Sangita P. Menon Malhan

Sangita P. Menon Malhan is the author of the award winning book - The TOI Story: How a Newspaper Changed the Rules of the Game.

The Decline of The Statesman: A Shakespearean Tragedy

Sangita P. Menon Malhan

The rise and fall of great empires, leaders and leaderships make for compelling reading. It proffers insights into the ingredients for success, and also helps us decode recipes for disaster. There are subtle messages of caution and adequate hints on how to avoid misfortune, decrement and failure. Therefore, it was with morbid enthusiasm that I began looking at the reasons behind the collapse and subsidence of one of India’s most illustrious newspapers – a bright star on the media pantheon pre-Independence, and for several decades after 1947.

It was said of The Statesman that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and most of his Cabinet read it first thing in the morning. A newspaper of erudition, known for its imposing and sometimes scathing editorials, its galactic editors with redoubtable clout in the power circuit, and a fastidious track record for facts and opinion. Imperial, unflappable and august! Its stellar performance at attacking Indira Gandhi’s Emergency (1975-77) is among the highlights of its long journey, remembered even today by those who relished it during its years of glory.

The Statesman, once termed by the BBC as one of the greatest newspapers in the world, was born in Calcutta in 1875. Over the years, the Bengali newspaper, Ananda Bazaar Patrika and the English-language Statesman dominated the East. The newspaper expanded, coming to Delhi in 1931. It was a leader until its gradual decay in the 1980s, its extended decomposition in the 1990s, and its eventual decline in the post 2000 era.

For the young generation of readers and consumers of news, fixated on hand-held devices and the World Wide Web, this grand old beacon of the last century may not even register. With some exaggeration, it is perhaps a comatose entity, gnawed away by atrophy, subsisting with external support, and with no apparent intent to survive or excel. With the traditional media up against intense digital competition, and news having been re-engineered to suit the modern palette, does The Statesman stand a chance, even if it were to be kept alive?

Like the great Shakespearean tragedy King Lear, the story of the destruction of this institution mostly begins and revolves around one man, Late Cushrow Russy Irani, former Managing Director (and subsequent Editor-in-Chief) of The Statesman. Both the popularity of the newspaper, tales of its gumption, and those of its imminent dissipation and decrepitude are inextricably linked to the leadership style and unbridled ambitions of its protagonist. It is famously said that Irani once announced, “We don’t sell The Statesman. They (readers) buy it.”

CR Irani Image Source - The Hindu

CR Irani
Image Source – The Hindu

C R Irani’s entry into the newspaper’s echelons began in the late 1960s with the ownership in the hands of a trust setup by the Tatas. With the newspaper’s strident anti-Emergency stance, several of its Trustees pulled out, leaving Irani as the beneficiary. He now controlled more shares, and therefore, had more power over the functioning of the newspaper, and dictated the line it must take.

Irani was a member of the right-wing, conservative Swatantra Party, founded in 1959 to challenge Nehru’s socialist outlook for India. It stood for a market-based economy, and was supported by industrialists, zamindars and the erstwhile royalty. Irani was a champion of free enterpriseand uncontrolled, unfettered business; he was anti-establishment, and rabidly so.

“Irreverent, imperious and domineering to a fault. He believed that he was answerable to no one, and that he could never be wrong. He wanted to head virtually everything,” remembers a former editor of the newspaper, who made an acrimonious exit from the organisation, just like several of his colleagues. “Formerly an insurance agent, he was brought in by his cousin, an eminent jurist, into these corridors. The move eroded the authority of the board, and the interference in editorial matters began,” he adds.

Matters went to the Press Council of India. The classic conflict between the owner/publisher and the editor of a newspaper was bared for everyone to see. Irani set up a small team of correspondents called Insight which was supposed to write investigative stories for the paper. However, it ended up also fighting certain corporate wars on behalf of Irani. Dual power structures, the lack of clarity on whether the editor was fully in charge; the pitting of editors against one another, among other things showed the basic flaws in this style of dissonant leadership.

On one hand there was this regular conflict with the editors, the show of strength in terms of ownership and management, a certain amount of superciliousness in dealings and inter-personal relationships with the senior editors, and on the other hand there was the stubborn arrogance of the then market leader. The Statesman under Irani was unable and unwilling to see the tide changing, first in Calcutta, and later in Delhi. This more than anything else, was what led to its decimation and final ruin.

