The whole point of a newspaper

Updated: Apr 08, 2020, 07:03 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

In case you've been missing the morning daily at home. Or here's why you definitely should!

The newspaper that way, as a product, is closer to a diversely curated Netflix that changes every day. Representational photo
The newspaper that way, as a product, is closer to a diversely curated Netflix that changes every day. Representational photo

Mayank ShekharAs with the curiously symbiotic relationship between a pencil and an audio cassette, would future generations wonder about how the toilet paper (if not bathroom-mug or jet-stream) was once the obvious thing to hold, after a newspaper — in the life of billions across the globe?

Writing this, because of all things I'm desperately missing that morning ritual the most, ever since the country-wide, Corona lockdown. Do you reckon, say 30 to 40 years later, kids might ask, "What's a newspaper?" In the same way they wonder, what the hell's an audio cassette! Hard to predict, given physical books on the rebound continue to vastly outsell e-books still.

That said, whether or not I'm still around, if I had to explain a newspaper — besides expanding on the (concocted) acronym, North East West South, Past And Present Events Reported; or spouting the (incontestable) cliché of it being the "first draft of history" — I'd basically say it was the essential raw material for all views/news generating/aggregating media across. This, despite the invention of the Internet.

It's what most 'content' websites, radio stations, TV news channels (mainly comprising talking heads) picked up, at the break of dawn, to either copy-paste, or plan the conversational agenda for the day. That's after they'd trawled public figures on social media!

Why? Because a newspaper, barring 'routine' — or events/info that everyone will know about anyway — thrived on delivering 'exclusives', and stories driven by thoughts/ideas, to simultaneously inform, amuse and irritate. How did it do it better than its competitors?

By traditionally investing deeply in full-time writers, editors, chiefly reporters, with their nose to the ground, building on an ever expanding network of sources, to miss out on nothing in the coverage of their individual 'beats'. Which could be as offbeat as science, medicine, education, religion and all that shit (or what the Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee clubbed as SMERSH) — depending on the strength of the newsroom, of course. It was a full meal.

What does this mean for the consumer? No, you don't already know what you want to read about the day. Nobody does. You discover it while casually flipping through a newspaper — cover to cover; front page to the corner-pocket; widening from the specific to the universal; the all-important city in-depth, to the world at large.

It's an act of serendipity, determined not by an algorithm or echo-chamber of a Twitter timeline, but undecipherable qualities of a curious, wandering mind. The newspaper that way, as a product, is closer to a diversely curated Netflix that changes every day, rather than a thoroughly limiting network television, where you can watch only one thing at a time, and sometimes the same thing, all the time.

As kids, our parents guided us to the newspaper. Because they believed it helped improve our basic vocabulary, besides learning about the world on the move. They passed on their faith in the printed word. Decades down, one finds the same kids, now grown up, banging their heads against the wall, desperately trying to convince their parents, uncles, aunts and other rishtedars that the sanctity of print does not extend to every written word, from any source, that you come across or quote from, on WhatsApp. It's easy to mimic news.

The only way to grapple with this information crisis is to check what you're reading. And how far is it verifiably true. The newspaper, in that sense, still has a long history of legal and public accountability. It is the only legacy media.

Television as a news-gathering medium in India, by and large, appears to have forfeited its responsibility — having gone 'talk-radio' almost altogether. Relatively credible news-websites lack the financial muscle, and width/depth, to challenge print still. They seem to do better at think pieces.

Basically a society without experienced, full-time reporters is a confederacy of strongly opinionated readers, dancing in the dark. Where does that leave us? Hopefully understanding the value of first-hand/primary news.

I'll spare you a lecture on its economic model in India, which is almost wholly subsidised by the advertiser. And that while a lot of the advertising-spend on newspapers did indeed shift to the Internet, it did not towards websites of the same newspapers on the web.

Also, it doesn't matter how or where you scan news — on a broadsheet, tabloid, browser or Berliner. Readers and writers hold no brief for paper manufacturers/suppliers, or the printing press. I'm talking about the idea of the newspaper per se. You have your favourites, hopefully. I have mine.

During a talk that the NDTV founder Prannoy Roy once delivered in our college (around when cell phones weren't so smart), we asked him if he felt the newspaper would ever disappear from our lives. He said, "Only if there was something that you could so swiftly turn and fold, sit or lie around and read, with such ease."

Given that my vendor hasn't yet resumed delivery of newspapers in my building since the lockdown, I've been scrolling PDFs of news dailies, from the start to the sports page, ritually on my pot, every morning. Serves the purpose, sure. But, no, not the same. Could I have the real thing back, please?

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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