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OBITUARY

Mathew touch

R. KRISHNAKUMAR

K.M. Mathew (1917-2010), chief editor, Malayala Manorama group, forced dissenters to read his newspaper even as he opposed them.

BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

K.M. MATHEW showed an unusual commitment to modernisation and professionalism.

IT all seems so obvious today: a regional Indian language newspaper cannot survive without a reliable press, quality printing and production and fast communication and distribution networks; excellence in content, design and production and professionalism in the editorial, marketing and circulation departments are as important to its growth as they are for the well-established English newspapers in the country; in order to compete well, it needs to build a loyal, dedicated and committed team of journalists and executives and upgrade in-house skills regularly; it is crucial for it to provide local news and connect with the local community in other ways too; on-the-spot reporting, human interest stories, regional obituary columns, localised special supplements and classified advertisements are as essential to its progress as international and national news, features and advertising; and, yes, it must make a profit, “if the bills are to be paid” and it is to survive.

But, in 1954, when K.M. Mathew became a key player in running Malayala Manorama, the Malayalam newspaper his grand uncle Kandathil Varghese Mappillai established in 1888, such apparent factors were not so well-understood. Manorama was then hardly a modern newspaper. It had only a handful of employees, a single edition in the small, central Kerala town of Kottayam, an outdated printing press, rudimentary arrangements for news gathering, communication, marketing and distribution, and a circulation of 28,666 copies.

Mathew, his seven brothers and a sister were still under the shock of the death of their illustrious father, K.C. Mammen Mappillai, the patriarch and chief editor of the newspaper, who had incurred the wrath of the then Dewan of Travancore, C.P. Ramaswami Aiyer, for his firm editorial stand in support of the growing nationalist movement then in the princely state of Travancore. The Dewan, who wanted an independent Travancore that was not part of a free India, found a defiant Mammen Mappillai and his newspaper a political hindrance and sought ruination of the family, revoking the newspaper's licence and closing down its press, and spreading mischievous rumours of an imminent financial crisis in the family's successful banking business. Soon liquidation proceedings were started against the Travancore National and Quilon Bank. Mammen Mappillai was subsequently arrested and incarcerated for over two years. In the face of growing difficulties, the Guardian of India Insurance company, another thriving family concern, had to be sold off.

It was a bitter and trying period for the young Mathew, then 21 and just out of Madras Christian College with a degree in economics, and his siblings. With their father in jail, their family discredited by false charges and facing increasing isolation from society and financial ruin, they had to survive on other fledgling business ventures such as a toy balloon factory in Madras (which later evolved as the tyre-maker, the Madras Rubber Factory, or MRF) and some tea and coffee plantations.

By the time Mammen Mappillai was released from jail, the family was steeped in debt. It took nearly six years more for the newspaper to be relaunched, on November 29, 1947. Mathew's elder brother K.M. Cherian began helping their father from that day. When Mammen Mappillai died on January 1, 1954, Mathew left a budding business career in Bombay, and decided, against the wishes of his young wife, to start a new life in Kottayam by joining the newspaper as its managing editor and general manager.

Second Innings

For several years since then, it was a shaky existence for the debt-ridden newspaper and its proprietors, with the threat of a fall in circulation, rivalry from four other newspapers with higher circulation in the same town, and other difficulties. By 1962, they also faced a new challenge when Mathrubhoomi, then the dominant newspaper in the State published from Kozhikode in north Kerala, launched its second edition in Kochi, near Kottayam.

With Mathrubhoomi's circulation rising, it became a compulsion for Manorama to expand its reach, and consequently, introduce new technology. The competition set off a keen struggle for more readers, faster equipment and national advertising from major consumer goods companies.

Even before he took over as chief editor following the death of Cherian in 1973, Mathew (or ‘Mathukkuttychayan' as he was popularly known) was convinced that “the paper had either to become fully professional or risk decline”. In his autobiography, Ettamathe Mothiram (The Eighth Ring) published in 2008, Mathew says: “The Manorama I saw in 1954 was one of possibilities.”

While others saw only hurdles in the path of the small newspaper pushed to the verge of ruin as a result of the Dewan's vengeance, it was this clear vision pursued relentlessly by Mathew that drove Manorama, slowly but certainly, into a period of rapid expansion and modernisation, underlined by professionalism and technological and managerial capabilities that are integral to a successful Indian language newspaper.

