URDU NEWSPAPERS: Challenges, lacunae, fears, hopes
Lala Mulk Raj Saraf, known as Baba-i-Sahafat (father of Journalism in J&K), launched first Urdu newspaper – weekly Ranbir (named after autocratic ruler Maharaja Ranbir Singh) from Jammu in 1924 and in the next two years, Urdu journalism (also called Urdu press) will complete a century of its existence in Jammu & Kashmir.
Although long before ‘Ranbir’, several lesser-known newspapers had come to the fore in Jammu and in the Valley, Saraf’s weekly is considered the first-ever publication in J&K because of its prominence and sustenance.
In 1932, Pandit Prem Nath Bazaz launched his Urdu weekly Vitasta from the Valley, which gained prominence in the region. With that, Urdu press started expanding both in Kashmir and Jammu.
Noted author and historian Khalid Bashir Ahmad, in one of his detailed and well-researched articles, writes, “The evolution of journalism in Jammu & Kashmir began during the rule of Hari Singh (1925–47). He (Hari Singh) allowed a large number of newspapers to be published from both Srinagar and Jammu.”
Post-1947, Urdu journalism in Jammu and Kashmir thrived like anything, and Kashmir had many prominent Urdu newspapers; of them, some still hit the stalls here on a daily basis.
As per the official sources, Jammu and Kashmir presently has over 90 Urdu dailies and 80 Urdu weeklies empanelled with the department of information. All these newspapers are getting government advertisements through the information department.
However, as a matter of fact, the Urdu press in J&K has been losing its attraction and prominence over the years because of several reasons and has been facing the challenge of the declining of readership.
Those who are well aware of the facts on the ground say that inability of Urdu newspaper owners to spend on skill developments and human resources has caused a dearth of professional workforce in these publications, and as a result, Urdu newspapers have been failing to provide quality content to their readers.
In addition, the newcomers — college and university pass outs — prefer to join English-language newspapers because they see better prospects and employability in these publications.
Unlike English-language newspapers, Urdu newspapers in J&K do not hire well qualified or well-experienced staff — such as reporters, correspondents, copy editors, sub-editors, translators — who, other than the hard news, could produce features, research stories, investigative reports, off-beat stories, analytical pieces, and so on; because they do not want to pay the desirable salaries to the employees.
Due to the lack of quality content, Urdu newspapers lose their readers either to the English-language newspapers or to the virtual world, where news and analytical content in the form of text and videos are available mostly free.
This changing scenario has posed an existential threat to the Urdu press (print editions) in J&K. Experts say that if the required measures are not taken to ensure stability and growth of print journalism, Urdu newspapers in J&K would lack readers and as well as the content creators in near future.
To grasp more information and to understand the different aspects of the scenario that Urdu print media is facing in J&K, KASHMIR IMAGES spoke with some concerned people. Here are the excerpts:
While discussing the deteriorating condition of Urdu newspapers in Jammu and Kashmir, let us acknowledge the fact that even the Urdu language itself is deteriorating in this region. How can you expect journalism to flourish in a language, which is on the verge of diminishing? Urdu is dying here, and Kashmiri has already died. We have almost lost both languages, which otherwise are supposed to be our identity.
Unfortunately, governments, that be, have been discriminatory towards Urdu language and Urdu newspapers here. Governments, even those who were elected, have always refused to recognise the importance of Urdu newspapers in J&K. After the 1990s, when English newspapers started coming up in J&K, the government ensured Urdu newspapers are thrown out of the government offices.
The government provides nominal advertisements to the Urdu newspapers when compared with the English newspapers. As a result, Urdu newspapers are not even in a position to provide a good livelihood to those who work with these nwspapers. It seems that the government deliberately has left Urdu newspapers economically weak. Since we do not have any industry here, newspapers are dependent on government advertisements only. Therefore, to safeguard the Urdu newspaper industry in J&K, government patronage is of utmost importance. Urdu newspapers can only flourish if they are able to provide employment and create professional human resources.
It is always a reader who keeps a language alive. Look at the Hindi newspapers; they are thriving because they have still a vast readership. But in case of Urdu, if you proportionate its readers with the population ratio, you will find that we have less than five per cent people who read Urdu newspapers in J&K.
The readership of Urdu newspapers has gone down drastically, despite the fact our literacy rate in J&K has gone many folds up in recent years. People don’t want to purchase an Urdu newspaper. We are losing readers with each passing day.
Ironically, Urdu newspapers have not lost readers only, but we lack the writers as well. I have been looking for professional writers for quite a long time but didn’t find one. Even we do not have good reporters at district headquarters who could feed news stories to the Urdu newspapers in J&K. I remember in the 70s and 80s we had plenty of writers but today we do not have many opinion writers, columns, and so on. Those were the good days for Urdu newspapers in Jammu and Kashmir. Urdu press used to be a bridge between the government and the people. In those days, the information department would make a summary of important news stories and editorials published in Urdu newspapers and then send it to the concerned officials, and even to the Chief Minister’s office. Now, nobody bothers about what is published in Urdu newspapers.
