Guest Column: C-rest in peace

Srinivasa Prasad, a journalist with more than 28 years of experience, throws light on the lessons we must learn from the demise of TOI's weekender

e4m by Srinivasa Prasad
Updated: Aug 14, 2013 7:55 AM
Guest Column: C-rest in peace

It seems that a top Times of India honcho woke up one morning in 2009, yawned and stretched, picked up his newspaper and discovered to his horror that it lacked ‘in-depth’ stories. Thus, came Crest with seemingly endless prose, followed by an all-night party.

Four years later, the crestfallen captains of the TOI Group—the wisest men who walked this planet since Big Bang—are wondering how they even suspected their weekend paper will be a runaway success. Crest had to go sooner or later; it went sooner than expected. It folded up last month. C-rest in peace.

Indeed, the singular achievement of Crest was that it offered ‘long-form’ stories. Somebody apparently confused depth with length. When it came out, it looked different. But novelty has a habit of wearing off. In the end, content stood up and screamed at Length: I am the king. Length folded up.

Longer the better?
If Crest readers didn’t kick each other in Delhi’s Janpath or Bangalore’s MG Road to grab copies, it was because they had enough dailies with soft stories, mercifully as short stories. They didn’t want another one on the weekend with the same stuff as novels.

One of the reasons we began to write short stories in dailies was that readers have no time for longer ones. Despite my woeful lack of a management degree from Harvard or a psychology degree from Pennsylvania University, I happen to know that if the reader must invest more time in a longer story, it must be worth his while. It must have hard, useful facts written in a language that is engaging and entertaining and can sustain interest through 2,000 words or more.

Crest’s collapse is a reminder that the market has no room for another ‘comfortable’ and ‘nice-to-read’ paper that has nothing to offer but soft—long or short—stories. It’s demise must make us sit up and think; it tells us that soft path is not what we must tread if print media must continue to be in business in the only big country where the industry is still left with respectable, even if dwindling, bottom lines.

At the top of the ‘comfort’ heap is TOI itself, but if it is thriving, it’s because there is no real alternative to it. Besides, a weekender is more expendable than the daily, but that’s no consolation. What killed Crest can also push dailies into the red. Privately, print barons admit they are terrified of the looming online threat. The online sword can fall faster on print necks, if papers don’t tweak content.

Stories that inform us that more women are going in for C-section, that men above 36 are prone to heart attacks and that Modi sneezes five times in six hours may be fine. But readers want more.

The long and short of it
If India’s mainline newspapers are too soft, TOI has to blame itself as the market leader.  It’s the TOI’s content model which most newspapers, with a handful of exceptions, ape. Mr Jaideep Bose calls the paper a “rainbow coalition of interests and sensibilities”. People less colourful than Mr Bose—like me for instance—call it a package. The package—expanded city coverage was at the core of it—evolved during the re-launch of TOI Bangalore in1995. We didn’t reinvent journalism. We breathed life into journalism of that day when a Parliament walk-out made itself Page One lead unless a train accident killed hundred people. We made a list of things that we must do, even on the front page.

We took a pot and poured into it civic problems, health, education, personal finance, real estate, sports and so on and stirred them well and seasoned the stuff with entertainment. The result was the first version of the TOI that you see today across India.

It worked because we took the paper closer to readers. Others raved and ranted over this ‘crass commercialisation’, but soon followed the template faithfully—right to the pagination—and benefited from it immensely. As potholes took priority over politics, readership swelled. Combined with an economic boom, it led to impressive growth in print media in the following years. TOI is the leader because it delivers this “rainbow” best.

But the TOI package was only an alpha version. After the first signs of its success, neither TOI nor the copycats attempted to take it to the next stage. And while the growth led to more pages and more content and more readers and more money, it also precipitated in irresponsible stories and dreadful English. Worse, it produced formula journalism. Today’s typical edition-maker is a chef with a cookbook in one hand and a ladle in the other. Creativity is confined to needlessly flashy layouts and paronomasia in headlines.

The template needs to be moved on to its beta version. It needs development of what is there in it and addition of what isn’t. To begin with, we need an eighth colour to Jaideep Bose’s “rainbow”: the hard story. If there are potholes, readers want us to fix the guys responsible for the bad road. If there is a scam, readers don’t want verbal diarrhoea of allegations and counter-allegations; they want to know who walked away with the money. Suffocated by the explosion of information that doesn’t make sense, readers want to know what really is going on. It’s not easy to deliver it, but if we fail, it shouldn’t be for want of trying. It needs hard work, investigation and good writing. And if that sounds suspiciously like good journalism, I am afraid, it is.

That’s the lesson the print media must learn from Crest. Readers are starved of good stories, long or short.

The writer has been a journalist with papers including The Times of India, Hindustan Times and DNA for 28 years. He was part of the team that re-launched TOI Bangalore in 1995. He now teaches journalism at Manorama School of Communication
 

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