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Chicken Or Egg?

Contrary to popular belief, newspapers were primarily launched to advertise new products and services, rather than inform and educate readers about political and social issues.

By Dr. Pirzada Sharf-e-Alam | April 2021

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Arthashastra, an ancient Indian political treatise written by Chanakya, gives detail about the commencement of journalism in the subcontinent which dates back to sharing of intelligence-based information during the era of Chandragupta Maurya (321–297 BCE), the founder of the Maurya Dynasty in ancient India. During the reign of Mughal emperor Jalal-Al-Din Akbar from 1556 to 1605, a proper system for news-gathering and sharing was in place that was further improved in the era of Aurangzeb Alamgir, who ruled India from 1658 to 1707.

chicken-eggThe interconnected relations between journalism and advertising can be best understood when it is seen in relation to the rise of the Industrial Age. For instance, the Peking Gazette of China was issued well before the advent of the industrial period. In Europe, the first newspaper was published in Germany in 1609, while newspapers and magazines were started in most European countries during the 17th and 18th centuries. Most newspapers across the world were started primarily as a business venture to advertise new products being produced on a mass scale after the onset of the Industrial Age. This goes against the widespread belief that newspapers were primarily aimed at disseminating information to create general awareness about political and social matters.

The first newspaper that came out in the subcontinent in the 1780s was ‘Hicky’s Bengal Gazette’ or ‘The Original Calcutta General Advertiser,’ allocating more space to advertisements than news. The masthead of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette read: ‘A weekly political and commercial paper, open to all parties, but influenced by none.’ Consequently, the printing press of the Gazette was soon sealed by the British government, since the newspaper was clandestinely criticizing the policies of the East India Company in its news stories and articles.

Following this lead, the rest of the newspapers that emerged later were more advertisers than newspapers. Owned and run by a couple of traders, the ‘India Gazette’, for instance, was more focused on printing ads than covering news. The ‘Bengal Hurkaru,’ the ‘Madras Courier,’ the ‘Asiatic Mirror and Commercial Advertiser,’ ‘The Calcutta Gazette and Oriental Advertiser’, later shortened as the ‘Calcutta Gazette,’ and many other papers appeared with a common suffix - ‘advertiser.’ Most papers comprised 4 pages, in which one page was dedicated to advertisements, while the first page always had an ad on it. In essence, all newspapers in the subcontinent unanimously carried forward the commercial objectives of the East India Company.

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The writer holds a doctorate in Urdu Advertising and is associated with Spectrum Y&R Communication (Pvt) Ltd. as an Associate Creative Director. He can be reached at sharf15@gmail.com

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