Thursday, February 27, 2014

Testing times continue as the media grapples with some tough questions

Freedom and Accountability. Can the two coexist harmoniously? The Indian Constitution grants every citizen the Freedom of Expression, but what really is meant by freedom of the press? As a former high court judge says, the press enjoys the same freedom as every citizen. But is it as simple as that? The Justice Leveson enquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press has resulted in a lot of debate on the subject over the past many months. However, there are no absolute answers and the picture is still fuzzy. There are some who want the establishment of an independent authority to regulate various aspects of the broadcast media as well.

What is clear is that (as some of the speakers at two conferences held in Chennai in the first week of February have suggested)  while the media (private television channels to a large extent) have succeeded in exposing corruption in high places, be it in political parties, the government, the legislature or the judiciary, it does not reserve enough space for more important social issues such as education, poverty and health. 

What is also clear is that there is a lack of solidarity in the press. This is no doubt fostered by a sense of over-competitiveness. You can see it all on private television channels where each one claims a report is an exclusive. You can even see it in newspapers – for example, an event where a publisher, editor or director  from a competing newspaper is up there on stage will either find less coverage or the person will be conveniently left out in the picture accompanying the article. I see it happening often in the city pages of the four English newspapers I ready daily. So, would you call that unbiased coverage?

At a time when the focus is more on television and the digital media, there are other issues that are not gaining enough attention: ownership of the media or publication house, education of journalists, recruitment and employment of journalists, and corruption within the media itself. We all thought there would be a thorough cleansing after the Radia Tapes episode exposed the goings-on, the cosy relationships some journalists had with politicians and others. But has it really happened? Am not so sure. So there is a lot that needs to be done within. In many ways, the media today finds itself in a state of stupor, the shock administered by the Internet, Facebook and Twitter also having a part to play.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Pertinent thoughts from a technologist and a graphic designer

I had first met Matthew Sunil more than two years ago, in Chennai, when the ‘going green’ concept had really not caught the imagination of the printing industry at large in India. Of course, isolated printers were doing their bit for the environment but that was not enough. It was clear that the onus was on the industry to come up with creative solutions to be efficient and be counted in the expanding world of green printing.

Matthew struck me as a man of style and substance and also as a man with a vision to take his company forward. He seemed to be a man in a bit of a hurry, to get his vision implemented quickly on the ground. The occasion was the presentation of the Green Printer Award instituted by technotrans India. The Times of India, Ahmedabad, was the winner, having taken small creative steps in saving energy and reducing paper wastage. The award was perhaps a first of its kind in the country – a printer being honoured for respecting the environment. It was Matthew’s idea of encouraging a corporate citizen who showed it was socially responsible about preserving the environment for future generations. It was also, I thought, a wonderful way to have a celebration for the ‘backroom boys’ in the newspaper industry without whose efforts the daily newspaper would never be produced before dawn.

technotrans India (suppliers of dampening systems, filtration plants, etc to the newspaper and commercial printing industry) under Matthew’s leadership, has come quite a long way since then. Despite the odds, the team keeps stressing that quality is its topmost priority and that there’s a price to paid for it. This, I feel, is being disarmingly frank. It will earn the company goodwill and help its growth in the long-run. A couple of other things Matthew said also struck me. One, for any system supplier, efficient service support is the core competence and if you cannot meet customer demand on service requirement, you will fail in the long-term. And two, being an advocate of healthy competition helps you do your homework, understand your strengths and weaknesses, and complement the areas that need attention. Matthew sees his competitors in India as partners in the industry who can together develop the best solutions for the customer. A statesman-like sentiment, one that will stand him and his team in good stead.

Simon Scarr, deputy head of Graphics for Thomson Reuters, was in New Delhi recently. It must be some job because Reuters has about 2800 journalists in 200 bureaus around the world. Simon says it is always rewarding to work very hard on projects you are passionate about and have them appreciated by your peers; it’s also good for the department to be recognised on an international stage for our work. And it is such recognition that Matthew I’m sure understands very well – there are many more entries coming in now for the Green Printer Award.  A pertinent point Simon made was about illustrators and graphic designers working in newspaper offices in India not finding adequate space in the newspaper for their work and lacking the confidence to voice aloud their views in the newsroom. Perhaps this will change once newspapers in India begin to look at information graphics as an important element in news production. It was another point he made that stuck with me for a long time. There should never come a point where you know everything, says Simon. You should constantly learn from your mistakes and also from the work and practices of others. Wish many of us could emulate his example!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

It’s all about a closer engagement with the reader

Ananda Vikatan, Junior Vikatan and Aval Vikatan are household names in Tamil Nadu. Chances are you will find a copy of one of these magazines or all three of them or perhaps even some of the others in the Vikatan Group bouquet when you visit any Tamil-speaking home.

How has Ananda Vikatan endeared itself to readers for close to nine decades? I found myself asking this question many times while drafting the questionnaire for B. Srinivasan, the Vikatan Group MD, grandson of the legendary S.S. Vasan who started Vikatan. A few days ahead of the deadline for one of the journals of the Press Institute of India where the interview was to appear, I received an email from Pravin Menon, national head, Marketing, Vikatan Group (who facilitated the interview), carrying an attachment that had Srinivasan’s answers.

Probably Srinivasn couldn't find the time to meet me, or perhaps he is a private sort of person who likes to keep a safe distance away from a nosey journalist. In any case, it didn’t matter at all. For, what came out clearly in the Q&A was Srinivasan’s thorough understanding of the readership today. Far better, I thought, than the understanding of some of the regulars we see on television channels or at seminars in five-star hotels.

While talking about the past and the present, Srinivasan also enunciated his vision of the future. The Vikatan Group’s philosophy is fairly simple: the customer is King and if you deliver value and happiness to him/ her, he/ she will pay. It is this philosophy that spawned titles such as Chutti, Naanayam, Motor, Pasumai and others in the 12-magazine bouquet.

Srinivasan says television and the Internet boom has only helped the Group adapt better and get Brand Vikatan more easily on to a worldwide stage. receives close to a million page views a day. The Group has extended its digital reach with apps for iOS and Android and amassed more than a million likes/followers/subscribers on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

As the Vikatan Group is set to enter its 90th year, many readers will fondly remember the great contribution made by Srinivasan’s father, S. Balasubramanian, who was editor, managing director and publisher of Ananda Vikatan for nearly 50 years till 2006 (he is now the chairman), and who founded  Junior Vikatan. Truly, it’s been quite a magical journey for a publication house.