Give the devil its due
I’m not the world’s greatest Times of India fan. I have frequently been critical of many of the group’s initiatives. I opposed the shift downmarket which influenced so many other newspapers. I was appalled by the Times during the early years of the century when it was run by brand managers. (Fortunately, editors seem to be back in charge judging by the content in recent years). I remain bitterly opposed to Medianet, which is a form of prostitution. And as a group, the Times is petty and graceless.
But let’s give credit where credit is due. All of us who care about newspapers and the printed word must appreciate the Times group’s initiative in launching a Saturday paper called Crest (terrible name though; sounds like a toothpaste) that has longer articles and aims to provide a more intelligent alternative to the other Saturday papers.
You can argue about the quality of the first issue. I thought it was badly let down by the design which is dull and unimaginative (page one in particular is a disaster) for a product that is supposed to be upmarket.
Some of the headlines were odd (only Bengalis seem to favour the word ‘frightful’ in headlines). And many of the articles had a haven’t-I-read-this-before feeling about them.
But what you can’t argue with is this: as a concept it works.
Judging by the people I’ve spoken to, it has touched a chord with middle class readers who have been depressed by the drop in quality in national newspapers and who long for something that they can sink their teeth into.
No doubt the early defects will be ironed out in the weeks ahead and the paper will get better and better. Once that happens, it should cause other newspaper groups to re-think their own offerings.
In particular, it should remind us that the Times group is the only one in this country these days that has the guts and the resources to grab an idea and run with it. The Saturday paper is one example. After all, the idea is not new. The HT launched a Saturday paper long before anybody else. And in the early days, under the editorship of Namita Bhandare, it was easily the best paper in Delhi every Saturday.
Sadly, during the dark days of the Kalbag editorship, the Saturday paper lost focus, Namita left because of her lack of respect for the editor and the paper never quite recovered. At one stage, they even removed the branding (though that I think was Pankaj Paul’s stupidity) and turned it into just another daily paper.
Fortunately the new regime at the HT comprises real editors with skill and imagination and so the Saturday paper has been relaunched with great success. But unfortunately, the relaunch has been conducted within the existing resources of the paper. So as good as the HT is on Saturday is, it is not a 40-page special newspaper in the sense that the Times of India’s offering is.
Call me biased but I would argue that page for page, the HT on Saturday is still vastly superior to the new Times paper. However, when readers are looking for a product that they can curl up with on Saturdays, they want critical mass and the bulk of the Times’ new offering will give them that.
(For those who don’t, the normal paper is still available).
Can the Times paper be a commercial success?
Frankly, I don’t know. What I do know is that it goes against the tenets of current newspaper management. Editors are always being told by managers that people no longer like reading, that all stories must be very short and that light is better than substantial. If newspaper managers had their way, then all articles would be the size of tweets.
Most newspaper managers worship the Times because they argue that the group has redefined profitability in the industry. (They also love the fact that the Times makes it clear that the executives are the bosses and the journos are the minions.) I don’t know what they will make of the new Saturday paper which totally bucks the conventional wisdom in the industry. But I do know that because it is the Times of India, they will have to take it seriously.
For the sake of the newspaper business I am happy to put aside all Times versus HT rivalries and hope that the new paper does extremely well. For many weeks I have been suggesting on this blog that there is a new kind of reader emerging, the sort of chap who buys The Argumentative Indian at traffic lights and who wants to use the Internet to engage in some serious political debate. I feel that Indian newspaper groups, run on the whole by executives who do not like reading, are ignoring this development and wasting too much time on the old let’s-take-it-downmarket model.
The new Times paper is a sort of test case for this view. If it does succeed – which I think it will once it puts its editorial house in order – then it will make all of us look at readers in a new light.
So, let’s wait and see.