It took four more years for Manorama to start its second edition, in Kozhikode, Mathrubhumi's home turf. But in the run-up to that event, it had installed an offset press at Kottayam and established a teleprinter line with New Delhi in 1965. By 1975, it had re-launched the popular Manorama weekly and started publishing magazines for children and women. More was to follow.

Mathew believed that systematic training and good production quality had intrinsic merit, and that even if they cost more, they brought rewards. The best way to boost circulation and profits was to raise standards, he knew. What followed was an age of professional news gathering, high production standards, increasing advertisement and circulation revenue, and, eventually, new products and media-related services.

Role model

In what could only be described as a rarity then in Indian language journalism, Mathew showed an unusual commitment to modernisation and professionalism and became a role model for the newspaper industry, which in the early 1980s was at the critical juncture of embarking on a phase of unbelievable expansion.

He brought in a series of well-chosen consultants in the management, technical and editorial areas, wholeheartedly accepted their guidance and conducted frequent training sessions for his journalists and other employees. At times, he even threw open their services to professionals in other major Malayalam newspapers. He believed that “for democracy to survive, there was a need for professional standards to rise all around, and not just in his own newspaper”.

He encouraged talent and merit, sent his best journalists and managers to the choicest training schools in the world, and imported the most effective techniques in international journalism and newspaper production, which brought in a contemporary look and feel to the group's publications.

BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

AT THE INAUGURATION of the television channel 'Manorama News' at Aroor near Kochi in August 2006.

His colleagues would often say Mathew was familiar with all departments of the newspaper, was always game for innovative ideas, and would never let go of an opportunity to adopt successful and popular innovations from rival media organisations. He was constantly searching for new ways to win over hearts and minds by localising production, content and language.

But he was careful that Manorama's rivalry with other newspapers did not cross its limits, never allowed his organisation to hit them below the belt, especially when they were in trouble, and was even ready to extend a helping hand to anybody in need of it. He was tolerant of the genuine faults and mistakes of his employees, empathised with them when they were in trouble, and rewarded them for commitment and loyalty. He had a knack of keeping them all together as doting members of the larger Manorama family – truly the secret of his organisation's remarkable success.

Life's lessons

Mathew's autobiography dwells a lot on his early years, as the eighth son in a happy family of devoted parents and nine children, and on the havoc that one man, blinded by political vendetta, wreaked on their lives, virtually destroying their happiness and ruining a successful family business. The scars never healed, even after the victims rose from the ashes ever so spectacularly.

Mathew's philosophy of life, professional and business values and management techniques were tempered by those bitter personal experiences, his father's business acumen, unbending idealism and commitment to his profession and the true life lessons he learnt from his mother, to whom he dedicated his autobiography.

Mathew had fond memories of his mother as a brave, wise, hardworking and deeply religious woman committed to family values and traditions, but who would brook no privileges for her children when they went to school, for example, or when they had a meal with friends from an underprivileged neighbourhood.

Mathew would caution his employees never to use the newspaper as a weapon to hunt down, torment or wound others. In his autobiography, referring to a former employee who turned traitor and who was responsible for spying on behalf of the Dewan against his father, he wrote:

“We learned a big lesson from this. Under no circumstances should you attempt to destroy others. If it happens, the memory will last till death. That is why we are still unable to forget Ramanujam.”

Elsewhere he asks, “Do you need to wait till the age of 90 in order to be rich in experience? I can say for certain you need not. Within 25 years I had experienced all the sweetness and bitterness of an entire lifetime. Never did I face such a crisis after that.... Many members of our family living then had thus seen both ends of a life; so too has Manorama.... I mean, more than one life in a life.”

A former news editor and editorial director, Thomas Jacob, who worked under Mathew for nearly 50 years, recalled in a tribute that his chief editor had constantly tried to make such convictions part of the organisation's philosophy. “ Manorama's editorials often turned out to be soft and gentle because of such extreme restraint (made obligatory) by the editor,” he wrote.

But, no doubt, rival newspapers were acutely aware of the sharp edge of professional competitiveness that Mathew and his newspaper group held, amidst the bouquets of camaraderie they constantly offered. It was second nature for Mathew to make personal friends even of professional and political rivals with his amicable personality, gentle and elegant manners, tongue-in-cheek repartees and mature leadership and responses.

Political stance

In a State that was ruled alternately every five years by coalitions led by the Congress (I) or the communists, Manorama had often taken an anti-communist and pro-Congress position. But Mathew had taken care to maintain his friendship with Left leaders of all hues, including E.M.S. Namboodiripad, with whom he had engaged in frequent sparring.

