A year ago, we stopped buying newspapers. We used to get nine every morning – one in Hindi – before we cut it to five. And then one morning we put an end to it. It was an important decision.
I lived 16+ years as a print journalist [not counting the years lost to addiction]. Everything I did and felt was as a journalist. I was outraged by people and policy that sought to exploit. Much of this sense of right and wrong shaped my news reports over the years.
Newspapers were my life. Why then did I end that part of it? Here’s why.
Early newspaper reading
I learned to read newspapers at the feet of my grandfather. I was raised by my maternal grandparents and every morning my grandfather settled in his easy chair with a glass of coffee. [He loved his filter coffee in a steel glass, never in a cup.]
The first newspaper I knew was Deccan Chronicle. It was the popular choice in Hyderabad then; it was full of local stories and it had multiple pages of movie advertisements. At times we had The Hindu; that was each time my grandfather wanted a change.
My grandfather would pore over the front page. Since I sat at his feet and ogled at the newspaper above me, I got to read the last page as he read Page 1.
The sports page came last in Deccan Chronicle then; therefore, it was the first page I read every day. [It was how I became interested in sports and played a few as I grew.] Each time my grandfather flipped the page, I got to read a new page. He moved from the front page to the last. I went from the last to the first.
I loved reading everything except the business stories. I couldn’t understand a word of them and I thought them boring. I used to cut out pictures and stories for my scrap books. I used to mark the words I didn’t understand and look them up in the dictionary.
This shaped my belief that every now and then newspapers must use words that make people pick up a dictionary. It improves vocabulary. I loved the cinema ads. They generated interest in movies and even today, I watch films.
I would stand outside our home waiting for the newspaper boy. I’d try to get the paper before the others did. He obliged only on occasion. The rest of the time he stuck to his route and I watched impatient as he flung the paper into each home before it was my turn.
The newspaper boy was my first friend in life outside of school and family.
Newspapers shaped my personality. They were an influence in my early years. They elevated my self-esteem because some of my classmates used to flock to listen to the stories I read from the papers. I became important. Because of what I read.
The journalism years
My folks wanted me to be a civil servant; a doctor at the minimum. I looked only at journalism. I got through the BCJ entrance exam at Osmania University and was thrilled; at home they thought I had gone insane. They thought I’d never have money as a journalist and that no one would want to marry me.
My first journalism job was as a reporter for Patriot newspaper in New Delhi. I moved on to The Pioneer [the Vinod Mehta years] and The Indian Express [led by Shekhar Gupta]. The magazine years came after this.
For decades my first act every morning was to pick up the newspapers, eyes half-shut, drunk or drugged. The smell of a fresh newspaper used to wake me instantly. I would see my byline, get furious with the news desk if there were errors and love it when they fixed the mistakes I made.
I read every page in the main section and skipped the supplements. I no longer marked words but I still made clippings. I checked how the others had done, and planned the day ahead. I worked hard, built a network of contacts and by the evening usually came back with news no one else had.
I became important. Because of what I knew and wrote.
Later newspaper experiences
The first serious negative experience with newspapers came when we lived in Vasant Kunj, southwest Delhi, where Manmohan Singh has a house. The vendor added what he called service tax in the monthly bill. It wasn’t legit; it was more like extortion.
I checked around and found the vendor had monopoly in the area. He was part of a big gang of Jats who had muscled other vendors out of Vasant Kunj. He did pretty much as he pleased. Newspaper seniors weren’t interested. They wanted their product sold; they didn’t care how.
It was an unsettling experience. I had respect in the newsroom and I commanded readership of what I wrote. Sections of the polity would wait for my reports in the morning and gauge the impact. And I couldn’t do a thing about the vendor.
I felt diminished. I hated it. I began to look at online editions.
We moved to Greater Kailash I, south Delhi, in due course. By this time I was back in a newspaper job, heading a new publication in New Delhi. It was a business daily and we tried hard to make a mark in a city with the largest number of business dailies in the world.
There were many issues however, one of which was that the paper was being printed in Chandigarh and transported to New Delhi every morning. The driver was drunk one night and drove the van into a ditch. They never told us. They simply pretended that nothing had happened and no one would ask. There was no newspaper on the stands that day although we had slaved on the edition.
On another occasion, they said they couldn’t reach Delhi because of a BJP protest. But the BJP protest began at 8.30am and the driver would’ve been on the road about 3.30am. There was no paper that day too.
The owners didn’t seem concerned in the least about what was serious journalism crime. Our newsroom efforts were futile. It was unnerving.
The hawker at Greater Kailash I used to overcharge heavily. We found he was doubling the bill amount at the minimum. There was bickering. We had to go over each day of delivery or otherwise. After a couple of months the hawker realised that I was a newspaper man and that he couldn’t cheat me.
But the whole thing was sheer drain of energy. The uselessness of it all hit me one day. This is not what newspapers are meant to be. Newspapers were about dignity, not loss of it.
Buying newspapers has degenerated into a stressful activity. The pleasure is gone. Online reading freed us. Everything is there. We are back in control of our daily news diet. There’s no extortion, no dealing with dishonest owners and no haggling with hawkers.
And so, life is now better without the product I once slaved for. We’ve had peace in the year we lived without news in paper form. We intend to keep it that way.
More from the author:
The 5 villains of the Uttarakhand disaster
100 real life Indian blockbusters we’d love to read
If I were Rahul Gandhi now
Naxals and India: Cry for the dead, but do this too
Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi. His most recent journalism assignment was as executive editor with The Financial World, New Delhi, and tehelka.com.
He was a guest on Season 1 of the popular Indian TV show Satyamev Jayate, hosted by Aamir Khan.
Vijay blogs here and may be cont acted at email@example.com.