Where have all the front pages gone? Day after day, paper after paper – in this year’s run-up from Durga Puja to Diwali – carried full-page advertisements where a normal front page should have been. This is not something novel and has been around for some time, but what is new is its intensity and frequency. It has come to such a pass that if you carry a normal front page too often, then it is a signal that you do not count for much as a newspaper.
Things have travelled from one end of the spectrum to another. Till the 1970s, which was in a way the heyday of the Indian newspaper (no competition other than the official media), the problem was the opposite. There wasn’t much of a paper beyond the front page. The nadir was touched when Indira Gandhi, spiteful towards newspaper houses that mostly opposed her, imposed a 10-page ceiling on newspapers, ostensibly to conserve precious foreign exchange since all newsprint was imported.
The newspaper then was mainly the front page and the opinion page, with the rest of the news pages carrying bits of news in the space that was not gobbled up by ads. Of these inside news columns, the lion’s share went to sports. The lowliest was, of course, the commerce page (there were no business sections then), which carried a pathetically few stock quotations and some company announcements.
After Emergency, when media freedom blossomed, and after the gradual liberalisation that began in the 1980s, newspapers blossomed. As the foreign exchange crunch eased, they grew in size. With the advent of photo typesetting and desktop page makers, page design came into its own. The front page achieved a glory, in both content and look, that it had never known before.
In the post-“India shining” era newspapers, particularly the leading ones, have become more weighty than ever. But there is a sinking feeling that they matter less. The younger generation gets whatever news it needs on the internet (even the box is passé). For the most part, of course, it prefers to go straight to the city add-on, where stars and starlets rule the roost. But it is not just the young who are deserting newspapers. I was embarrassed before a friend whose newspaper article I had missed because it was carried in a somewhat obscure corner of the paper. He said he saw it on the Net and put a link to it on his Facebook page so all his friends would get to know of it. So who needs the newspaper?
Sure, you can’t fight technology or taste, but need you self-destruct? Of course, the economic slowdown has hit ad spend and newspaper ad revenues. So newspapers have to please advertisers more and more — they have to keep running faster and faster simply not to fall behind. It is something like those intruding wiggly little things that keep nibbling away at the TV screen when you are watching a nice movie. Nemesis seems around the corner when there will be no TV screen left, only a jumble of genuflecting ads.
Ads appear the most where they can be seen by the most — like a hoarding at a busy intersection, or the over-change during a cricket match or the solus position (bottom right corner) of a newspaper front page. People don’t come to see the ads; the ads come to grab the eyeballs already there.
If the pull goes and the environment for the ad deteriorates, then there will be few eyeballs for the ads to grab, and ads will have to move to newer pastures. When all that you can see on a newspaper front page is an ad, which you can see on TV or on a hoarding, then why will you pick up a newspaper in the first place?
People spend under 20 minutes on a newspaper and most of that time goes in looking at the front page and maybe the sports pages. To destroy the environment that pulls the ads – a well-designed busy front page that distills for you the most important news from across the world – is to do the groundwork for the demise of not just the front page but also the ads that have come seeking visibility.
The irony is that, next week, I will be speaking to a group of youngsters seeking a career in the media on what goes into the making of a front page, its unique ethos and elan. I can hardly tell them that what we are looking at will soon be history. The front page will join the typewriter in museums, banished there by the ads that gobbled it up.