The United News of India may come out of its perpetual financial crisis with a push from the Modi government. Already, journalists are being recruited and efforts made to beef up reporting
BY SHANTANU GUHA RAY
The cash-strapped United News of India (UNI), often in the news because of delayed salaries and union troubles, could shrug off its decaying image and get a new lease of life. Unofficially, the agency will be encouraged to cut off its weeds and regain its previous glory by the ruling NDA that feels threatened by the monopolistic attitude of the Press Trust of India (PTI) and wants another agency to cut teeth into India’s vibrant news market. There are other issues with PTI, especially relating to its rates that are a little steep for all newspapers and channels to afford.
A NEW DAWN
According to highly reliable sources, some members of the ruling government (read the information and broadcasting ministry) who are close to former employees of the news agency, have pushed the UNI management out of slumber and asked it to smell the coffee. But no one is talking, either officially or unofficially. Even at the agency’s iconic canteen, once a favourite haunt of politicians, editors and corporate captains, there is a hushed silence.
On paper, the agency’s management, currently headed by one Vishwash Tripathi, a seasoned chartered accountant, has brought in a former UNI copy editor, Ashok Tuteja, from the Chandigarh-based newspaper The Tribune to stem the rot in the agency, once considered a trailblazer in news gathering in the 1970s and 1980s. But for a little over two decades, the agency has floundered, lost its valued subscribers like The Times of India and HindustanTimes, and staffers, to other news organizations. But now, it is on Tuteja to drive both news and business sense into the agency. Tuteja, who had worked on the news agency’s copy desk during the1980s, is the new editor-in-charge of news operations and growth. It is not known what prompted him to leave The Tribune to rejoin UNI, but that he has come in to handle “the new agenda” of the management is all but certain. Also certain is the fact that the push to get UNI into an active mode from an almost rigor mortis mode has come from the new Modi government at the center.
It is music to the ears of UNI staffers who have—for long—sought quality investment to beef up news operations that currently operates at one-third capacity in comparison to that of its arch rival, PTI. In Delhi, the hotbed for news of all kind, UNI has just a handful of reporters in comparison to PTI’s vast army of specialized reporters. This was, probably, the best opportunity for the ruling coalition to quietly push the UNI management into towing the government’s line. And accept its “growth package”.
In recent times, the NDA has been pushing its right wing agenda slowly, yet steadily, across some news platforms. There are reports that Panchajanya, the mouth-piece of the RSS, is now bring printed across the country—at gram panchayat level—for a wider circulation and reach. The idea is to retain some pages as national pages in the magazine and use local content for the rest of the pages. Then, there is Swarajya, a right-leading daily portal, which will be edited and run by Sandipan Deb, the former editor of Open and Outlook news magazines. Another journalist who once worked for The Indian Express has launched a website that takes a look at growth (through the eyes of NDA) in various Indian states and there are talks of Hindustan Samachar, a defunct Hindi news agency, being revived with a push similar to that of UNI.
Once again, on paper, the government may not get involved at all with all the news platforms. But its backing—each ministry has its funds for media—is a bigger guarantee than one coming from a bank manager. No one knows whether all these news platforms will carry the Hindutva agenda but the chances are high that they will project and portray New Delhi’s point of view. Like others, the government push has come in handy for UNI.
THIRD TIME LUCKY?
Interestingly, this is for the third time that UNI is hoping for a revival.
Once, Mumbai-based Zee Telefilms had acquired shares of the news agency, only to be checkmated by a defiant union. An enraged Subhash Chandra walked out and demanded instant refund of the Rs 35 crore he had given at the time of the takeover. That caused tremendous trouble for the cash-strapped agency’s coffers. Eventually, it agreed to pay a whopping Rs 25 lakh per month. The cash—it is reliably learnt—has been almost cleared and only two instalments remain.
The second time, as per the Radia tapes, there were some attempts to take over the agency through a backroom control and some cash infusion. But the move fell through, as the Radia tapes were leaked by two news magazines and serious investigations were started by the Income Tax as well as Enforcement Directorate. Thereafter, Yashwant Deshmukh, who runs the CVoter analytics team and does election analysis before polls, came in and started UNI Television, a video wire news agency on the lines of News Network India and Asian News International.
However, the honeymoon did not last because of contentious payment issues between Deshmukh and the UNI management. Eventually, the service was closed. In between, the agency—whose salary backlog dates back to a year—was also plagued by a peculiar crisis when three of its editors were sent to jail on charges of making casteist remarks against a staffer.
There are indications that the agency, housed at a stone’s throw from AIR and parliament, could seriously explore a real estate project to get the necessary cash to beef up its news operations. As per government regulations, UNI was to set up the building on the land—a leased one from the government—long ago but thorny issues prevented the agency bosses from starting construction. The deadline to construct a full-fledged building is just two years away and the UNI management does not want to lose any more time, claims an agency insider.
Riding on that hope, the news agency is now on a recruitment drive, checking out both senior (mostly former UNI employees) and junior journalists. Some have joined, some have declined. There are efforts to beef up reporting in business, sports, entertainment and special features, specialized services high on demand from all subscribers. “We are on a high, we are recruiting. The turnaround is happening,” says Ramesh Bhan, the current chief of bureau.
The agency, which once circulated Associated Press and DPA (German news agency) and other smaller, foreign news agencies, has the Reuter News Service that is circulated through its wires. But then, Reuter Direct is also available if a subscriber wishes to pay. Hence, the job to revive, claim news watchers in the capital, is easier said than done.
GET MORE SUBSCRIBERS
As of now, the agency has no mainline newspaper as its subscriber, and relies mostly on small, regional dailies. The big cash, for years, continues to come from the state-owned AIR and Doordarshan. UNI must get more subscribers, a tough call in the current scenario where free news is the call of the day, especially on the internet. But there are others who feel if UNI offers quality news, it could definitely make a mark in the market.“Credible news still has value in India, and those who offer it, get paid at their own rates,” says veteran journalist Kalyan Kar, who currently edits Best Media Info, a top website that tracks media-related developments. He feels UNI will not only have to reinvent itself, but also vigorously flood the market with some superlative reporting. “It must make news with some big scoops,” says Kar.
But there is one silver lining. UNI has the government on its side. That is a big advantage in India, where the media gets a significant chunk of advertisements and support from the I&B and other ministries. With the government keen for a push, Tuteja and his team will have their job cut out. Except, they have to remember one thing: balance. It should not be a problem for a news agency that once dominated the Indian news market with some excellent reporting, including the much-quoted line from Jayaprakash Narain, when arrested during theEmergency in 1975: “Vinaash Kaale Viparit Buddhi.” But that was in the 1970s, when UNI was full of top reporters and editors. Also, it was then—relatively—independent.