Looking back: How liberalisation shaped the Hindi press

The first 15 years post liberalisation saw the print media ‘reinvent the public sphere’ in the Hindi heartland.

ByAnand Vardhan
Looking back: How liberalisation shaped the Hindi press
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The last few days have seen a flurry of commentary prompted by the 30th anniversary of the presentation of the 1991 union budget. It is three decades since Manmohan Singh, then finance minister, presented the historic budget which, along with a slew of reforms preceding it, heralded the era of economic liberalisation in India.

The retrospective gaze has been directed to a range of changes and achievements as well as continuities, shortcomings, and the unfinished task of liberating the economy from the state’s stranglehold. Besides the economy, the spillover effects of liberalisation on society, politics and culture have been analysed, including on the media landscape. There is a view that, besides shaping the country’s media scene, liberalisation saw the news media effect some attitudinal changes in the Indian population.

For one, along with other subjective factors, the growing sense of belonging to the middle class, aligned with its aspirations and concerns, is seen as an effect of a surge in media consumption in post-liberalisation India. “The self-identified middle-class consciousness has arguably been the result of a huge increase in a specific non-material consumption – namely media. The Indian media landscape has radically transformed post-liberalisation,” observes political scientist Devesh Kapur.

Among other drivers of the transition, the media scene is now dotted by 392 private TV news channels and the technological churning which has resulted in India having over 600 million active internet users, most of them accessing digital media.

This is an interesting argument about the relation between self-identity as middle class, at best a subjective measure, and the scale of media consumption in post-liberalisation India. It probably also raises the question: did the news media act as a factor in remaking the public sphere in the last decade of the last century? If it did, what was the nature of its role and its effect on how its consumers saw themselves and, in turn, how did the news media see its consumers in a diversifying and increasingly competitive market? Looking at the print space, especially the changes that the Hindi press witnessed, could be useful in probing the scale and nature of the transition that liberalisation brought.

Besides proliferating private TV news channels and later digital media platforms, the nature of the news media in the country was also significantly altered by changes in the good old print space. Liberalisation coincided with the unleashing of the forces of corporatization and professionalism in the management as well as in the news gathering and editorial functions of India’s newspaper industry.

There has been considerable interest in how Big Media groups like Bennett Coleman, with the Times of India as its flagship publication, were at the vanguard of changes taking place in boardrooms as well as newsrooms of the English press. However, far more remarkable changes were happening in the Indian languages press in the post-liberalisation period – in terms of reach as well as in the content and orientation of the publications. These developments in the regional or language press have engaged only a few works of inquiry.

Some media scholars like Robin Jeffrey have traced the greater reach of the language press in the 90s to a process of expansion that began in the late 70 and gained momentum in the last decade of the 20th century. Along with other catalysts, Jefferey, in his 2000 work India’s Newspaper Revolution, alludes to a correlation between the rise in literacy levels in key states and the addition of millions of newspaper readers. The affordability factor couldn’t be ruled out in accounting for higher readership either.

Four years later, Jeffrey used his studies in India to argue that the print media passed through three stages – rare, elite, and mass. Even though the newspaper readership scene in India was moving towards the mass stage, the wider reach could have an inverse relation with its impact if it entailed a focus on trivia. That, however, could be a contested assertion in light of the various agents and effects of the growth of the language press in India, particularly in the post-liberalisation period.

The most striking point of reference could be the Hindi press, with publications such as Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar and Hindustan ranking among the largest circulated newspapers in India, and catering to the most populous states. In her seminal study of the growth of the Hindi press, media critic Sevanti Ninan reflects on how the expansion of the Hindi print media space could be seen as constituting a new form of what German thinker Jurgen Habermas called public sphere. The phenomenal rise in the readership took care of Habermas’ condition of more and more participants in the public sphere (the aspect of quantity and inclusion). As for the question of quality, or rather degeneration, Ninan doesn’t agree with the argument that the commercialization and the mass reach degraded the public sphere.

The role of commercialization wasn’t different from how the market forces let the American penny press add a rising number of readers. This phase came to India when a large number of even illiterate Indians, and growing number of newspaper-literate population, was exposed to political socialization. So, contrary to what a section of critics might argue, the process of reaching out to new readers wasn’t happening in a politically virgin mindspace.

In its earlier phase, say the turn of the 20th century, Hindi publications had a different role in the public sphere, one aimed at a particular form of consciousness among its limited readers. It had an emphasis on anti-colonial nationalist struggle. By the end of the century, almost four decades after Independence, the Hindi press wasn't only exploring avenues of advertising revenue but also waking up to the existence of the upwardly mobile and consumerist readers in the hinterland who were looking to have their slice of the local news, liberalizing India and globalizing the world. Many were just waiting to put their literacy to the test of newspaper reading and having a news universe.

“Hindi newspapers, harbingers of nationalism at the turn of the 20th century, had become harbingers of material change by the turn of the 21st. They were now bursting with colour supplements and marketing coupons even as they brought politics, sports and news-you-can-use to rural and urban homes in village and small-town India,’’ Ninan writes in Headlines from the Heartland.

In the 90s, an aspect needs to be recalled while talking about a new generation of newspaper-literate readers. For a sizeable section of the new consumers of the print media, or even the first generation readers within their families, reading the papers was a post-TV experience. Either they had turned literate after being TV news consumers or their appetite for more news was being whetted by the TV news the previous evening. In a way, it was a news agenda-setting of a different kind, though very different from how some sensationalist TV news stories struggled for space in newspapers the next morning or how social media theatrics are vying for primetime attention on TV today.

While chasing advertisement revenue, the leading Hindi print publications were quick to grasp the value of expanding their readership to attract potential advertisers. They couldn’t lose sight of the untapped but huge opportunities of adding readers in small towns and villages – the sites which were witnessing the emergence of semi-urban and rural middle class. The first 15 years of the post-liberalisation period saw the print media reinvent the public sphere in the Hindi heartland. “Newspaper penetration increased, and marketers quickly followed. Print went from being an elite to a mass medium and very ordinary people living in very small towns (known as kasbas) and villages became both news consumers and newsmakers as newspapers localized,” Ninan observes.

In the commercially guided blueprint for expansion, Hindi dailies saw a number of strategies like localization, multiple-editions, subscription gifts, reader-driven supplements and pullouts, the generous use of Hinglish and other marketing and editorial initiatives. What forms did such moves take and how did they attract the goldmine of readership waiting to pick up a newspaper? To what extent did the strategies of marketing the paper or the tailoring of news and views influence the nature of the public sphere? Moreover, how did the market logic align with the editorial outlook for which some of the newspapers were known?

These are some of the questions which need further reflection in a phase of evolution of the Hindi press when its most striking achievement was turning the growing number of literates in the heartland into newspaper readers. It was no mean feat, and some of the ways in which it was done I’ll analyse in the next part of this article.

This is the first of a two-part article on how economic liberalisation shaped the Hindi press.

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