Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Rogue theories must go, says TJS George

Editor's note: Almost a year ago, I had persuaded TJS George, eminent editor and author, and my journalism guru, to write a piece for the launch of DNA's Bangalore edition. The points made by TJS are still relevant.

By TJS George
The birth of a baby – any baby – is a joyous occasion. It is a journalistic duty, therefore, to say a hearty “Welcome” to DNA as it takes birth in Bangalore. Duty done, we can now turn to life as it is lived in these days of terror, economic as well as ideological.
Let no one deny that DNA has shown exemplary courage in its Bangalore opening. This is a town where there are already seven general interest dailies and six business dailies. That is thirteen newspapers every day in English alone, to say nothing of those in Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, Urdu. This unnatural congestion is either a tribute to the reading habits of Bangaloreans or a pointer to the publishing industry’s madness. Perhaps DNA’s courage is sustained by the strong possibility of one or more of the aforementioned thirteen disappearing in the not too distant future.
Is DNA also being honourable besides being courageous? It’s no secret that it has been having a full-fledged staff for several months and that it has enlisted a not insignificant number of paid subscribers. It would have been commercially justifiable if the project were postponed for a year, the staff demobbed and the subscriptions refunded. But to fulfil its commitment to staff and subscribers is the more honourable course. It is good to believe that, considering the somersaults that have transformed the newspaper industry in its essential basics in the last couple of decades, elements of honourableness survive in some corners.
For now at any rate, we can also draw some solace from the way India is defying world trends on the publishing front. Just days before DNA’s opening in Bangalore, two of the world’s greatest newspaper legends tottered in their foundations. The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy. This company is the owner of iconic titles in the US such as the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun and Hartford Courant besides the Chicago Tribune. The great New York Times itself announced a cut in its quarterly dividend, suffered a 60 percent fall in its share price, watched its advertising revenue nosedive by almost 14 percent and, in a final cruel blow, pledged its landmark headquarters building in New York to raise badly needed cash. Predictably, Rupert Murdoch appeared on the scene hungry to buy the ailing giant as he had bought other evocative temples of publishing like the Wall Street Journal and, much earlier, the London Times.
India has bucked the Western trend so far. But this does not put Indian newspapers for ever above the logic of economics. The global slowdown has already started hurting. The most profitable papers are engaged in a headcount audit, preparatory, no doubt, to staff cuts. The India Today Group has closed its Bengali edition “due to market conditions”. Many inflated salaries have been brought down to earth.
Sooner rather than later, a historical correction must take place in our newspaper business.
The numbers must find a natural, sustainable level. More importantly, there must be a return to the reality that running a newspaper is different from making cement or selling toilet soap. In recent decades we have seen the enthronement of the rogue theory that a newspaper company’s only responsibility is to make money for its shareholders. Milton Friedman who aired that theory for capitalism’s glory has been repudiated in his own country, in the wake of America’s economic doldrums, by erstwhile champions of capitalism. Bill Gates said pointedly that corporations cannot be blind to their social responsibility. In publishing, more than in other industries, decency must be a dominant virtue. For the news industry to play its part in human progress, the citizen must prevail over the marketeer who feeds off him.

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