Social engineering in the media?

BY N P Chekkutty| IN Media Practice | 28/06/2008
Thejas was a newspaper being launched by a Muslim organization dubbed extremist by the mainstream press and there had to be a keen and clear understanding of what was going to be its political and ideological standpoint.
N P CHEKKUTTY chronicles his efforts to shape an editorial team drawn from among the backward castes, dalits, and Muslim women.

Media scholar James Mutti’s article on the Challenges before Indian media, at the SAJA Forum, has once again brought into sharp focus the issue of media and its social role in a developing society like India. One thing that has been missing in most of these debates,   often initiated and carried out by the urban centric media pundits both in India and the west, is the changing reality of the Indian countryside and the small towns, which are now emerging as major media centres with the fast growth of literacy, economic development and social and political empowerment. For the first time in Indian history,   rural masses are coming into the media picture, not only as clichéd figures in some human interest stories but as actual players with substantial stake as readers, advertisers and as a class of consumers targeted by the advertisers.


James Mutti’s article and Ramachandra Guha’s column based on it in Telegraph, has set off a wide debate on Indian media, as the large number of responses in the SAJA Forum blog makes it amply clear. But surprisingly, most of the debates were focused on the metro-centric Indian press, and the rising Indian regional press got very little attention. One reason, I believe, is that most of the media commentators are familiar with only the urban scene and tend to ignore what goes on in the Indian countryside and small towns, where a media revolution is now taking place. As media critic Sevanti Ninan pointed out, "throughout the rural areas there is an emerging rural middle class which is able to afford newspapers but which is still far removed from popular notions of middle class consumption."



What  goes on in the non-metro regions is quite exciting, to anyone who watches the Indian rural scene and keeps a tab on the media growth in those places. Here I would like to write about a particular media experiment I was involved in, during the past three years and how it has developed, despite heavy odds empowering a cross section of the most disadvantaged sections of our society.


Three years ago, while working in Delhi, I was invited back to my home town, Kozhikode in Kerala, where I was asked to help develop a new newspaper that would cater to the Muslims, the backward  castes and the Dalits who were the most disadvantaged sections of Malayali population. These three sections combined with certain sections in the Latin Catholic community and the tribal people constitute the most disadvantaged sections in Kerala society.


But addressing all of them was not easy or practical. For one thing, a newspaper that is launched from the northern part of Kerala, which in itself is the backward part of the State, could not easily reach out to the predominantly fisher people of the Latin Catholics in the south while the tribal people in the hills are practically out of bounds for any newspaper, mainly because most of them are still far from a position to buy or read a daily newspaper.


So we had to accept this limitation and focus on the Muslims, the backward Hindus and  Dalits, to start with. As for the Muslims, a dominant community in Kerala though most of them are economically and socially backward, there were already four newspapers coming from Kozhikode itself, catering to this reading segment. The most important among them, Madhyamam, launched by a Jamaat e Islami-controlled trust two decades ago, had already reached a good circulation base with editions from various cities in Kerala and also from the Gulf, competing for the third position in circulation after Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi.


It was indeed a saturated market in Kerala, with newspapers like Mathrubhumi and Malayala Manorama with strong financial base and access to each and every segment of the  Malayali reading public dominating it, and dozens of other smaller players like Kerala Kaumudi, Mangalam, Madhyamam, Deshabhimani, Chandrika, Siraj, Varthamanam, etc, catering to specific caste, community and political segments.


So right from the beginning, when we started our planning in June 2005, we had to devise new methods to attract readership and find a niche to survive. We also had to contend with a negative campaign as the prime movers behind the new media initiative  was National Development Front (NDF), a Muslim organization which was widely described as an extremist group, by their detractors. Hence we had to prove our credentials as equal and responsible players in a democratic polity, speaking up for those sections which were not truly and genuinely represented in the dominant media.


During my 15 years in Indian Express, as a senior journalist in Kerala and outside, I had noticed how few journalists from these backward sections were there in the mainstream media, even in a most literate and progressive state like Kerala. Most of the journalists came from the upper caste segments, and as a result though the subaltern issues were generally given sufficient space in the media, what was conspicuous by its absence was any serious and concerted follow-up taking these issues to a logical conclusion. (In some cases, such reports on abuse of lower castes were relegated to local editions, thus effectively burying those stories.) 


That was an area we thought we could make an impact. Right from the beginning, we made a serious search for journalists who could join us from the backward castes and Dalit communities, and we were successful in developing a few new journalists even from the Dalits while even today there are no Dalit journalists in most major Malayalam newspapers. Today we have a few Dalit journalists with us, including a girl in the desk, who are able to make a mark just like any others in the profession.


A second area that was left to us to explore was women journalists. Kerala’s Muslim community is generally very conservative and women are not encouraged to take part in public life and they are not encouraged to take up jobs too. As a result, though there were a large number of Muslim journalists and editors in Kerala, there were not many women among them. (The only Muslim woman journalist in Kerala at that time, to my knowledge, was Shabna Ziyad who worked with veteran journalist Leela Menon in an evening daily in Kochi.)


Thus at the time of recruiting, as executive editor, my main focus was to tap the resources left unexplored by the mainstream. And I was not wrong because there were lots of Muslim girls who were eager to join this new profession that was closed to them till then. Not many of them were fit to be in the desk or in bureaus, but we were able to find a few like Shabna Ziyad (now a district level reporter at Idukky), Jasmine (presently with Indiavision TV, Malappuram) and  Khadeeja, an abandoned wife and mother of grown up children who was making a determined effort to find a new life. (Later on, she emerged as one of the most effective food columnists with her keen eye for the exotic Muslim cuisine, not explored by the well known food writers.)


