Dialogue October - December 2005 , Volume 7 No. 2
Prabhat Khabar:an experiment in journalism
Khabar is an experiment in Hindi
journalism. When readers, hawkers, and newsagents were given gifts amounting to
crores of rupees by other newspapers as part of their ‘aggressive marketing’
tactics, none of this influenced the editorial policy of Prabhat Khabar.
When in the nineteen-nineties, newspapers were sold at lower rates to attract
new readers, capital-starved Prabhat Khabar did not take any such step.
When it was generally accepted in journalism circles that ‘entertainment’
and ‘information’ were the principal virtues of newspapers, Prabhat
Khabar raised high the flag for development issues. When it was quietly
agreed in this age of free market and globalization that ideas and values have
no place, Prabhat Khabar considered ideas and values to be the very basis
Recently, some research was conducted on the content of Hindi journalism and it was found that there was an abundance of rumour, gossip, and sensationalism. This analysis was undertaken in a period when it was announced that newspapers have become a product and are no longer a mission. Things are now slowing changing. Prabhat Khabar has started giving information on science, information technology, economics, and the comparative financial progress of different states. Simultaneously, Prabhat Khabar has become the torchbearer for various ethical agitations in civil society. Prabhat Khabar did not learn from the market that the ‘consumer is king’, but accepted the Gandhian principle that ‘readers are the masters’. The nearly bankrupt Prabhat Khabar was given a new lease of life 14 years ago by a committed young team.
When we started the work to set the newspaper back on its track, no one would have imagined that one day it would become such a success in Hindi journalism. In 1990-91, Prabhat Khabar conducted programmes like ‘reader’s court’, whereby readers could interact with journalists and discuss ways of improving the media. In villages-blocks ‘Prabhat Khabar at your door’ programmes were conducted in a similar interactive fashion. The newspaper was linked to information about the people’s movement, and during elections, voters’ awareness campaigns were conducted to create awareness among the voters. Newspapers not only became a part of the cities but also of the villages. By conducting such awareness programmes, Prabhat Khabar, despite the absence of huge funds, became a very big newspaper in Jharkhand. From the most backward region of Bihar, namely, Ranchi – which is now the capital of the new Jharkhand state — the almost defunct Prabhat Khabar forged ahead and is now published from six centres in three states.
Before Jharkhand became a separate state, it was Prabhat Khabar that took over the job of providing the intellectual stimulus and energy to the agitation for separate statehood. People used to say that the agitation had come to a standstill everywhere, except on the pages of Prabhat Khabar. Thus Prabhat Khabar had, from the beginning, an emotional relationship with the structure of Jharkhand state. The newspaper even published a special series on Jharkand at that time in its editions in Ranchi, Jamshedpur and Dhanabad.
In 2000, with all the political discussion of making Jharkhand a separate state, a big newspaper house arrived in Ranchi with much pomp and show. It even managed to entice 33 people from Prabhat Khabar. This silent conspiracy was framed on the hope that the promise of huge salaries would draw away people from the various departments of Prabhat Khabar and the newspaper, then, would not be published the following day. The statistics of the National Readership Survey reveal that, despite the conspiracy of the concerned newspaper, the number of readers of Prabhat Khabar actually doubled over the last four years. In February 2003, another big Hindi daily (claiming to be the no. 1 paper), ‘Dainik Jagran’, launched three editions in Jharkhand, in Ranchi, Jamshedpur, and Dhanbad. Despite its aggressive marketing and publicity tactics, it has hardly had any impact in this region. Why have the efforts of such big newspapers been fruitless? To my mind, this is because Prabhat Khabar has always associated itself with public issues and conducted a direct conversation with the people.
How did it all begin? Two weeks before we actually started working in Prabhat Khabar, Sanjeev Kshitij and I went to Ranchi. The then director, D.S. Sharma (from whom I learnt how to be patient and disciplined), came to our hotel to meet us. Mr. Sharma and Sanjeev went to the Prabhat Khabar office from our hotel. I requested Sanjeev to give me his first impressions of the place. The day I started working would be the day I would go for the first time to the office of Prabhat Khabar.
