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DNA NEWSPAPER - REVIEW

Maybe if I wore dark glasses...

...like the DNA's cool subscribers in the hoardings, I would like it better. As a 'WON'T BOOK' loser who doesn't wear glares, our Media Editor takes a look at the launch issue of DNA, Mumbai's latest newspaper.

OUR MEDIA EDITOR

1 August, 2005: By nature, I am a reticent, introverted character who would rather let an insult go rather than rake up a fight over it. But recently, I was brusquely asked to speak out, since apparently it was in my DNA (My father still disagrees). Anyway, here goes:

 
Hindustan Times Mumbai edition: Review

Mumbai Mirror launch issue: Review
 

The latest English language newspaper in India hit the stands on July 30, 2005. DNA, short for Daily News and Analysis, promised to be a newspaper for the upscale, young Mumbai reader. Ushered in by a highly communicative advertising campaign, it promised to be THE emancipatory messiah newspaper I was waiting for all my life. With huge investments, DNA unleashed a media war in Mumbai, jacking up journalist salaries and triggering crises in several newspapers. With the Times of India in its crosshairs, DNA hired some of the seniormost journalist and marketing hands in town. The Times machine went on overdrive much in advance, beefing up its supplements, rolling out Mumbai Mirror, dishing out several value additions and stuffing its journalists' pockets. 

Let me confess, I expected nothing less than the best from DNA. So, my impression of the paper could be a result of the sky-high expectations I had from the paper. My apologies for the same.

At 6.00 AM on July 30, the day of DNA launch, I was at the news stand at Victoria Terminus in Bombay, hoping to be the first journalist in town to get his hands on DNA. There was Times, there was Express, there was HT, but DNA? "Aaya nahin hain bhai, Times le lo," advised the vendor. First day no show? I was disappointed. 

DNA is printed at Mhape in New Bombay, somewhere close to the HT printing press. If HT made it to the stands by 6.00, where was DNA? Or is it that this particular vendor got his copies late? I went home without my DNA.

It was much later in the day that I got to take a first look. The first edition came across as a big disappointment. I did not feel cheated by the hoardings. This was because I had decided to be among the paanwallahs and rickshaw drivers who had said WON'T BOOK. Since I did not subscribe, personally, I had nothing to complain.

DNA's first day had a total of about 54 pages, including sections like Sports, Money, After Hours etc. All pages are in colour.

Many newspapers and magazines, when they roll off the presses for the first time, make a splash with some "launch stories". The idea is to hit the ground running, to grab maximum eyeballs, and to increase word-of-mouth publicity. HT hit the stands in Mumbai with the Salman tapes scoop (... and they continued on this issue of national importance for the better part of a week. Let there be light on Salman's eccentric love life! -Editor). When Outlook magazine took off in 1996, they did so with a cover story on the Aazadi aspirations of Kashmiris. Such shocking & investigative launch stories get the product immediately noticed, and guarantee instant sales besides ensuring brand recall. Whether we like the concept of such launch stories or not, the fact remains that they serve a critical purpose.

DNA failed here. The first edition of DNA does not have any exciting reports to hold the reader, and keep him coming back for more. The front page stories are, predictably, on the Mumbai rains, a single column story on Dawood in Dubai and an anchor story on the Marine Drive rape victim suing the government for Rs 15 lakh. I had come to think that anchor stories are usually featurish, off-beat, human interest stuff. Rape victim's trauma in anchor slot? Hmmm...

The boxed front page article (predictably, on Mumbai rains) by Gautam Adhikari, chief editor-DNA, comes across as very tame, to the point of being sterile. None of the fury, pain and loss of marooned Bombaywallahs come across here. The Gautam Adhikari article has the detachment of a Solapur editor writing on Sarajevo killings. There is no punch, nothing special, and if breast-beating is all I want, there are many others in the market who are better at it. Compare this to Vir Sanghvi's blast in HT and the Mid-Day edits, and you will see the difference.

Design of a newspaper, I believe, is very subjective. Besides, design is something which grows on you -- what you ignore at first may come to be your favourite daily design over a period of time. What I think is an excellent design may be outlandish for you and vice-versa. Since this subjectivity extends across the profession of journalism, let me make bold to say that the page design and layout of DNA are below average. These days, when packaging of news is all important, DNA has not paid sufficient attention to the design and layout of the paper. 

Just Who is Mr. Dark Glasses?

We are no market analysts, and have no clue about market research. But we can speculate, can't we?

DNA targets the young reader, apparently. The feedback is that journalists are uniformly disappointed by DNA, but they don't count as they read newspapers free in their offices.

But the young reader likes it, says an informed source.

