging by trains and buses, Mid Day and Mumbai Mirror are the most popular papers, specially since if  caught `flashing’ your copy of MM, you may win a bounty.




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