Even two decades after what the media scholar Robin Jeffrey described as the phase of “” in 1977-99, a few things haven’t changed in India’s language press. It was a period when despite their rapid growth, or perhaps because of it, Hindi dailies ran limited and sporadic international news coverage. It was seen in how Hindi news consumers and students had to turn to the now-defunct news magazine Mayaa for foreign news and analysis.
However, even Mayaa did not publish original foreign coverage. It compiled news reports from global news outlets.
Nothing has changed since. It’s become even starker now as leading Hindi newspapers have become flagship entities of large media corporations with millions of readers.
More recently, the delayed and seemingly desperate response of a leading Hindi daily to the obvious lack of foreign news on its pages raises more questions than it answers. In a way, it’s a repetition of the Mayaa approach. The key difference is that the approach is now tried by a far bigger and more financially resourceful news organisation in a far more connected world.
The newspaper in question is Dainik Bhaskar, the country’s second most read daily. Dainik Bhaskar now has half a page of random and translated content from the New York Times mostly on Mondays, from the Economist on Saturdays, and from Time on Sundays. The newspaper seems to be asking its readers: what is it trying to achieve with this?
And that leads to even more questions.
The first two questions are obvious. Who decides the selection of reports and articles to be translated and reproduced from these foreign publications? Second, and more significantly, do these arrangements with foreign publications entail a borrowed sense of what’s important and interesting in world affairs?
Before looking for a pattern in the content selected by these publications, it’s important to remember that Dainik Bhaskar, like most Indian newspapers, has a weak foreign affairs page or, rather, lacks a full-fledged page. International coverage shares space with national news, as is evident from the title of the page: Desh Videsh. Given this deficit, one would assume that partnerships with international publications would aim at supplementing the shortfall in world affairs coverage.
However, looking at the pattern of what the newspaper chooses to reproduce from these international publications, the arrangement doesn’t seem to be helping Bhaskar in widening its global news content.
Interestingly, the newspaper has selected the bottom halves of its lifestyle pages on Sunday (Life and Management) and Monday (Aha Zindagi) to host content from Time and the New York Times, respectively. NYT snippets irregularly appear on the Desh Videsh page too, a page already cluttered with assorted news items from India and around the world. Saturday’s editorial page cedes its bottom half to select pieces reproduced from the Economist.
The pattern of the selection of stories shows no effort to ensure a holistic coverage of global news. The translated stories from NYT, for instance, mostly revolve around the United States. On June 29, three out of four NYT stories were about the actual number of Covid cases in the US being higher than the registered cases, the decline in Donald Trump’s popularity among elderly voters, and the increase in the sale of underground bunkers in the US.
On July 6, stories included a story on the problems faced by tenants in the US, how brisk business in Hong Kong gave Uber hopes of recovery, and how over 1,300 scientists concluded that the risk of death due to the Covid was less than one percent. There were also lifestyle stories on how to inculcate the mask-wearing habit in children (June 29) and how weight training works on the body (July 6).
From the pages of Time, US-centric content mainly found its way to Dainik Bhaskar. On July 5, for example, all four news stories selected had something to do with the US: a civil society group’s battle against Trump, TV shows pulled for their alleged negative portrayal of Black people, the number of Americans without internet, and attacks on people of Asian origin in the US.
On June 28, two out of three stories selected from Time were US-focused: on Trump’s policies, losses suffered by the fireworks industry in the US due to the pandemic, and how tourism held the key to economic recovery in Europe.
Over the last two weeks, pieces reproduced from the Economist were a little more varied, though random. On July 4, these stories were on research on a number of possible Covid infections, foreign investors and their prospects with partners in India’s large market, a survey on Trump’s dwindling poll prospects, and 600 companies discontinuing ads on Facebook.
On June 27, the stories selected were on governments across the world not being prepared for the next pandemic-like crisis, 60 percent of tenants in the US not paying rent, the global silence on China’s repression of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province, and the growing popularity of e-sports during a pandemic.
Clearly, the pattern of selecting stories, and the nature of these pieces, is restricted to a few fleeting glimpses of the state of affairs in a major power across the Atlantic. When not restricted by that, the selection seems clumsily random in how it looks at news and views from the rest of the world. It does very little in helping readers of Dainik Bhaskar in getting a window to the world.
While reprinting standalone syndicate articles, or reports from the international press, has become common in sections of India’s English media, the arrangements for regular content sharing has been seen in the last two decades. At the turn of the present century, the Statesman had a Saturday pull-out supplement with news stories and articles from the New York Times. A few years later, the Indian Express struck an arrangement with the Economist and began reprinting articles and reports from the magazine five days a week, on a separate page.
This was also a time when the Indian Express was trying different means to attract students preparing for competitive examinations into the fold of its readership. Offering daily coverage of international affairs, from a well-known but expensive news magazine, was part of that strategy. Circulation managers at Express were surveying competitive exam preparation hubs, trying everything to break the , the Hindu, in this substantial readership segment.
But bereft of the exclusivity in what is being offered to the readers, these arrangements tend to veer more towards brain positioning than widening and deepening information and insights about world affairs. There comes a point when content-sharing tends to have a gimmicky element. Despite partnering with big names in global media, Dainik Bhaskar is far from delivering even regular and basic coverage of developments from across the world. For instance, a large number of Hindi students remain devoid of any well-rounded coverage of world affairs.
However, this is by no means a problem in the Hindi media alone.
Three years ago, I wrote about , including the English media, when it comes to covering international news stories — especially those without an India angle. Indian news outlets mostly restrict their foreign beat to reporting and analysing bilateral or multilateral developments that feature India. Even large Indian media corporations have not put money into widening and deepening their international affairs content. One of the many dangers of this, as I had , is that our autonomy of perspective is held captive by the biased narratives of the foreign press.
In some ways, Dainik Bhaskar’s arrangement with global media brands is more about concealing the failure of the Indian media in having a window to the world. Devoid of the ambition to track world affairs for their readers and viewers, Indian media outlets are more keen on the escape route of content partnerships.
“Indian media suffers from limitations; it engages only fitfully with the rest of the world,” the Canadian diplomat and scholar David Malone wrote in Does The Elephant Dance? Almost a decade later, not much has changed.
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