Once upon a time in Mumbai, shortly after a global dot-com bust of the early noughties, or as a result of it, journalists suddenly received massive salary raises. It meant that scribes like me, but especially those on the metropolitan beat (covering civic issues, crime, etc.)—most of them married to their jobs, obsessed with its outcomes, with little care for personal incomes—could actually live off a profession they had to otherwise apologise for. By calling it what? A calling!
This was in 2005 (15 years in media years equals a century), when The Times of India (TOI) was launching Times Now—the first national English TV news station from Mumbai (instead of Delhi). Hindustan Times (HT) from Delhi was launching its edition in Mumbai—with hoardings chiefly in the island city, condescendingly announcing, ‘Let there be light’. As if Daniel in the name of a daily had come to judgment.
I was then on my way out of my job at the tabloid Mid-day, moving to CNBC, that was also in the process of starting an English news channel, CNN-IBN. It gives you a sense of the problem of plenty of news-media jobs in that one year.
The night before reporting to the CNBC TV station though I was lured by a few of my ex-colleagues from Mid-day and my former boss Meenal Baghel to join a secret new project they were working on. They were plotting the launch of a new newspaper for Mumbai—on the top floor of the TOI building, amidst a ping pong table and hush-hush conversations. We were supposed to reveal details of this newspaper to no one—not even, sometimes, to those that were being interviewed to join the paper’s launch staff!
Why a Manhattan Project type secrecy? It probably deserves a marketing case-study that proves what a dud idea the so-called teaser-campaigns in advertising can be. It relates to a long outdoor campaign that denizens of the city were witness to all over Mumbai, featuring cryptic codes on billboards, visuals of people with duct-tape on their faces, etc. It had been going on for months, with a hint of a suggestion that a new newspaper was coming to town.
They never said which paper (it was eventually revealed to be DNA or Daily News & Analysis, from Zee and Dainik Bhaskar group). And they had recruited a large number of Mumbai’s ‘maharathi’ (stalwart) journos on huge salaries as part of their top-heavy team. The paper was being put together after an extensive door-to-door survey, on what readers wanted. Which is strange, given that the appeal of news in itself rests on the act of serendipity/discovery, for a reader!
For what felt like half a year, the billboards with these teaser-ads across Mumbai kept changing to paraphrase the same point—your newspaper is getting ready; we’re listening to you; it’ll soon be in your hands….
One morning, the hoardings changed yet again, and said, “Your paper is finally here!” But the visual was not of the newspaper from Zee and Bhaskar, but that of the masthead of Mumbai Mirror. This was the tabloid we had assembled in the top floor of TOI in about as much time as it takes to start a paan/pawn shop! It was a brilliant marketing move on the part of TOI which made the launch of DNA a few weeks later look like an also-ran.
The first cover page had an interview of Amitabh Bachchan’s younger brother Ajitabh, who was writing a tell-all memoir—apparently pointing fingers at the elder one. Big B’s son Abhishek formally launched Mumbai Mirror at a ground-event the night before the first edition.
The paper hit the ground running. Those were heady days, especially, if you believe in the power of the masthead/byline, that allows rookies like me approach the mightiest, in the quest of a story. There was zero fear when the journalistic pursuit was based on facts.
Looking back, the launch of Mumbai Mirror represented the last hurrah for the world of print newspapers in Mumbai. We were in the last decade before ‘fake news’ became a thing. It was the last decade before aggregators like Google, Facebook etc., became the primary source of ‘news’ with their ability to facilitate a ‘share’, and consequently corner all ad revenues that in an earlier time would have accrued to those who actually created the content. Google’s greatest contribution to the world of ‘news’ of course has been to inspire legions of desk jockeys to refashion stories out of news reported by real newspapers.
While nostalgia inevitably evokes fondness, memories of helping start a daily from scratch can’t exactly be warm. You’re basically going nuts trying to fill up a bottomless pit—which is what a newspaper, a city daily, in particular, running on ‘exclusives’ and ideas-driven stories, with blank pages staring at its short-staffed editorial team every morning, essentially is! More often than not it turns you into a zombie doing everything short of stopping people on the road to check (in case), `Bhai sahib, aapke paas koi story hai kya?’ to fill the pages. And tomorrow’s another day.
The finding/relaying of stories from a newsroom, to inform, amuse and provoke public, who in turn read/share and know better, was a daily privilege that we all embraced eagerly. What did its survival depend on? State of the economy. If you compare India of 2010, at 10 per cent growth, with 2020, when we are staring at minus 10 per cent, you know why Mumbai Mirror shut down last week.
DNA shut down not long ago. As did the Mumbai edition of The Hindu, which started in 2015, and the eveninger Afternoon Dispatch & Courier, that had been around since 1985. All these deaths in little over a year.
What does this really mean? Well if you’ve been through the ongoing pandemic, watching TV anchors doing talk-radio over irrelevant issues for news. Or doom-scrolled social media that tells you nothing about your immediate neighbourhood. Or scoured even credible, standalone news websites, whose great strengths are think pieces, you know that the old-fashioned, hard-nosed, daily, local news reportage is on the death-bed.
Any large city has much to worry about if it is without any solid, credible source of local news. For Mumbai, we’re talking about losing four at one go, and one of which was an essential mirror. Cry, the beloved city.
(Mayank Shekhar is currently entertainment head with Mid-day, Mumbai)