Wars, bankruptcy, pandemics: Asia's oldest paper still going strong

Mumbai (AFP) –


It has survived two world wars, the fight against colonialism, global financial slumps and on Thursday, Mumbai Samachar, Asia's oldest newspaper still in print, entered its 200th year confident of beating the pandemic-driven decline that has hit many rivals.

Printed in a British-era building in Mumbai's financial district, the Gujarati-language daily was founded on July 1, 1822. It originally served as a weekly for businessmen living in the key port city.

Mumbai Samachar -- which means "Mumbai News" in Hindi -- published ship departure times, property listings, government appointments, the price of opium in China and news from other British outposts.

"The newspaper was started for traders and still today, traders are our first readers," Nilesh Dave, the paper's editor for the last nine years, told AFP.

"We call it the 'trader's newspaper'."

It also attracted the attention of luminaries like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, whose letters to the editor are treasured in the archives.

Over the years, it evolved into a daily broadsheet covering politics, business and general news for Gujarati readers across twelve Indian states.

It claims a daily circulation of over 150,000 -- and the paper's fiercely loyal readership has helped it survive an industry-wide decline.

Many have stuck with the paper since childhood, Dave said.

"There is a saying in Gujarati: 'If it is published in Mumbai Samachar then it is true'," Dave said. "This is the confidence of our readers."

A series of "mother tongue initiatives" including Gujarati book fairs, theatrical performances and essay competitions have helped engage new readers and boosted circulation, he added.

While in recent years Indian newspaper circulation has declined slower than other countries where digital news has undermined sales, the industry has been clobbered by Covid-19, with newspapers laying off staff in droves and some closing. But Mumbai Samachar has refused to lower prices or order redundancies.

It actually hiked its cover price during the pandemic, from seven rupees to ten rupees (nine to 13 cents), making it one of the most expensive dailies in the country and double the cost of its closest competitor.

As for layoffs, the newspaper does not even have a compulsory retirement age for its 200 staff.

"One of our employees is 87 years old and still writing... He joined Mumbai Samachar at the age of 18," said Dave.

The newspaper has been owned by the Cama family since 1933, when they took over the then-bankrupt publication.

Today, Dave says the newspaper is profitable, but declined to share revenue details.

He said has no doubts about the paper's future, pandemic or not.

"Definitely we will survive. My newspaper is going to complete another 500 years."