On Saturday morning, Mumbai Mirror and Pune Mirror published their final daily print editions. On December 5, the Times Group, which published the papers, said that the economic crisis induced by the Covid-19 pandemic made them unviable. Mumbai Mirror will now be launched as a weekly while continuing to publish online.

This is a huge blow to the journalists and staff of the Mumbai and Pune Mirror, many of whom will now be out of work. But the impact will be felt far beyond Mirror’s offices too.

The Mirror was Mumbai’s most widely-read tabloid, well regarded for its focus on civic issues that directly affected the lives of readers in the city of 16 million. The closure of its print edition comes just over a year after two other major city papers shut their operations: The Afternoon Despatch & Courier, which shut shop entirely in July 2019, and DNA, which stopped printing in October 2019.

These closures contribute to the growing erosion of local city reportage that is an essential part of journalism and democracy.

“Take a city’s paper away and you steal a citizen’s opportunity for redressal, however slim that chance may be,” said Shishir Joshi, the founder of Project Mumbai, a non-profit organisation that amplifies citizens’ concerns about civic issues. “Mumbai Mirror did not just report news. It raised issues. It picked up causes. It built campaigns which led to positive impact. This is what a city needs. And this, sadly, is what our city has lost.”

Veteran journalist Kalpana Sharma describes the loss of the Mumbai Mirror and other city papers as a “shrinking of democratic space”.

“Not having these spaces for city news affects the citizenry, their involvement in civic issues and their ability to be heard by the powers that run the city,” said Sharma.

A change in attitude

The fate of English papers like the Mirror, Afternoon and DNA is not the only sign of the decline in city-focused reportage. Several city reporters that Scroll.in spoke to in Mumbai pointed out the trends they have observed in the past year or two, particularly after the pandemic. Major newspapers like The Hindustan Times, The Times of India, The Hindu and Economic Times have laid off reporters and other staff. Some of them reduced the number of pages dedicated to city news.

The Indian Express, which has a Mumbai edition, has long devoted greater space on national issues. Mid-Day remains the only daily with a sharp Mumbai focus.

“When I joined the profession ten years ago, I would meet many reporters on the field covering the same beat, but now that number has reduced,” said a crime reporter from a Mumbai broadsheet who did not wish to be identified. “Some newspapers have definitely changed their attitude towards hyperlocal coverage. Stories that used to be given three columns of space earlier are now getting just single columns.”

While reduced coverage of local crime stories may not be of great consequence, it matters when civic beats – like health, education and the running of the city administration – are compromised.

“Your local civic body shapes every aspect of your life, from the water you drink to the air you breathe, the roads you walk on and the hospitals and schools you go to,” said Kunal Purohit, a free-lance journalist who covered Mumbai’s municipal corporation for several years. “Hyperlocal journalism keeps people connected with what is happening on the ground.”

Mayur.thakarederivative work: Mfield, CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Campaign-oriented reportage

When the Mumbai Mirror started in 2005, followed quickly by the launch of DNA and the Mumbai edition of the Hindustan Times, local reportage got a significant boost. For the next decade or so, newspapers focused not just on coverage of citizens’ concerns, but also on impact.

“Increasingly in the past 10-15 years, we saw issue-based, campaign-oriented journalism growing in the city,” said Smruti Koppikar, a veteran journalist and editor who also teaches journalism at several media institutes. “There used to be sustained engagement with specific issues, like the carpet-bombing coverage on potholes in the city.”

When Purohit was at Hindustan Times in the early 2010s, for instance, he extensively covered Mumbai’s development plan – a blueprint for city planning that the municipal corporation frames every 20 years. The draft plan for 2034 was controversial for endangering Mumbai’s green and open spaces. Purohit and other reporters spent months pursuing civic authorities to hold them accountable. In 2015, the draft development was scrapped.

“I believe our reportage did play a role in the scrapping of the plan, because activists can have only a limited impact without media coverage,” said Purohit.

Articles in papers like Mumbai Mirror and Midday stood out even more, because of their tabloid format.

The Times of India has always covered small local issues in the city, but Mirror was able to display one footpath, one tree or one hospital prominently on its cover page,” said health reporter Jyoti Shelar, who now works as a freelancer. “The impact of such display is much stronger.”

With fewer avenues for impactful and in-depth local news coverage, reporters fear that some key issues affecting the city will be underplayed in the media.

“Right now we need to focus on issues like the environmental impact of the coastal road and other such matters, but we don’t have dynamic reportage on such matters,” said Purohit.

No replacement

While robust city reportage has been shrinking, the past decade has also seen an explosion of digital news media.

“But for some reason, digital-only media have geared themselves towards not addressing local and hyperlocal news. They are going for the macro news,” said Koppikar. “Digital media has not yet found a way to encompass city news in its structure unless there is a national news element to it.”

Koppikar emphasises that local reportage in a newspaper cannot be replaced by other sources of information, such as social media or non-journalistic digital platforms.

“People have multiple sources of getting information today, but news matters because news is verified information, presented in a comprehensive, balanced way,” she said. “Without such news platforms, people will not get a lens through which to understand or contextualise information.”

The implications of this are also likely to be felt within newsrooms, where the pool of journalists experienced in rigorous field reportage is getting smaller.

“Because many newspapers have now let go of their senior staff, they are losing the institutional understanding and memory of the city, which reflects in the kind of reporting they do,” said Koppikar, who said a lot of local news reporting in Mumbai in recent months has been lacking in depth.

Purohit said that local ground reportage is a crucial first-step for young reporters at the start of their journalism careers. “It helps you understand issues at the grassroots level, so that when you graduate to covering civic or government policies, you will know how they connect to people on the ground,” said Purohit. “That chain will be broken if there are fewer journalists working at the local level.”