Feb 16, 2012

A Tale of Two Papers...

Recently, we've witnessed an interesting battle between the two 'big' newspapers of India - on TV and in social media like Facebook. In fact, as I write this - the battle is still ongoing and seems likely to heat up further. I will not recap the events here - you can look it up on Google or FB (although if you don't know what I'm talking about, you're most likely not someone who reads Indian newspapers and probably better off closing this tab right now). I will talk about my own experiences over the years, and opinions on the two newspapers here.

I grew up reading TOI. In Lucknow, where I spent the better part of my high school years - and later returned for my MBA - it was really the only English newspaper worth reading, miles ahead of the competition in terms of both content and style. My first tryst with the Hindu was when I went to Chennai for my B.Tech. I just hated it.

TOI used to be in color, with nice graphics and all, and had a reasonable balance of information and entertainment at the time. The Hindu, by contrast, was all black-and-white - literally and figuratively. It had no supplements like 'Lucknow Times'. I think I had more fun reading Simon Haykin's 'Signals and Systems, 3e' - a textbook for a course I struggled to pass.

But it all started to change in the early 2000s. The Hindu went color, and started caring about their readers' usage experience. TOI, on the other hand, divorced itself from all serious journalism and quality reporting. In one year, the day after the Union Budget, they chose to use a cricket theme for the entire front page. The Budget session, the FM's speech, policy decisions and implications - were all described using cricket metaphors which varied from mildly inappropriate in some places, to offensively ridiculous in others. The fact that they'd managed to so trivialize the Union Budget was a rude shock to me.

After I moved to Bangalore in 2006, I started sharing a flat with other guys, and this continued till 2009. During this whole period, we subscribed to 2-3 newspapers - TOI, The Hindu (which had gradually grown on me), and occasionally the Economic Times. In 2009, I moved into a flat solo and decided that I didn't have the time to read two newspapers, and didn't want to waste money. I had to choose between the two...

The Hindu was definitely my preferred newspaper in terms of reporting quality. The language was appropriate, the analysis intelligent and insightful, and the focus squarely on news rather than ads or entertainment. Anyone who says The Hindu is 'too serious' or 'boring' or 'academic' probably hasn't read the newspaper in the last couple of years. I would describe it as 'engaging' and even 'rewarding' to read, at times. For example, their coverage of cricket was in an altogether different class, compared to all the other papers. Even if you'd watched a match from the first ball to the last, you'd still enjoy reading their report the next day, the way you enjoy a nuanced, intelligent & passionate discussion of a mutual interest with a fellow aficionado. My memory's a bit hazy, but I think they had a reporter named Ram Mahesh whom I especially looked forward to reading from.

Yet, The Hindu is successful only if you evaluate it as a conventional newspaper. I think this is where the origin of The Hindu's frustration and the recent ad campaign lies. They've done their job well, as they understand it, but they've not been nearly as successful as TOI and some others who have crossed many lines The Hindu wouldn't.

While TOI retains the newspaper format, a lot of its subject matter resembles tabloids or even film/lifestyle magazines. Their argument is that they are simply satisfying the readers' demand - but this is no longer acceptable in this day and age. The notion of corporate social responsibility is becoming increasingly popular the world over. Cigarette companies are being sued, fast food companies are being sued, beverage companies are being criticized - all by former customers who voluntarily consumed their products. They are also being restricted in terms of what they advertise, who they target etc. No one can wash their hands off the responsibility for what they make.

Similarly, media houses can't just provide simple/entertaining reading material to the masses, they are also supposed to adequately inform the public about everything important. Their editorial choices end up influencing people's levels of awareness, and their priorities and opinions, and some of TOI's choices are doing this nation a disservice. This argument is the basis of the Hindu's campaign against TOI, and I certainly support it.

More significantly, to me anyway - the quality of TOI's reporting is low - the reporters seem to be working mechanically towards inch-column targets, with little analysis of the subject matter or insight. There are often spelling and/or grammatical errors in the final published version, and general lack of mastery over the English language - such as the misuse of the word 'itself' to convey emphasis. I don't mind their use of slang or colloquialisms, but I cannot forgive plain bad English from someone who's supposed to be qualified as an English-language journalist, and writing to earn a living.

The third - and probably most worrying - problem with TOI is the excessive commercialization. I don't mind ads - I understand they help keep my monthly bills low. However, TOI's half-width, full-length pages - a recent 'innovation' used exclusively for advertising - are annoying beyond belief. They make the newspaper unwieldy and physically difficult to hold and read. I'm sure they realize this, but they obviously don't care. Secondly, I feel the front page of a newspaper has a certain sanctity and I don't appreciate when it is partially or fully covered by ads. When I'm in a real hurry and don't have the time to unfold the newspaper, I'd like to steal a glance at the big headlines for the day, NOT an ad for a car. Third, the phenomenon of paid content or what they call advertorials. This is plain cheating. The reader believes that everything published in a newspaper as 'news' is 'fact' and the publishers are responsible for validating it, and reporting without any biases. Advertising is fine, but needs to be clearly identifiable as such and not masked as content - that is betraying the readers' trust and misleading them. TOI does it a lot, and isn't at all apologetic about it.

But in spite of all this, I ended up subscribing to TOI over The Hindu, a choice that continues to haunt me as TOI makes me cringe every other day - like today, when an article spoke about 'undeserved' sections of society (I think they meant 'under-served'). Let me explain why I made this choice, though.

Fact is, I can get my dose of news from many other sources. However, the 'Bangalore Times' supplement for is uniquely convenient for looking up movie listings, keeping in touch with hotel/restaurant/pub events, local discount sales, and generally keeping in touch with trivial subjects of popular social interest. However, if I was managing TOI, I'd be worried that this was one of my few USPs.

Secondly, the Sunday editorials in TOI are unmatched and something I never miss. This includes Swaminomics, and regularly features articles by the likes of Gurcharan Das, Shashi Tharoor, Swapan Dasgupta, MJ Akbar and others (the dark spot is Shobhaa De, whom I actively hate).

Finally, despite the poor quality or most reporting and excessive commercial/frivolous stuff, TOI does manage fairly complete national and international coverage. The Hindu, unfortunately, focuses too much on South India, particularly the regional politics - which I have little interest in. When we had both papers, I always read the Hindu first - and there were several times I had to then also read TOI because The Hindu hadn't adequately covered a North Indian or international story I was interested in. This was the single most important factor that tipped the scales against The Hindu for me.

To use one TOI's favored cricket analogies, The Hindu is like a good, classical English Test batsman. He's talented, has followed the textbook and worked hard to develop his skills to a great degree, has had a good deal of success but remains grounded, and has received a decent education as well. But he's all at sea against sub-continental spin.

TOI is like Suresh Raina. Technically limited and flawed, yet immensely successful in India and popular with our T20 generation (ironically, in Chennai!)

The purists will always prefer the English chap, and the pragmatists Suresh Raina. Unless, of course, The Hindu does a Rahul Dravid and adapts to succeed in every arena, while maintaining classical purity. All the recent signs... choice of a new professional editor... the intelligent and very aggressive (the latter being completely out of character) ad campaign... surely look promising...