Friday, April 04, 2014

The Book Review: What Makes Hindi Journalism Tick

I picked up Per Stahlberg’s book, or rather, his doctoral thesis, Writing Society through Media: Ethnography of a Hindi Daily with a lot of interest. A keen look into what makes Hindi journalism tick, especially seen through the lens of a journalist working in the Hindi heartland) is a fascinating topic. I used to work in a newspaper myself, have travelled in Uttar Pradesh, and been for a few media conferences with Hindi journalists from the state, and heard from them their opinions on the condition of journalism, the increasing trend of paid news and concerns over caste equations in the offices. From that point of departure, the book didn’t present new material to me personally, though I did enjoy revisiting media theory and some of Stahlberg’s observations about the nature of Indian journalism, and Indians in general.

However, that Stahlberg has chosen to deconstruct Hindi journalism in particular is a welcome choice. Especially given the times we live in, much attention is given to the ways of TV news media and social media. And in the big cities like New Delhi, where I live, not much is known about the vernacular media except that it carries highly local news. Analysing the quick growth of the vernacular media, Stahlberg credits increase in literacy as one factor, the new technology of the offset press, computer typesetting and computer modem as another, allowing vernacular languages to be printed with ease, and finally, a shift in the structure of ownership, with an increasing number of businessmen and politicians looking at the newspaper industry as a commercial venture. Another point that Stahlberg refers to in the book is how Indians, denied any real news during the era of the Indira Gandhi-led emergency, devoured the news once it returned to them. Another reason that led to the rise of vernacular journalism, and in particular Hindi journalism, was the rise of Hindi nationalism and the focus on promoting the Hindi language in Uttar Pradesh by both the BJP and the Samajwadi Party.

Stahlberg spends some time tracing the history of newspapers in India, and in particular their relationship with the freedom movement, which is valuable to those who might not be familiar with the topic. Next, he chooses to focus on Lucknow newspapers and their overall ‘look’, describing the kinds of headlines, articles, photographs and snip- pets that dot the front page and subsequent inside pages. Ironically, or perhaps on purpose, there are no photographs to accompany these descriptions of the newspaper pages. He finds the papers divided into the geographies of Uttar Pradesh, India and the world, with most of the papers’ emphasis being on local- state news. He also finds that as much as New Delhi is an euphemism for the central government, Lucknow is used to convey the decisions of the State government.

Stahlberg refers to a ‘moderately sensational crime’ that was being reported in the papers, that of a headless corpse being found in a jute bag, later discovered to have been part of a ritual sacrifice in the house of a politician. Stahlberg comments that this moderately sensational story took precedence over a water resource dispute between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and the announcement of a new chairman of a political alliance.

Stahlberg attempts to map society through the emphasis given to various kinds of information in the newspaper. Referring to the increased space given to feature stories, he concludes that the newspaper as a product is published as a ‘family newspaper’ with space for all members of the family to enjoy.

However, a lot of Stahlberg’s meat comes in his dealings with the mechanics of the newspaper and the journalists employed. It is no surprise that he finds it both difficult and enjoyable to describe the chaotic way in which the office of Dainik Jagran functions—the paper he focuses the rest of his attention on. He describes the working style of the editor, Vinod Shukla—‘all mail for every department in the building first passed over his desk. That was how he knew all the details of the business.’ To Stahlberg’s surprise, Shukla prefers to give his journalists unspecific designations so that they don’t feel entitled to anything in particular, but does not shy away from as- signing responsibility. He hires on the basis of a loyalty, and prefers candidates with no experience as he feels it will be easier for them to adjust with his personal style of functioning. In describing work routines, Stahlberg notes that most of the time editors ask for pitches from the reporters rather than handing out assignments. Some of them are, of course, and many grumble if that particular assignment is far away from time as it might prove to be too time consuming.

Next, Stahlberg follows reporters as they gather information, stopping in their prover- bial watering holes for information. He describes government offices and officials as crowded, with reporters hanging around gathering information. In his research, he notes that many journalists find joy in their proximity to powerful officials, and are able to call in favours from time to time. They even apply for government sanctioned housing, though few get it. The journalists in the Hindi papers are more cohesive—as he writes, ‘it is in no way an overgeneralization to describe the Hindi journalist as a quite young, male, Hindu Brahmin with a university education.’ Comparing them with their colleagues in English papers, Stahlberg also notes that there are far less women, and those from other religious communities.

Stahlberg also finds many journalists admit to falling into the vocation when they did not achieve some other goal—perhaps to join the Indian Administrative Service. Others view journalism as the family vocation. He

also observes the rate of attrition, with journalists constantly moving among newspapers, often moving cities. Stahlberg notes that it is extremely rare to see one kind of shift—that of journalists moving between English and Hindi publications—mainly attributed to the kinds of schools they went to. He says that often a senior editor moves papers, taking along his core team with him. In that one move, while one paper loses a core team the other gains it. Stahlberg also seems to find that an individual reporter does not suffer consequences because of an incorrect report, but that the editor seems to accept a vague institutional blame for it. Reports that have incited controversies because of ham-handed reporting have, in his view, not limited the future career of the reporter.

In the end, Stahlberg tries to understand how the mass media constructs its own reality—what the editor of Dainik Jagran would think it is headline news—and what the real status of Hindi news is in the country. Refer- ring to an interview that the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee chose to give to a Hindi daily over an English one, Stahlberg concludes that the importance of Hindi journalism is certainly growing.

The range of information given by Stahlberg is certainly interesting, especially as he is a Swedish researcher with no prior knowledge about India’s media industry. In trying to answer the question of what makes the vernacular press of the Hindi heartland tick, Stahlberg talks of the ‘closeness’ the Hindi press feels it has with its audience, therefore focusing on local matters, as well as the journalists’ own sense of pride at his/her byline.

Ultimately, the book is an academic overview—a dissection of a Hindi newspaper and the universe it inhabits—but it falls short of being a fascinating read. A few tidbits, such as the journalists’ apparent lack of competition with each other—even when from rival papers—is interesting but one can assume it extends only to those who are covering beats that involve attending many press conferences. One cannot assume the same for those doing investigative journalism. At the same time, while Stahlberg has painfully described the kinds of information placed in the newspaper and the space given to each section, I would have liked to see further analysis in why that is so. The same can be said for why recruitment of more journalists from different castes, genders and religions was not carried out; instead of just being told that it wasn’t.

In a sense, the book is a satisfying description but not a satisfying investigation.

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