I read a very interesting essay on Samir Jain in “The Caravan”. It is hard to miss the parallels between the story, and the career of Gail Wynand in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead. Samir Jain”s Times Of India is the world’s largest English language newspaper, in terms of circulation. Gail Wynand is my all-time fictional hero.
Gail Wynand was roughly based on William Randolph Hearst, a 20th Century American Newspaper publisher.
Samir Jain, who will be 59 in March, has a capacious memory, and he recollects, nearly verbatim, much of what he has read. Strict rules of engagement govern Jain’s meetings, some of them even written out explicitly as instructions from Bennett, Coleman’s management and distributed to new editors. “You aren’t supposed to look at your watch, for instance.”
Without advice, assistance or plan, he began reading an incongruous assortment of books; he would find some passage which he could not understand in one book, and he would get another on that subject. He branched out erratically in all directions; he read volumes of specialized erudition first, and high-school primers afterward. There was no order in his reading; but there was order in what remained of it in his mind.
Among the many hard rules imposed upon the employees of all Wynand enterprises, the hardest was the one demanding that no man pause in his work if Mr. Wynand entered the room, or notice his entrance. Nobody could predict what department he would choose to visit or when. He could appear at any moment in any part of the building–and his presence was as unobtrusive as an electric shock. The employees tried to obey the rule as best they could; but they preferred three hours of overtime to ten minutes of working under his silent observation.
He has, with his cash reserves, kept newspaper prices ruinously low; a weekday issue of the Times of India costs Rs 4.50, or 8.3 cents, in New Delhi. This forces publishers to wring every possible rupee out of advertisers, and at this blood sport, Bennett, Coleman has proven the most proficient. Separately, and well before other newspapers, the Times of India became adept at celebrity journalism, filling its supplements with movie-star gossip and cocktail-party photos and other exalted banalities.
When Wynand opened his second paper–in Philadelphia–the local publishers met him like European chieftains united against the invasion of Attila. The war that followed was as savage. Wynand laughed over it. No one could teach him anything about hiring thugs to highjack a paper’s delivery wagons and beat up news vendors. Two of his competitors perished in the battle. The Wynand Philadelphia Star survived.
Nobody reading the Times of India today can deem it guilty of pomposity. Instead, the paper feels slight, its vast breadth of subject matter diminished by its frustrating lack of depth and its higgledy-piggledy approach of delivering even the most complex news. Stories carry slugs that might have been gleaned from pulp magazine covers: “Beed Shocker,” shrieked a recent front-page example, about a female foeticide case in the district of Beed in Maharashtra. Pages are overwhelmed by advertising. There is always distraction and entertainment to be found in the Times of India, but rarely does it leave a reader replete or satisfied.
The public asked for crime, scandal and sentiment. Gail Wynand provided it. He gave people what they wanted, plus a justification for indulging the tastes of which they had been ashamed. The Banner presented murder, arson, rape, corruption–with an appropriate moral against each. There were three columns of details to one stick of moral. “If you make people perform a noble duty, it bores them,” said Wynand. “If you make them indulge themselves, it shames them. But combine the two–and you’ve got them.” He ran stories about fallen girls, society divorces, foundling asylums, red-light districts, charity hospitals.
Once upon a time, “Samir Jain may have been as passionately in love with newspapers as Rupert Murdoch was said to be,” said one editor who was close to Jain. “But in those early years, when he wasn’t accepted by the newsroom, that love really withered away.” Much later, Jain would confide in this editor that he had genuinely tried to persuade his journalists about the soundness of his ideas, and to participate in his fresh vision for the newspaper. In return for his efforts, Jain felt that he received only lip and disdain. “So Samir decided then: ‘I’m no longer going to try to convince people to see my point of view. I’m just going to tell them what to do.’”
He heard and saw things that gave him immunity from astonishment for the rest of his life. He made his greatest effort and learned to keep silent, to keep the place others described as his place, to accept ineptitude as his master–and to wait. No one had ever heard him speak of what he felt. He felt many emotions toward his fellow men, but respect was not one of them.
Gail Wynand was not good at taking orders. He recognized nothing but the accuracy of his own judgment.
“Our articles should be in Indian English. The problem with journalists is that you think readers want good writing. Readers want lazy writing.”
When the name of Gail Wynand became a threat in the publishing world, a group of newspaper owners took him aside–at a city charity affair which all had to attend—and reproached him for what they called his debasement of the public taste. “It is not my function,” said Wynand, “to help people preserve a self-respect they haven’t got. You give them what they profess to like in public. I give them what they really like. Honesty is the best policy, gentlemen, though not quite in the sense you were taught to believe.”
