“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” said Thomas Jefferson, adding that “every man should receive those newspapers and be capable of reading them.”
Jefferson was the US president so he knew a thing or two about the importance of government. And yet he held it second to the newspaper’s capacity for information and accountability. Why? And has that changed in our time, when we can apparently substitute ‘newspaper’ with ‘television news’ or even ‘social media’? No, and we will look at why in a moment.
This budget brought news that the customs duty on newsprint has been raised by 10%. This hike will not generate any significant amount of money. My calculation says that the government will get less than Rs 1,000 crore a year through this duty. The size of our budget is Rs 27.8 lakh crore and the duty is 0.03% of that. So why has it been imposed on a critical sector? I have my speculations on that and those are unimportant. Let us examine what this duty will actually do.
Newsprint is the paper that is used to produce newspapers. In major newspapers like this one, it is imported because that is the only paper of high enough quality to be able to be printed quickly and well. The cost of the paper is roughly about Re 1 for four sheets. If the paper you are reading today has 48 pages, it has cost Rs 12 to produce, and we are talking only about the physical cost of the material. The people and processes are all separate.
India has the cheapest newspapers in the world (Jefferson would approve). The Guardian in London costs Rs 150, and the New York Times Rs 175 though both these newspapers use the same amount of newsprint that this paper does. Nearer us, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh charge their readers twice as much, often for papers that are half or less in size than this paper. The Pakistan daily that I used to write a column for some years ago costs Rs 40 a day. These are Pakistani rupees, which are worth less today than half an Indian rupee. But it still means that the reader in Lahore and Karachi pays four times what you and I pay for a newspaper in Delhi or Mumbai. A very segmented media space for advertising means that today, newspapers have to compete with many other sources for the same spends.
The government’s hike in customs duty is going to burden all newspapers with higher input cost in this sort of market and that doesn’t make sense unless… look, I’m not going to speculate about why this was done. This column is about something else.
Let us turn to Jefferson again and see why newspapers are important to society, especially in our time when the word media can mean so many different things. Newspaper journalists can be divided by two types of functions: editors and reporters/photographers. The latter are further divided by beat. To give you an example of what a beat reporter does, I will take you back a quarter century when I was one. My ‘beat’ was the Bombay Sessions Court. It had over 40 different courtrooms and covering it required my walking into each court four times a day — twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon — to see what was going on. Meeting lawyers, defendants, convicts, murderers, cheats, celebrities and talking to them to see what the case was about. And then returning to the office in the evening to write up the three or four stories that had been produced through these engagements.
There are perhaps between 5,000 and 7,000 such full time newspaper reporters and photographers around India covering education, health, crime and so on. Their job is to document how the state is functioning.
Television journalism does not do this because most of this cannot be covered given the absence of visuals. Their stories are follow ups of newspaper reports already published. What did Jefferson mean when he was referring to newspapers? I can tell you what he did not mean: he did not mean columns like this one. Opinion of all shades is freely available and will remain so whether in 820 words or 140 characters.
It is reportage that defines a newspaper and its importance to a free society. Only newspapers provide this service today to our democracy and democracies elsewhere. Social media cannot replace the product of reporters working a beat full time. Real journalism requires journals. And the hike in customs duty on newsprint directly hurts our society’s ability to examine the quality of governance and hold authority to account.