I still remember with a sense of pride and happiness those days in mid 2005 when I was engaged in a search for new faces to run a newspaper that spoke to the subaltern sections in our society. We were able to fish out many good talents, and one of the girls who later developed herself into a good sub-editor and page-maker well versed on the latest version of Quark Xpress, was the daughter of an unemployed person who had smuggled himself to a Gulf country hiding in the lower desk of an uru, a small sea-faring vessel, as an illegal migrant. At the time she came for the interview, she was employed as a salesgirl in a textile shop in the city. Another boy came from Manjeri in Malappuram whose father was an assistant to a butcher in the local meat market. Today this Muslim boy is one of the best reporters with the paper.


It was not an easy task. We had very limited resources, and hence were not able to rope in  the best and the well known in the media market. We decided to take the opposite path, recruiting from the lowest sections, training with the most advanced technological and professional systems and helping them develop skills necessary to run a newspaper on their own. We set up an intensive training programme that consisted of two months duration,  in which we trained them in technical skills like Malayalam typesetting, page-making, etc; professional skills like reporting, editing and proof reading and translating agency copy  that came in English. Besides this we gave them a world view, discussing how as a newspaper we would be able to serve the society we lived in. Veteran human rights activist and journalist Mukundan C Menon who was with us those days played a key role in this, and I remember with a heavy heart that he died during this period, collapsing in the class room one morning.


These class room debates and discussions had to tackle another serious problem, of an ideological and political nature. Thejas was a newspaper being launched by a group of people and organizations dubbed extremist by the mainstream press and there had to be a  keen and clear understanding of what was going to be its political and ideological standpoint. Most of the new recruits represented a cross section of Kerala society, and it was a serious task to find a common cohesive ideological standpoint.


We thought we would evolve as and when we went on with our work, so that we could discuss such matters as they emerged. So a practice was evolved in which everyday the desk and editors would together debate the stories we did, the mistake we committed and how we would have done it better or differently. It was mainly a desk consisting of inexperienced people, except for only a very few, and so right from the beginning we knew we would make mistakes and hence one of the first decisions was to keep a column for corrections, which we did and meticulously followed through ever since.


But we were a newspaper that proclaimed to be a part of the victims at the social, political and economic spheres. So we had to be wary of the pitfalls of copying the international and national news agencies who generally toed the official line, which often proved to be quite misleading or plainly anti-Muslim or anti-Dalit or anti-backward as the case may be. So one crucial decision was to avoid use of the word "terrorist", which was not value neutral. We decided that whenever people are fighting for a cause and engaged in militant struggles against armed forces of the state, we would describe them  as fighters.


Here there was another serious question: How to describe those people who targeted civilians? In such circumstances, the best and apt word to describe those perpetrators of such violent acts against innocents was to use the words extremist or militant.    


It was on January 26, 2006 that Thejas, a new daily from Kozhikode, was first launched after six-month long preparations. It was a success, going by the response of the readers and the market. We were expecting a very limited circulation, but when the first issue was printed we had printed three times than what we had initially expected. Then came a period of fast growth with editions in Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi in the next few months and recently, in May 2008, the fourth edition was launched from Kannur in the northern part of Kerala.


When I look back, I think what made us click was the fact that we made a conscious effort to chart out a new course, in both media business and journalistic practice. We were able to discern our weaknesses and our shortfalls and then we made an effort to convert them into our strength, our core competency. We saw that as a newspaper that spoke mainly to the Muslim community in a world where ‘Islamophobia’ was dominant, it was necessary to give as much global news as possible from the view point of the victims of the aggression. We dedicated a full page to international news, with a daily cartoon strip called Cartoon World. It was the first time a Malayalam newspaper giving a full page in a 12-page broadsheet to international news. Then we changed the whole outlook on Edit Page, giving shorter and sharper editorials instead of the long and dry edits that filled two columns, that was the order of the day in mainstream Malayalam press. Our first edit focused on political, social and economic concerns of the day while the second, a small write-up of 120 words, was written in a witty way on developments in science, technology, religion, literature, etc. We also found space for an editorial cartoon on the same page, that lampooned rather than tickled. At a time when readers’ responses were getting a short shrift in most dailies, we ensured that one third of the space is given to readers’ letters and on Sundays the two column space for editorials was dedicated to readers, for the new column, Readers Editorial.


Now it is time to assess how far such an unconventional media approach has had any impact on the society and the media practice.  It is for the media analysts and social critics to make this assessment. But there are some very clear trends now visible: Even most of the mainstream newspapers are now wary of using the term "terrorist" indiscriminately as they used to in the past. As Mukundan C. Menon used to tell us, when Abdunnasar Madani, a Muslim leader of fiery speeches, was arrested nine years ago, all newspapers described him as a terrorist because that is what the police said. After nine years when he came out of the jail as the court threw out all the cases against him, he came as a reminder of how media could be misled by vested interests. Perhaps this rethinking about how to look at media and its vital role is a key contribution that we were able to make to Kerala society in the past three years.  


(N P Chekkutty, executive editor of Thejas Daily, earlier worked as chief reporter, Indian Express, Kozhikode, director, news & current affairs, Kairali TV, Kochi, and bureau chief, Madhyamam, New Delhi.)


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