They had a famous battle of words at the inauguration of the Kottayam edition of Desabhimani, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s newspaper, in March 1997. No doubt, Mathew considered it inappropriate for his host to have provoked a response from him on the controversial topic of Manorama's attitude towards communism at a function organised by Desabhimani in which he was invited as a guest. He later reportedly told an interviewer that “though he had gone there unarmed and unprepared, it was the most satisfying moment of his life to have given a fitting reply to a great debater like Namboodiripad”.

Emergency

When the Congress split in 1969, Manorama was among the first prominent Indian newspapers to offer support to Indira Gandhi. But when Indira Gandhi's Congress government declared a state of Emergency in the country in 1975, “the newspaper which was suffocated and silenced for its opposition to C.P. had to think keenly about what its stand ought to be against yet another autocratic action," says Mathew in his autobiography.

Eventually, it was decided that “Manorama would not support the Emergency; nor would it oppose it openly....” The worry was mainly on behalf of the hundreds of employees and their families, he said. Soon censorship was imposed. Throughout that period, Mathew said, Manorama turned more to development journalism and human interest stories, and “for the first time learnt their worth in gaining more readers”.

In an article remembering Mathew, Father Alexander Paikada, the chief editor of the Church-run Deepika, which is well known for its excellent training programme for journalists and was Manorama's one-time rival, said: “It was K.M. Mathew's miraculous ability to force communists to read his newspaper even while he opposed them openly.... Even those who had their disagreement with Malayala Manorama's style of journalism would recognise the different style created by Manorama in Malayalam journalism. It became almost impossible to survive in Malayalam journalism without imbibing that style, which transformed news into stories and thus increased their commercial potential. It is as the inventor of this style that he becomes the patriarch of Malayalam journalism.”

Mathew died at his residence in Kottayam in the early hours of August 1, aged 93. He had his first heart attack in 1972, was on pacemaker for a while and underwent a beating heart bypass surgery in 2002. But he was active and used to attend office regularly until the very end.

Remarkable journey

In Ettamathe Mothiram, Mathew refers to how it all began for him and the newspaper, to the days when the proprietor, the editors and the distributors used to share a single telephone, a cycle, and an outdated press, how they used to wait for snail mail to bring pictures, how they pinned their hopes on a run-down ferry to reach the day's newspaper bundles to a nearby district and, most of all, how the newspaper, then with poor production quality and erratic distribution schedules, depended dearly on the magnanimity of the newspaper agents and the readers for its revenue.

It was an amazing journey, no doubt, for a man, who, in the 56 years in which he was in the newspaper, drove its growth from a single edition daily with a circulation of 28,666 copies into a mass circulated and influential newspaper with 17 editions, including in Bahrain and Dubai, and a total circulation of 18 lakhs – though it was published in a language spoken by a mere 3 per cent of India's population.

The organisation he led now brings out nearly four dozen publications in five languages. Under his stewardship, the media group also launched a Malayalam television news channel, a music production company, an FM radio station and, recently, an online news service.

If at all this remarkable story had a secret ingredient, it was Mathew's incredible early vision for the newspaper, his uncanny knack of ensuring unity of purpose and hard work within his own family and the “larger Manorama family” and his breathtaking talent for brand building, creating a sense of wonderment at every single stage in the evolution of the newspaper (Frontpage headlines used to scream: “Manorama becomes the first newspaper in India to...”). Mathew would never take credit for anything and would brush it all aside as the work of those around him.

In the well-known study on the revolutionary transformation of Indian language newspapers (India's Newspaper Revolution: Capitalism, Politics and the Indian language Press 1977-99), Professor Robin Jeffrey, while discussing the motives that drive newspaper proprietors in general, says:

“Successful proprietors know that business must prevail over politics if the bills are to be paid.... In comprehending the role of owners in India's newspaper revolution, we lurch between two poles. On the one hand, we may idealise the bold and just proprietor who creates a sense of ‘the public', gives voice to people previously powerless and revolutionalises social and political relationships....

“On the other hand we may see newspaper proprietors as cynical manipulators of a consumer-led, capitalist-driven process, in which the crudest methods bring the choicest rewards.... The diverse and constantly changing landscape of newspapers means that between the extremes, owners perform many functions at once. They all have ends to serve – to make a profit, propagate a philosophy, pamper an ego. However, in putting out a newspaper they foster transformations that they may seldom think about but are nevertheless profound.”

How true.