Being famous is different from being important.
The trimurtis of English journalism in India–Pothan Joseph, Frank Moraes, M. Chalapathi Rao–are still unequalled in their star value and brilliance of writing. But historically they mattered little because they introduced no movement that transformed their profession.
Devdas Gandhi of Hindustan Times and Kasturi Srinivasan of The Hindu were not celebrities, but they were historically important personages because they helped convert pre-1947 missionary journalism into an organised industry, lending it strength and direction.
Ramnath Goenka was both celebrated (for his king-maker role in politics and his daring in opposing the Emergency) and important (for launching the then-original concept of a newspaper chain covering the vastness of India).
C.P Adityanar of the Dina Thanthi and Ashok Sircar of Ananda Bazar Patrika are other print media leaders who carved a niche for themselves in the history books. Both encouraged innovations to turn newspaper language from scholarly “written” style to accessible “popular” style. This was a major step towards the era of mass readership in India.
When we look at the media scene in this wide perspective, we see one man standing out as historically more significant than most others. The importance of K.M.Mathew, who passed away last week, rests not so much on the growth rate and acceptance level he achieved for Malayala Manorama as on how he achieved them.
First, he had a visionary outlook.
Secondly, he had that rare ability to change with the times.
When he became chief of the family-owned newspaper in 1973, it was selling 30,000 copies. He told a circulation department functionary: “If we can somehow reach 50,000, we can have an all-India presence, right?”
What was noteworthy was not the figure mentioned, but the vision of an all-India presence for a language paper from a small town in Kerala. A few days before Mathew’s death last week at age 93, his paper crossed a record print order of 18 lakhs.
He worked the magic by becoming an innovator. Eager to learn from others, he was instrumental in bringing the International Press Institute’s Tarzie Vittachi to India. Mathew helped Vittachi visit other newspaper establishments as well, often making the arrangements himself.
Seminars and workshops followed. Several newspapers benefited, but none more than Mathew who built a team of young journalists and managers, giving them training in India and abroad and professionalising management practices as well as journalism.
Mathew’s innovations were effective because he was a modernist who changed as ideas around him changed. Especially in the 1980s and 1990s, the world changed in revolutionary ways, IT and mobile phone leading the way. Mathew was ready with new inroads into television, FM radio, on-line editions. He even devised ways to reorient print journalism so that it could rise above television’s 24-hour breaking-news advantage.
Only in political orientation, he remained old-fashioned. Anti-communism sat as heavily on his paper as the position that the Congress could do no wrong. But Mathew’s personal warmth towards ranking communist leaders helped keep bitterness away.
Besides, his paper’s social involvement was too deep for anyone, including political critics, in ignore.
Special teams were commissioned to propagate one movement after another–water conservation, environment protection, garbage disposal. Large funds were spent to provide free heart surgery for children and housing for victims of earthquakes and tsunami.
On development issues he spent company money to convene meetings of experts so that constructive ideas would emerge for the authorities to act upon. He never cheapened these projects by using them as publicity gimmicks. He was a corporate citizen in the truest sense.
The greatest lesson Mathew left behind was that a newspaper could achieve commercial success and simultaneously fulfil its social responsibilities in a big way. This is a timely lesson because some very successful papers today have adopted the philosophy that they have no social responsibility whatever.
That is selfish, ignorant bunkum, and the proof is K. M. Mathew.
(Author, columnist and editor, T.J.S. George is founder editor of Asiaweek and editorial advisor to the New Indian Express)