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Why India needs to protect its print media

I am an old-fashioned man with wonderful memories. For me, growing up was a joyous period and I recollect how childhood was always an association with a newspaper. I grew up chasing copies of The Hinduand The Statesman as they flew like crazy white birds as the newspaper boy threw them with abandon over a huge garden gate.

I loved gloating over each page reading SK Gurunathan, and Jack Fingleton taught me both the art of writing and the nuances of cricket.

For me, one of the great nuances of democracy was enacted every morning near houses where old men sat on little cots. When the newspaper arrived, it was unravelled regally.

A literate young man did his duty reading bits of news which was chewed and savoured with avidity as if they were bits of betel. A newspaper was an unravelling of the community and what followed was a chorus of critique and comment which was the stuff of Indian democracy. Journalism to me was always the stuff of print.


The radio was magical, TV was invasive but news was always a text to be debated. There was a permanence, a validity to print media which was the stuff of childhood. I proudly maintained that my representatives were the stalwarts on the editorial page; I called them my parliamentarians of the mind.

Loyalty to a newspaper was celebration of a style, a framework of values, a tribute to a way of life and living. However, I have been depressed in the last few weeks as newspapers began shutting down.

There was a spate of retrenchment in HT and Telegraph and words like “cost-cutting,” downsizing and magical words like Mckinsey eliminated a generation of journalists. Journalism, which was already a threadbare profession, now looked like a threatened species.

What saddened me more was the silence as the media was almost secretive about these decisions. One did not know whether to mourn or protest because for me the world of print, the smell and feel of a page, the sense of news was a precious everyday memory.

As I began reflecting on these events, I realised that one cannot see the slow death of print as an isolated phenomenon. For me the dyingness of print and the slow and ruthless decay of the university were conjoined process. Both these great institutions are undermined by what economists call the informalisation of the economy.

The idea of the informal economy, as a world of temporariness, where even citizenship had that temporary look was alien to a middle class way of life. Permanence was a middle class forte. Journalism and academics were essentially middle class activities and carried that flavour of respectability.

Today the UGC keeps thousands of academics as contract labour. Many lecturers continue in a state of temporariness for a decade stumbling from college to college. Worse, contract labour replaces permanent jobs in the university and there is little or no protest.

It is clear that almost all regimes see the university as a threat to law and order and think the temporariness of employment is a way of keeping universities vulnerable. Intellectual life in the campus is acquiring a brittle quality as politicians began tampering with the sacredness of the syllabus. Once a syllabus is open to such pollution and a job becomes a temporary affair, the emasculation of the university has begun.


People forget that news is as much the centre of the knowledge economy as knowledge emanating from university and science laboratories. Even in a mundane sense, people read the newspaper every day before deciding how to tackle the city.

For me, any attempt to destroy print is an attempt is disable a knowledge society. It is a threat to democracy. Simply put, I feel I can only function as a citizen with the comfort of a newspaper. Cynics can condemn it as a linus blanket, as an outdated attitude but for me print literally reflects the ecology of a modern mind.

A few days back, I was invited to attend a trade union meeting of journalists at the Press Club in Delhi. For an ordinary citizen, a Press Club has that wonderful smell of decay, romance, gossip, the ambience of the adda, an informal sense of the making of news.

The Kerala Union of Journalists, in solidarity with major trade unions, had convened a meeting about the threat to the profession. What struck me was the sense of fatality and futility as if journalism was already a threatened way of life. What was heartwarming to listen to were the younger journalists, especially woman, who spoke with clarity, courage, and specificity.

Some of my favourite journalists have been women who have created a wonderful integrity around news without commodifying it. The stories they told of their experiences add to the warmth of print as news. In fact, one faces a paradox, because the threat to print journalism is big news, which news sadly does not cover.


It is here I think the reader must take over. A reader is not a consumer, a passive possessor of news. Readership is an interactive domain of loyalty, passion, aesthetics and criticism. The reader must speak out and protect the commons called print, guarantee a certain respect, dignity, income and professionalism to the working journalist.

They are the storytellers of this era and it is not surprising that a Nobel Prize for literature has now been awarded to Svetlana Alexievich, a journalist.

I admit that I am an old-fashioned man but I know my values have a vintage quality and they will survive. I know that democracy needs storytelling and memory, the ideas of news as both reflection and an early warning system.

These are institutions that keep democracy supple. I hope my piece is a little contribution to it and becomes more than a piece of nostalgia.

Shiv Visvanathan

Source: DailyO