In 1987, The Times of India set in motion a process of deconstructing the Indian newspaper as we knew it up until then with the launch of the rather wordy Sesquicentennial (150th birthday) Celebrations.
Even though journalism became collateral damage (some would say it was the primary target) in its relentless march to superstardom, The Times of India did much more than just deconstruct the newspaper. It changed the game totally and completely.
It shelved the prevailing trend of periodic cover price increases with invitation pricing. It killed the standard 16/20-page paper forever with the fat infotainment supplements. It created a whole new generation of young readers. It hooked the women on to the newspaper, thus far a male bastion. It expanded the market like never before, made multiple-paper homes a possibility and introduced the concept of marketing and branding to the newspaper industry.
And above all, it changed the revenue model of the newspaper. In an era of tightly-controlled circulations, it taught a hesitant industry to let go, pile up the readership numbers and make the advertiser pay up for the expanded reach. Whatever it did to journalism and content, it cannot be denied that more newspapers in India became profitable ventures because The Times of India showed them the way to the bank.
The bedrock of all the change was, of course, Sameer Jain’s definition of news as the space between advertisements. That meant news took a severe beating. Style took precedence over substance and as the printed word competed for the attention of the 90’s MTV generation and today’s GenX, news became a collection of bits, bytes and nuggets (the assumption being that nobody has time for more than 300 words). Between Page 3, PR and pure advertising in the form of Medianet and Private Treaties, news was sent on a long holiday.
That is why the Crest edition of The Times of India, launched two Saturdays ago, is such a surprise. It is a complete departure from everything that The Times of India has stood for in the last two decades.
News is NOT the space between advertisements. At least, not from the evidence of the first two editions of the Crest. Never before has The Times of India given so much acreage for news. I missed the first edition, but in the second, almost all ads were right hand full pages and text flowed on the left hand pages unhindered.
All readers are not consumers of knick-knacks. There is such a person as the consumer of long form journalism: The cover story on China spanned three pages and the spotlight story (Up Close) on Naxalism spread over two full pages. Up until now, if you wrote any more than 500 words in The Times of India you went home and emptied the sleeping pill bottle because the Jains would shoot you down the next morning anyway.
There is such a person as the consumer of journalism, full stop. Short or long, didn’t matter. All these years, The Times of India’s mantra was nobody cared for journalism except the journalist.
There is such a person as the consumer willing to pay top dollar for good content. It was The Times of India that increased page-count and decreased cover price so much that the readers could make more money by selling the paper in waste than get value by reading it. At Rs 6 for about 40 pages, Crest can proudly claim to the paper that is worth more than its weight in waste.
The sum and total of these deviations or the breaking news of the month then is this: The Times of India is once again seeing merit in the power of content, even if only once a week. For a paper that led the revolution in trivialising news and dumbing down the newspaper, that’s no mean reversal, it is almost like reversing time itself or like The Times of India doing to journalism what the US is doing to Iraq: rebuilding the country after bombing it out of shape (and making money either way).
Twenty-two years ago, it was The Times of India that sniffed the restlessness of the upwardly mobile Indian and his exasperation with the politics-obsessed news business and gave the industry two decades of stunning growth. Twenty-two years later, it is again sensing an opportunity. Crest suggests a clear shift in the philosophy of The Times of India. That it is sniffing the future again.
It is too early to talk about the quality of the content of Crest. I definitely did not see sterling writing, but quite liked the elegant, under-designed look of the paper and just loved the green of the masthead. Again, it highlights the shift in philosophy: substance over style. To me, that is even more stunning because the Crest did not fall into the design dungeon like the Hindustan Times did a few months ago.
The HT decided to redesign an already well-designed paper without any great content upgrade. It’s been dressed up like a Christmas tree and the cherry-picking in the headlines (one or two words in red) is a meaningless exercise in trying to lend gravitas where none exists.
The industry will, of course, watch the progress of Crest with interest. I think we need stylishly delivered substance, long form journalism and brilliant writing more often than once a week, more like every day of the week. That is what will keep the inveterate lover of the printed word wedded to it. That is what will keep newspapers in business in an increasingly wired world.
So, I think: For more papers to believe in the power of content. It is time.
(The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)