Mumbai : In the heart of south Mumbai’s heritage Fort precinct, a bright red building houses the unassuming offices of an enduring institution that will soon turn 200 — Gujarati daily ‘Mumbai Samachar’. Still going strong despite reverses in the print media industry the last few years, Mumbai Samachar will celebrate its 200th year on July 1 after seeing through two pandemics, two world wars, and the growth of a city thriving in myriad avatars, from a textile and mercantile hub to a buzzing financial and film industry capital.
Mumbai Samachar’s director Hormusji Cama says that 20 years ago the newspaper conducted research and found that it is the oldest surviving publication in India and the fourth oldest in the world. Bombay Samachar (as it was called then) started as a weekly in 1822 to primarily inform the readers about ship movements and commodities, and gradually evolved into a true city newspaper with a focus on trade that it is today. Fardunjee Marzban, a Parsi scholar, started the publication four years after the Bengali newspaper Samachar Darpan was launched, to become the second non-English newspaper published in India.
Then named Moombina Samachar, it was a weekly for the first 10 years, then a bi-weekly and has been a daily newspaper since 1855. The paper exchanged several hands before the Cama family took over in 1933. Cama Norton and Co. was a supplier of newsprint and ink to Mumbai Samachar, then owned by the Belgaumwala family. The Camas had approached the court against non-payment of arrears by Belgaumwalas and sought liquidation proceedings. The court instead asked Camas to take over the newspaper and salvage it, citing the livelihoods of employees that would be lost if the paper were to shut down.
The Camas agreed. Since then the publication has steadily grown and today it boasts of the most advanced technologies available in the field of publishing. Cama, its present director and a passionate vintage car collector, insists that placing the reader in the centre is the key to the newspaper’s success. “As long as your content is in demand, you will be around,” he told PTI. A variety of factors led the newspaper to increase its cover price to Rs 10 per copy – Cama quips it is not just the oldest newspaper but also one of the most expensive – in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
But it continues to be supported by a loyal readership despite a dip in circulation that used to be 1.5 lakh before the pandemic. Even with the fall in circulation, the newspaper is among the few which delivered profits in the fiscal year 2020-21, said Cama, who is also a director on the Board of The Press Trust of India, a not-for-profit private news cooperative. (PTI is owned by several newspaper shareholders, who do not receive any dividends from the company’s profits, as their purpose is to ensure that the country has a thriving, independent, neutral news agency that can serve all media organisations). To limit the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Mumbai Samachar increased the cover price by Rs 2, reduced the number of pages and imposed cost control measures like a salary cut for senior management and no emoluments at all for those at the top to ensure that the business thrives, Cama said. He added that not a single staffer of the “family” of 150 people was retrenched. “We do not believe in retrenching people at all. People who have given us the prime of their lives cannot be asked to go because of things beyond their control like technology changes.
We train them, and they adapt,” says the proud director. The Cama family believes in giving complete freedom to the editors. Cama desists from speaking on editorial strategies, directing queries on such matters to editor Nilesh Dave. The newspaper has always been apolitical, believing in constructive criticism and focusing on positivity, Cama says. The newspaper has never been sensationalist in its coverage, Cama says, ruing the tendency among some journalists to “embellish” news stories for grabbing attention. When told that the bright red exteriors may lead someone to assume that it is a fiery newspaper’s office, Cama points out that the name of the building is ‘Red House’ and it cannot be coated in any other colour. Seated in the ground floor newsroom, Dave says he has never received a single call from the management with any request. Despite the Gujarati readership, which tends to favour the current government, the paper’s editorials are critical of some government policies as well, he says. Its ability to continue doing so may lie in a decision the Cama family took long ago and has followed diligently.
The proprietors do not have any other business interests beyond the newspaper, and this helps ensure the newspaper’s independence is never compromised. The strategy to make the reader pay for content – Cama says the reader should not value it less than a ‘cutting chai’ (Mumbai lingo for half a portion of tea mostly served in a special kind of glass instead of a cup) – acts as a safety valve. Cama says Mumbai Samachar has never sold space to quacks or those making dubious claims like curing COVID-19, while Dave says the space devoted to ads stays within 20 per cent. In the last few years, with regional language publications coming under pressure, Mumbai Samachar has started initiatives to grow its Gujarati readership and keep Gujarati theatre thriving, Dave says. He adds that such initiatives were a major driving factor for a 35 per cent growth in the newspaper’s circulation in the pre-pandemic days. The other initiatives include holding Gujarati book fairs, which have led to the sale of titles worth over Rs 4 crore till now, Dave says.
The newspaper had planned a mega event to commemorate the 200th anniversary, but such a celebration was not possible amid the second wave of the pandemic, Dave said. Other initiatives, especially the ‘unsung heroes’ project will continue and to mark the special anniversary, Mumbai Samachar will felicitate health workers for their stellar services in the pandemic. Asked about the broad changes the newspaper has outlined for its new century, Cama says, “We are not very ambitious and our set of values have worked well for us till now. We will continue on the same path that has made Mumbai Samachar what it is.”