“The Times of India is aspirational. Our readers should display it. They don’t even have to read it.” Jain has wanted “different things at different times, for his newspaper. But basically, he wants his paper to entertain his audience.”
On September 11, 2001, an editor recalled, “Samir said: ‘You know, 180,000 people died yesterday. Today 182,000 people have died. It’s a blip, that’s all.’” Instead, Jain was happy to have his papers “be about the three Fs, as he called them—food, fashion, and fuck. Although he wouldn’t say ‘fuck,’ he’d just say ‘Eff.’” Jain’s directives to his corporate managers emphasised this. A participant at a conference in Mumbai in 2005 remembered Pradeep Guha, then the president of Bennett, Coleman, stating in a speech: “My task has been to move the Times of India from being a real good paper to being a feel-good paper.”
“Sex first,” said Wynand. “Tears second. Make them itch and make them cry–and you’ve got them.”
“News,” Gail Wynand told his staff, “is that which will create the greatest excitement among the greatest number. The thing that will knock them silly. The sillier the better, provided there’s enough of them.”
Readers, Jain believes, have little appetite for the cerebral writing that journalists often wish to practice. They want short sentences, brief articles, and English that “even a fifth-standard boy can understand,”. Jain has advised slipping deliberate spelling errors into the copy, to “make the reader feel more comfortable”. Dhariwal said that Jain often recommends “putting in words of Hindi, to reflect the way people speak”. Another editor moaned that Jain pushed for his pages to be a hodge-podge of articles: “‘The Indian mind likes clutter,’ he would say. ‘Just look at our markets.’” Jain even suggested, very recently, a liberal use of emoticons. “He still sends in harebrained ideas like these,” a senior Times of India editor said. “It’s amazing the trivial stuff he’ll get obsessed by. But because he’s had outstanding success in the past, you feel odd in automatically assuming that it’s stupid.”
The Banner was permitted to strain truth, taste and credibility, but not its readers’ brain power. Its enormous headlines, glaring pictures and oversimplified text hit the senses and entered men’s consciousness without any necessity for an intermediary process of reason, like food shot through the rectum, requiring no digestion.
THE ENERGY THAT JAIN HAS POURED into the consideration of what a newspaper should do has only been surpassed by that devoted to the question of how it should be sold.
All the drive, the force, the will barred from the pages of his paper went into its making. An exceptional talent was burned prodigally to achieve perfection in the unexceptional. A new religious faith could have been founded on the energy of spirit which he spent upon collecting lurid stories and smearing them across sheets of paper.
“The money won’t affect him in any way, because he is very austere, not at all flashy,” she said. Another editor remembered Jain counselling him: “Don’t confuse being spiritual with being a do-gooder, because the two are fundamentally different things.” It doesn’t clash with Jain’s view of the world, for instance, “to sell newspapers with half-naked women on the front page”, said the editor who was initiated into the company at Haridwar. “He may never open Delhi Times himself, but he has no problem with its contents. He has partitioned his life quite nicely.”
“Whatever that bastard Wynand is after,” people said, “it’s not after money.”
He paid them well; he got nothing but his rent and meals. He lived in a furnished room at the time when his best reporters lived in suites at expensive hotels. He spent money faster than it came in–and he spent it all on the Banner. The paper was like a luxurious mistress whose every need was satisfied without inquiry about the price.
The publishers of his time took pride in stamping their individual personalities upon their newspapers. Gail Wynand delivered his paper, body and soul, to the mob. The Banner assumed the appearance of a circus poster in body, of a circus performance in soul. It accepted the same goal–to stun, to amuse and to collect admission. It bore the imprint, not of one, but of a million men.
Wynand saw the Banner on the living room table every night. He had not allowed it in his home since his marriage. Wynand once told Toohey, “My dear, Mr. Toohey, don’t confuse me with my readers.”
He has prized the quantitative over the qualitative, and although by that metric he has thoroughly swamped his opposition, he continues to have an eye or two cocked on the numbers. “Now, for Samir, it isn’t even so much about making money,” one Times of India editor said. “Now it’s just about keeping score.”
“Men differ in their virtues, if any,” said Gail Wynand, explaining his policy, “but they are alike in their vices.” He added, looking straight into the questioner’s eyes: “I am serving that which exists on this earth in greatest quantity. I am representing the majority–surely an act of virtue?”
PS: Do read my own essay on the parallels between Gail Wynand’s New York Banner and The Times Of India: Rand, Markets And Sadism:
“When I see condemnation of the journalistic standards of “The Times of India” filling my newsfeed, a question posed by Gail Wynand whose media empire spread like bubonic plague comes back to me: “Do you think it took no talent to create the Banner?”