At 3 am, a newspaper van from Searchlite Printing Press in Patna sets out in the dark with bundles of Hindustan, the best-selling Hindi daily in Bihar (Hindustan is published by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Hindustan Times and Mint). It makes its way through a narrow road to Khushrupur, around 40 km away, every day.
By 4 a.m., when a nondescript roadside tea stall in Khushrupur wakes up to business, the van has already dropped 100 copies of the daily on the steps of a deserted temple nearby.
The copies, wrapped in two bundles, make a curiously small package waiting to be delivered to readers in neighbouring Raghopur.
Three hours after the bundles have been delivered, Munshi Rai, a milkman from Khushrupur, cycles in. He, perhaps, has the most important job in the diyara (regions surrounded by rivers). Raghopur, sandwiched by the river Ganga, has a population of three lakh. It sustains its economy on a thriving business of dairy products and farming.
Here, Rai is the lone carrier for Hindustan, which has an 86 per cent share of the total Hindi readership in the state, with six million readers and 29 sub-editions, as per the Indian Readership Survey of 2008, it is a key market for the newspaper and part of its aggressive plan to access difficult terrain.
There are just 100 copies to be sold, but in the seven years since the newspaper entered Raghopur, it has been more about accessibility than volumes.
Ashok Singh, distribution agent for Hindustan in Raghopur, says “… This is not the kind of place where one can send a newspaper. The real issue here is of access, and we have addressed it.”
It’s a rough 7 km journey to Raghopur, assembly constituency of former CM Rabri Devi, from Khushrupur. Rai has been taking this route every day, since 2002, when Hindustan’s first 20 copies entered Raghopur on his bicycle.
This also means that Hindustan’s readers depend on the way Rai prioritises his day. Besides the delivery of the newspaper, Rai also frets about the departure of Patna-bound trains. These trains carry his home-made paneer for sale to Patna. “I’m first a milkman. After this comes everything else,” he says.
For sales strategists, penetration of rural markets involves a two-pronged approach: build a varied network of information providers from the regions, such as the postman, milkman and drivers, and encourage local vendors to sell the newspaper.
“Earlier, the information providers were paid a fixed monthly remuneration and after the growth of market, we’ve also introduced vendors on a commission basis,” says Vijay Singh, area manager (sales), Hindustan, Bihar.
The efforts towards providing Raghopur with a daily have led to the making of a powerful brand. For most readers, it is more than just a bunch of papers carrying news; it is an addiction.
At the hardware shop Rukkha Singh, where the first copy is handed out, shopkeepers from the neighbouring markets and prospective buyers gather to read the headlines. Hence, one newspaper copy translates into hundreds of readers.
One USP, or unique selling proposition, is the newspaper’s emphasis on localised content and regional dialects.
“In Bihar, dialects change every 40 km. Hindustan has consciously moved away from puritanical notions of Hindi to incorporate popular terms, which appeals to a large number of people,” says Mammen Matthew, resident editor of the Hindustan Times in Patna.
Developing a grapevine, Hindustan has developed a local news network in districts, villages and blocks to tap local news and issues.
Shailesh Kumar, a stringer for Hindustan in Raghopur, concentrates on crime and development issues and believes that while newspapers the world over are dying, rural markets in India would continue to read them for decades. “Here, literacy is also just about the level people can read newspapers…,” he says.
But, news generates enough heat in Raghopur, where political awareness is high after Railways Minister Lalu Prasad contested assembly polls from the constituency in 1983 and later fielded his wife Rabri Devi.
The newspaper’s advertisement spaces also reflect a rural shift: In excess of 90 per cent of advertisements come from either local sources or government. Hindustan has captured local news in the region effectively — from the blast in a firecracker factory in Khushrupur in 2005 to the corporal punishment meted out to students in Navodaya Vidyalayas.
Ashok Yadav, 28, who owns a paan shop, has been reading the newspaper since the year it made its debut in the town. He sports long hair, put in currency by Indian cricket team captain M.S. Dhoni, and reads the sports pages first. He considers the newspaper to be more than just a source of news. Each time he sees the manager of a local bank who once charged him money to open a savings account, he thinks about writing to the newspaper for action. “If I write, will they not help?” he asks.
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