Problems and Prospects of Small Newspapers
August 13, 2005 Press Club Kolkata
Organized by Indian Journalists Association
Justice G N Ray
Press Council of India
I thank the Indian Journalists Association for having given me this opportunity to be with a section of the press that represents the grass root and indeed the mass root of the Fourth Estate. I have noted that Indian Journalists Association established in 1922, is said to be the oldest body of newspapers in the country and I hope the Association will always stand tall in protecting and ensuring both the rights and responsibilities of it members.
Bengal has been the proud birthplace of the press in India. Chronicles record “Hicky’s Gazette” as the first newspaper to be published in the country from Calcutta in 1780. Though ‘Gazette’ is reported to have died an unceremonious death in 1782 weighed down by fines and seizure of its printing press under the then judicial system in India under Warren Hastings, the initiative awoke the people to the advantages of a newspaper and under Raja Rammohan Roy to whom goes the credit for ushering in the modern age of reason in India, the press was transformed into a weapon of social reform. He used Sambad Kaumudi (Bengali Weekly 1821) to propagate his new thoughts and ideas in social and religious reform. To the founder of Indian Language Journalism also goes the credit for the close affinity that the small press of today enjoys with the public to which it caters. Freedom struggle apart, the role that small and medium newspapers have played since 1947 is also commendable. The majority of Indian population today lives in rural areas. The need for flow of information to and from the rural area is even greater. The large and more well known papers are mostly published from large cities and towns, not fully aware of the needs and problems of the rural or small town public or of the local taste. Conversely, the small newspapers enjoy the potential to bridge this gap as though they are brought out by people with small means, it also translates into small overhead costs. They speak the language of the locals and are thus capable of influencing their opinion. They also have the potential to serve as a conduit between the public and the local authorities by bringing to the notice of the authorities, the sufferings, difficulties and the needs of the people, simultaneously carrying to the people the type of information they need from the authorities. Therefore I firmly believe that small papers are the best vehicle for promoting unity and communal harmony among the people and thereby strengthening the roots of democracy and the process of development.
Small newspapers are often criticized for ignoring ethical values, for using the paper as a tool for settling personal scores or for blackmailing. It is never correct to generalize. There are of course always some black sheep and ‘fly by night’ newspapers but that is no reason to loose sight of the very important vacuum being filled by the small papers in the information communication chain. The Council believes that there is indeed a need to protect and promote the genuine small and medium newspapers in keeping with the country’s commitment to establish a socialist society and to encourage plurality of opinion and sources of information to strengthen democracy.
About a decade ago, the Council had conducted an in- depth study into the problems of small and medium newspapers and came out with as many as 22 specific recommendations to encourage the small papers to play their role efficiently and to ameliorate their conditions. Highlights of these recommendations were additional advertisement support to these papers by the government; cheaper newsprint; machinery and equipment at concessional rates; transparency in advertisement empanelment and release, quick clearance of advertisement bills by the DAVP and other advertising authorities, making separate arrangements for input of information, news materials and visuals through Press Information Bureau (PIB) of the Government of India. To this, I would add offering them subscription support and organizing workshops to nurture local journalistic talent.
However, the most important recommendation of the Council was that, and I quote, "A small and Medium Newspaper Development Corporation (or a small and Medium Newspaper Advisory Committee) should be set up as an autonomous body sufficiently representative of all medium and small newspapers with a view to promote and ensure the development of small and medium newspapers. It may have its branches at appropriate places. It may start with sufficient fund to be provided by the Government. It should keep the small and medium newspapers right from the stage of filing of declaration and act as a forwarding agency for applications for telephone facilities, to procure land on concessional rates, to procure, newsprint and to storage and distribute it to recommend postal facilities, telecommunication facilities, travel concessions to journalists etc." In the alternative, the small and medium newspapers be encouraged to form a co-operative society for the above purpose.
Furthering the above views, the Council in its Report on the ‘Future of Print Media (2001), recommended that “Co-operatives of small newspapers in particular, may be encouraged to run cost effective modern printing presses, internet connections and organize workshops for journalists and printers for improving the overall quality of small newspapers”. It also recommended that “genuine small newspapers may be helped with subsidized newsprint. The possibility of increasing indigenous production of newsprint by using alternative raw materials (“kenaff”, even city waste, etc.) should also be explored.” “It also needs to be studied as to what should be the role of the small newspaper in a multi-regional and multi-language country of over one billion, and to look for ways and means to improve the quality of small newspapers.”
It is learnt that in Delhi some associations representing small newspapers have urged the government to provide relief to the small newspapers from the burden of VAT and for a single window clearance system in the Information Department to cater to all their needs.
The small press has faced a new threat over the past 3-4 years with the big newspaper launching regional supplements to the main paper. These, no doubt, affect the circulation of the local paper but they are not, at least not yet, able to compete with the local newspapers in coverage of local news. The local press enjoys this edge since it has its finger on the pulse of the local population, is aware of the comparative importance of local personalities and events and is more attuned to local tastes and dislikes. It enjoys a further advantageous position in terms of advertisement potential at local/district level of limited services and products.
It is however, undeniable that the small press enjoys a severe handicap in the form of technological advancements and non-availability of the best of personnel due to financial constraints. It also cannot match the big papers in the price war.
These are the disadvantages, which can be overcome only by offering quality service by becoming the voice of the local population.
The country’s population today has crossed one billion; out of them, almost 70% live in rural areas. The literacy rate, which was around 17% at the dawn of independence, stood as 66% as per census of 2001 and would have further improved since. In absolute number, people are gradually rising above the poverty line and with passage of time, more literate and educated people and economic growth are reasonably expected. This change and progress will improve capacity to purchase and read. Literacy and consequential growth of potential readers backed by economic growth will obviously help small press. The small newspapers must realise the change taking fast in the society and should come forward as catalyst of change of social economic as well as political situation and extend constructive co-operation in the development of the country and rooting out the malaise of corruption, moral degradation. Remember, only an independent and responsible media committed to the democratic process will ultimately contribute to the nation building.
So, I would urge you to develop enterprising spirit, correctly plan for growth without depending entirely on government support. It is absolutely unnecessary for the small newspapers, to enter into a circulation race with the big newspapers. With its inherent quality and sensitivity to local sentiments and problems and outlook the small newspapers can co-exist without any threat from big newspapers and thrive independently. Be the voice of the people and tread the Path, alone, if need be, of healthy and vibrant journalism and you will emerge the winner.
I conclude with the words of Rabindranath Tagore: -
“JODI TOR DAK SUNE KEU NA AASHE
TOBE EKLA CHALO RE.”