The well-known Hindi weekly magazine of the Times of India group, ‘Dharamyug’, had the highest circulation in the Hindi language press, followed by the ‘Ravivar’ weekly of the Anand Bazaar group in Kolkatta. Prabhat Khabar’s circulation at that time was lower than all these – at 500 copies. Being a journalist in big cities like Mumbai or Kolkatta is very different from being one in Ranchi. It is the difference between glamorous journalism pertaining to Central government politics and metropolitan cultures, versus the journalism of jungles and of mountains. In those days, questions related to one’s career graph were of great importance. Many of my friends and journalist-colleagues had already warned me of the impending end of my journalist life. Well-wishers did not want me to go to a small and unknown place and get lost there. Senior journalists from Delhi-Bombay (from whom I learnt much about journalism) were extending proposals for me to join them.
The truth was that I was drawn to the simple life of the tribal community in Jharkhand. My meetings with missionaries and activists in this community (while working with ‘Ravivar’ and ‘Dharmyug’) had made a huge impression on me. The ladder of success in journalism in metropolitan cities – indeed many of my journalist friends had chosen this path — can easily lead to power, wealth, fame, glamour and parliamentary politics. But my calculations were different. I had left my previous jobs as lecturer and Reserve Bank officer and opted for ‘journalism’ in order to be part of a changing society. Indeed, my father, who was a farmer, regretted throughout his life that I had quietly left my officer’s job in the Reserve Bank.
During my younger days, I felt that journalism was a powerful tool to break the social complacency around me. My background did not allow me to think about personal security, like a house, vehicle, property, or bank balance. Our generation was habitually very careless about these things. The people from whom I learnt about culture or social etiquette, and in the company of whom I spent most of my time, were purposeful and honest. Perhaps they were poor, but they had pride. My companions were innovative, restless, always enthusiastic about doing something new, and willing to face dangerous challenges. If I had succumbed to the present trend of thinking only about my future, owing to the pressures of market-arrangements in a globalised world, then I would not have come to Ranchi. I would not have got the experience of working in Prabhat Khabar.
In the life of every human being there is a turning point when decisions have to be taken. Given my stubborn determination not to turn back, I knew what I would do. It was necessary to choose, whether to sing glorious songs praising a group of power brokers or to take up dangerous challenges and do something new. I had already chosen. I believed that a magnificent defeat was far more prestigious than a victory gained at the cost of self-respect. By the time I reached Kolkatta, I had strongly resolved to try my luck in this seemingly impossible vocation in Prabhat Khabar.
After a week, we returned to Ranchi. For the first time on 22
Since the news agencies were closed, the main source of news was to cut and paste the news from other newspapers. I heard about this ‘cutting-pasting’ style of journalism only here. Old decrepit machines (which were repaired often) were used to print the headings. If the headings did not come out properly, then they were written by hand. There was no system at all. There was no value for time. No planning was done. There was no printed supplement or Sunday edition. Who would provide the stationery? There was no provision made for this. There was no allotment of responsibility anywhere. Who was doing what work? Who was in control of what? In the personal department there was no record of appliances. There was a big difference between the information given by the old organization about the people engaged in work and the information we got on 22
I had told the organization initially that I would take up the responsibility of the editorial department. But right from the first day I knew that it was necessary to make every department professional. It is easy to start a new job, but to set right things that have gone off-track is close to impossible. Therefore a list was prepared of well-known people in the newspaper industry. We decided to get suggestions from these people regarding production, circulation and marketing. These experts were also called to attend the discussions of the top team of our organization.
Given the rising power of the visual media in the early nineteen-nineties, the only way a newspaper could survive was by providing substantial and fresh information to readers. ‘Ranchi Express’ was already a very successful newspaper. From Ranchi, Jamshedpur and Dhanabad, ‘Aaj’ was published and sold for one rupee. The idea of a third newspaper standing up to these two powerful, well-established newspapers was daunting, to say the least. When there was little chance of success, it was hard to see a future beyond one-and-a-half months. In those early days, I tried my level best not to allow my pessimism about the future of Prabhat Khabar to percolate to my enthusiastic team members.