A senior member of the marketing staff at The Statesman, Calcutta, remembers a conference in the early 1990s held to understand whether the rise of The Telegraph (an English newspaper launched in July 1982 by the rival Ananda Bazaar Patrika Group) was `a myth or a reality’. The ABP Group which has reigned in West Bengal with its eponymous Bengali publication had decided to stir up the hornet’s nest by entering the English-language space in the early 1980s.

They had a multi-pronged strategy – great content, and a fresh, new, modern look targeting the youth market. A key initiative by The Telegraph was to capture the advertisement space through an intensive, aggressive campaign. The ads were first published at a heavy discount, for free even. Once a critical mass was reached, they optimised the prices. The revenue route is what works in every organisation, along with the content of the production. And that worked in favour of The Telegraph, and it went horribly against The Statesman.

Not being able to understand and anticipate competition, not being vigilant enough about the changing environment, not accepting that there was a crisis (trying to find out if the competitor had an edge, eight years after its arrival), and not putting in resources to counter the offensive – all went against this stalwart of the East. That hit the organisation where it hurt – the bottomline.

It wasn’t until the early-1990s that Irani finally realised that the roof had flown off the tower. “Business seems to be down. Is it really that bad?” he finally asked his people. Circulation began to drop, and in a few years, several Statesman readers had moved to its competitor, which was growing exponentially.

More recently, with the entry of The Times Group, among others, into the region, competition for the pie has only heightened. In Delhi, from a high of having printed 80,000 copies on a single day in 1977, the newspaper slid to a 35,000 copies a day line in the 1980s, and then fell to 25,000 copies a day in the late 1980s. It now prints about 7000-8000 copies in Delhi, half of which are delivered complimentary. Sometimes, the free copies sent to the suburbs, for example Gurgaon, are converted by the grocery shop owners, and sold off as raddi (scrap or waste).

“It prints about 1, 56,000 copies daily in Kolkata, and sells about 15,000 copies in Siliguri and Bhubaneswar,” says a senior marketing manager of the newspaper. From 1977 to 1993, The Statesman did not print Government ads because it did not accept government rates. However, the newspaper compromised in 1993. “We now run 100% on government ads,” he points out. “Delhi does slightly better, and manages to get some local statutory ads,” he adds, wistfully. The newspaper has become quite irrelevant in terms of circulation, and has completely lost its `snob value’ of yore, thereby losing its power to influence state policy and public opinion, as well.

Statesman CollageShutting down its most prized publication, Junior Statesman, proved to be a major mistake. The Statesman left that space open for its competitors to fill. Some rushed in, and though they failed to entirely replicate the magic, The Statesman had lost a valuable brand asset. Overall, giving up an asset for ego; getting into personal conflicts and sacrificing professional goals; a lack of imperturbability and fortitude; and its self-serving pride sounded the death knell of an era.

Leadership is not just about leading and about the vision to grow. It is also about nurturing initiative in those around you and encouraging your generals to fight battles and win wars for a reason, with a purpose. The inability to be dynamic; to change strategy and re-invent; the turgid refusal to accept ingress from competition; the haughty, almost lordly belief that one is undefeatable often leads to a behemoth crumbling and becoming insentient, irreparable and beyond recovery.

The story of The Statesman is replete with sub plots where other characters, not always secondary, are in play. Irani passed away in July 2005. Power shifted, with ownership moving to a trusted aide. The newspaper continued to slide further into oblivion, even though it had made its foray beyond the east, into the north-east, and invested in technology. It was perhaps a case of too little, too late.

‘Even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust,’ said Sun Tzu in “The Art of War”. A relentless battle with the government at the centre; a long-drawn litigation over real estate and property (The Statesman House in Connaught Place, Delhi being a symbol of that decade-long legal battle); the lack of focus on saving the newspaper from definite catastrophe, all combined led to the complete implosion of leadership at this organisation, and its near annihilation from the media domain. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that the study of the decline of The Statesman is the study of a leadership moving in reverse. I am reminded of an epitaph already inscribed on the tombstone of this great newspaper by one of its former editors. It says, ‘R.I.P. Statesman.’

‘It seems that somewhere there is a break in the chain of light and one of the stars has been lost.’

– Rabindranath Tagore, Lost Star

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