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Chennai’s Fourth Estate at War

Touching upon competitive spirit, the legendary writer George Orwell, in an essay dated 1945, had described sport as war minus the shooting. He could very well be referring to the ongoing veiled battle between two of India's English dailies.

When “India’s national newspaper since 1878” and the “Largest read English daily in the world” decide to slug it out over Chennai’s newspaper readership, rest assured that the battle would spill over to the TV media, as was witnessed recently. Cheeky indeed were the ads that thumbed the nose at one another; though, few were in doubt over who the target was.

To the uninitiated, the two newspapers – The Hindu and The Times of India (TOI), respectively – have modus operandi that are as identical as chalk is to cheese, or uppu (salt) is to upma, a South Indian snack. The "war" in question is the race to get hold of the average Chennaiite, and eventually the Indian, newspaper reader’s attention.

And no, this piece of opinion isn’t about the controversies that have dogged the Mount Road Mahavishnu or The Old Lady of Boribunder. So there.

TOI fired the first salvo, a few months ago, with an ad of a sleepy nation having a Tamil lullaby as its background music. A man dozes on another’s arm, holding a newspaper, ostensibly The Hindu, identifiable with its headline font. The ad then asks viewers whether they are “stuck with news that puts them to sleep” - a jab at The Hindu for its totemic conservatism - and urges them to wake up to the TOI, with even the BGM working up a frenetic pace.

It wasn’t too long before The Hindu served its riposte.

In its ad, a few youngsters, who when quizzed on general knowledge draw a blank, know it all when questioned on film stars - a pointed jab returned with due courtesy. Few would deny that it was TOI which kicked off the Page 3 trend among Indian newspapers. They are then asked which newspaper do they read, and the common reply is, no surprises here, TOI, although the audio gets bleeped out accurately. The ad closes with the phrase “stay ahead of the times”. The Hindu sure knows how to give it back.

The ads, humorous as they may be, fall prey to the phenomenon that is sweeping generalisation.While the former stops short of declaring that only the old-fashioned, the crowd sans hep and style, read The Hindu, the latter wears on its sleeve the philosophy that if you read or follow any pg3 content, your IQ levels have already plumbed to such an extent that Jules Verne must probably rewrite his Journey to the centre of the Earth.

From a reader’s perspective, The Hindu has, perhaps until recently, employed conservative headlines with largely text-heavy layouts (if it can be called that), and has been the newspaper most elders would love to pick up. After all, not too many newspapers devote space to in-depth description of Carnatic concerts or religious discourses. Attested by many as the next best thing after a cup of effervescent filter kapi, this does not mean that it has shied away from modernity altogether; the paper, by all means, retains a pleasing layout, much like a Morris Minor retro-fitted with a supercharged Ferrari engine. It is said that colourful presentation of content was anathema to the paper’s former editor-in-chief, Narasimhan Ram, who is even said to have remarked that readers must not be made lazy enough to even leaf through the contents of the paper in its entirety.

If the above factors can be construed as true, then TOI can be stated as the anti-thesis of The Hindu. “Colour thy name” can describe the paper which made a surprisingly late entry into the land of Kalaignar and Amma. Its headlines are usually far from sedate; its visually-pleasing layouts ensure that the maximum eyeballs are captured – who can blame them for the dwindling attention spans and hectic lifestyles of most readers? Its daily supplements have played a vital role in wresting markets all over India.

In short, if The Hindu can be likened to the coy, sari-clad girls of the 80s, TOI can be likened to the short-skirt sporting new-age girls.

Will The Hindu in Chennai go the Hindustan Times way in Delhi or the Deccan Herald way in Bangalore, which were steamrolled by the TOI on its way to the numero uno position of circulation index? These still are early days; it is also likely that we may get to see a second round of this TV ad conflict.

Regardless of who will lord over Chennai's English daily readership, the banter exchanged between these two dailies has been nothing short of entertaining.

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