It was necessary to set right everything in this disorganized place. The end of work was not in sight. Since there was a chronic shortage of time, the team of Prabhat Khabar started its work at 9 in the morning and continued to work till 3 or 4 the next morning. This routine was followed for five or six years continuously in the early period. In every department many people stayed back in the office to complete their work. Perhaps no one in our office ever had any leisure time during week-days in those early years.
In November 1989, on the twin occasion of the Jawaharlal Nehru centenary and the festival of Divali, we planned a special supplement. We requested various well-known, national-level writers to write for us. The problem, however, was that we did not have the infrastructure to print anything – leave alone a supplement — beyond six pages. Strangely enough, if a team has courage, interest and great zeal, then nothing is impossible. Even though we were less than a month old, we managed somehow to bring out the special supplement!
Our first collective attempt was to streamline every department. It is noteworthy that many old journalists, belonging to our office in earlier difficult times, had worked with interest and honesty, even before the new leadership had come into existence. Our priority was to organise the editorial department, starting from the duty chart, meetings with reporters, to maintaining rules of editing and a code of conduct for the workers. This system was imposed on everyone, from the editor downwards. It was a violation of the code if photo-descriptions of the editor were published in our newspaper. Serious journalism and developing an impartial work-style favourable to journalism was the first editorial priority for our entire team. It was decided that only one correspondent would attend a press conference and that that person would not accept any gifts. These values I had learnt from people like Dharamveer Bharati, editor of ‘Dharmyug’, who had taught me the ABCD of journalism.
For our team, there was another challenge, namely, how to frame an editorial policy? We had to decide on the content of the paper. Our idea was not to foster unhealthy competition among the bigger newspapers in the Ranchi – the then south Bihar — area. The aim of Prabhat Khabar was not to compete with these newspapers; it was simply to become a better Hindi newspaper. The tradition of publishing information according to the wish of the editor was stopped. Instead we framed an open policy for every topic and asked co-workers to function according to it. The moral conduct to be followed was always discussed during our meetings. With this transparent policy, from the beginning itself, we struggled to create an identity of a good, clean and modern newspaper.
Today, in this age of globalisation, newspapers are raising slogans for ‘localisation’. From the ‘Times’, London, to the big newspapers of the country such as ‘The Telegraph’ or ‘The Times of India’, the incidents in the life of a common man or woman may now constitute the lead in a newspaper. But in those days, there were severe constraints imposed on the exposure of the ‘local’ in big newspapers. Only incidents related to the lives of big personalities could constitute the main lead in the newspaper. In Hindi journalism, the situation was even worse. We broke with this sorry tradition in the initial stages of Prabhat Khabar by publishing important and local events in the lives of ordinary people as the main lead on the first page of the newspaper. This was perceived by some to be a very bold experiment. Others considered this to be a foolish step. The fact of the matter was that we started acquiring an identity in the eyes of our readers. This step also brightened our own prospects in Prabhat Khabar.
Within two or three months, our team had acquired its own editorial voice. Instead of focusing on topics related to politics, crime and sensational content, we gave importance to local talents, toppers in school and colleges, successful farmers, women and shopkeepers. We published stories about the lives of ordinary people who struggled for success and excellence. Prabhat Khabar decided that instead of reports about specialists, prosperous people, and the ruling class, it would focus on the joys and sorrows of ordinary people.
During the early period, the electricity tower fell down because of a cyclone in Ranchi. The government had announced that there would be no electricity in the city for the next 15 days. The situation of the city telephones and the hospitals could well be imagined. Officers used the generators provided by the government and led a relaxed life, while the public had to suffer. Prabhat Khabar, in the role of an activist newspaper, invited people to join in an agitation against this announcement. This agitation was headed by women and other ordinary people.
