Guwahati Newspapers on a Roll

With the Hindustan Times launching in Guwahati in March this year, the city now publishes seven English dailies, that, along with 13 Assamese, three Bengali and two Hindi papers add up to a total of 25 papers that hit the stands every morning. Waiting in the wings: the Times of India (TOI), that has begun publishing a ‘national edition’ from Calcutta, in what could well be a dry run for a satellite edition of the paper from Guwahati. TOI, it is learnt, is aggressively looking for a business associate in the city. The paper would be the fourth metropolitan daily to enter the Guwahati market, after The Telegraph, Asian Age and Hindustan Times, all of whom now print local editions here. The present 25 between them claim a combined circulation figure of over 6.5 lakh. This would be in addition to the circulation of at least three dailies published from other parts of the state.

And just what keeps the industry going? With just about no local advertisements, and a few released from the metros, Guwahati being a sellers’ market largely, papers here have had to depend on state government advertisements along with those released by public-sector organisations such as Indian Oil Corporation, Oil and Natural Gas Commission and Indian Oil Ltd, that have interests in the region.

The ‘cash cow’, however, is the state government, that puts out advertisements worth over Rs 2.04 crore annually. However, given its poor financial condition, payments from the state government are received in installments, after a minimum waiting period of six months. And there is the North-east Frontier Railway (NFR), headquartered at Maligaon in Guwahati, that, according to its chief public relations officer, Jayanta Sarma, releases advertisements to the tune of Rs 1.76 crore in the last fiscal year alone.

The total revenue generated from state government and NF Railway advertisements, though, is far below the requirements of the growing giant that the newspaper industry in Guwahati threatens to be. While PG Barooah, Editor of The Assam Tribune, the oldest English daily in the state refuses to comment on the state of affairs, others such as Manoj Goswami, editor of the newly launched Oxomiya Janaxadharan, won’t describe the advertisement market beyond “good”. Atanu Bhuyan, editor of Oxomiya Khabar, describes the market as “very poor, due to the lack of industries in the region”. The Khabar group now also prints HT’s Guwahati edition.

The bottomline: that while the Guwahatian has been bombarded with new papers quite routinely, he has also been witness to quite a few bowing out of the race. In the past ten years or so, at least four English papers printed in Guwahati have downed their shutters. Some ‘frontline’ papers have diversified, investing in high-end clubs and restaurant chains in the country and abroad.

The 68-year old daily newspaper business in the state that began with the publishing of Batori from Jorhat in 1935, received a shot in the arm during the Assam Agitation of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The clout has only increased—Prafulla Mahanta’s defeat in the last assembly elections in the state is attributed, among others, to his clash with Asomiya Pratidin, by all accounts the highest circulated Assamese daily. “Assam is a state that reads,” says JP Roy of Durga Agency, the biggest distributor of newspapers and periodicals in the state. Others, though, aren’t so enthusiastic. “Guwahati used to be a city known for its teachers,” says Hiru Bhatta, poet and recipient of the Soviet Land Award for Literature. “Today, students are more familiar with newspapers and editors, not books and teachers.”

By Debashree Dey Adhikari & Jayeeta Sarkar(