Chandan Mitra, the senior journalist and editor of The Pioneer, the news of whose death arrived this morning, tried but perhaps did not try hard enough. In an age where more and more media houses are inspired by The Times of India‘s work culture, where journalists have a near-obscure existence while the marketing department rules the roost, Mitra got the opportunity in the late 1990s to run a mainstream newspaper that boasted of Rudyard Kipling in its workforce at one point in the early 20th century. In the two decades that followed, the newspaper remained as lacklustre as it used to be for quite some time before he had joined. Every evening, the ground floor of Link House on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg would see thousands of returned, unsold copies of the broadsheet. And recently, CMYK Printech Limited, the company that runs The Pioneer, has filed for bankruptcy. Before this, barring the 2G spectrum scandal scoop by J Gopikrishnan, rarely did the newspaper impact national politics. Nothing other than squandering the opportunity explains why a product with a USP of Hindutva, the push by some from the top brass of the BJP during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime, a big contract from Indian Airlines for an in-flight magazine of a subsidiary flier and 10 years of angry commentary over ‘misrule’ of the UPA government could not carve a niche for itself in a market filled with treadmill reports and opinions. A scholar of history with jaw-dropping knowledge of films and music of yesteryears and master of lucid English — and rare insight into the quality of roads across the country that he once crisscrossed in a Hyundai Terracan — Mitra could have done much better than presiding over, for two decades, an office that was little more than a Bengali hangout with Bihari reporters playing second fiddle. But for a contemporary and friend of Mitra, Swapan Dasgupta, fan following was never an issue. As for business, his colleague Kanchan Gupta showed how it is done through Niti Central. His marketing head Durbar Ganguly went on to launch a newspaper of his own, The Millennium Post, which, for all its average statistics, is reported to be financially stable, thanks to the patronage it allegedly enjoys of the Trinamool Congress. If they could do it, why couldn’t Chandan Mitra? Alas, an opportunity like getting a running newspaper at a throwaway price — as he did get from the Thapar Group — will not knock the door of a pro-nation journalist for a long time to come.
The failure of his newspaper as a business and now the death of Mitra has left a void that mushrooming websites owned and manned by bloggers cannot fill, no matter how superior their ideas of getting enlisted by Google, trending on Twitter or manipulating internet traffic are. For credibility comes from a certain rigour in the profession that, unfortunately, only the left appreciates and invests in human resources accordingly. That appreciation arguably came from the communism Mitra professed during his formative years. How to put across a contrarian argument that is persuasive but does not go over the top is an art wannabes may learn from the archives of Mitra’s articles, the finesse of his paper’s editorials and pieces by some classy columnists he had roped in. All that came with a stamp of authority as the opinions were of trained men and women of letters, which could not be brushed aside as diatribes of diary writers. And then The Pioneer had some good correspondents and reporters. Sidharth Mishra steered the city section well while Naveen Upadhyay headed the bureau efficiently. The problem was that the rich commentary on current affairs never reached a majority of the potential readership.
The so-called Hindu right has been struggling to falsify the propaganda by professionals on the opposite side. Almost a decade has passed, with some entrepreneurs launching and running websites to challenge the discourse that wantonly maligns India. They are hardly cited or quoted outside their echo chambers. This would not happen if the sites were backed by reams of paper for, technicalities notwithstanding, there is an accepted, popular notion of what constitutes ‘mainstream’ media and that is difficult to beat. Perhaps someday in the future, there will be a better version of the Chandan Mitra journalism has lost.