By this time, the madness of innovation had crept into our minds. Big functions, publicity-expansion in crores of rupees – these are important steps. But we did not have the luxury of unlimited funds at our disposal. Instead, we made pamphlets and arranged for their distribution. Our agenda was publicity, daily meetings with the editorial and circulation departments, and sustained work on new ideas. Towards this end, we had to rise above narrow considerations of religion, caste and society.
One important incident in the early nineteen-nineties forged the identity of Prabhat Khabar. The Ayodhya issue was in the news at that time. Hindi newspapers had published rumours as headlines and thereby fostered communal tension in society. There was curfew in Ranchi, and rumours about the number of dead people were rife. There was a competition between different papers to exaggerate the number of the dead. Some newspapers were putting up banner headlines that 200 to 400 — even 800 — people had been killed. Not only this, the number of people who were ‘dead’ varied in the eight editions of a single newspaper. Exaggerating facts and producing wrong facts — perhaps this had never happened on such a scale in independent India! There was no accountability or fear of the law. The Press Council wrote a sternly-worded report about this phenomenon, exposing six big Hindi newspapers. For our part, in Prabhat Khabar, we were publishing the correct information – that only six people died in the Ayodhya dispute — with the help of our old friend, who was the editor of the Lucknow ‘Navbharath Times, and of the BBC team which had been present there.
Around the same time, our publicity department gave information to the then Director D.S.Sharma that there was no demand for Prabhat Khabar in the market. People were dubbing it a ‘Muslim’ newspaper and distributing pamphlets against it. (I, too, had received several threatening letters many times). We told our Director that we had to decide whether to stand for the truth or resort to rumour-mongering. Need I mention the fact that our entire team opted for the former? Some of the newspapers which had earlier sold lakhs of copies on the basis of lies and rumours are today almost on the verge of closing down. Prabhat Khabar, which sold 500 copies to begin with, now has around 10 lakh readers, according to the statistics of the National Readership Survey.
This was the period when the term ‘advertorial’ had already taken root. Advertisements were published in editorial form. There was a pressure in the market. Our top team decided that when it was a question of the good of lakhs of people, then we would rather choose the side of the public than that of commerce and advertisements.
Our priority was to become the voice of people in a locality. We provided a forum for the oppressed tribals and urged official recognition of various tribal languages, like Nagpuri, Mundari, Kudukh, and Khadiya. For the first time, we identified intellectual voices among the tribals. As part of a new experiment in Hindi journalism, we started new columns to publicise the local affairs of the region. Questions about the jungle, land and water problems of Jharkhand have always been considered to be important by us. Displacement and progress became important issues to be dealt with. Prabhat Khabar started campaigns against those who had made this place a pastureland.
In 1992-93 our newspaper published several investigative reports on the cattle-fodder scam. In 1996, the rest of the country came to know of this scam. Prabhat Khabar had a leading role in exposing this scam. Later on various big and famous newspapers of the country gave the credit to Prabhat Khabar for being the first to expose the scam. In 1997 a BBC team arrived from London and made a film on the issue, and also acknowledged the role of Prabhat Khabar in this regard. But what was the cost of exposing the scam? Criminals (who were protected by the then state government of Bihar) entered our office and threatened us. At every step, we were harassed by the police and other administrative officers.
After the formation of the new state of Jharkhand, the same work culture and corruption continued. We raised our voice against this phenomenon and paid the price for it. The electricity department in Jharkhand threatened Prabhat Khabar with dire consequences for publishing news about the corruption going on in their department. Those who feel that corruption is not a serious issue are mistaken. Prabhat Khabar has tried to bring to light issues like the misuse of government facilities, wastage of money on half-completed jobs, lack of accountability and the lies of politicians. Our correspondents visited every village with the programme ‘Prabhat Khabar at your door’. We heard about the sufferings of village people from our readers. A list of basic problems was framed and it was published continuously. During the voters’ awareness campaigns, readers were told about the importance of their votes. We also brought to light the activities of honest leaders. We discovered, in interior villages, various tribal leaders (who had been ministers or members of parliament) ploughing fields in villages and living a life of deprivation.
