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Mumbai, do you have light yet?

Let there be light, said HT. Our media editor would like some more.


18 July, 2005: On a drizzly July morning a decade back, the Jayanti Janata Express pulled into Bombay's Victoria Terminus Station, after a two-day journey. I stepped out, one bag on my shoulder, the other in my hand, to join the hordes of unemployed job-hunters in Bombay. Outside, the Times of India citadel raised its head, next to the ancient BMC building. I looked at it respectfully, and moved on.

I have been reading the Times ever since. The Times rejected my job applications twice, first in 1997 and later in 2000. All the while, I kept reading Times, rather slavishly enjoying its monopoly. I heard about Medianet, Response and the Times selling edit space for advertisers. I came across the dumbing-down of news and realised how newspapers could take their readers for granted. I witnessed the Times campaign against FDI in print media and later how it went into tie-ups with Reuters and BBC. I would religiously turn to the Ascent page on Monday for job openings, but never came across any. Yet, I refused the "Journalism of Courage" of the breast-beating variety or its tabloid alternative. As I saw it, there was a certain honesty in running a business enterprise as a business enterprise and not being apologetic about it. Bottomlines were facts of life. If I did not like it, I could leave it. No one was forcing me to read Times. It was my choice.

Yet on nights when I used to dream a lot, I would fantasise about a new newspaper, which would be far ahead of Times, a perfect news man's paper, which I could feed on like a glutton. A newspaper which did not take me for granted and would have less babes and more news. I wanted a news product, not a business product. There was no hope. Till I heard in 2003 that, Hallelujah, Hindustan Times is on way. Here is freedom, my heart jumped, I am finally getting my paper!

So, it was with much expectation that I subscribed to Hindustan Times, the day the marketing guy knocked on the door. Let there be Light, my heart sang, I have been in the dark ages for long. Here comes Independence, hot off the press!

On July 14, 2005, there was more light than usual, and I guess it had something to do with the copy of HT, firmly tucked into the door handle. I woke up early, jumped over my brother who was sleeping on the floor, and made for the door. Aha, here comes emancipation! The Hindustan Times, the light, the wisdom!

I opened the paper. The top left quarter part of the page was mostly a single headline, "Will you do the Abu Salem show or not?" I don't need to brief you about the headline - it soon became the talk of the town. With the Salman tapes, HT had hit the ground running. The paper had the whole world talking, and Hindustan Times was on everyone's lips. First Day First Show was a sellout for HT, though the same was not the case with Maine Pyaar Kyun Kiya.

In recent months, I have discovered that I am greatly regarded by newspapers, most of which never gave me a job in the first place. First, because I am a journalist, and second, because I live in Bombay, and therefore, a potential newspaper buyer. The front page had a welcome article by Vir Sanghvi, one of the best editorial brains in India, and currently, HT's Editorial Director. He too spoke about the excellence of Bombay, and how special Bombay was to HT. He pointed to the flexible format of HT's front page and how HT will make for different reading.

What impressed me about HT Bombay was its clean production. HT Mumbai lacks the rough edges many maiden editions have. Obviously, its enormous experience in running editions in the North has helped. 

The second page of the paper was also the tape transcripts, and related stories. It made for salacious reading. The voyeur in me approved of HT.

Before moving on, let me confess: any review of HT in Bombay inevitably involves a comparison with its competitor Times. The comparison is crucial, since this is a newcomer trying to take on the monopoly player in a war of unequals. The way Times fights its battle will determine the fortunes of two of India's leading newspapers.

I moved on to the METRO pages, dealing solely with Mumbai. There were not too many pages in the METRO section, and not too many stories either. The thick feeling of Times City is lacking here. The nation pages come next, The edit page and op-ed page (HT Insight) follow. I liked both, especially the Insight page. During all my years of Times-reading, I could never develop a liking for its Edit page. There is more meat in HT Insight than many of its mainstream peers.

Most of the HT pages have a huge picture in the top middle, which holds the page together. You can notice the same style from HT's front page to back page. While I appreciate the potential lure of such gigantic visuals, I sometimes feel cheated when the pictures were not top-class. When you take a picture in five-column size, the picture better be worth it. Many times, I felt the picture has been used just for the sake of it (For eg; picture of cattle at a posh locality - is it any rare sight in a country which worships the cow, and in a state where beef slaughter is prohibited?) Many times, I have felt that the picture is a more a space-filler, something done just for the sake of it, carried at a spot which could have carried more news.

