The journalist Palagummi Sainath says this growing economic gulf between India’s elite and the vast majority of its population has created a similar disconnect “between mass media and mass reality.” Sainath, now the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, one of the few remaining English-language broadsheets devoted to serious journalism, is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts, perhaps the most admired collection of reportage to have been published in India in the last two decades. His series of meticulously reported articles about the lives of India’s most underprivileged was written between May 1993 and June 1995 (the articles were collected in a book in 1996), soon after the country began to restructure its economy in accordance with the prescriptions of free-market advocates. But even that early in the so-called “liberalization” process, it was clear that the withdrawal of agricultural subsidies and ill-considered budget cuts were causing great distress in a country that is still overwhelmingly rural. Re-reading Everybody Loves a Good Drought today is a startling reminder of how much English-language journalism has changed in India—and how quickly. Today, it’s difficult to imagine most broadsheets investing so much money or devoting quite so much space to stories that don’t directly relate to their “TG,” or target group, an ungainly piece of marketing jargon that is commonly used in many newsrooms as a synonym for “reader.”
Though the crisis in the countryside has only grown since Sainath wrote Drought, forcing millions of farmers to abandon their plots and seek employment in cities, many of India’s English-language newspapers are transforming themselves into halls of mirrors, focusing only on news that they believe will interest their elite readers. This metamorphosis is the product both of a perfervid neo-liberal climate in which everything, including the news, has become a commodity that’s up for sale, and of a generational shift in newspaper ownership. As in many parts of the world, India’s newspapers are family-owned and run. In the four decades after independence in 1947, many of the proprietors were content to let journalists make the decisions about editorial content. This relatively hands-off approach was a legacy of the freedom struggle, which nationalist newspapers had shaped and help to sustain. But since the 1990s, a new generation of newspaper owners has adopted a number-crunching approach to journalism. Many of them view the news merely as the stuff between the ads. In some cases, they’ve even attempted to ensure that the editorial content is designed to create an environment that’s conducive to attracting advertising. Taking this attitude to the extreme, The Times of India has set up a unit called Medianet that actually sells editorial space to advertisers. With uncharacteristic coyness, the unit’s Web site says that it provides “comprehensive media coverage and content solutions to clients.”
So while the readers of English-language newspapers are served supplements with titles like “Splurge,” in which they can learn all about holidays in Monaco and the latest yachts, they are denied the information they need to understand how projects like the Bandra Worli Sea Link or the upheaval on the country’s farms are affecting their lives.
The Times of India, which claims a readership of approximately 1.7 million in Bombay and 6.8 million countrywide, has advocated the concept of “aspirational journalism.” The paper, for which I once worked, is now run by Samir Jain and his brother, Vineet. They have often told their journalists that the Times must help readers forget the mundane reality of their lives and show them the possibilities of what their new affluence can bring. Famously, Samir Jain once ordered his journalists in Bombay to stop reporting on the garbage that frequently is left uncollected in the city’s streets because of inefficient city administrators. “Our readers have difficult lives,” he told me at the only meeting I ever had with him. “We should put a smile to their faces every morning instead of reminding them of their problems.”