Saturday, October 27, 2007

Reinventing Nilgiri’s local media

A friend in Coonoor, Rev. Philip Mulley, mailed me a couple of recent issues of The Local that carried his article, tracing the beginnings of road building in Nilgiris. It all started in 1819, with the then collector of Coimbatore, John Sullivan, taking up a path-breaking expedition to Kotagiri. It then took over 50 years to build a road connecting Mettupalayam with Ooty.

And in the early years travelers to Coonoor/Ooty took ‘fast tongas’ that changed ponies in relay at every third mile. A retired colonel once told me that there were only seven cars in Coonoor town when he first came to the town in the 50s. A fascinating read, but The Local published Rev. Mulley’s piece in three installments spanning as many months. This isn’t the only aspect of this fledging community paper that doesn’t appeal to me as a reader. It is slim, a 10-pager, tabloid sized, and is priced Rs.7. As a community media initiative The Local is the best thing that has happened to Nilgiris in a long time. But as a publication this undersized, overpriced monthly has much to be modest about.

Glossy paper with bright colour photos add to the cost of production, but they do not necessarily sell the magazine. Pricing and periodicity of publication matter; so do mode of distribution, readership profile, and the mix of content. Publisher Edwin David in his note printed in the August issue would have us believe that his print-run of 3,000 copies is sustained by subscriptions by well-wishers who order The Local not only for themselves, but also for friends, their offices. And there are those who sponsor copies for distribution among a core group of planters, the army brass at Wellington, and professionals such as bankers, accountants and doctors.

The Local has focused mainly on content and quality, says its publisher, adding that it has managed to stay on, stubbornly, with costly glazed paper and color photos, hoping advertisers would come their way before long. The publisher refers to a leading car dealer in Nilgiris and a Coimbatore real estate developer having committed to taking ad. space, and several potential advertisers having “expressed their intent”.

I have heard it all before, from a friend Sasidharan who used to bring out a modest six-page weekly tabloid from Coonoor. He even managed to get a handful of advertisers and had a strategy for developing classifieds columns that attract its own readership, besides adding to the ad. revenue. Sasi’s concept was that of a community weekly with a mix of content generated by informed readers and experts such as Rev. Mulley.

The publication was short lived. Because it was brought out under a franchise arrangement with a Chennai group that published Apollo Times. Under the arrangement Sasidharan was obliged to name his Coonoor publication, Apollo Times, print it at their press in Chennai; and pay for it at the rate of Rs.1.50 per copy. The Chennai media group was interested in promoting its brand name; and in exploiting the Coonoor market to further their plans for opening an edition in Coimbatore.

As Mr David suggests in the publisher’s note, advertisers in Coimbatore have their own agenda and perceive Nilgiris as a small market. The Coonoor publication, being ‘a small paper within a so-called small market’, was seen by major advertisers, not so much as an independent media entity, but a mere add-on to a franchise publication in Coimbatore. The Coonoor edition of Apollo Times came to be exploited towards this end, bleeding Sasidharan’s meager resources.

If the Coonoor media failure established anything, it was that there is space for a local media in the Nilgiris. Within its short span of life the modest community weekly had acquired readership in Ooty and Kotagiri. Unsound business arrangement and cash crunch forced the Coonoor Apollo Times closure, even before it had a chance to develop a network of local advertisers who could not afford to advertise in mainstream newspapers. A local media with a critical mass of readership would serve the interests of small businesses better, and at a cheaper advertising tariff.

The Coonoor community weekly was distributed free. Free publications, as a business model, have worked well for neighborhood weeklies that are published in Chennai’s Mylapore, Adyar, Egmore and, Purasawalkam. What’s more, there are two or more players vying for the free-media space in Chennai. The latest in such Chennai publications is Velacherry Plus.

Pricing The Local, that too, at a stiff Rs.7 a copy, doesn’t appear to make marketing sense. What’s more freesheets brought out elsewhere have more pages, and lots more of reading material. Globally, the Metro group of free newspapers publishes local dailies from 70 cities in 23 countries.

The Local, I reckon, has potentials if only it re-invents itself. Besides a rethink on pricing, and periodicity, publishers of the Nilgiris monthly would do well to start an interactive website of The Local to synergize with the print edition. It would make a lot more business sense, if the readership of The Local extends beyond the geographical confines the Nilgiris and reachs out to non-resident population with Nilgiris connection. Rev.Mulley’s article can be accessed the world over, if The Local were to go online.

Speaking of online community initiative we once had a Coonoor blogsite that made a connect with non-resident Coonoorians in Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Delhi, Muscat, Singapore, Australia, Madrid, Peru and several other places within three months of its inception. As a Coonoor-connected person staying in Mysore, I wish I could access The Local online; and,maybe, even put in my input occasionally. At the Coonoor blogsite we had an ‘Ideas’ page that had Nilgiris folks from all over posting their thoughts.

Cross-posted in Desicritics and Zine5


kallu said...

That's a very incisive study of what happens when someone tries to run a local paper in a small town. It’s running against the odds to succeed.

The Local really hasn’t made much of an impact here as yet. It remains a corporate paper, something offices buy.
I spend 10 minutes browsing thro it at the library. And like me, I’m sure most people don’t see a need to buy it at that price.
It has a long way to go to be ‘hot’.

We sure do miss the Coonoor blogsite :-)

GVK said...

Thanks, Kallu. Running Coonoor blog didn't cost much - annual fee of some $10-12 (I believe), paid for by my son, to the website provider, Internet charges (dial-up, those days), and of course the man-hours one spent managing the site.
I visualise the entire editorial content of 'The Local'on a website, so that the likes of you could react to what you read, right away, as you did, to this blog post.
Updated online material, along with fresh articles posted on the web on real-time, could then be suitably formatted for a print edition, say twice a month. Ideally, it could make an eight or 12 page tabloid in newsprint, with adequate, to have the paper distributed free, mainly for the readership that does not access Internet. You would be surprised that even in middle-class households with PC there are otherwise sensible, educated, folk who don't venture near a computer.
Copies of 'The Local' could be placed mostly in places like Chellarams, Jograj, or other such outlets, hotels, and also kept for interested takers at Ooty bus stand or railway station counters. This is just a thought.
This may scale down its 'corporate'image, but would widen 'The Local's reach, at a reasonable cost, don't you think?

Krishna Vattam said...

Krishna Vattam Said,
As a media man myself, I completely agree with what Mr GVK said in response to Mr Kallu's comments.Total dependence on some one , be it corporate or politician, would entail losing editorial independece.I would commend the Local going on online.I must thank Mr GVK for coaxing,cajoling,me to take to blog and familiaring me with an internet at an young age (75)and this has great helped me to enlarge my vision, come out of my confines, and I am greatly benefited by procuring padding materials by browsing various brows for my my write ups published in 1960 to 90s in Deccan Herald and Prajavani.