Move on to HT World. The international pages of HT are way ahead of Times', I must say, with special attention to graphics and, I feel, better selection of stories. This is despite the fact that Times has a separate colour section called Times International. The top-to-bottom graphic of space shuttle Discovery launch in the inaugural edition was attractive and informative; however, HT missed out one crucial thing. The shuttle launch was called off the previous night, at the eleventh hour. It was Indian time around 11.30 when I was travelling that I got a message from my publisher that NASA had cancelled the countdown. How come an 11.30 story could not be carried? At least, a front page brief on the change would have been fine, just to avoid looking foolish. Didn't the HT guys who took a lot of effort to cook up the Shuttle graphic bother to check if the launch went on as planned? 

Sorry, I can't blame HT alone. Times too missed out the launch cancellation.

The sports pages are interesting, visually. I have noticed that in the last few years, newspapers devote a lot of attention to their sports pages. Design-wise, HT and Times sports sections are neck-and-neck. At many edit meetings, editors pick up the sports pages to show design excellence, but I have felt this is by and large moronic because Sports pages, carrying a lot of International pictures, are blessed by the photographic excellence of AP and AFP. Which many local city pages donít have. Sub-editors making city pages leave such meetings sullen, thinking something was wrong with them, while the cocky ones making international and sports pages look down upon them. I suggest sub-editors be put on rotation in these pages.

The printing quality of Hindustan Times and Times of India are equally good, and I must say, the best in the industry. Both use decent paper, and can print several inside colour pages. Comparatively, the printing and production standards of Indian Express, Asian Age and Free Press Journal are way behind. Let's hope HT and Times will set the printing standards for Bombay, unless DNA decides to alter the rules of the game.

In the inaugural Bombay edition, HT also carried a full page interview with Ratan Tata. Written in a lucid way, it came across as quite readable, though there were no major insights into the mind of the Tata tycoon, except for snippets of his falling out with Russi Mody. 

The first edition of HT Mumbai also carried a glossy magazine section called Mumbai Magic (ahem!), with assorted photographs of the city. The section not doubt, had some truly well-shot pictures, but to call it a collector's edition was to push it a little far. It did not have the paper and production quality of a collector's edition. The second "collectors edition" distributed on Monday July 18, did not lift much my spirits much high either. I appreciate the photographs, but the paper and printing do not do justice to the photo quality. Gimme National Geographic quality please..

The days that followed its Bombay launch saw HT tom-tomming the Salman tapes, giving more salacious details and a deadly picture of the actor with Dawood Ibrahim's brother on the front page. Salman on page one, Salman on page two, Salman on page three...

Newspaper design is always a subjective matter, but personally, I feel the design of HT's front page is more readable than the Times front page. The big photos and oodles of white space make for easy reading. But I still find the inside pages of Times having better design and attention to graphics. Graphics in the early inside pages of Times are quite well-thought out and executed. HT has a lot to learn here.

The Times business section too comes across as heavier and newsier than HT's. There are more stories and better presentation.

The Sunday edition of HT Mumbai too did not impress me much, though I liked it much more than Sunday Express. More Salman, rehash of the same tapes and transcripts...

Also, I could not understand why the HT website still does not host the Bombay edition. It lists the Delhi edition, Lucknow edition, Bhopal edition and the UK edition. Mumbai is missing! Does Vir Sanghvi for some reason think that cyberspace does not extend below Madhya Pradesh?

Even before HT, DNA and others took aim for Victoria Terminus, Times went on overdrive, launching a slew of interesting sections and supplements, including Times City, Times International, Culture Curry, Rouge, city supplements, Times Review, and many more. Several dormant sections sprang  to life. Quality of graphics and design shot up. On "enormous reader demand", Bennett Coleman started hawking Mumbai Mirror free with Times. Besides, Times topped up employee salaries to offset poaching attempts. Despite some high-profile exits, Times kept its flock together, and its readers happy. It has taken up the battle with gusto. If any one thought Times would buckle down under the combined assault of HT and DNA, he is living in a fool's paradise.

My heart beats for HT. But Vir Sanghvi's paper has a long way to go before it can stake claim for the Mumbai throne. The city coverage of HT is, in comparison to Times, skeletal. Time spent making Mumbai Radar, Nation Radar and World Radar should be spent on gathering more news. Remember, this is a battle for the Mumbai newsreader. The news coverage and presentation of Times City is far ahead of HT. When you read the Times City pages, you get the feeling of being bombarded with city news, which you donít get with HT - so far. HT should be ready with, say, about 50-75 city stories every day, before it can boast of spreading light here. There should be more city supplements too.

Do you remember Sunday, the ABP group magazine edited by Vir Sanghvi in the mid-nineties? I loved its eclectic nature, hosting opinionated and often abrasive articles penned by personalities of all hues. The magazine shut down, for reasons unknown to me, but I still think it was a wonderful product. I would like HT Bombay to be the same spunky product. Mumbai needs more light! And for that, HT has to move beyond Salman Khan and tape transcripts.


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