In the early part of the 1990s, news about starvation deaths started coming out from the Palamu area. We used the power of journalism to fight on the side of the people suffering from hunger. In Ranchi a people’s committee was formed. People like Dr. Siddharth Mukherjee, Tridev Ghosh, and army colonel Bakshi, came forward to offer help. The committee asked people for immediate relief work, like donation of food and clothes. Processions were taken out. Meetings were held. The names of people who had donated to this cause were published in the newspaper. The experience of getting involved in social issues empowered Prabhat Khabar. And such power or strength cannot be obtained from market publicity or by giving gifts.
In 2002, Prabhat Khabar again published news about deaths due to starvation in a village belonging to the Palamu area. It is notable that six months prior to the printing of this news, the state government had declared this area as drought-stricken. When an area is announced as being drought-stricken, relief work has to be immediately started in that division, according to the law. But the work had not been started and an affidavit based on the news published in Prabhat Khabar was submitted in Daltongunj court.
As soon as the news about the starvation deaths was published in our newspaper, government ministers visited the area on helicopters. A big battalion of officers occupied the streets of this area. There were no roads, no electricity and no water. Although the government admitted that relief work had not been carried out here, it refused to acknowledge the fact that people had died of starvation. According to the official version, people died of various illnesses.
Prabhat Khabar published whatever was told by the government very prominently but it also sent its correspondent to these regions for a period of 10 days. These areas were not the ones visited by the government representatives, and the paper continued to publish reports of starvation deaths. At last the Jharkhand government wrote a threatening letter to Prabhat Khabar on the ground that it was publishing inaccurate information. Till that time, the other newspapers were either silent on the issue or they simply published the government version of events.
This information about starvation deaths reached the ears of the famous economist, Professor Jean Dreze (who has co-authored books with Amartya Sen). Jean Dreze visited Kusumatand village and stayed there for four days. This incident was covered by the national newspapers. Jean Dreze himself wrote articles in the English language newspapers. In the ‘Frontline’ magazine (26 August 2002), he mentioned the fact that the Jharkhand government had threatened Prabhat Khabar for printing the news on starvation deaths. Later on, the High Court started monitoring this issue. The other newspapers then started publishing news of the starvation situation and the Jharkhand government started its relief work.
With these experiences, it became clear that new techniques had to be adopted and strong attempts made for networking in rural areas. Even at a time when the country’s big Hindi newspapers were not engaged in this sort of thing, Prabhat Khabar started linking the faxing system to the villages in 1991. This attempt to link ourselves to modern technology helped us in the progress of our paper.
After this our ‘top team’ was wondering how to start editions of the newspaper in Jamshedpur and Dhanabad. Shortage of funds was a big issue. Our team members, K.K. Goenka and R.K. Dutta went to Jalandhar and purchased a ‘third-hand’ black and white machine at a nominal rate. By that time in Prabhat Khabar, Ranchi, the machine which was used for printing was declared as scrap. The third-hand machine was installed in Ranchi, and the ‘(almost) scrapped machine’ at Ranchi was installed in Jamshedpur. After that it was taken to Dhanabad. The third-hand ‘Orient’ machine installed in Ranchi also started creating problems. For two to three months, Goenka and I used to stay back in the office till 5 or 6 in the morning, because the newspaper was late in being distributed.
The Patna edition of Prabhat Khabar was started in the year 1996, the Jamshedpur edition was started in 1997, and the Dhanabad edition was started in 1999. We launched our Kolkatta edition in 2000.