  • Is there a young reader? Isn't this 'young' reader stuff a bit similar to TOI's earlier justification for its content - that its flaky content was what the dynamic young generation interested in? And is it a coincidence that Mr Pradeep Guha was then in TOI, and now in DNA?
  • Do the young readers read at all? We thought young readers were busy watching TV or frolicking in nightclubs.
  •  When was the last time we saw a 'young' reader? Come to think of it, not a single youngster in the trains were reading a paper, ever. They were reading Cosmopolitan.
  • Does the young reader exist only behind the tinted glasses of a Hyundai Accent? There can't be 3.5 lakh cars with youngsters reading DNA inside them!
Say what - if you think there really are young readers reading DNA, or if you catch a peep at one of them, let us know.

Is the young reader really a middle aged moron going though a mid-life crisis? Who knows!

 

The lack of focus on design could be either a conscious decision or an oversight. After all, I once had an editor who issued a decree that he does not want any photographs in his paper. At deadline time, when the decree landed, we hastily pulled out all pictures and filled up the pages with text to please the editor - no questions asked! However, given the salaries at which DNA has hired its graphics guys, I don't think DNA intended to be a design-neutral paper. 

Given the shining lights of journalism adorning the portals of DNA, the kind of factual, grammar, construction and punctuation errors in the paper come across as a shock. The front page has a story on the Maharashtra chief minister talking about the floods in the state. The intro (below the headline) with the story says that the CM has pulled up the electricity suppliers for the power failure in the city. The story never mentions anything about the so-called pulling up. Did the sub-editor making the page put words in the CM's mouth? 

The second page is a sort of interactive page, where issues are debated and readers get to be reporters and stuff. May be such novelties will catch up among young readers, and form a part of the paper's attempt to 'connect' with anonymous reader. From a newsman's point of view, it was inane. 

Many of the articles in the paper are littered with avoidable mistakes. Has spell-check been abandoned? The lack of spell-checking (this is a facility built into all page-making and editing software for decades) is glaring. When this writer was a News Editor, he used to religiously insist that a spell-check be done on all pages. Reason is simple - for a trained eye, pages appearing with spelling errors appear to be shining examples of shoddy work. Such lack of attention passes through two gates. First, the reporter typed out wrong spellings, two, the deskmen reposed faith in the reporter's ignorance.

Page three has a story on the rains, with the picture of an auto rickshaw in the backdrop of a plane. The poor rick somehow got into the runway at the Mumbai airport, says the caption. Turn over the page, and you can see the same picture on another page. Much bigger, almost the same caption, placed in the middle of another story. Did the same rick run into another runway? No I don't think so. The picture has been repeated in another page, a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. In the inaugural edition of DNA? Sorry, I can't stomach it. May be the upscale Mumbai reader in DNA's hoardings is wearing glasses too dark to notice such things. Being a downmarket paanwallah, I can't afford Ray-bans.



I have often been puzzled by the excellent news reports appearing in the inside pages of newspapers, while many average stories appear on the front page. In many cases, the editor's favourite journalists and the more pushy ones smuggle themselves into the front page and the more "prestigious" pages, while better quality stories filed by the mousier reporters fail to see the light of the day. Another reason is that section heads hide the better stories for their own sections, keeping them out of front page. This is an industry standard. Many reporters and bureau chiefs often find that excellent stories filed by them have been thrown out of the front page because a "pet" reporter came up with an year-old story at the last minute. Ask any reporter, and he will attest to this.

Well, I do not think this happens in DNA. I refuse to believe that an upstart newspaper, for which the reader is all important, will ever dare to do such things. But I was saddened by the fact that some good stories, like the one on Haji Ali, went inside the paper, while a very routine one, like the CM story appeared on the front page. Mostly, these are errors of judgment, rather than premeditated. More bucking-up required.

Similarly, the article on India's under-21 hockey team having several overage players has gone into the sports section. I felt this also merited a front page display. However, the DNA editors may have their own reasons for such decisions.

The edit page is another weak page. Not a single strong article to hold the reader, who has barely a few minutes to spend on a newspaper in this perpetually busy city. The article by Anand Mahindra is not breath-taking. The snippets column at the left hosts mundane stuff. Much of it is unreadable, with the first one on a nomination to the Commonweath Executive Committee! I thought such snippets were to be spicy nuggets of news. Putting such a piece on the top of the snippets column completely puts off a reader, whether he is wearing dark glasses or not. 

