Raghopur, Bihar: At 3am, a newspaper van from Searchlite Printing Press in Patna sets out in the dark with bundles of Hindustan, the best-selling Hindi daily in Bihar (Hindustan is published by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Mint). It makes its way through a narrow, straight road to Khushrupur, around 40km away, every day.
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The copies of the newspaper, wrapped in two neat bundles, make a curiously small package waiting to be delivered to readers in neighbouring Raghopur, in Vaishali district, a predominantly rural district of 2.1 million people.
At least 3 hours after the bundles have been delivered, Munshi Rai rides in, empty milk cans straddling his bicycle.
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The nimble-footed milkman from Khushrupur, perhaps, has the most important job in the diyara, a term used to describe regions surrounded by rivers. Raghopur, sandwiched by the river Ganga, falls in the diyara area. It sustains its economy on a thriving business of dairy products and farming.
Here, Rai is the lone carrier for Hindustan, which has an 86% market share of the total Hindi readership in the state, with six million readers and 29 sub-editions, as per the Indian Readership Survey of 2008; it is a key market for the newspaper and part of its aggressive plan to access places in difficult terrain.
There are just 100 copies to be sold, but in the seven years since the newspaper entered Raghopur, it has been more about accessibility than volumes.
When Raghopur, known mostly for being the assembly constituency of former Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi, struggles with heavy rains and sees its only pontoon bridge over the river collapse year after year, the milkman takes the route less travelled to carry the area’s only newspaper to its agents there.
Ashok Singh, distribution agent for Hindustan in Raghopur, likens the place to the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, which was located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and literally means “land between two rivers”. “Raghopur is Bihar’s Mesopotamia. This is not the kind of place where one can send a newspaper. The real issue here is of access, and we have addressed it,” Singh explains.
It’s a rough 7km journey to Raghopur, located just across the Ganga river from Khushrupur. There are no pukka roads, and after a 4km trek through fields of arhar—the most commonly consumed pulse in India—one must walk through a sandy riverbed. During the monsoon, when the river fills up, one takes a boat.
Rai has been taking this route every day, as an all-weather alternative to the pontoon bridge, since 2002, when Hindustan’s first 20 copies entered Raghopur on his bicycle.
This also means thatHindustan’s readers depend a lot on the way Rai prioritizes his day. Besides the speedy delivery of the newspaper across the river, Rai also frets about the timely departure of Patna-bound trains from the Khushrupur railway station. These trains carry his home-made paneer (cottage cheese) for sale to hotels in the state capital.
On days when they run late, Rai picks up the newspaper bundles late. “I am first a milkman. After this comes everything else,” he says matter-of-factly.
The daily trip to Raghopur is part of his dairy business; picking up the bundle of newspapers and delivering them happens alongside, for a monthly payment of Rs500 from the Hindustan agent in Khushrupur.
On days when he is delayed, the newspaper’s business faces two obvious risks: a delay in distribution and pilfering of a few copies before the bunch is picked up. As happened on 16 March, when a combination of fever and delayed local trains caused Rai to reach Raghopur shortly before noon.
For the newspaper’s sales strategists, penetration of rural markets involves a two-pronged approach: build a varied network of information providers from the regions, such as the postman, milkman, bus conductors and drivers, and encourage local vendors to sell the newspaper.
“Earlier, the information providers were paid a fixed monthly remuneration and after the growth of market, we have also introduced vendors on a commission basis,” says Vijay Singh, area manager (sales), Hindustan, Bihar.
The efforts towards providing Raghopur with a daily newspaper, which included identifying Rai as the most viable carrier throughout the year, have led to the making of a powerful brand in rural markets. For most readers in Raghopur, it is more than just a bunch of papers carrying news; it is an addiction.
At the hardware shop of high school graduate Rukkha Singh, where the first copy is handed out every morning, shopkeepers from the neighbouring markets and prospective buyers gather to read the headlines. Depending on the subscriber’s generosity and patience, they might even be able to go through all the pages.
Hence, within a flexible congregation of merchants, buyers and passers-by, one newspaper copy translates into hundreds of readers.
Nearby, at the village choupal (gathering place), youngsters assemble around a circular cement bench and take turns reading it. Some flip through the sports pages; some pore over the political news and the conversation slowly escalates into a heated debate.
One strong USP, or unique selling proposition, is the newspaper’s emphasis on localized content and regional dialects that its readers can connect with.
“In Bihar, the local dialects change every 40km. The Hindi daily has consciously moved away from puritanical notions of Hindi to incorporate popular terms from local dialects in its reports, which appeals to a large number of people,” says Mammen Matthew, resident editor of the Hindustan Times, the English daily published by HT Media, in Patna.
Developing a grapevine
Hindustan in Bihar has developed a local news network in districts, blocks and villages, the three levels at which local administrative bodies in India function, to tap local news and issues that have a bearing on people’s lives, which, in turn, has improved its reach.
Shailesh Kumar, a stringer for Hindustan in Raghopur, concentrates on crime and development issues in the region and believes that while newspapers the world over are dying, rural markets in India would continue to read them for decades ahead. “Here, literacy is also just about the level people can read newspapers. People have time for newspapers,” he says.
Prior to Hindustan’s launch in Raghopur, the newspaper agent, who is also a lawyer, surveyed the villagers to arrive at a prospective readership figure.
In a place mostly sustained by the dairy business and farming, 20 copies is all he could arrive at. The money here, he says, is ample, with each household making an average of Rs250-300 a day, and several families living off the money made from the hemp trade dismantled in the early 1970s by the state government.
Literacy levels in the midst of this prosperity are dismal. “If you talk about education here, it’s considered a joke,” Ashok Singh says.
But news generates enough heat in Raghopur, where political awareness is at an all-time high after railway minister Lalu Prasad contested state polls from the assembly constituency in 1983 and later fielded his wife Rabri Devi.
Reflecting rural shift
The newspaper’s advertisement spaces also reflect a rural shift: In excess of 90% of advertisements come from either local sources or government departments. Whether it is advertisements for locally made tobacco products, jewellery stores or motorcycles, advertisements in Hindustan reflect the tastes and aspirations of its readers.
Hindustan’s first day at Raghopur was eventful. On the day copies of Hindustan reached Raghopur, a group of youngsters from the village chaupal rushed with a copy to former panchayat (village council) member Lallan Singh’s house. As it turned out, the newspaper had carried the examination schedule for the first-year undergraduate exams of a local university where Singh’s granddaughter Pushpa studied. “The exams were to commence in the next few hours and because the newspaper had carried the schedule, we rushed her to the examination centre in Jiddupur village, around 10km away,” Singh says.
In the years that followed, Hindustan has captured local news in the region effectively—from the blast in a firecracker factory in Khushrupur in 2005 to the corporeal punishment meted out to students in the region’s Navodaya Vidyalayas.
It has also served as an information provider on job vacancies, Kisan Credit Card camps in villages and newer, fuel-efficient motorcycles.
Ashok Yadav, 28, who owns a paan shop just at the turn of a busy alley in Raghopur, has been reading the newspaper since the year it made its debut here. He sports long hair, put in currency by the captain of the Indian cricket team, M.S. Dhoni, and reads the sports pages first.
Yadav, who has passed high school, considers the newspaper to be more than just a source of news. Each time he sees the manager of a local bank who once charged him money to open a savings account, he thinks about writing to the newspaper for action. “If I write, will they not help?” he asks.