Going far and local: How the Hindi press used editions, audiences and ads to break new ground

And massively increased its reach and influence in the process.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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As I explained in the previous part of this piece, the millions of readers Hindi newspapers added after liberalisation became a force that redefined the idea of the public realm in the heartland. This explains why media critics such as Sevanti Ninan, who studied the Hindi press landscape over a decade and a half after liberalisation, revisited the Habermasian concept of public sphere to see how it was reconstituted in the Hindi belt by the widening reach of Hindi papers. It was also a period which saw marketing strategies and reader-focused editorial approaches play crucial roles in Hindi dailies reaching far more households. There were a number of factors guiding such strategies and they had implications for a space that was witnessing a fierce race for ever greater circulation. In the process, some aspects of the transition became key to the path the Hindi press took in its post-liberalisation surge.

First, the papers deployed multiple editions and localisation as parallel routes to register their footprints in new territories. In the early 90s, even big Hindi publications were restricted in reach to a state or two. Dainik Jagran, for one, was seen as largely a Uttar Pradesh paper and Dainik Bhaskar found its readership mainly in Madhya Pradesh. Hindustan, from the Hindustan Times stable, had replaced Pradip as Bihar’s main newspaper in 1986.

This landscape changed in the decade after liberalisation. Hindi papers started seeing all Hindi states as potential markets, and recalibrated their circulation goals. Jagran made inroads in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh while Bhaskar started editions in Rajasthan, taking on the mighty Rajasthan Patrika. The launch of multiple editions meant a readjustment of the news map from regional to local. Now that there were editions in commissionerate towns and even district headquarters, coverage of districts gobbled up the space earlier given to regional or state news. Jagran and Bhaskar began editions from almost all major towns in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and Hindustan did likewise in Bihar. As a result, the capital editions from Lucknow, Jaipur, Patna, and Bhopal weren’t the only presence of the Hindi press in the heartland. It had now dispersed over many urban or semi-urban centres to produce several localised editions.

The localisation proceeded to the extent that news from even neighbouring districts escaped the regional coverage. This led, as Ninan noted, to the formation of a “district identity” within the public sphere. A decade later, even as the loss of the panstate view in news coverage was being debated, the localisation of the Hindi press was shaping the polity, if unwittingly, at another level.

This was the period when the implementation of 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments was gathering momentum and newly empowered Panchayati Raj institutions were getting greater financial resources and development tasks and, as a result, were witnessing keenly fought elections.

The expansion of the middle class in rural and semi-urban hinterland had already spurred newspaper readership and panchayats encouraged it by subscribing to dailies to keep a close watch on what was going on in their jurisdictions. So much so that officeholders came to believe getting a personal copy of the local newspaper would provide them an edge in information battles.

The advent of liberalisation went beyond expanding the Hindi newspaper market and encouraging localisation. It also led to a consolidation, with the big players squeezing out or subsuming smaller papers such as Aaj or Aryavrat. In Bihar, while Big Media brands saw their fortunes rise, the modest mastheads shrunk or folded up.

Second, in seeking millions of new readers in the untapped rural and semi-urban markets, top Hindi papers let readers drive their editorial decisions. Bhaskar, for example, usually conducted readership surveys before launching new editions, indicating its concern about the reading choices of potential consumers. More significantly, this trend meant producing papers which appealed to younger sections of the newly aspirational population already exposed to rapidly growing cable TV. This population – youth as well as children – was looking to Hindi dailies for entertainment, sports, and career guidance. And the newspapers were seeking to turn them into readers and, importantly, agents to prod their families to either retain or start subscription.

So, Hindi newspapers began publishing supplements and pullouts with entertainment and sports news, and career guidance. And when cellphones became available, they sought to establish two-way communication with readers. Beyond the old-world practice of letter to editors, the papers gave out phone numbers of their offices and encouraged readers to provide feedback and news story ideas via SMS. The two-way traffic drive was as much a content generating tool as it was a way of empowering the readers with a sense of having a say in the paper.

Strikingly, glocalisation of the Hindi press also affected how it approached language. There were two parallel effects. One, English words in Devanagari script started to be generously used, much to the dismay of the purists. This was clearly an attempt to connect with young readers in a language which reflected their everyday conversations and in which they sought to sync their aspirations with MTV-consuming metropolitan India. This contrived hybrid of Hinglish echoed an upwardly mobile India in the hinterland. But Hindi newspapers went further still, printing English words in Roman script. Inext, a Jagran group publication, routinely dispensed with Devanagri while using English words. Navbharat Times accommodated its upwardly mobile young Hindi reader on its masthead, carrying half its title in Roman with the acronym “NBT” hovering over it.

