What does the rural newspaper revolution achieve?

BY sevanti ninan| IN Media Practice | 09/10/2004
Have district editions created a public sphere? Or have they merely created a daily bulletin board which people read to see if their names are mentioned?

Does the rural newspaper revolution promote development?  Part I

Sevanti Ninan

Based on interviews conducted in Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh by Sushmita Malaviya and Vasavi

One might turn the question around and ask what constitutes development. A decline in poverty?    More literacy, growing awareness, better health care access, more food security?  Improved rural communications? Or a level of information and news access that brings isolated rural communities into a  public sphere and makes them politicised beings?  A change perhaps in the pattern of gender access to communication? 

Over the last eight years, from the time the Dainik Bhaskar moved out of Madhya Pradesh to experiment with localisation in Rajasthan in 1996, multi-edition newspapers have been reaching further and further into the rural hinterland in order to expand their circulation and advertising base.  There is a whole new territory being carved out in Hindi speaking rural India by newspapers which see their urban markets stagnating, and advertising being taken away by TV channels. In the process they have brought a vast rural catchment inhabited by a hitherto unreported populace into their ambit. 

By increasing distribution centres, using an improved road network to reach newspapers further into the hinterland  by early morning, and hiring stringers to send news from very local centres for separate district pages,  publishers are making an aggressive push to increase their circulation. Take any major newspaper in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh or UP. They have all fine-tuned their publication and delivery schedules to reach their newspaper by six am to villages that are close to roads,in every district of the state.  This then is the rural newspaper revolution, increasing rural coverage, and opening up the access rural areas have to newspapers.[1] 

Activists and development workers have been interested bystanders in this process of creation at the district, block and village level of what Jurgen Habermas called a public sphere, a space vital to a healthy democracy.   They critique the phenomenon and offer insights into how newspapers change the dynamics of social interaction in district India, at one level, but promote a fairly trivialised discourse at another level.  Have district editions in fact created a public sphere?  Or have they merely created a daily bulletin board which people read to see if their names are mentioned?  Have they done a disservice by slicing up the regional identity into smaller universes which have their own news space, but get no news of each other? 

The newspaper industry itself offers an altogether different perspective.  It offers its own analysis of what it gives a population which have never before experienced the miracle of a daily newspaper landing at the door, a bundle of news, entertainment and some modest food for thought. It also analyses what has created the opportunity for a territorial expansion that was not possible before. Do these factors constitute development?   

The industry¿s response to competition heralds the entry of market imperatives into a hinterland hitherto immune to these. The newspapers worry less about the quality of public space being created, and more about market share. Rural scribes are loose canons. They inform, but they also sensationalise and trivialise. Their editorial shortcomings as chroniclers are of no consequence however to their circulation and marketing departments whose primary requirement is a steady supply of very local news.  

The third perspective comes from a generation of new readers whose appetite has been whetted. And  from grassroots politicians whose world is opening up through their access to newspapers which now come to the gram panchayats.  What do newspapers do for these categories?  Can what it does be described as human development?   

Expansion

First, let us document the expansion. This paper is partly based on qualitative feedback from two states where the Dainik Bhaskar, Nava Bharat and Deshbandhu have a strong base.   

According to Suresh Dubey, who doubles as  Bureau Chief and  Circulation In-Charge of the Nava-Bharat in  Itarsi, in the last 10 years there has been a 25 to 30 per cent rise in circulation, attributed in the main to the regional edition introduced for this region, called the Narmada edition. He adds that the paper  has got a good response to its district editions and that has been the main reason for the increase in its readership.[2] Dainik Jagran¿s circulation managers in Bhopal say that from the year 2000 they have done door to door campaigning to tell people about their product  and have seen a 100 per cent increase circulation in three years, mostly in the urban market.  They have introduced seven modem editions in Madhya Pradesh, in Guna, Khargone, Jhabhua, Sagar, Harda, Khandwa, Shivpuri and Tikamgarh.[3]   

Ravi Kant Jain, the circulation manager of Deshbandhu in Bhopal says his papers circulation emphasis is in the rural and remote areas and covers a very wide region including Betul, Hoshangabad, Sehore, Raisen, Vidhisha, Guna, Sagar, Damoh, Dewas, Ratlam and Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh. Urban circulation increased by a 1000 copies in a year in Bhopal, a city with over a 100 newspapers. He describes the influence of job migration on newspaper circulation. ?There are many people from around the State who come to Bhopal in search of work. With the proliferation of 24 hour news channels which tend to have a lot of international news, these people desperately search for news from their native areas. So in Madhya Pradesh, the daily Dainik Jagran caters to the interests of people from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, while the daily Nava-Bharat caters to the interests of people from Maharashtra because the paper is based in Nagpur. Deshbandhu caters to people who come from Betul, Raipur and Guna.?[4] 

Rural penetration of newspapers has also taken place after the advent of the 73rd amendment and the revival of panchayats. These are active even in remote villages, and the government  pays for them to receive a newspaper. The copy that goes to the panchayat is introducing many village folks to newspapers. Sarpanchs now often subscribe to a personal copy as well saying that their work requires them to keep abreast of developments.[5]   Lalit Surjan, the editor of Deshbandhu, in Raipur, says that the Panchayati Raj system has seen the rise of 1200  panchayats in Chattisgarh which newspapers now go. Political awareness is rising as a result, according to him.[6] 

Dr Lakhan Singh, secretary of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti in Raipur,  makes the point that in an intensively  Naxal-dominated area like Dantewada where he is working, people read Jansatta and Deshbandhu. A major reason for this is that in these areas, in the villages there is political awareness. The 73rd amendment led to increased political awareness, so people started subscribing to newspapers more. Advertising from Panchayats has also gone up, sarpanches want that their pictures  used in the newspaper! All this has led to the spread of newspapers in villages.[7]  Almost every social worker and newspaper circulation executive  interviewed  confirms that political workers now subscribe to newspapers, since they have become available in the mornings. 

Expansion therefore has meant the proliferation of multi-edition newspapers, an increase in  the rural subscriber base, and  the arrival of  newspapers in the morning at many a rural angan. 

Moreover, in a rural context circulation figures are less indication of a newspaper¿s reach than readership figures.  Several of those interviewed  confirmed that a single newspaper in a village is rea

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