The Hindu is now synonymous with civil services aspirants. What brought on this cult readership?

The newspaper has come to dominate this niche market.

ByAnand Vardhan
The Hindu is now synonymous with civil services aspirants. What brought on this cult readership?
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“This is a newspaper to be studied, not read.” 

As if to give an air of  respectability to a cult, that’s a catchline often evoked in the initiation of young aspirants of government jobs — particularly those preparing for the civil services examination — to the daily ritual of poring over The Hindu. In punching above its weight in the industrial scene of preparing for competitive exams, The Hindu continues to be almost a signboard to locate the hubs of civil services aspirants in Indian cities and small towns and colonies, like Old Rajinder Nagar and Mukherjee Nagar in Delhi.

In the maze of copious study material that fills an aspirant’s room, The Hindu is a conspicuous sight. Even 12 years ago, Outlook magazine pointed it out, in a piece on the new breed of entrants to bureaucracy: “ …youths who live in and around the IAS-coaching class ghetto of Mukherjee Nagar in North Delhi, in tiny, shared rooms amid stacks of books, guides, rigorous swotting timetables, old exam papers, and crumpled pages from The Hindu.”

Moreover, this significant segment of its readership isn’t confined to the aspirants’ ghettos in Delhi only. The paper’s readership among young aspirants is spread across the country, pushing The Hindu to print at 18 centres in India despite having only 11 editions. For example, you can get The Hindu delivered in the morning even in small towns in Bihar and eastern and central Uttar Pradesh because the paper has printing centres in Patna and Lucknow. What you wouldn’t get is local or state-specific content because they aren’t state capital editions — they’re just readily available copies of its Delhi or Chennai editions.  

As its target readers in these centres are mostly students, and not all newspaper readers, the lack of local coverage doesn’t affect its niche readership in these centres.

The daily is headquartered in Chennai and was once described as a “national newspaper with a southern accent” for its obvious focus on covering South India. Over the years, it’s used its following among civil services aspirants to spread its reach across the country. Even more striking is how such a following had spawned a niche publishing business in the exam study material market: the sale of small booklets containing synoptic notes and snippets from The Hindu. These booklets carry titles like The Hindu at a Glance. There are even translated versions for Hindi medium candidates, titled The Hindu – Ek Drishti Mein or The Hindu: Ek Jhalak.

Interestingly, by 2010, The Hindu’s dominant hold on a segment not fortified by The Times of India, the market leader in the English newspaper industry by a mile, had spurred circulation managers at the The Indian Express. They surveyed the IAS aspirants’ hubs, particularly in Delhi, hoping to challenge The Hindu’s hegemonic presence in this niche segment. A prominent strategy subsequently adopted by the Express was to come up with red-papered compilation booklets of its own editorials, op-eds, articles and reports. These were placed in numerous magazine and book stalls, actually exam-merchandise outlets, found in the streets of aspirants’ ghettos. 

It was a form of surrogate advertising for The Indian Express — something The Hindu was getting for free, as small-time exam-material publishers were themselves publishing synopses and compilations of its contents for a lazy section of newspaper readers among its aspirants. The Hindu also laughed all the way to the book: it landed lucrative ad bookings from coaching institutes in the national capital. In fact, garish hoardings on lampposts and buildings in the ghettos of civil services aspirants look much like amplified versions of ad space in The Hindu.

Two important questions accompany The Hindu’s position as the newspaper of first choice for government job applicants, and especially those aspiring to join the coveted civil services. First, what are the important reasons behind its cult leadership among civil services aspirants? Second, how does the paper’s pronounced Left-tilt influence the worldview that it offers young aspirants, and even successful entrants, to India’s bureaucracy?

Let’s address the first question now and leave the second question for the second part in this series.

One should remember the usual and valid factors identified for The Hindu’s unrivalled readership among civil services aspirants: the herd instinct, bordering on peer pressure, among different batches of aspirants; the cumulative effect of years of word-of-mouth publicity; and an aversion to divert from the formulaic paths of “been there, done that” success stories. However, beyond this, there must be some other concrete reasons that worked for The Hindu and sustained its following in this segment of readers. 

Some of these factors aren’t too hard to identify.

