Chennai is gearing up for a newspaper slog fest that promises to leave journalism by the wayside and more billboards on the roadside. In the next month or so, the Times of India is coming to town with a major advertising campaign and super-low introductory rates. Its move into an already crowded media market is forcing the current players to reevaluate their positions.
Part of the reason, of course, is that the Times of India arrives full coffers and is already poaching the best reporters from the established Chennai papers. Indian Express’s Jaya Menon–an extraordinary journalist in her own right–will be heading up the office as bureau chief and star reporters from the New Indian Express, the Hindu and Deccan Chronicle have been lured to the new offices by higher salaries and promises of plush assignments.
But no matter how talented the Times of India’s editorial team might be, the future of the paper won’t hinge on the stories that they break. Chennai is India’s last great media market before the big newspapers start duking it out in second tier cities. For the next couple years, papers will be competing for readers as fiercely as possible before the losers are forced to close up shop.
And what sells newspapers better than sex?
When the Deccan Chronicle entered Chennai in 2005 it learned that the quickest way to turn a buck wasn’t to fund an outstanding reporting team, rather all it had to do was paper the city with pictures cute Indian babes cavorting on the beach. Under the tag line “News Made Exciting” the paper ran high on celebrity news and sex scandals (and some occasional good reporting from senior staff) and its circulation in Chennai alone rose to more than 300,000 in just three years.
Former Rediff and Tehelka reporter and current assistant editor at the Council on Foreign Relations Basharat Peer laments that Indian editors consistantly bury hard hitting stories in favor of tabloid fluff in order to move newspapers
Privately, editors in India will say that cover stories about how Indian men and women behave in bed after age thirty sell more copies than cover stories about torture. [link], via sajaforum.org
It is unlikely that Chennai will be able to support four major English language papers over the long haul, and editors that I’ve spoken with are nervous about what happens next. As talent migrates towards the Times of India, papers like The New Indian Express are trying to differentiate themselves before the shakeup. For the last couple months the paper has included a sexed up 40-page Friday supplement called Indulge and has lately been winning the design wars for best above the fold layouts.
Even with some positive signs, the paper has the most to lose when the Times of India enters the market. With its drab offices far outside the city in Ambattur it has to work hard to keep talented people from fleeing to greener pastures–among them Sushila Ravindranath, Sunday Express editor has shifted to the Deccan Chronicle.
All that aside, for readers, this is a great time to be in Madras. For the next couple years the industry is going to be full of energy as the papers try to out-compete themselves for your attention. Lets just hope they run some actual news stories next to the full-page babe inserts.