Reinventing Nilgiri's Media

October 28, 2007
GV Krishnan

A friend in Coonoor, Rev. Philip Mulley, mailed me a couple of recent issues of The Local that carried his article, tracing the beginnings of road building in Nilgiris. It all started in 1819, with the then collector of Coimbatore, John Sullivan, taking up a path-breaking expedition to Kotagiri. It then took them over 50 years to build a road connecting Mettupalayam with Ooty.

And in the early years travelers to Coonoor/Ooty took 'fast tongas' that changed ponies in relay at every third mile. A retired colonel once told me that there were only seven cars in Coonoor when he first came to the town in the 50s. A fascinating read, but The Local published Rev. Mulley's piece in three installments spanning as many months. This isn't the only aspect of this fledging community paper that doesn't appeal to me as a reader. It is slim, a 10-pager, tabloid sized, and is priced Rs.7. As a community media initiative The Local is the best thing that has happened to Nilgiris in a long time. But as a publication this undersized, overpriced monthly has much to be modest about.

Glossy paper with bright colour photos add to the cost of production, but they do not necessarily sell the magazine. Pricing and periodicity of publication matter; so do mode of distribution, readership profile, and the mix of content. Publisher Edwin David in his note printed in the August issue would have us believe that his print-run of 3,000 copies is sustained by subscriptions by well-wishers who order The Local not only for themselves, but also for friends, their offices. And there are those who sponsor copies for distribution among a core group of planters, the army brass at Wellington, and professionals such as bankers, accountants and doctors.

A doctor's wife, presumably, beneficiary of the sponsorship, had this to say - The Local hasn't made much of an impact yet. It remains a corporate paper, something offices buy. I spend 10 minutes browsing through it at the library. And like me, most people don't see a need to buy it at that price. It has a long way to go to be 'hot'.

The Local has focused mainly on content and quality, says its publisher, to be dismissed in ten minutes by a reader who doesn't pay for it. The publication has managed to stay on, stubbornly, with costly glazed paper and color photos, hoping advertisers would come their way before long. The publisher refers to a leading car dealer in Nilgiris and a Coimbatore real estate developer having committed to taking ad. space, and several potential advertisers having "expressed their intent".

I have heard it all before, from a friend Sasidharan who used to bring out a modest six-page weekly tabloid from Coonoor, not so long ago.. He even managed to get a handful of advertisers and had a strategy for developing classifieds columns that attract its own readership, besides adding to the ad. revenue. Sasi's concept was that of a community weekly with a mix of content generated by informed readers and experts such as Rev. Mulley.

The publication was short lived. Because it was brought out under a franchise arrangement with a Chennai group that published Apollo Times. Under the arrangement Sasidharan was obliged to name his Coonoor publication, Apollo Times, Coonoor, print it at their press in Chennai; and pay for it at the rate of Rs.1.50 per copy. The Chennai media group was interested in promoting its own brand name; and in exploiting the Coonoor market to further their plans for opening an edition in Coimbatore.

As Mr David suggests in the publisher's note, advertisers in Coimbatore have their own agenda and perceive Nilgiris as a small market. The Coonoor publication, being 'a small paper within a so-called small market', was seen by major advertisers, not so much as an independent media entity, but a mere add-on to a franchise publication in Coimbatore. The Coonoor edition of Apollo Times came to be exploited towards this end, bleeding Sasidharan's meager resources.

If the Coonoor media failure established anything, it was that there is space for a local media in the Nilgiris. Within its short span of life the modest community weekly had acquired readership in Ooty and Kotagiri, apart from its base in Coonoor. Unsound business arrangement and cash crunch forced its closure, even before this promising community weekly had a chance to develop a network of local advertisers thankful for a local media option, because they found mainstream newspapers too expensive. A local media with a critical mass of readership would serve the interests of small businesses better, and at a cheaper advertising tariff.

The Coonoor community weekly was distributed free. Free publications, as a business model, have worked well for neighborhood weeklies that are published in Chennai's Mylapore, Adyar, Egmore and, Purasawalkam. What's more, there are two or more players vying for the free-media space in Chennai. The latest in such Chennai publications is Velacherry Plus.

Pricing The Local, that too, at a stiff Rs.7 a copy, doesn't appear to make marketing sense. What's more freesheets brought out elsewhere have more pages, and lots more of reading material. Globally, the Metro group of free newspapers publishes local dailies from 70 cities in 23 countries.

The Local, I reckon, has potentials if only it re-invents itself. Besides a rethink on pricing, and periodicity, publishers of the Nilgiris monthly would do well to start an interactive website of The Local to synergize with the print edition. It would make a lot more business sense, if the readership of The Local extends beyond the geographical confines of the Nilgiris and reaches out to non-resident population that Nilgiris connection. They include British and European planters, Anglo-Indians who emigrated to Australia, New Zealand, and sons/daughters of colonial officials who had schooled in Niligiris. Rev.Mulley's article can be accessed the world over, if The Local were to go online.

Speaking of online community initiative we once had a Coonoor blogsite that made a connect with non-resident Coonoorians in Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Delhi, Muscat, Singapore, Australia, Madrid, Peru and several other places within three months of its inception. As a Coonoor-connected person staying in Mysore, I wish I could access The Local online; and,maybe, even put in my input occasionally. At the Coonoor blogsite - The Coonoor Connection - we had an Ideas page that had Nilgiris folks from all over posting their thoughts

Retired Times of India correspondent, based in Mysore.; hosts MysoreBlogPark, a parking lot for a bunch of Mysore-connected bloggers; writes a Monday column for www.zine5.com
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