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The media… in troubled times

Frederick Noronha

It came suddenly, and without much warning. Last fortnight, the local newspaper, Gomantak Times, stopped being published. The GT, as it was known, was one of the smaller papers.  But its departure was naturally missed. In times where reading seems to be a dying art, some readers of the paper still voiced their disappointment over the departure of the English-language daily.

“When (I) phoned (to ask) why I did not get the GT today, my newspaper delivery man told me that the Gomantak Times had stopped from today ie as of 2nd June 2020,” JoeGoaUk, the Scarlet Pimpernel of Goan social media, commented. He himself does a lot of coverage, single-handed, mostly via video since his return from the UK.

John Eric Gomes, who served both the merchant navy and the Indian Navy, compared the development to Modi’s lockdown, implemented with virtually
no notice to even “their loyal readers”.

Quite a few former journalists – who cut their teeth at that paper, or spent a stint there – also reminisced over the past. Each narrated their own versions of the past, as we in the media are wont to do, subjective though our memories can be.

The Resident Editor of the paper announced that it would be undertaking an “indefinite suspension…  triggered by Covid”. But other media reports said the closure was final, with no plans for reopening. The Gomantak Times had been in operation for 32 years. It was started in the late 1980s, initially run by the Chowgules, and later sold to the Pawar family of Maharashtra.

Newspapers grow on us. They are like a family member, or like our daily cup of tea. Sometimes, like a family member, we get irritated with them, or disappointed by them. But if we were to learn that one such institution was closing down, none of those who had any acquaintance with it would not feel sad.

For a long time, India has taken pride in saying that its newspapers were growing in many parts of the country. This is quite unlike the situation in the Western world, where it is hard to sustain a print daily.  But the recent Covid-19 pandemic, and India’s surprisingly stringent response to it, has affected the operations of many newspapers.

With costs going up, readership being affected or dislocated, and advertising shrinking, there is pressure on the press.

A section of newspaper readers in Goa were wondering how some newspapers could sometimes sell at such low prices. Anyone who has had even a little experience in the field, would know how costs to produce the printed product keep growing. Goa is also not a huge state, so that can set its limits on growth too. Sometimes, one feels, we take our press for granted. The media is credited with writing the “first draft of history”. It is also called the Fourth Estate. (This metaphor gets mixed in India, where it often gets called the Fourth Pillar of Demoracy, as if it is somehow an extension of the executive-legislative-judiciary!)

Yet, as long as it is running, and keeps going, next to nobody takes much note of it.

Goa’s case is classic. This was the home of printing in India, over four-and-half centuries ago. Literally hundreds of short-lived papers were published from here in colonial times, most of which we have all but forgotten. Even if copies of these exist in libraries, hardly anyone conducts researches on the same.

Chances are that scholars abroad – like the prominent librarian Henry Scholberg – would understand the history of the press in Goa better than most of us do.

For instance, in his 12-page paper on the topic, Scholberg has written: “Goa is an area of the approximate size of an Indian district, and out of Goa came a torrent of well over 300 journals in the course of 140 years… A number of these periodicals were exceedingly short-lived. At least two of them produced only one known issue. Many of them lasted a year or less.”

But this lack of local awareness about the media is not typical to Goa alone. Some days ago, the American author Andrew Otis traced the history of India’s first newspapers. Called “Hicky’s Bengal Gazette”, it started by an Irishman with the same surname in 1780. The subtitle of Otis’ book is “The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper”.

We might not even have copies existing of some of the newspapers published in Goa or by its diaspora community. In some cases, the papers were critical of the government of the day, both in colonial times or thereafter. So, copies might not have been kept in state-run libraries.

As some media persons were discussing the other day, there are so many smaller publications which are quickly getting forgotten and ignored. For instance, how many among the younger generation would remember, let alone have seen, The Blade (Chabook) run by then MLA Jagdish B Rao, the Goa Monitor, Goa Tribune, Goa Post, Goan Standard or the Goa Watchdog?

Scholberg again has warned that many periodicals “are dying a slow death in the Central Library of Panjim, due to the humid climate of monsoonal India”.  Sometimes, rare newspapers are not scanned promptly enough.  In our part of the world, if they are scanned, they are seldom shared online.

Newspapers are more than just business entities.

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