First, its conventional approach to the publication of news and sedate presentation. This gives The Hindu the appeal of being a “newspaper of record”. In being an unhurried register of news and development with the bland tone of old textbooks, The Hindu has managed the halo of seriousness that has stuck with it, perhaps more since it was applauded by The Times, London, in 1965 for taking “the general seriousness to lengths of severity”. The Times added: “The Hindu which is published in Madras, is the only newspaper which in spite of being published only in a provincial capital is regularly and attentively read in Delhi.” 

However, this was a time when the Calcutta-based The Statesman, along with forever the general market leader, The Times of India in Bombay, were also preferred by civil services aspirants.

In subsequent decades, what helped The Hindu carve its niche among civil services aspirants with greater strength was, along with traditional and visibly profound tone of news delivery, building a hierarchy of information that was more suited to those following current affairs for academic purposes or for the general studies segment of competitive examinations. That made its news pages, particularly the front page, read more like the restrained and no-frills delivery by All India Radio or Doordarshan, though without losing its inputs and independence as a journalistic platform. In appearing for government recruitment examinations, candidates accord priority to vetted information, preferably by government agencies. The Hindu’s cautious approach conveyed a similar sense of vetting and fact-checking, gifting it an edge of gravitas.

However, it made a trade-off in the process — perhaps not a difficult one for it, given its old-world approach to news gathering and presentation.

The Hindu chose to be less interested in “breaking” news or placing exclusive investigative reports on its front page, except rare detours like the Bofors investigation in the late Eighties or N Ram’s Rafale series last year. Instead the newspaper inclined towards being seen as a more cautiously written “first draft” of history for readers. That’s a trade-off that would be impossible for a newspaper like The Indian Express to make, as its forte is investigative journalism and exclusive reports. It can’t afford to rejig its information ordering at the cost of pushing its reports to the lower visibility parts of the newspaper. 

Interestingly, a comparative analysis of the number and range of national, international and regional news items would still put The Times of India as a stronger claimant for the “newspaper of record”, and not The Hindu. However, with the confidence of a huge and diverse general readership, The Times of India has no reason to conform to a borrowed idea of “important news”.

Eight years ago, for instance, after possibly threatened by The Times of India poaching its readership in southern states, The Hindu entered into an ad war with The Times of India, juxtaposing its emphasis on serious stuff to the latter’s liking for fluff. That was off the mark, though. The Times of India actually represented an Indian thali for its wide readership — an eclectic mix of news content for its diverse readers. Perhaps taking a cue from that, one once spotted a poster in a Delhi University hostel room which said “The Hindu is read by people who think they should rule India, while The Times of India is read by people who actually rule India.”

Next, perhaps an understated appeal of The Hindu for young aspirants are its weekly pages on science and technology, and features on agriculture and environment — the current developments in which are valuable for competitive exams. These supplements appear useful for aspirants when seen against other dailies which either don’t follow developments in these fields with any consistency of periodicity, or have altogether given them short shrift or fleeting, “dumbed-down” engagement.

The same is sometimes true for The Hindu’s op-eds and edits on issues of public policy like water conservation, energy, wetlands and others that are only briefly addressed by other mainstream dailies. It’s not the quality of these op-eds or edit pieces — that can vary from good to mediocre — but the very fact that these issues find space. This is something that helps students tracking these themes and discourse around it for their general studies paper and even for some of the optional papers in the civil services examination.

Third, and perhaps more contentiously, in its editorial outlook, The Hindu is closest to the institutionalised Left-tilted “common sense” that permeates the academic curriculum and dominates the discourse. This outlook eventually shapes the contours of  many topics in the general studies paper, as well as in popular humanities and social science subjects in the civil services examination. With the assumption that the evaluation of their answers to subjective (or descriptive) questions at the Mains stage of the examinaton would be mostly done by academics applying Left-inclined prisms of assessment, young aspirants are more inclined towards analysing the daily flux of national and international developments and issues with the same lens. 

The Hindu, known to be the habitat of Left-leaning groupthink in the mainstream media, became the daily destination for reinforcement, though aspirants are cautious to tone down some radical rhetorics that comes in its wake. 

Moreover, the imprint of The Hindu’s editorial outlook isn’t confined to its edits and opinion pieces. It pervades its reporting to an extent that there has been talk of “much editorialising” in its news reports. Seen together, the question it poses is: to what extent can the ideological tilt in The Hindu’s editorial outlook shape the worldview that it offers to aspirants and entrants to Indian bureaucracy? 

We’ll discuss this in Part 2. 

This is the first part of a two-part article.

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