A success story amid all odds

BY SHUJAAT BUKHARI| IN Regional Media | 17/03/2012
Rising Kashmir has shown that mixing professionalism with a strong marketing strategy can lead to success even under abnormal circumstances.
As it turns four its editor SHUJAAT BUKHARI describes the challenge of launching and sustaining it.
Bringing out a newspaper from Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, is not an ordinary task. It is full of risks. While the State, particularly the Kashmir Valley, has been reeling under conflict, the dynamics of every business has gone through a drastic change in the last 21 years. Newspaper business is otherwise an altogether different activity. First of all, it does not fetch profits in the initial years and demands huge investment without promising any definite fortunes. In a place such as Srinagar, the newspaper aiming to establish its base has not only to see a cut-throat competition but the politically volatile  demands make the product vulnerable to many things.
However, a need was always felt to have an English newspaper, which could test the troubled waters of professional journalism in a society that is too political. Not only the traditional mainstream politics has dominated the scene for a long time, but the involvement of Pakistan; the militant as well as political separatist outfits; and the giant State apparatus comprising civil, police, military, and intelligence network comes heavy on such a “business”. Until 1989, Srinagar had no daily English newspaper. It was one Poshkar Nath Vakil who broke the ice and set up his own offset printing press to bring out Samachar Post as the first English daily. Since he belonged to minority Pandit community, he migrated in early 1990, and the paper closed down. As it is generally said conflict serves as a “green pasture” for journalism, Srinagar virtually became the hub for the news around the world. Arrival of armed rebellion on the political turf of Kashmir made it the most sought after headline not only in national but also in the international press for nearly two decades. And only after three years of the armed movement for “freedom”, Greater Kashmir, till then a weekly, became an English daily. With no competition and a vacuum, the newspaper, with substantial financial support flourished to become the leading newspaper. By the time a new generation grew up with an inclination towards English, the newspaper also enlarged its base.
The need for another English newspaper was felt to have an alternative coming up in society. At least three newspapers were launched from 1996 mainly to fill that gap. One was launched by a former Associate Editor of the paper, (GK) other by a veteran journalist, and the third one by a newcomer to profession. But none of them could grow further, notwithstanding a grand start on professional lines. Since the newspapers are more dependent on the advertisements given by the government in the State, independence surely takes a beating. It ultimately hinders the progress as a fearless newspaper. Jammu and Kashmir State has, however, over 800 registered newspapers, and in Srinagar alone more than 10 English newspapers are published daily.
But to have a newspaper with a professional touch in all respects still was a dream and any one jumping to touch this fire would surely burn their fingers. Not ignoring the challenges and the possible bottle-necks, Rising Kashmir hit the stands in March 2008 with much fanfare. The idea behind launching the newspaper was not to show anyone down or to compete with any publication but to assert that a new model of mixing professionalism with strong marketing strategy could work. It not only needed a lot of investment but also courage to take up this herculean task. In a place such as Kashmir starting any new venture is fraught with more than one danger. Attributions have become part of Kashmiri culture in the past 20 years. And it is very easy to make an ordinary Kashmiri believe that “nothing genuine” can work here unless “backed” by one or the other agency. Under this shadow the RK started its journey on the promise of not squabbling but on the slogan of “Creating your own space”. Generating investment was not easy. Raising loans with substantial base could help in achieving the dream but fingers were always kept crossed. Keeping in the mind that “even a single bullet” could change the course of the situation in Kashmir, 2008 witnessed a different kind of trouble in wake of Amarnath land row.  For us at RK it came as a boon for during the first year a comprehensive coverage of events was achieved. Full of spirits as also some substantial financial reserve, we could reach a new level. With the murder of two women in Shopian, 2009 again presented a new situation but we managed to sail through.
However, 2010 brought the unbearable. As the unrest continued for more than six months, Kashmir tasted a loss of whopping Rs.8000-crore business. With a complete nosedive in revenue and increasing production cost it appeared that the experiment was destined to fail. Painful decisions such as laying off some of the staff, cutting the number of pages from 12 to 8, and many more drastic steps dampened spirits. But with 2011 showing a semblance in normalcy, we mustered the courage to stand up again. It was like another project coming up for us. Going back to 12 pages, fresh recruitment of staff, and taking the circulation back to its previous level became the new challenge. We continued to write about the importance of normalcy as we had our own stakes in it. It worked, and we were able to celebrate four successful years of journey on March 10 with a promise to expand the newspaper.
RK was not a run-of-the-mill newspaper in Kashmir. It has an ideology behind it. The ideology is not political but professional. It is aimed at providing a platform to professional journalists to work in an atmosphere based on certain values. Exploitation of journalists has been an old story in Kashmir. Journalists had to put up with meager salaries and not so good working conditions in past. But it is time to move in a different direction. You not only need to have a professional environment in a newsroom but also make journalism a source of permanent livelihood. Unfortunately, journalism has not been allowed to flourish as a full- fledged institution in Kashmir despite the presence of so many newspapers and it has always been treated as a “part time” profession which can be pursued along side a government job.
In RK a journalist feels free to report and analyse within the professional limits. As compared to previous standards, here a journalist is substantially paid well. Barring the unrest in 2010, the effort has been to keep a date with his salary. Freedom of ideas and expression is the essential part of a discourse in a newsroom. Apart from making it a working business model, RK’s objective was to make it a training academy for journalists. Since Kashmir has an unmatched talent, those who pass out with Masters in Journalism from Kashmir University deserve to be treated well with an atmosphere amenable to their professional needs. While touching through theory in classrooms, they need to go through the grind to understand the practical difficulties, and that is how RK is trying to come up to their expectations. RK has the distinction of four of its boys getting jobs in reputed national media organisations besides two of them bagging the coveted Ford and Fulbright fellowships.
There are, however, practical difficulties in achieving the goal in full since finances play an important role in realising such dreams. The press in Kashmir has gone through tremendous pressures in the years I discussed earlier, and the government’s whip has continued to work in different directions, may be mostly in an invisible manner. For a young newspaper such as RK it takes time to achieve the results of an independent revenue model based on private advertisements, and then circulation is to a longer extent subservient to the information disseminated by the government on various issues. I have no qualms in admitting that pressures work and to strike a “forced balance” is something unavoidable in this situation. But we have covered the longer part of making RK a brand in four years. It is the brand that works on ground, is taken note of, and readers look for it.
For its fearless reporting in reflecting the situation on ground and representing the sentiment of the people, RK has been punished with blacklisting for advertisements issued by DAVP. A Home Ministry Advisory has clearly asked DAVP not to release advertisements to RK ostensible for being pro-people. When I contacted Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram requesting him to reconsider the decision, he shot back: “Why should I give you advertisements since you preach secessionism?” When asked to show where we were guilty of his charge he had no specific answer. With a heavy burden to run the professional organisation as an institution here is the government to sabotage it without realising that we provide a platform for churning out professionals and give direct employment to more than 120 people. We also pay taxes and are supposed to live in a democracy. But we are forced to bleed and bear the losses. Is it not to blackmail the media that have worked in such  difficult circumstances?

However, we are satisfied that we could create a space for ourselves and are on path of fulfilling the promise of giving the readers a product with a professional touch. It is the first newspaper in Kashmir run by a professional editor who has been a reporter for 20 years. For us in RK it is a success story and we are moving ahead to work on the business model which could strike a balance between fearless journalism and commercial activity to make it a self-sufficient venture.  After all, we are for journalism, by journalism, and of journalism.

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