I am hopeless about the future of Urdu newspapers in Jammu and Kashmir. I would not say that Urdu newspapers would disappear completely in near future but I can tell you that there would be a very minute population who would be able to read Urdu newspapers.
It is the responsibility of the government to ensure Urdu print media is protected. Government must see why we do have more than a hundred newspapers here. What purpose are these newspapers serving? Do they pay salaries? Do they have staff? Why not groom only those newspapers which are available in the market? Let me say it bluntly that it is the government that has allowed mushroom growth of Urdu newspapers here.
There’s no denying the fact that the Urdu print media, due to a range of reasons, has been losing its readership drastically, over the years. Urdu newspapers are losing their readers to the English language newspapers, and online media. Since the English language is flourishing globally, Kashmir is not an exception. Our younger generation is more comfortable with English than the Urdu language, thus Urdu readership has been reduced mostly to the people in the age group of 40 plus.
Technology has helped the change to occur swiftly. There was a time when people in Kashmir had to wait till the evenings to get a copy of an English newspaper coming from Jammu or Delhi. Now everything is on their figure tips and just a click away; they get the soft copies of the English language newspapers —whether local, national, or international —almost free of cost through the internet. People receive ePapers of international publications through WhatsApp groups on daily basis. Clearly, English language newspapers have posed a great challenge to vernacular print media and left it almost indefensible. It is a global phenomenon and Kashmir again is not an exception.
However, since the vast majority of people in Jammu and Kashmir read Urdu, we could have protected Urdu print media here if attempts to institutionalize the Urdu journalism would have been made all these years. But nothing has been done in this regard. Though, the credit goes to the GK Communication Pvt Ltd, which at least tried its best to run an Urdu newspaper on the modern lines. But, overall, most of the Urdu publications here are still being published on the traditional fashion in terms of the quality of the product.
Let me share another perspective about the decline of Urdu print media in J&K: Since I have been heading an organization, which is working for the capacity building of Urdu journalists in J&K, I can tell you with authenticity that nothing is being done for the skill development of Urdu journalists by the organizations they work for. We visited almost all the district headquarters in J&K and found that most of the foot soldiers (budding reporters) who feed the Urdu newspapers here are not paid at all. Ironically, many of them are working with Urdu newspapers as part-timers. They are basically doing something else for their livelihood. They are raw hands and nothing is being done to train them and keep them motivated. I was recently shocked to hear an Urdu newspaper owner saying that since the reporters get their stories published under their bylines, they do not need be paid. Bylines are enough return for their work.
Further, most of the Urdu newspapers in J&K do not have even qualified and trained, or at least well-experienced editors, who could have the capability to edit, rehash or rewrite the raw stuff from the district reporters. We have fewer editors available here and we can count them on the fingers of one hand. Rest are not competent enough for the job. They are like one-eyed kings in the cities of blinds. Our Urdu publications lack professional staff. In such circumstances, how can you expect an Urdu newspaper to upgrade and modernize?
It hurts me and really makes me sad to see our print media getting deteriorated with each passing day. And the saddest thing is that no newspaper is there to shoulder the responsibility of protecting Urdu print media.
To conclude, I would say that if Urdu print media is to be safeguarded, the quality of the newspapers needs to be improved. We get about 200 hundred media students passing out from colleges and universities every year. Many of them can be hooked to work and improve the quality of Urdu newspapers in J&K. If we don’t do that, we may lose Urdu print media here. We must understand that languages die if they are not protected. For instance, Persian was an official language in Kashmir once upon a time. It died because people did not care about it any longer. I am afraid that the Urdu newspapers would vanish in J&K if they are not taken care of at this point in time.
Urdu journalism (print media) is dying in J&K because of changing policies of the government. Take for example, the advertisement policy of the government: Eighty percent of advertisements have been curtailed to the Urdu press here. I would say that Urdu is facing a step-motherly attitude from the government, despite the fact that it is still one of the official languages in UT.
Worst, Urdu has been linked with a particular community, which was not the case earlier. Since our newspaper is more than fifty years old, I can tell you that we used to have readers from all communities. In places like Nagrota, Doda, Bhaderwah, Kishtwar, Rajouri and adjourning regions people from the non-Muslim community would read our newspaper. Even people from the security forces and Army used to be our readers. But that is not the case now. It feels sad to see that some people with vested interest have succeeded to propagate and link the Urdu language to the Muslims only.
Furthermore, online and digital media has impacted the circulation of Urdu newspapers here. No doubt people trust news published in print more than the news available online but the fact is that they prefer to consume online stuff than read the hard copies. If you ask me, I would tell you that in given circumstances, I think four-five years down the line Urdu print media would diminish here.
