Time Travel

How Narendra Modi will better Indian media one day.

There was muchos excitación recently when an edition of Time magazine featured Narendra Modi on its cover. Regardless of where our heart and judicious sense lie when it comes to the Gujarat chief minister’s legacy, reputation and stubble, his ‘Sorry, smiling-is-for-losers’ portrait on the red-framed cover and article inside elicited overwhelming responses from all quarters, spawning much more than just a trickle of comment about the man and the way we view him and want – nay insist – others to view him.

The monthly magazine, Caravan also had a cover story on Modi when the Time edition came out. Vinod K Jose’s Caravan piece was undoubtedly far more exhaustive, informative and readable than the Wikipedia-with-colour story by Jyoti Thottam in Time. Caravan being an Indian mag for a readership that is Indian – or primarily interested in India – and that has been dealing with ‘Modi stories’ for what seems to be ages, had to be more detailed, more nuanced, and was way better.

Time, the argument went, was dealing with a different readership, one that was less familiar with the old boy. It was like us reading about Danish chef, René Redzepi in the same edition. An article, I would presume, would reiterate much that is already known about Redzepi to Danish readers of Time magazine. So while Indian readers (or those reading the Caravan piece) would have found Thottam’s observation – “Gujarat’s $85 billion economy may not be the largest in India, but it has prospered without the benefit of natural resources, fertile farmland, a big population centre like Mumbai, or a lucrative high-tech hub like Bangalore. Gujarat’s success, even Modi’s detractors acknowledge, is a result of good planning – exactly what so much of India lacks” – to be banal, this could be deeply illuminating for someone interested in India who doesn’t know much about it.

But hang on.

The March 26th edition of Time magazine with the Modi cover was not the same edition that Time readers got everywhere else in the Time magazine universe. In the United States, the cover story was ‘The Richer Sex’ – about women in America overtaking men as breadwinners. This story wasn’t even there in the magazine I read some two weeks ago. And the Modi article wasn’t there in the US edition. In Africa, the cover story was ‘Hunting Joseph Kony’ – on how a group of American filmmakers and special operation troops are hunting for ‘Africa’s most-wanted criminal’. This article was twice the length of the Modi piece, as was the cover story on the aforementioned Danish chef (‘Locavore Hero’) that went on the Europe, Middle East, South Pacific and ‘non-South Asian’ Asia editions of Time.

The Modi cover story was essentially for Indian readers.

But what we got out of the Narendra Modi cover story was not information or opinion that we had better read or else…. It was essentially about knowing that an international news magazine put something up there in front specially for us. Hurrah! To put it plainly, Time was selling coal to Newcastle via its ‘legendary’ freight train.

This model of selling localised news globally is a trend that is purely economic in nature. A Denver newspaper selling Denver news to residents of Denver is old hat. But a Denver newspaper selling Indian news to readers of its Indian edition is new hat.

It makes complete business and psychological sense. For most of us here in 2012 India, reading about Modi – however stale and regurgitated the article might be – gives us an index of what should be important. ‘Oooh, Time’s put Modi on the cover.’ Modi supporters promptly used Time’s ‘impeccable news sense’ to tom-tom the virtues of their man. Modi’s critics promptly thought Time was doing an ‘extremely bad, bad thing’ to give him the magazine’s brand blessing. (The fact that Time had Gandhi on its cover in 1931 and 1947 – and that was when there indeed was just one edition – has, since the ‘Modi’ edition came out, been used to both pat the magazine on its back as well as to tut-tut it.)

Time’s ‘Operation Desi Excitement’ is done, with minimal hassles – without boring American, European, Middle-Eastern, Chinese or South Pacifician (Pacific? Pacifucian? Pacifese?) readers about some chap in some state in India.

Lest we forget, such scrotum-tickling has got us excited in the past. Remember Aishwarya Bachchan neé Rai getting on the cover on the October 27, 2003 Time magazine (‘The New Face of Film’)? The gush fest that followed in India (one example from a magazine: “Print media has been covering Aishwarya Rai for many years, but few films and movie magazines match the stature of Times (sic). And to become the luckiest of all of them: Aishwarya Rai on Time magazine cover page has made our country proud”), took its while to recognize that Ash was dished out in the Asia edition of the mag so as to tell the Indian subscriber/reader: ‘See, we’re not insular at all. India is very much on our radar.’ The US edition had the cover story ‘Inside the New SATs’ on the same date. Europe, Middle-East and Africa had ‘The Science of Meditation’ on its cover. None of the non-Asia editions had the Aishwarya interview-article.

So what is the moral of the story here?

No, it’s not that news and opinions are being sold in increasingly localised plates these days. That’s a given. It’s also a given that like people everywhere else in the world, Indian readers (and viewers) are as insular as they come.

The moral of the story is that unlike American and British publications, we’ll never be able to sell beyond our navel simply because we aren’t equipped to. While foreign news is of diminishing importance to the reader/viewer in the West – although directly or indirectly, because of national interests and concerns, ‘world’ and ‘local’ news will continue to collide for most Western readers as they have ‘interest stakes’ whether in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and now increasingly China – the media organizations have bureaus and staff in various spots across the world to be tapped.

These bureaus and foreign correspondents will not necessarily send stories of great length or depth from, say, Karachi, back to the ‘mother ship’ edition to be read by Americans and Brits. Their content will make new supply destinations – Asia editions, Europe editions and most obviously the ‘internet’ editions – grow and establish their presence.

Even the big Indian media houses have hardly any presence outside the country. They still find it disconcerting to have correspondents in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. ‘Why spend money on sending journos abroad when you can cut and paste NYT and Guardian content?’ goes the reasoning. (More on this in another column.)  The game here in India right now is to have the multiple ‘international editions’ model functioning within the country in various ‘national editions’. Which essentially means changing the city and local celebrity supplements.

An organisation like Time or Newsweek uses its existing staff in Delhi, Dubai or Tokyo to gain a ‘new’ readership that gets easily chuffed about reading about themselves and their surroundings – courtesy the fine news-gathering establishments of Time and Newsweek. I figure that the next sensible thing for these international media houses to do is to hire journalists to write for their localised editions, the brand identity of the publications generating automatic interest.

That, my friends, will be good for us desi journos.

It will be good for these ‘international’ publications looking to hook on to new markets.

And – in the longer run – it should be good for Indian publications too. They will be forced to step up to the plate in terms of placing better resources in place to fight for the same readership, that will hopefully one day read a much better piece of journalism on Narendra Modi in the Asia edition of the Time magazine than the one we did in the same publication a week ago.


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