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Tathagata Bhattacharya
Thursday , July 12, 2012 at 16 : 16

Time flies but India still caught in a TIME warp


Ever since India started liberalising its economy in 1991, there has been a palpable change in the lives of the 350 million odd upper and middle class Indians. Materially, they have become better off and somewhere this material well being has rubbed off on their mentality. This section of the Indians is today certainly more aware about global developments (whatever concerns India and Indians of course) and more confident of meeting global challenges and competition. This confidence has also seeped into the ranks of its polity and administration. Today, the tone at which New Delhi negotiates on important matters with the rest of the world is quite different from what it used to be 30 years back. But one thing about India and Indians has been stuck in time. Many of us, including our government, media and our citizens, are still stuck on TIME.

Except the BBC to a certain extent, no other international media publication or entity, The Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post all included, enjoys this status in India.

TIME puts Narendra Modi on cover. The right wingers rejoice as if it were a judicial exoneration of the Gujarat chief minister in the 2002 riots case. The leftists see a sinister US agenda of giving a push to the Hinduvta right. The truth lies somewhere else. Narendra Modi is a powerful leader in an emerging world power like India, a person whose sheer name evokes extreme responses in all corners of the country. It is a topical story to cover. And if a media entity wants to sell its magazine in India, it would put him on cover. Modi would sell, it would create a controversy, create a buzz about the brand and the cover will sell more.

TIME puts Sachin Tendulkar on cover. The fans are convinced. Their dedication, their faith in the master has been baptised. Indians, at least a vast majority, see a TIME cover as an award or an endorsement. The Bible has spoken. If it says so, it must be the truth - makes one wonder if Sachin has been playing all his life just for this cover space.

Even our media professionals, and possibly many editors, suffer from this problem. A newsmagazine cover becomes news by itself. It makes headlines in national dailies, the web news portals go crazy. Discussions are held in television studios where people with very little or absolutely no experience of working in international media pontificate on what TIME should have done or, rather, shouldn't have done. This privilege is strangely not bestowed upon most other publications, many of whose stories possibly deserve equal applause, if not more.

The TIME cover on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was absolutely on the ball. Every Indian who follows news and current affairs knows that. Stories on policy paralysis, lack of reforms, falling foreign investments, rampant corruption have been appearing on a daily basis in the Indian media. TIME covered the various aspects and got experts to validate the same, something that is routine in the world of journalism. It was a comprehensive assessment that will enable someone sitting in Sao Paolo or Helsinki to understand the situation in India. But it is indeed amazing that the Indian media which has explored all of this in its last-minute details sought vindication in the TIME story.

Many writers and columnists in those very media outlets have criticised the TIME story for bringing nothing new to the readers. That is just criticism for criticism's sake. TIME does not have to say something new. It is an international publication, not in the business of breaking news (even though its web meta-description may claim so) and its readership constituency is vastly different from the Indian publications in which these criticisms found their space.

At a fundamental level, it is the international acceptance of TIME as a credible news source which comes to work here. The tragedy of Indian journalism is that, in spite of a rich history of mature journalism and the presence of a talent pool of journalists comparable to the best in the world, Indian media groups have been completely myopic about international news and coverage. Our international coverage is largely limited to the Indian Diaspora, US presidential elections, success of Indian companies abroad and evacuation of Indian nationals in the event of a conflict in some alien land.

Very few Indian media networks, perhaps none except the Press Trust of India and The Hindu to a certain extent, have extensive international presence in terms of foreign correspondents. Till we stop looking at the world through the eyes of news agencies and reduce international happenings of global ramifications to just how they may affect India, we will not gain that international credibility. This is easier said than done. But there has to be a starting point. Virtually, no Indian media product has that kind of global acceptance and instant recognition that TIME or BBC has.

A few articles have suggested that TIME is doing India-specific editions to balance falling newsstand sales and revenues. Some have cited funny figures. TIME certainly wants to sell more magazines in India but is not in the state of desperation that these articles have been trying to portray.

In 2011, the print circulation of the magazine stood at 4.2 million copies. In India, TIME sells about 47,000 copies, a figure that includes subscription and newsstand sales. That works out to about 1 per cent of its global sales, less than India's share in the world economy. TIME's paid digital subscriptions, too, number in their millions.

In the financial year, 2010-2011, TIME's combined print and web revenue stood at over $370 million. In contrast, each of India's biggest media groups, with the exception of one, reported a sales turnover of much less across all its platforms and products. So no, TIME is not facing an extremely arduous readership crisis or financial crunch.

Of course, one has to take into account that TIME comes out of the Time Warner stable, the largest media conglomerate in the world with combined revenues of about $29 billion in 2011. The total Indian media industry, with thousands of channels and newspapers, is expected to reach the $30-billion mark in 2015-2016.

Many will point out that the limited means of Indian media companies prevents them from going big on news coverage. That is just not true. Many Indian editors - some of them well-known celebrities and a few not-known-outside-the-circle, behind-the-scene puppeteers - rake in salaries which are ten or twenty times higher than what their counterparts in leading newspapers, magazines and channels in the US draw. And I am talking currency conversion here, no PPP stuff. Proportionately, this leaves less scope for investment in the news gathering processes and in news.

A section of the Indian readers also worship TIME as they think the magazine is a synonym for objectivity. The world of journalism has changed. No mature news organisation talks about objectivity. Objectivity is for cows, not thinking humans. Balance it is, fairness it is. These are the new buzzwords.

The truth is that every news organisation spins. Spinning is an art. There is no journalism without opinion, without a head which thinks over the facts. Hear it from Zoher Abdoolcarim, TIME's Asia Editor and a thorough gentleman, who told an audience at Tsinghua University's School of Journalism and Communication in Beijing: "We analyse, we explain and we spin. Yes, spin. It's OK to spin as long as you're truthful, informed, transparent and add to the body of knowledge."

There will be more TIME covers on India. I just hope the covers do not become news in themselves again. It is stupid and reeks of a certain hangover that used to mark Indian life in the pre-1991 years. But then, I am a small fry and my expectations pretty wishful.


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More about Tathagata Bhattacharya

Tathagata Bhattacharya is Editor, Special Editions, at Network 18. Having worked for well over 10 years with leading national and international media organisations, he is as enthused by newsbreaks and analyses as he is by single malts, Jazz and military aviation. You may come across this man listening to John Coltrane or reading Yasar Kemal on some obscure Himalayan tract though work pressure reduces the statistical probability of such a chance encounter.