The business section, named DNA Money, came across as a bigger disappointment. The lead story, by Roshni Jayakar (formerly of Business Today) is the most boring piece of interview-based story I read that day. "Fortune 500 goal may spur Birla M&As," announces the headline. Had I not been paid to write this review, I would have skipped it after the first couple of paras. But since I can't, I finished reading the entire non-story. Kumar Mangalam Birla says that the group is aiming for the Fortune 500 mark, and would go for organic and inorganic growth. I failed to see the news point there. Birlas have always been aggressive in the M&A business, both in India and abroad. Mr. Birla himself has said several times before that scale is of importance in the kind of businesses that he runs. Even before M&As became the market flavour, Birlas bagged Madura Garments in 1999. He bought Transworks in 2003 and L&T Cement in 2004. There are numerous other M&A stories from the AV Birla group. Does Birla really need a Fortune 500 goal to go for M&As? Bah! Poor story. M&As are driven by business imperatives, not Fortune goal posts. 

A mundane picture of three businessmen comes next. Other stories: market cap surge, Mumbai flood losses, All PSUs under PMO, STD calls at Rs 2, briefs. Look at the bottom left of the page to see the most-unimaginative cartoon of the year. One gentleman tells another over coffee: "My company used to perk me up with loads and loads of perks and one day, it was all over - with the fringe business tax!" Is this a cartoon? It is a cartoon of a cartoon!

In fact, the other inside page story on Rajeev Chandrasekhar (of BPL fame) attracted me more. This should have been the front page lead story for DNA Money. There is more meat to this story than the Birla M&A non-story. In fact, many of the inside page DNA Money stories were more readable than its front page. Except of course, the story on ITC's investment plans of Rs 15,000 crore. That is stale news. ITC had announced it a couple of months back. The entire DNA Money section is of 8 pages, with a single full page of stock quotations.

DNA Sport of 6 pages comes next. The front page has a story on the under-21 hockey team, an interview-based article on Sachin Tendulkar by Ayaz Memon (formerly of Bombay Times) which reads like a PR piece for Sachin Tendulkar, and an anchor story on  why the national broadcaster is not showing F1. The first and last articles are quite readable. A shoddy cartoon illuminates the briefs column. The first inside page is on Sania Mirza, with a gigantic cutout picture of the tennis star. The amateurish way the cutout is made, I guess, will be appreciated only by M/s Dark Glasses. Make no mistake, the sports pages of Times and HT are miles & miles ahead of DNA.

After Hours is a 10-page section on Bollywood, partying, sun signs, movie listings, classifieds and stuff. There is a morphed picture of desi actresses pasted on to a  Desperate Housewives photo, with a silly caption. Graphics guys and porn MMS experts, look at this picture to learn how morphing should not be done. After Hours could be DNA's answer to Bombay Times. It is a very muted, squeaky answer. The production quality of Bombay Times is nowhere there.

Paper quality

Overall, DNA's paper quality is unsatisfying, except in the Life360 supplement and DNA Money. 

Printing quality

The DNA copy I got had pictures with colours inching out of the borders of pictures. This happens due to a "registration problem" during printing, when the colour plates used for printing do not align properly. The result is ghost images of people in print. By a minor adjustment of screws on the printing machines, this can be corrected at the press side. Some friends I checked with had received copies with better printing, some with worse printing.

Graphics and page design 

If the aim is to take on Times and HT, there is enormous work required here, a lot to learn from rivals.

Stories

Times of India still wins hands down on city coverage. The breadth of coverage of Times City is nowhere to be seen in DNA. Even HT's city coverage trails Times City. I could pardon all other faults of DNA -- poor English, unexciting design, average newsprint, spelling errors -- if its city coverage was top class. A paper made especially for Mumbai should be the ultimate in Mumbai coverage, miles ahead of Times, Mid-Day, HT, Afternoon and Express.

A few good words

DNA's first edition followed the Mumbai floods. The general disruption of city life must have hit the pre-launch operations of DNA too. The initial impression is that of a product which has been rushed into market without adequate preparation. The "best print media talent" cited by Simi Garewal and hired by DNA (turn to After Hours pages) have yet to show their firepower, if any. Let us hope they will. The earlier the better.

DNA's first edition is a classic case of the product not matching the expectations created by its campaign. There is a lot, lot more work to be done. Beef up city news coverage. Look for BIG stories and play them up properly. Improve newsprint quality. Improve the visual appeal of the paper - with better graphics and innovative page design. Edit, spell-check and proof-read pages thoroughly. Ensure paper reaches homes on time. As I finish writing this, my brother who lives next door (He said WILL BOOK, and has started wearing dark glasses) is still waiting for his copy, while me, the paanwallah, lies buried under tonnes of Times supplements and HT. DNA has a huge responsibility to its subscribers whose hopes it raised sky-high with its campaign. Otherwise, they may speak out soon, since it's already in their DNA. And what they speak may not be to DNA's liking. 

OUR MEDIA EDITOR

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