Kerala Union of Working Journalists

How They Cover or Do Not Cover Poverty state of social reporting in Indian media

P Sainath
CALL it the 43 paise syndrome.

Editors of large dailies explain it this way: their newspapers cost around six rupees a copy to produce but are sold at a sixth of that sum. Of the one rupee each copy is sold for, 57 paise goes to hawkers, distributors et al. So the publication gets just 43 paise for each copy worth six rupees. The higher the circulation the greater the financial gap. Many editors of stature in this country and elsewhere do not necessarily edit large dailies. (Several have run or are running small, struggling journals.) They have also earned respect for another, simple reason. They sell their labour, not their souls. Nor was it the case that those who edited high circulation papers in the past always enjoyed a high standing. And if papers could be sold without news and editorial content, it would have happened by now, with half a dozen chains in this country leading the charge. Even the most hardline proprietors know – never mind what they say – that we haven’t quite got there yet.

Still, editors have largely accepted their worth as 43 paise and there is less debate over this today than ten years ago. There’s little debate over everything in the papers. The Times of India, for instance, has ordered its correspondents to cover the coming elections ‘bearing the entertainment and personality angles in mind.’ It isn’t just newsprint space that has vanished though. Many spaces are shrinking in public discourse, even as a few new ones open. Kargil shows us that brilliantly. Where’s the challenge to some very dangerous forms of jingoism even among those who ought to know better?

It was over ten days before anyone of standing condemned the Shiv Sena’s attack on Dilip Kumar. And even then the criticism was sotto voce. The actor himself said that what hurt most was the silence of his fellow stars. Most of them anyway were too busy working out how to cash in on Kargil. So how could they address what must rank as one of the most despicable of patriotism-tests in recent memory? Quite a few of them were dancing at Smita Thackeray’s fund-raising concert for Kargil even as the Shiv Sena baited Dilip Kumar. Publications that seem to live for the coverage of celebrities, especially those of the film world, reacted very warily.

As always, there were admirable exceptions to the Kargil cult. There were a few, fine, questioning reports in print, television and other forums. But the big picture was dismal.
It is advertising revenue that covers the remaining five rupees fifty seven paise – and adds much more to make up the profits. So the ad department is at least six times more important than editorial. The lesson the editors have drawn: they, their staff, their news gathering talent, everything to do with editorial content is worth 43 paise. Their spaces have shrunk and they have to know their place. Which is so far below the advertising department in the pecking order that stepping out of line invites being stamped on and squished. You stick to the service entrance and consider yourself lucky not to be in the cellar.

That self-image defines small, stifling limits outside which editors won’t venture. There are obvious flaws in such an outlook. Still, the acceptance of this ‘law’ within the fraternity implies real shifts in power. The clout of the older editors, in this view, belonged to a past when newspapers drew the bulk of their money from circulation. Since profits were tied to how well the paper sold in this imagined Golden Age, owners treated their editors with great respect. If the editorial content was good, the paper sold well. Editors were respected. Everyone was happy. It was as close to newsprint nirvana as you could get.

This is a seductive though misleading view, since it does have serious elements of truth. However, ‘respect’ for editors, whatever that means, also derives from many other factors. It happens, for instance, when their newspapers stand for something. When publications are tied to values, however modest, that go beyond profit. When they take at least some positions that do not result in direct gain for their companies, their banks or other interests. Often, when they stand up to power.

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