Urdu newspapers in Jammu are facing more challenges than those publishing from the Valley. Our readership is decreasing day by day and due to the pandemic, our readership has shrunk further. Urdu newspapers in Jammu are facing discrimination in terms of the advertisement policy of the government. Now, Punjab Kesari, Hind Samachar from Punjab are getting a huge chunk of advertisement from our government, but Jammu-based Urdu newspapers are given a nominal share of the advertisements. This situation has weakened the economic condition of our Urdu publications here. Due to the scarcity of revenue, Urdu newspapers are unable to hire professional staff.
I do not think that the Urdu newspapers in Jammu would survive long unless the government comes up with a required policy, which will ensure a judicial distribution of advertisement to the newspapers.
The circulation rate of print media is on the decline in the entire world. No matter which language, publications are declining in sales. And the major reason for the change is the boom of digital media. The world is shifting to online mode. However, in the case of Urdu newspapers in Jammu and Kashmir, the decline had started long ago and now it is swifter.
The inability of Urdu newspapers to modernize is the key reason for the fall of their circulations. Our Urdu publications failed to modernize in terms of reporting style, story writing formats, quality of printing, and so on. Sadly, Urdu newspapers spend almost nothing on the skill development of their human resources, which eventually has deteriorated the quality of these newspapers over the years. Our Urdu publications are not ready to update and upgrade.
All these factors resulted in the decline of the Urdu print media in our part of the world. Furthermore, Urdu as a language has lost its marketability. As a result, the revenue generation decreased. Since their revenue decreased, these publications are not financially lucrative anymore. That is why we see Urdu journalists getting lesser salaries when compared to what their counterparts are getting in English language newspapers. Since there are fewer economic opportunities and little career advancement in Urdu newspapers, the less number of students from colleges and universities opt for Urdu print media.
Above all, Urdu readers have been decreasing over the years and it has impacted the circulation of Urdu newspapers. Further, online media has changed the patterns of consumption and behaviour of consumers and this change is now very permanent. Therefore, chances of advancement of print media, especially Urdu publications are decreasing day by day.
In this modern era, all the reputed publications focus on the presentation. The quality of the content comes second. The problem with most of our Urdu newspapers in Kashmir is that they are not presentable. They are not well designed. They are not printed with proper colour combinations. Sadly, Urdu newspapers do not pay sufficient attention to the design. Even many Urdu publications do not have professional designers to do the job. They do not have even a style sheet to copy. These newspapers are prepared by typists, who do not know anything about designing.
I have noticed that most of our Urdu publications do not even bother to use the latest software, which are available free in the virtual world. For instance, our Urdu newspapers do not use Middle Eastern versions of the font, which are more kerning (adjusting the spacing between characters in a proportional font, usually to achieve a visually pleasing result). That is why a reader does not find visual comfort while reading an Urdu newspaper. Look at the Edit Op-ed pages of our Urdu newspapers, they are full of text with no breathing space. I see most of our Urdu newspapers still using traditional software like InPage and Corel Draw. This means the managers at the Urdu newspapers are yet to upgrade and update. They need professional hands to ensure their newspapers are presentable and updated in terms of design.
We have a large number of professional and qualified designers available in the Valley. Why don’t newspapers hire their services?
I am not a pessimist. I see hope. The fact that Kashmir still has a vast majority of people who read Urdu, gives me hope. The local Urdu newspapers, despite their poor content quality, are the largest circulated in Kashmir, if we compare their distribution with the circulation of English newspapers. Therefore, a large chunk of the population still can be hooked to read Urdu publications in J&K, if they are provided with a quality content — in terms of news, analytical pieces, features, human interest stories, interviews, and the write-ups about heritage, culture, history, health, education, society and so on.
Sadly, our Urdu newspapers have stopped providing diverse and wide-ranging content to the readers, and eventually, readers have been losing interest in these publications. I feel sad to see that we do not have even a single Urdu newspaper here in J&K that can be categorized as a complete newspaper in terms of the diversity of the content. Many of these publications rely completely on the newsgathering agencies and the downloaded stuff. They are run by just one or two people.
However, I believe that the owners of the Urdu newspapers have still a scope for shifting the goal post if they start modernizing their content production.
Having said that, let me also say that the quality content can only be developed and generated if professional human resources are put to work. And the professional services come at a cost. Are the Urdu newspaper owners ready to pay? Unfortunately, many of them do not seem to be ready to spend to improve the content quality of their publications.
Sometimes I wonder why Urdu newspaper owners hesitate to spend on human resources and skill development of the staff. If we consider Urdu newspapers as an industry —which I think it certainly is — then we must accept the fact that this industry is flourishing in terms of revenue, including government advertisements. Had the Urdu newspapers not been profitable units, they would have closed down a long ago. Since we have hundreds of Urdu newspapers enrolled and empanelled in J&K, we need no proof to say that it is a lucrative business, which can be groomed further.
However, the owners must understand that it is only the quality content that can help them to survive and thrive. Last but not least, people still trust a word printed rather than the spoken, works in the virtual world. And that must give us hope that Urdu newspapers still have a bright future in J&K, or at least in the Valley.