- NL Sena
Circulation and revenue are falling but the paper’s owner is determined to keep going by reaching new readers.
It’s 10 pm in Chamanganj, a congested Muslim-dominated neighbourhood in Kanpur. The traffic has thinned but in the basement of a building overlooking the street, the mood is still animated.
Here, about 10 men sit at computers, peering at thumbnails of the pages of a newspaper, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. In an adjacent room, three men are readying a printing machine. Soon, it will break the silence and roar to life, spitting out 60,000 copies of Siyasat Jadid. At 3 am, the copies will be bundled into vans, handed over to newspaper agencies, and tossed onto doorsteps and balconies of homes across Kanpur.
Started in 1949, Siyasat Jadid is one of Uttar Pradesh’s oldest Urdu dailies. Seventy one years later, even as the print media stumbles over pitfalls and problems, it’s still going strong, though it’s not been easy.
“Newspapers, especially language newspapers, face a lot of difficulties nowadays,” said Mohammad Irshad Ilmi, 60, owner and editor of Siyasat Jadid. “Newspapers are losing their readership and revenue to digital news sources. Bringing out a daily has become a tough job.”
The 1970s and 80s were a golden period, Irshad said. Revenue and circulation numbers were high. When the 90s swung around, the paper began to stumble. Earlier, Siyasat Jadid got advertisements from private companies as well. Now, its sole source of revenue is government ads.
“We do not even get government ads regularly,” Irshad said. “We get them when the state government launches a scheme, or the chief minister or some other minister visits Kanpur.”
As a result, the paper is barely able to make a profit.
“We have to give salaries to our employees at the end of every month,” Irshad pointed out. “We need newsprint and ink every day. We have to spend on the maintenance of the printing machine and computers. We have to pay for electricity. After all this expenditure, our profit is almost nil.”
Yet, the newspaper is meticulously published, day after day.
Newspapers tell stories. Siyasat Jadid’s own story is almost as old as the Indian republic’s.
The publication was started in 1949 by Ilmi’s father, Mohammad Ishaq Ilmi, and registered in 1953. Ishaq, who was about 30 years old at the time, was a graduate from Deoband. He was always filled with “ideas of socialism and secularism”, his son said.
Before Partition, Urdu was spoken by a large number of people in north India. With the passage of time, it was considered the language of Muslims alone. As a result, there’s a general belief that only Muslims can own or work at an Urdu newspaper. However, since its inception, Siyasat Jadid’s staff has been predominantly Hindu.
“My father wanted to run the newspaper in a balance and unbiased way,” Irshad explained. “He was against its tilting towards a particular community or religion. Hence, he preferred Hindus over Muslims as staff.”
Ishaq had been close to political leaders, Irshad said, like former prime minister Charan Singh, former Uttar Pradesh chief minister HN Bahuguna, and politician and freedom fighter Raj Narain.
“Political leaders visited our home pretty often,” Irshad said. “Raj Narain insisted that my father enter the Rajya Sabha but he refused, as he preferred being a journalist rather than a politician.”
When Ishaq died in 1992, his son took charge of the paper.
Siyasat Jadid currently employs about 30 people, most of them Hindu.
Among the staff, Satindra Bajpai has been associated with the paper the longest. He joined as a reporter in 1985, aged 24. Bajpai is now 59. His conversations are always peppered with anecdotes from his long career.
“Nowadays, reporters have either bikes or cars. But when I started, most reporters in Kanpur used bicycles,” Bajpai told Newslaundry. “Only a few had scooters.”
Bajpai started off as a crime reporter. According to him, hospitals and mortuaries were and are the best places to unearth crime stories. “Every day, I would religiously visit the mortuary and two government hospitals on my bicycle,” he said. Sadly, he said plaintively, crime reporters don’t do this anymore.
Another change in recent times is how accessible the police is for journalists. “Every police official now has a mobile phone. Till the 1990s, police stations did not even have landline phones,” he said. “Not only policemen, even journalists had to depend on wireless sets for information.”
Bajpai said Kanpur has always been prone to communal violence, and Siyasat Jadid has played an important role in containing this violence in the city.
As a senior reporter, Bajpai’s work now is mainly covering important events, such as visits to Kanpur by the prime minister or chief minister. He retired his bicycle a while ago, now using a Tempo — as shared taxis in Kanpur are called — to commute to work.
Today, Kanpur is home to many Hindi dailies. In the past, Bajpai said, he’s received many offers from bigger publications, but he’s ignored them. “An association of 35 years is quite long and I can’t break it. The paper has become my identity, my extended family,” he said.
For example, he said, his wife had health issues and needed urgent medical treatment. “I did not have enough money at that time. I hesitantly asked for help from my editor,” Bajpai said. “The next day, he ensured I had sufficient money to pay for my wife’s treatment. How can I leave such an organisation?”
Out of Siyasat Jadid’s staff of 30-odd, five are reporters. Ten manage the copy desk, and the remaining work in the technical operations department that prints the paper. Only the copy editors are Muslim; it’s been hard to find Hindus who are comfortable enough with the Urdu language and its fonts on computers. The sole photojournalist, Vicky Raghuvanshi, is Hindu.
Irshad said it’s thanks to his staff that the paper is published smoothly and professionally every day. “I can’t pay high salaries but they have stayed with me,” he said. “They think subjectively of the paper, not objectively.”
Siyasat Jadid is priced at Rs 2 per copy. Outside of Kanpur, it’s read in Dehat, Etawah, Kannauj, Farrukhabad, Unnao, Fatehpur, Aligarh and Lucknow.
Shafat Ali, 76, is one its longtime readers. He stays some distance from the newspaper office, and has been reading it since he was 15 years old.
“I am filled with a sense of pride when I hold the paper in my hands in the morning,” he said. “I consider a newspaper to be something very great. And the paper I read is published in the neighbourhood in which I live.”
Irshad said he has plans to expand the paper.
“The circulation of Urdu papers has not reached its saturation point,” he said. “There are still places around Kanpur where people want to read an Urdu newspaper. We will try to reach out to them. We are yet to have a digital edition of the paper; we will digitise it very soon.”
Despites the difficulties he faces, Irshad said he can’t think of shutting down the paper. “I am emotionally, sentimentally, and consciously attached to the paper.”