So in Jamshedpur we started Prabhat Khabar with the nearly scrapped black and white 8-page printing machine with minimal infrastructure. Before we started new editions at any place, we purchased a guest house there. In Jamshedpur, all of us, starting from the chief editor to the clerk, resided together. Goenka and Dutta had a list of useful household tips for every guesthouse. How would the bench be made? The wooden boxes which were used to transport the machines were used as benches to sleep on. With hardly any expenditure, bedspreads and other arrangements were made. In the guesthouse all of us did odd-jobs like cutting vegetables and cooking meals. For several years our top team members travelled in second class compartments in trains and even on buses. How did we deal with the publicity and expansion of the newspaper? For this also new ways were devised. Today people who spend crores and crores of rupees for every edition would surely laugh at our tactics in such matters. Our team decided that just as a person would open a recurring deposit account in the bank to ward off a financial crisis, we would open recurring accounts of five or ten thousand rupees each for the different editions of Prabhat Khabar. Thus we were able to purchase land for the offices of Prabhat Khabar at Dhanbad, Jamshedpur, and Ranchi.
Not all our experimentation succeeded – especially in the early years between 1990 and 1995. For the first time in Hindi, a weekly newspaper about financial news was published by Prabhat Khabar from Kolkatta called ’Karobar Khabar’. This newspaper went on for about two years and then it stopped. For women a magazine called ’Ghar’ was started which went on for four years. Today this work is carried on by the Jagran group as ‘Sakhi’ and it is going on very well. We started a fortnightly magazine which was about social problems. After some time we had to stop this also. All these experiments were started without investment of much money. The only serious mistake we committed was that our already overworked editorial staff members in Prabhat Khabar were handed over the extra responsibility of looking after these magazines!
In the meantime, we were also hassled by administrative problems. According to government rules, after six months of publishing, a newspaper is expected to submit an application form to the information ministry of the Government of India to get recognized according to the D.A.P.V standard. When this recognition is obtained an application has to be given to the state government for registration. Then the state government investigates the affairs of the paper, and if everything is in order, it gives it a ‘recognition’ certificate. For several years in succession, we at Prabhat Khabar fulfilled all the formalities and were running after the Bihar government authorities for the recognition certificates for the Patna, Dhanabad and Jamshedpur editions. The Patna edition got recognition after six years of waiting, in the year 2002. But, the Jamshedpur and Dhanabad editions could not get recognition or any explanation for the delay.
Despite all these problems and against all odds, we have carried on our work at Prabhat Khabar. Over the years, there were many hopes that the Hindi newspapers – given their rootedness in the culture of the people — would raise their voices against the different kinds of exploitation taking place throughout the country. But most big Hindi newspapers tend to imitate the style of English newspapers and become the spokespersons for the ’haves’ of society. Why is this phenomenon the general case in Hindi journalism?
With globalisation, the mainstream media in Hindi journalism are getting uprooted and are only interesting in promoting the interests of the middle class. In the big newspapers a new stream of journalism favouring the “page three” lifestyle is gaining momentum. This involves leading names and faces in the field of films, fashion, politics, and bureaucracy. Their main topics of discussion include beauty, sex, ways of earning money, costly clothes, the latest fashion, ornaments, love affairs, titillating behind-the-scenes political events, costly drinks, the world’s best hotels, and so on. This class truly belongs to the world of globalisation.
A second important problem is the contribution of Hindi literature to the Hindi-speaking society. Earlier, till the nineteen-seventies, Hindi writers tried to represent the changes occurring in the society. Now consider the writings in Hindi over the past 10 years. How many Hindi readers and writers know what the various states in the country are doing new on the financial front? Until issues related to ‘non-fictional’ topics are given importance, it is not possible to break free from the shackles of society. Especially in the past 15 years, the content of big Hindi newspapers is becoming fictional and sensational. Poverty, suffering, unemployment, social atrocities, backwardness – these are no longer topics of interest in Hindi journalism in the 21
In the Hindi media, it has become a habit to shamelessly publish false information. Even if this happens on a single day, it could lead a lot of readers astray. Such serious mistakes take place every week, while smaller mistakes are committed everyday. Still no one is answerable to anybody — to the readers, society, or one’s own organization. Frequent transfers, postings, contracts — all of these have become a pastime for senior journalists. Indeed if this trend continues, Hindi language journalism is likely to have the same unstable and undesirable trajectory as that of politics today in the Hindi-speaking belt.
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