Sangita P Menon Malhan | Re-discovering … The Times of India

08 Nov,2013

Sangita P Menon Malhan

By Sangita P. Menon Malhan

 

Whenever I revisited Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment or Altdorfer’s The Battle of Alexander, irrespective of how many times I had seen these art works before, I was always pleasantly surprised to stumble upon a rare detail, a hidden element that made me see these paintings in fresh light. The interpretations changed. There was a different message each time, and finally, it all converged to reveal the big picture. This is how I came to discover The Times of India, over the span of a decade when I researched for The TOI Story.

 

Even as the newspaper celebrates its 175 years, it is ironic how little is known about it in the public space. Its first Indian owner was Ramkrishna Dalmia. He had built a fortune in jute and cotton, and bought this newspaper from its British owners in 1946. He was some sort of a critic of the government of the day (notably of Jawaharlal Nehru). Dalmia made a few bad speculative trading calls, and found himself in huge debt. The paper was transferred to his son-in-law and business partner Shanti Prasad Jain, and though “it remained in the family”, the Times of India effectively changed hands.

 

When Shanti Prasad’s grandson, Samir Jain, came on the scene in the early 1980s, The Times of India was going through tough times. It had emerged from seven “zero years”, a period when the government had taken control after allegations of financial impropriety against the management. The industry was a in a traditional mould, with newspapers more levers of power and influence in a socialist set-up than genuine, viable businesses.

 

The industry saw itself in the role of a nation builder, with erudite editors of the fourth estate expounding on government policy. Through the columns of the newspaper, they engaged in dialogue with the powers-that-be and the intelligentsia on the “issues” of the day. Besides, for Samir Jain, the other businesses of the family were in decline. Competition in the media industry was growing. India was seeing the first shoots of economic liberalization.

 

With this context, the 1980s and ’90s became the defining period for the Indian media, with The Times of India at the centre of transformation. Samir Jain resolved that his newspapers will make money for him. Advertisers were required to pay much more, in accordance with the “value” that his papers were providing them. In turn, editorial content and design was made more lively, “relevant” and racy to appeal to the emerging urban consuming class. “Aggregating audience for the advertiser” became the credo of The Times of India.

 

This was the seed for fundamental changes in the Indian media space. The advertiser, and by extension the audience that the advertiser was targeting, became the point of focus. This defined the new hierarchy of content. If this advertiser – and his target group – preferred local issues or more leisure, lifestyle and travel in the newspaper, so be it. If these readers wanted to quickly make sense of how policy announcements impacted their lives, write-ups were de jargonized and tailored to meet this need. Colour was introduced, first through glossy supplements and then across the board in the newspaper.

 

To be sure, there was vehement resistance to these changes as they unfolded over a decade. Editors questioned the new paradigm where the entire organization would align with (or be subservient to) the advertiser. The newspaper was not to be treated as a commodity and the enterprise was not to be seen as a business. There was no scope for levity in content, declared the editorial cadre. They saw this as “trivialization”, “commercialization” and a “dumbing down” of the media.

 

In a complex debate, both sides of the argument had their merits.  Over time, however, not only has The Times of India implemented most of what it set out to, its success has persuaded many leading rivals to follow suit and expand newspaper readership manifold.

 

It may have gone overboard on occasions. People leading the change within the group admitted to me that in simplifying content for the reader, they may have erred into oversimplification of issues. Besides, there is always the conflict between news the reader “ought” to know versus news he “wants” to know. The Times of India may have neglected social and national issues in trying to stay relevant to the urban middle classes.

 

They have tried to pull back and restore balance, not necessarily by changing the content in the newspaper. Rather, their social campaigns like Teach India and Lead India are meant to help the youth engage in social issues. The premise is that youngsters today prefer working constructively on problems, rather than only read and analyze them in newspaper columns.

 

The Times of India, and its reclusive vice chairman (or VC) evoke extreme reactions. Without getting into judgments, I believe they have done away with the larger-than-life editor. The current editors who run the newspaper, brilliant they may be, but are barely known to their readers. We no longer have the signed editorials on the front page. They are well and truly aligned to the value system of the organization.

 

The Times of India has also come in for flak for initiatives like Medianet. Shorn of frills, this means that space in the editorial columns of the paper’s supplements is available for a price. This is a tricky one. All one would wish for is that the disclosures are more visible and comprehensive, as is the norm for any self-respecting publication, though that would mean diluting the value proposition of Medianet.

 

A clear positive for the newspaper is the way it has contributed to the state versus citizen discourse. It is clearly and deliberately on the side of the citizen, whether that has to do with the prioritization of news, the nature of issues taken up in its columns, the interpretation of policies and so on. It is not intimidating; it does not preach.

 

Studying it over these years, I find this an innovation machine, forever balancing extremes.  It is, at times, the prima donna of the print medium – stylish, urban and uppity. At other times, it is the self-proclaimed ally of the citizen, comme Spiderman. To its competitors, it may have occasionally seemed like the dreadful Bhadrakali with her many arms. Journalists from the old school see it as the destroyer of the medium. Marketers hail its clever initiatives. The TOI manages to fit itself into several roles. It uses its plurality as a strategic weapon.

 

For every Delhi Times – its advertorial, entertainment, promotional supplement – there is (was) a Crest. To offset the hype and hoopla around its glamour ventures – Miss India, Miss World, there is an Aman ki Asha, promoting Indo-Pak relations. It also gives voice to the drawing room angst of the middle class. It puts the spotlight on these issues, and is able to provide an outlet for the aspirations and often the collective indignation of the masses, even as it goes ahead and pushes its concept of Medianet.

 

This X factor, with all its contortions, has become the hallmark of the newspaper. Its unpredictability and the rate at which it is willing to try something new keep it relevant and young. As the world around it becomes more and more turbulent, it is the innovation gene that will perhaps see it through in the future.

 

New Delhi-based Sangita P. Menon Malhan is author of ‘The TOI Story’, a book on the Times of India, published by HarperCollins.

The views expressed here are her own

 

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