Chennai: Is the recent editorial-level change at The Hindu newspaper group similar to that which happened at The New York Times a few weeks ago? This is the question that is doing the rounds among journalists in this part of the country from the afternoon of 27 June.
On that day, the board of the Rs 400-crore Kasturi & Sons passed a resolution appointing the whole time director N Ram as the editor-in-chief of The Hindu daily and all other publications. He was entrusted with the overall editorial responsibility. The board's decision has effectively placed Ram above The Hindu's editor N Ravi and executive editor Malini Parthasarathy.
According to the management - except for bringing in Ram by creating a new post - the status quo has been maintained. Well, outwardly at least, as Ravi and Parthasarathy have not resigned yet. Hence strict parallels cannot be drawn between The Hindu and The New York Times since in the latter case two senior editors resigned for the newsroom lapses.
Nevertheless, The Hindu from 28 June carries only Ram's name in the printline as the editor-in-chief. Till 27 June the names of Ravi and Parthasarathy appeared in that space. The other name that appears in the printline is that of S Rangarajan as the printer and publisher.
Ram and (The) Hindu cannot be separated
For Ram, it is a second coming at The Hindu. Years ago he had to step down from the executive editor's position when the management differed with him on the Bofors scandal exposure issue.
''Can Ram be separated from The Hindu,'' chuckles a long-time media-watcher, punning on the two terms (Ram and Hindu) and their associated political stance. Perhaps not. The public had always perceived him to be the daily's editorial in-charge and had praised or blamed him, as the situation demanded, for what the paper wrote even when he was not associated with The Hindu.
According to Ram the management felt a need for improving structures and mechanisms to uphold and strengthen the quality and objectivity in opinion and news reports and, hence, brought him back into the daily. The mandate to Ram also includes restructuring of editorial departments and their functions more in line with the fiercely competitive environment.
With the board's backing, Ram has effectively taken charge of all the publications brought out by the Kasturi & Sons - The Hindu, The Hindu Business Line, Frontline, Sportstar, Praxis, Survey of Indian Industries, Survey of Indian Agriculture, Survey of Environment, Indian Cricket, The Hindu Index and other special publications.
The surprise news
For most city journalists, the sudden top-level change at Kasturi Buildings, which houses the Hindu group, came as a shock. But many others say a change of this sort was in store for quite sometime now.
While no official reason is given for the change, journalistic circles cite various reasons. They include newsroom lapses, human resource issues and the newspaper's anti-central and state government stance, which all resulted in serious revenue losses. Some believe the move has something to do with the potential threat from The Times of India (ToI), while others believe it is simply a change in the family power structure. Or else, a combination of all the above factors might have brought Ram back.
Sources close to the group say The Hindu had started losing its focus, or vision, and was being pulled in varied directions with each section working in isolation. In addition there were some newsroom lapses that affected the paper's neutral image. ''There were some biased reports, which shouldn't have been carried or should have been properly edited,'' says a journalist who wishes to remain anonymous.
While the daily is known to be anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), there is a general feeling that some reports are even anti-Hindu. With competition from ToI round the corner, The Hindu cannot afford such an image and risk losing its traditional readership base.
''As they say in politics, in Tamil Nadu it is the TINA (there is no alternative) factor that is favouring The Hindu today. It will not be so when ToI sets up shop here,'' says a senior journalist.
The Hindu viewpoint
Though Ravi was not available for comment, joint managing director N Murali, reacting to the above issues, says: ''It is true that our readers have been complaining that some of our reports are partial and lack objectivity. But it also depends on reader beliefs.''
Sources close to the group say there is a growing disillusionment among the paper's senior editors. Two senior journalists were forced quit and one was sidelined. ''[Senior journalists] Krishna Ananth and Kesava Menon have been restored to their earlier positions in the newspaper. I hope they will start contributing, as they used to do earlier,'' says Ram (see interview).
The loss of a lucrative advertisement supplement from the Tamil Nadu state government, owing to the paper's anti-government stance, is also said to be a reason for bringing back Ram at the helm.
Rival newspapers with lesser circulation in the state earned hefty revenues by bringing out special supplements when the Tamil Nadu chief minister completed two years in the office while The Hindu was conspicuously left out. The Hindu is the largest circulating daily in the state and the third largest in India.
''Nothing hurts more than squeezing business interests,'' says a magazine editor. The Hindu had, in fact, posted a loss of Rs 15 crore during the financial year 2001-02. ''We have done very well during fiscal 2002-03,'' says Murali.
Refuting categorically that falling revenues were the main reason to bring back Ram into The Hindu fold, Murali says: ''Even during M Karunanidhi's chief ministership we didn't get regular advertisements. The state government's advertisements are not a stable revenue source for us. Special anniversary supplements are a one-time affair, once in a year. Thanks to corporate advertisements, all our ad spaces get filled up.''
