It may look poetic to an outsider. Thrill a traveller. A random tea shop on the road, somewhere in the insides of a village. Stools placed outside like props on a stage. Men trickling into the shop early in the morning, rubbing away the last bit of sleep from the eyes. One man reaches the layers of newspaper hanging outside the shop, picks a favourite and takes a stool. Other men sit around, waiting, sipping hot little glasses of tea. The man with the paper keeps his tea aside, reads out the first piece of news he knows will interest his small audience. The others listen, nodding along, or shaking their heads. A discussion begins before the news is over. An argument follows. Voices are raised. More news reading happens, and more arguments follow. Till it‚Äôs all over and the men laugh and share a beedi, and walk away, hands over shoulders.
That‚Äôs the famous newspaper scene that Kerala is so known for that it‚Äôs become a sort of stereotype. But it‚Äôs still thought of fondly for it brings a sort of camaraderie that only a politically aware group of people can share. Even when too many television channels came and took away the evening quietness of living rooms, Kerala stuck to its newspapers loyally.
The Indian Readership Survey (IRS) report of 2017 shows newspapers reach 59.73% of the people in Kerala, compared to the national average of about 16.55%.
Newspaper vs TV
So why does Kerala love its newspapers so much? There are various reasons, says veteran journalist and editor-in-chief of Asianet News, MG Radhakrishnan. He still considers himself a print journalist though he moved to television four years ago, and is therefore happy that print media still enjoys this huge readership.
‚ÄúFrom literacy, to political consciousness, urban dominance, history, sociology, demography and even geography ‚Äď it all plays a role," says the man who has also taken classes on history of journalism for students at the Thiruvananthapuram Press Club.
Another media veteran, Sashi Kumar Menon, agrees. ‚ÄúKerala has always been a news-driven state. News awareness is very high. Reasons are literacy, the old history of being aware of issues, enlightened public, a very good education system. As far as consumption of news goes, this must be the state that records the best performance in India,‚ÄĚ Sashi Kumar says.
However, has television trumped the newspaper in Kerala, as it has in the rest of the world?
"Newspapers have been around for 100-150 years. It‚Äôs a phenomenon people are familiar with,‚ÄĚ says Radhakrishnan, explaining why papers are still popular despite television being a medium of choice for many.
‚ÄúTelevision is hardly 25 years old. Also unlike the rest of the country, Kerala‚Äôs aged population is the highest in India, and even television in the state targets a 45-plus audience,‚ÄĚ Radhakrishnan says.
However, he admits the habit has gone out of the younger generation ‚Äď although that doesn't mean this generation is ignorant. They just get their news from other sources, like the internet. In Kerala, it might take a few more years for the print media to fade away, but the writing, unfortunately, is very clear on the wall, he reckons.
He talks about the 9 pm news hours that TV channels host, ones that set the agenda ‚Äď political or social ‚Äď for the next day.
And that is the problem with channels, says Sashi Kumar Menon. They tend to set the agenda rather than build the agenda. They tend to become more opinionated than factual. But even so, Kerala is still better than the rest of the country, he says.
‚ÄúWhen I chose to start a television channel, the obvious place was Kerala because you have a population which has a homogeneous interest and craving for news,‚ÄĚ he says, referring to Asianet that he had once owned. But then, so many news channels came following this, that it almost looks disproportionate when you compare it to the size of the state.
What explains the love for news?
‚ÄúKerala belongs to the first world when it comes to news consumption. In terms of news consumption, news criticism, news engagements and news as business, Kerala can be compared to some of the Scandinavian states which are way up if you look at the newspaper freedom and so on,‚ÄĚ Sashi Kumar says, and goes on to mention Robin Jeffery, Canadian-born professor, who has written a paper called ‚ÄėTesting Concepts about Print, Newspapers, and Politics: Kerala, India, 1800‚Äď2009‚Äô.
There is an interesting observation in Jeffery‚Äôs essay: ‚ÄúBy the beginning of the twentieth century, Travancore offered an example of print as a scarce medium. Its fifteen Malayalam periodicals and their 11,000 copies came out regularly, published news and opinions, yet were scarce enough to be prized and sought after (TAR 1902‚Äď3, 58). The rate of penetration was about 4 newspapers (of all periodicities) for every 1,000 people in the state. (Travancore‚Äôs population in 1901 was 2.95 million). Partly because of its scarcity, print seemed authoritative. It often carried the word of God or government.‚ÄĚ
By the beginning of the twentieth century, he writes, although newspaper circulations were small, they seemed highly significant and troubling to rulers. One youth had to flee Travancore when he was revealed as the author of critical reports about the state in the English-language Madras Standard. Stories in newspapers, Radhakrishnan says, have given rise to many movements in Kerala. One of these is the Nair-Ezhava riots of 1905. And then there was the famous banishment of Swadeshabhimani Ramakrisna Pillai. He remains a hero even today.
Kerala‚Äôs most popular newspaper, Malayala Manorama, too, had been closed once upon a time ‚Äď from 1938 to the time of independence. Deshabhimani, the newspaper of the Communist Party too, was suppressed after it was founded in 1942. All of these by authorities ‚Äď which in all probability endeared the public to the newspapers.
Women and the news
Jeffery also wrote about the unusual place of women in Kerala, in that they have had more autonomy than in other parts of India.
‚ÄúIt is sometimes thought that Kerala‚Äôs high levels of literacy produced the remarkable position of its women. In fact, it is the other way round: Kerala‚Äôs lead in literacy came about because of the unusual position of women,‚ÄĚ he wrote.
Writer Chandramathi remembers her younger days when her father or uncles took her for walks and stopped at the paan shops where she‚Äôd invariably listen to the newspaper discussions by men, the arguments sometimes turning into fights.
At home, her father would bring the Malayala Rajyam newspaper and later the Malayali. ‚ÄúMathrubhumi and Manorama came after that,‚ÄĚ she says. Chandramathi tries to figure out this unusual love for print in Kerala. ‚ÄúIt must come from the long struggle with the British, the freedom movement‚Ä¶ people wanted to know what their future would be. Especially in Travancore, if you have observed, there is a heightened degree of royal worship and they would have been hugely affected when the princely states were ceasing to exist, to become part of a large country,‚ÄĚ she says.
Today, she reads the paper back to front so as not to lay eyes upon the huge dose of negative news first thing in the morning. But she also thinks one should read newspapers which are perceived to have opposing political allegiance. ‚ÄúI find in some homes people subscribing to Manorama and Deshabhimani ‚Äď so they read in one what‚Äôs missing in the other.‚ÄĚ
But it has always brought good, all this reading.
‚ÄúWe have an aware public. It keeps the government on its toes,‚ÄĚ says Sashi Kumar. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs why you find fewer scandals in Kerala, although they surface once in a while. We have an alert, vigilant environment, which enables news to thrive here.‚ÄĚ
Newspaper reading, he concludes, is in the genetic makeup of a Malayali. In spite of all the trivialisation and dumbing down and the tabloidisation we see in the print media, print continues to be ahead of the visual media in terms of seriousness, he adds.