Monday, February 26, 2007

Debating regulation in print

Amit Varma was at the Kitab Festival, catching up with friends, as he writes on his blog – and “also part of a session on journalism in India, and found some eminent people expressing the view that journalism needs to be regulated in India. The logic: The Times of India is indulging in monopolistic practices, and, in Delhi, forming a cartel with the Hindustan Times. To ensure competition, there should be government regulation.
I couldn’t think of a worse solution to the problem. (Leave aside the issue of whether there really is a monopoly emerging; Mumbai alone has HT, DNA and IE on the stands, among daily broadsheets.) The industry actually needs fewer controls, not more.”

I couldn’t agree more – and have more reasons to agree with Amit that more regulation and controls is asinine.
Firstly, the dominance of major English newspapers (including the Times of India) is now less marked, as is proven by the preponderance of the vernacular press in the top newspapers of the country when measured by IRS and NRS. And in print media, one has to bear in mind the influence of major news magazines in English, India Today, Outlook and Week, which each have their own constituencies. Alliances such as the Hindustan Times – Times of India agreement for the Delhi market are not new – one forgets the alliance between STAR TV and the Ananda Bazar Patrika Group for STAR News, for example, or the various loose and case-by-case agreements inked between, say, The Hindu and CNN-IBN or NDTV and Business Standard.
Secondly, the increasing role and influence wielded by other media – television and the Internet. Where, too, the dominant products are vernacular products, not those in English.
Interestingly, while we have controls in place for print and TV, there is none and can be none for the Internet insofar as anyone could start an India-focused news product while being based anywhere in the world, including Tuvari.
There is no greater measure of dominance than the advertising rate card of various media products – and all media sales heads of the most “monopolistic” products -- including the Times of India -- will attest to the fact that effective rates are today under pressure more than ever before.
There is no argument about whether or not the consumer needs to be protected against monopolistic media – but that is far from the case today. If a half decent media planner were to do a run on the total circulation of any large publication house vis-a-vis the entire circulation today and compared it with the same figures 15 years ago, I would be shocked if the numbers showed more rather than less dominance.
Again, if one measured the influence of newspapers vis-à-vis all news products today as opposed to 15 years ago, I am certain the numbers will be significantly against newspapers, and not for them.

What confuses me is that this debate still rages. When, in every newsstand in every city and town in India, it is the choice that confuses the reader, not the lack of it.

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