Two newspapers were started back in 1947, in towns of the Hindi belt not that far from each other—Jabalpur and Jhansi. Last week, one acquired the other. In their 65-year trajectory, one produced some of the most venerable Hindi language journalists the country has known, the other achieved growth which has made it the most read and highest circulated paper in the country. No prizes for guessing who acquired whom.
Dainik Jagran, the country’s leading newspaper, acquired NaiDunia, now headquartered in Indore, in a cash deal. NaiDunia, which has been much romanticized for producing Rajendra Mathur and Prabhash Joshi, towering figures in Hindi journalism, and for nurturing a culture that set the journalistic benchmark for the Hindi press, finally succumbed to market realities. It suffered huge losses in the last few years. But it began to lose the battle a long time ago.
In early 2005, Ajay Chhajlani, son of one of the three founders and the man who had presided over NaiDunia’s heyday, explained to me how the paper came to lose out. In 1967, it was the first paper in the country to make the technological shift to offset printing. From the early 1980s to the mid-1990s it was in technological transition, even as its three original owners died one by one. Meanwhile, newspapers across northern india were becoming multi-edition. “By the time we thought of multiplying, newspapers had become capital-intensive.”
There was another factor not mentioned then. Whereas the third generation of other leading newspaper families in the Hindi belt entered the media business, Ajay’s son Vinay went into software. When things became critical in the family newspaper after an expansion to Gwalior, he came in, got an infusion of finances from a leading industrialist, and led a short-lived revival and expansion which included an edition in Delhi. But the losses only mounted till the backing for Vinay Chhajlani dried up.
Dainik Jagran, meanwhile, was less about scaling the heights of journalism than about expanding from early on, and getting masses of readers.
The editor of Prabhat Khabar, Harivansh, a noted figure in contemporary Hindi journalism, recently published a long piece over three days extolling the high-minded, spartan living tradition of NaiDunia’s early editors. One took no raise for eight years on a salary of Rs.150 a month. The other asked for a salary of Rs.75 a month. He wrote about NaiDunia’s glorious contribution to the intellectual life of the period.
But that was in the past. Is small and high minded now unviable?
Harivansh’s essay invoked Marx, Engels and Darwin, among others, to warn that it was inevitable in a market economy that the big fish would gobble up the little fish. And, it diagnosed the changes in the newspaper industry that are making it near impossible for the small, family-owned newspapers of yore to survive. Rising costs of raw material, including newsprint, the fact that advertisers favour big publications, and the advent of papers like Sakshi and DNA in a crowded market where it needs an investment of upwards of Rs.1,000 crore to launch a newspaper.
Tears are being shed for NaiDunia and its exasperated new owner is wondering why. The way Sanjay Gupta, India’s leading media baron, sees it, he is not gobbling up NaiDunia, as is being made out. He is giving it a capital infusion that will put it back in the race for readership in Madhya Pradesh.
“I am not gobbling them, I am making them grow strong. I am giving them their right place to survive in the market. If (Dainik) Bhaskar buys them, they will close it down. I am buying and mentoring an old brand which would have withered away. Today a Mid-Day is standing up to a DNA and HT (Hindustan Times) onslaught and even a Mumbai Mirror because I have given them an infusion of capital.” (His company acquired Mid-Day a couple of years ago.) He adds: “If a newspaper is about an idea of journalism and not able to survive, it needs to go and sit in the lap of a media group. Whatever its tradition, it is going to be a stronger paper.”
Gupta says that today the debate is twofold. Should you earn out of journalism, and if so how much should you earn? “I don’t think we should start disowning capitalism and start moving towards socialism.” And he adds dryly, today nothing can be small or it will be gobbled up. “This logic was applied in our family 30 years back. Expand, or perish. We began in Jhansi and then in time we launched in Gorakhpur.” They were not an entrepreneurial family backed by large funds, but they were clear that it was a business. “Back in 1947, it was also to make money. We were not some kind of an NGO.”
And for one journalist involved, the wheel has come full circle. Shravan Garg, who is now NaiDunia’s chief editor, has to help the newspaper regain ground from Dainik Bhaskar. He was the man who in September 1993 took over running Bhaskar in Indore and oversaw its overtaking of NaiDunia in that market. The challenge is now reversed.
Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.
Editor’s note: NaiDunia and Dainik Jagran compete with Hindustan, published by Hindustan Media Ventures Ltd, a subsidiary of HT Media Ltd, the publisher of Mint.
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