Indians growing up on a staple diet of news dished out by Doordarshan suddenly woke up to the possibility of an irreverent and questioning news source in the 1980s. It was called Newstrack. You can call it a sort of school that nurtured the talent of many top TV journalists in India today, including Vikram Chandra, Mrityunjay Jha, Deepak Chaurasia and Geeta Datta.
The country’s first video news magazine, Newstrack recorded a show full of investigative stories in a video cassette – you could rent it or get it delivered at your doorstep for a comfortable watch on video cassette recorders (VCRs). Yes, the story of Newstrack is inextricably tied to the boom of VCRs in Indian middle class homes.
Doordarshan did start broadcasting a programme – ‘The World This Week’ – anchored by popular journalist Prannoy Roy, but it did not serve real issues from across the country to the news-hungry audience.
Rising to fill this vacuum, siblings Aroon Purie (the chairman of India Today Group) and Madhu Trehan (now the editor-in-chief of Newslaundry) created Newstrack in 1989. Trehan, a graduate of Columbia University, anchored the shows with a run time of about 90 minutes and covered the big stories of the month or the big news scoops.
“Information-hungry Indians, annoyed by the failures of state-run broadcasting networks, are turning in droves to private-enterprise ‘alternative television’ news on videotape,” wrote The New York Times in 1991 on the boom in private video news magazines in India.
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Newstrack had reporters running around covering video stories – a common sight these days. But back then, a reporter with a camera and a mike was a new phenomenon in Indian homes. After a change in the government policy that allowed broadcast of privately-owned channels, the video magazine mutated into Aaj Tak TV channel.
The journey started when Madhu Trehan returned from New York after spending nearly two decades there. “He had built a small studio and an editing suite in the India Today office and he had planned to let people rent it for commercial work. We thought of creating a video news features programme,” Trehan said.
The hurdle in Trehan’s plan was the British-era law – the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933 – which was still being followed in India and made any broadcast activity by a private party or a company illegal.
While the government led by V.P. Singh had raised hopes that private radio and television channels would be allowed, Singh’s government fell and the new regime decided to put the idea on hold.
“To circumvent that law, we created video cassettes that you could subscribe to like a print magazine, and receive it at home,” said Trehan.
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Then came another hiccup. Trehan and Purie conducted a survey asking people if they would watch an hour-long cassette of news. The findings of the survey were ‘disappointing’.
“We paid lakhs for the survey… However, the answer was a resounding ‘No’ because people thought it could only be like Doordarshan. We created it any way and it was a mind-blowing success,” Trehan said.
According to the NYT report, the audiences for news videotapes were still relatively small in those years. “Only a few million of India’s 840 million people probably see these tapes, made in English and Hindi for rent at about 60 cents a day or sale at about $8,” it said.
A success story
Newstrack started as a 30-minute programme; the duration was stretched to an hour as more and more advertisers rushed to book the commercial ad time. Later, it became a 90-minute show.
“It went from three or four stories to five or six. Depending on the situation, we sometimes did only one or two long ones, such as the destruction of the Babri Masjid,” Trehan recalled. “The top programmes included a show on Kashmiri militants – a critical scoop during the time as the Kashmir government and the home minister denied they (militants) existed,” she said.
Only Newstrack had a video team in Ayodhya during the destruction of the Babri Masjid, Trehan claimed. It is also known for its interview of Yakub Memon – a 1993 Mumbai blast convict – while he was in custody of the government agencies.
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“We were always in trouble with the government in power but besides cutting access they did not hound us,” Trehan said.
Newstrack started with a team of five to six journalists, and eventually had about 30 people working for it.
However, with ‘liberalisation’ and economic reforms in 1991, private channel broadcasting became legal. This led to the wrap up of Newstrack.
Netflix for news in socialist India
A higher standard of gutsy, newsy journalism than Jab we Met with Ms Nasrat Jahan in the gym.
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