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Leading the change, again

india Updated: Jul 14, 2009 19:19 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Those of us who have been involved with the running of the Hindustan Times over the last decade like to think
that we made many revolutionary changes. Well, perhaps we did. But increasingly, I get the feeling that we
give ourselves too much credit.

Let’s take the example of the new design. We are proud to have Mario Garcia redesign the paper. Mario has
an old association with the paper. Eight years ago, he came in to redesign HT City and our supplements.

Mario’s design for the paper supplants the one created by Michael Keegan, the designer from the Washington Post who did two separate designs for the main paper over the last ten years. Though there was a phase, a couple of years ago, when we did silly things to Michael’s design (yes, I know; we are not perfect), it was strong enough to withstand any mistakes we may have made.

I remember when Michael first came to Delhi to look at the paper. And I remember banging heads with Mario
as we tried to explain to him what I wanted to do with HT City. But I suspect I was wrong to act as though I was doing something new or different. Looking through the HT’s archives, I was startled to discover that the paper’s reputation for design innovation dated back to long before my birth.

On November 21, 1935, the HT ran an announcement on its front page. Headlined “To Our Readers,” it read: “Today, the Hindustan Times appears in an enlarged form suited to the growing traffic of news and the modern conventions
of journalistic appeal. Started eleven years ago, The Hindustan Times has tried to serve the country as an
institution devoted to the correct presentation of news and exposition of public opinion...”

These were no idle boasts. The HT was at the forefront of innovations in newspaper design almost from the day
it started. In the 1920s, all Indian papers followed the British tradition of putting advertisements on page one. The news stories were inside the paper. (In England, such papers as The Times stuck to this tradition well into the
1960s).

American papers, in contrast, pioneered the style of news presentation we still follow to this day. The news began on page one with bold headlines. The HT ignored the British tradition and went with the American pattern forcing all Indian newspapers (including the two colonial market leaders of that era: Delhi’s The Statesman and Bombay’s The Times of India) to follow suit. (The last to make the change was The Hindu and The Times of India took many, many years to come to terms with 20th century design).

A second important design innovation was the reduction of column width. Designers will tell you now that if a column
is too broad, it is more difficult for the eye to follow the text. I have no idea how the early editors of the HT worked
this out but they changed column width (again in accordance with the American pattern) and forced all other papers to
follow suit.

Nor were these changes limited to design. We pride ourselves at the HT on the prominence we give our journalists
these days. Unlike some other papers where they are treated as minions who write the stuff between the
ads and regarded as secondary to spacesellers, the HT’s journos are treated with pride and dignity. We recognise
their roles as stars, give them bylines and carry their photos as often as we can so readers can put faces to the stories.

But in doing this, we are only upholding an old Hindustan Times tradition. The HT has always made much of its
journos. In 1944, when Durga Das joined the paper as Special Representative (a position somewhere between today’s
Special Correspondent and Chief of Bureau), the HT bragged about his arrival on page one.

The story, which included a photograph of Durga Das’s unsmiling visage, complete with spectacles and toothbrush
moustache, was headlined “India’s News-getter No. 1 joins The Hindustan Times.” The story outlined Durga Das’s
career and noted “although not a scoopmonger, Mr Durga Das has a record of big stories...he has travelled widely in
India and Europe.”

Would newspapers brag about their Special Correspondents today? I’m not sure. Editors, perhaps. But correspondents?

In this respect too, the HT was ahead of its time.

Then, there’s the honours list of HT editors. In all honesty, I must concede that we’ve had a few duds, but we’ve
also had some real stars, the biggest journalistic names of their times: Khushwant Singh, B.G. Verghese, Durga
Das (he rose to the post eventually), the legendary S. Mulgaokar, Prem Shankar Jha and Devdas Gandhi. Others left
before they reached the very top: Sham Lal who went on to become the best editor The Times of India ever had;
Chandan Mitra who now edits The Pioneer, Aditya Sinha currently Editorin-Chief of the New Indian Express and
Bharat Bhushan who edits The Mail Today.

But, apart from the odd exception, the HT’s editors have never been windbags and bores unlike many editors of
other papers. This too is part of the tradition. Khushwant Singh saw no contradiction between editing India’s most
powerful paper and writing an entertaining weekly column (which still appears every Saturday in the HT). And
the current editor, Sanjoy Narayan, writes the best rock music column in the business (on Sunday in Brunch).
This tradition goes back to the 1920s.

When the HT came out, editorials in other papers were long and verbose. Often they occupied an entire page. It
was the HT that introduced the shorter — and often wittier — editorial to the Indian media. Integral to the HT’s
style was that early and later editors tended to be multi-faceted persons who did not take themselves too seriously.
S. Mulgaokar was a celebrated gourmet and a champion bridge player.

Khushwant Singh was never less than entirely readable. Which brings us back to the thought with which I started
out. How much that is new or innovative have any of us, who have been editors more recently, really done?

My conclusion is that we have not done that much that is out of keeping with the traditions of the HT. There is
something about the atmosphere at the paper that makes us want to be slightly irreverent, more focused on what is
happening in world media and eager to try and create a paper that showcases the best Indian journalism.

God knows it isn’t always easy. There have been two big changes in newspaper reading habits in India over the last
20 years. The first is that post the 1991- liberalisation, our readers became consumers of all the goods that were suddenly available in the shops, and advertisers became more significant contributors to our bottom-line. The HT
took a little longer than it should have to come to terms with this change.

But when we did accept that the needs of our readers had changed, I’d like to think that we coped with the
transition better than many other papers. We still have content; we still treat our readers as our primary constituency;
you can’t buy your way into the HT; every word that appears in the main paper or in such supplements as HT City or Brunch is edited and vetted with the same attention to detail and ethics. As far as we are concerned, whether we are writing about the prime minister, a new restaurant or a cricket match, we will still give each the respect and attention it deserves.

The second major change has been the growth of new media. The reality is that many, if not most, of the people who pick up the HT each morning already know what the big news stories are. If they haven’t watched TV news then they have probably surfed the Internet. The challenges before a newspaper are to a) look as sleek and glossy and modern as global TV and b) to convince readers that there is still something left to say.

The content has not been a major problem. Because of the excellence of the HT’s journalism, because of our obsession with local stories that are often ignored by national electronic media, and our continuing effort to develop original voices with a fresh perspective on the world, there’s always something new to read in the HT.

The appearance issue is slightly more difficult to resolve, at least partly, because we have ourselves set the bar
so high by consistently hiring the world’s finest designers. The only way to achieve a level of design excellence that
is always contemporary is to continually update the design, to go back to global graphic geniuses and to ask them
to better their work.

It’s going to sound slightly boastful but I think the HT is now not just the best paper in India but it is also the
country’s first 21st century newspaper.

It reaches millions: it influences events; it can dictate policy; it doesn’t just analyse the news — if often makes it;
it’s well written and intelligently edited; it can be trusted because nobody can pay his way into our pages; and now
it looks even better than before.

The best thing about all this is that all of it is entirely in keeping with our traditions. For just under a century the
HT has always set the trend and changed the rules.

And we intend to keep doing exactly that.

Hindustan Times has been at the forefront of innovations in newspaper design from the day it started. This one is for new India.

Vir Sanghvi
Advisory Editorial Director