Two, columns and headlines appeared in local dialects, probably to attract readers who were more at ease with the local tongue. Prabhat Khabar, for example, ran columns in Maithili in the district editions of Bihar’s Mithilanchal region while Dainik Bhaskar wrote headlines in Wagri in Rajasthan.

Adopting such reader-friendly strategies compelled Hindi papers to balance the new choices of readers with their traditional tilts. So, all major dailies gave regular space to snippets of religious sermons, citations from scriptures and columns on rituals. This strategy was mainly premised on how everyday India conducted itself, and it became a subset to how the larger social reality was unfolding. “If the English media treated issues of religion...as peripheral to their concerns, and the Hindi media treated it as a relatively familiar, living presence and as a sociological fact, the latter could become an organising ground for the Hindu right,” professor Arvind Rajagopal writes in his 2001 book Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India.

Interestingly, whenever the ideological tilt of a leading paper became too obvious, it was relevant to see how the market forces fuelled or tempered it. Jagran’s steady advocacy of the Ayodhya temple movement, for instance, could be seen from the prism of its market rivalry with Aaj, a daily that stood on the same ideological turf. And the tempering of Jagran’s Hindutva tone towards the end of the 90s could similarly be seen as a probable effect of a considerable rise in the number of Muslim readers of both Jagran and Rajasthan Patrika, another right-of-centre newspaper.

The multiedition expansion of Hindi papers, wider penetration and reader-driven content was underwritten by ad revenues. It was clear that the profile of advertisers in English newspapers, which had low circulation but a richer readership, would be different from advertisers looking for space in Hindi dailies. Then, in states such as Bihar, local businesses were keen to avoid any show of spending that could attract extortionists lurking in a fragile law and order climate. To counter such challenges, Hindi papers banked less on local classifieds and more on advertisers from Delhi and Mumbai looking for promotion campaigns in the vast markets of the Hindi heartland.

It’s in this context that we should see how leading Hindi dailies flaunt their circulation numbers along with data on purchasing power of their readers. They often highlight figures about the FMCG consumption patterns or material possessions of their readers. In 2018, for instance, when Bhaskar claimed to have moved up to second in a readership survey conducted in Bihar, the paper flaunted this “achievement” in the Delhi edition of a leading English daily. Seemingly, the message was aimed at pan-India advertisers looking to book print ad campaigns in Bihar.

On the other side, for a wide variety of advertisers in the 90s, interest in the Hindi heartland’s print space wasn’t surprising. For, as Ninan observes, “The consumer goods market was discovering the potential for both consumer durables and nondurables in Bihar, and they needed a media vehicle for their advertising.”

There’s a view that the cumulative effect of the reader-driven editorial strategies, aggressive readership-seeking campaigns and pursuit of ad revenues led to a considerable de-politicisation of the Hindi press, not least when compared to it participation in the political ferment of earlier decades, notably the Emergency of the mid-70s. Similarly, there have been murmurs about the abdication of intellectual and literary functions by the Hindi press which newspapers such as Jansatta represented in the 1980s. And concerns have been expressed over the outsourcing of opinionmaking and expertise to commentators of the English press. The thinning edit page of Bhaskar and its dependence on translation of commentary from the English press come across as a case in point.

Although insulating the Hindi press from external contributions would be ill-advised, it’s evident that Hindi dailies haven’t used their post-liberalisation success to develop in-house resources.

As for the arguments about depoliticisation and degradation of the public realm, they can’t be stretched beyond a point. The reliance on reader-driven popular content, which fuelled the growth of mass media in America, began at a time when a large section of the reading population in the Hindi belt was exposed to political mobilisation. Moreover, processes like localisation of content, as Ninan perceptively argues, produced their own form of political awareness about the issues, resources, functions and electoral stakes at the panchayat level of governance.

Far from seeking narrow ends that it’s often accused of doing, the commercially driven Hindi press of the post-liberalisation period carved new grounds for conducting public discourse by adding millions of readers to its fold. Powered by the much demonized ad revenue, it played an important role in extending, even reconstituting, the public sphere in the Hindi heartland. The jury is still out as to the degree to which Habermas would have agreed to the forms that his idea of public sphere would take.

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


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