According to Murali, ToI will not be a serious threat to The Hindu in Tamil Nadu and he cites Hyderabad as an example where both The Hindu and Deccan Chronicle had grown after bringing down the cover price. While the threat from ToI will be in the future, the immediate cause of concern is the adoption of a network marketing strategy by The Indian Express group in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry.
Another related theory that doing the rounds is that the group did consider the option of bringing an outsider or a non-family journalist as the daily's editor to soften the editorial stance towards the BJP and the Tamil Nadu government.
Murali denies the story: ''At no point of time did we consider the option of bringing in an outsider or a non-family member as the editor of The Hindu. There are enough qualified and proven journalists within the family to take the responsibility. In addition, there are several senior journalists within the group who are competent to be the editor. So the question of us looking for outside talent for the editor's post does not arise.''
In a competitive environment the Mount Road Maha Vishnu (the daily's nickname as it is promoted by Vaishnavites) cannot afford to have his ananthasayanam. He has to sit up and take notice of the market realities, sums up a journalist.
'Restructuring? Yes. Downsizing? No'
An interview with N Ram, editor-in-chief, The Hindu
After more than a decade, N Ram is back as the chief of The Hindu's editorial department. His takeover this year incidentally coincides with its 125th anniversary on 20 September 2003 (See 'Change of guard').
This time, as the editor-in-chief of all the publications brought out by Kasturi & Sons, Ram has the final say on what gets published - and what doesn't.
According to the company board, Ram has to improve the structures and other mechanisms to uphold and strengthen quality and objectivity in news reports and opinion pieces. He is also authorised to restructure the editorial framework and functions in line with the competitive environment.
The former first class cricketer opened his second innings with a direction to have an editorial meeting every morning. The next step, say sources, will be the formation of different committees that will assist him in implementing the board's resolution and take the group forward.
Ram says internal walls, wherever they exist, will be brought down. ''There will have to be better coordination among various departments in the group.'' Excerpts from an interview with Venkatachari Jagannathan:
What is the reason behind the sudden top-level change in the editorial department? The journalistic circle is agog with rumours and speculations.
After due consideration the board of Kasturi & Sons on 27 June nominated me as the editor-in-chief. The resolution states that to promote quality and objectivity in journalism I have been nominated to the post. The resolution also specifies my functions and responsibilities. I don't need to respond to rumours and speculations.
As per law there can be only one person who will be held responsible for what a newspaper publishes. Hence it was decided that only my name will appear on the printline of all the publications. Nobody has been asked to quit his or her old position. It is a bloodless change, but a major change.
Did the board or the family at any time discuss the possibility of bringing in an outsider or a non-family member to don the editor's robe?
Certainly not in the recent times. Long ago The Hindu had non-family editors. And I can't say anything about the future.
You have been authorised to restructure the editorial departments of group publications. Can you elaborate what types of revamping are in the offing?
The group has several good publications and what is needed is better coordination among these. We have to draw out all the resources available and use it in an optimum way for the common good. In other words the high walls that exist between various group publications will be broken so that cross-utilisation of the editorial and intellectual resources are possible.
For instance a reporter covering World Trade Organisation (WTO) meetings for The Hindu can file news reports for the other newspapers of the group and features for magazines like Frontline. This will be done while maintaining the author's personality [style and identity]. Though we have a strong centralised set-up, we had decentralised our operations to a greater extent. Communication between various centres has to be improved. There will be better coordination to eliminate morning shocks and surprises due to publication of some wrong reports.
Will your editorial departments be trimmed as cross-utilisation might result in surplus journalists?
There will not be any downsizing. We at The Hindu never did that in the past and will not do that in the future. No worker or employee was sent home when we modernised our press and other related functions. But there will be redeployment of the editorial force within the organisation as some departments are under-utilised and some are overworked.
What kinds of reforms are you planning in the newsroom?
There will be no room for opinions or comments in a news report. The job of a reporter or a correspondent is to write news. There will be objectivity and integrity in journalism. Further, the walls between editorial and advertisement departments will be reduced so that each one of us can understand the other side. There is a need for better coordination between departments. Editorial integrity, however, will be strictly maintained.
Does the group have any plan to get into the visual media?
We don't have any such plans. But we intend to get into the Internet media in a major way. We have wonderful resources that could be utilised better. At present our web presence is limited to uploading the dailies and magazines as it is or with minor alterations. But that will undergo a sea change. Our web presence will be similar to that of The Guardian of the UK. I like the Guardian Unlimited site very much.