The Harry Sharma Story

Interview & Story by
Lennox Grant
(Editor-in-Chief)
Published on Sunday, May 31, 1987
Sunday EXPRESS : Section 3
20th Anniversary Magazine

A NOSE FOR NEWS AND A HEAD FOR BUSINESS

On May 1, 1967, when Harry Sharma quit his credit manager's job to join the advancing crusade for a "local" newspaper, he had no illusions that any particular advantage necessarily flowed from being a local anything.

By then, Sharma, after 27 years of "newspapering," most of them as the far-flung correspondent of the Guardian and of the now-defunct Chronicle, had got to know his country well.

In those days, he recalls, "Once a guy was local, he couldn't make a statement forceful enough."

Four decades later, as he chain-smokes and rocks in his chair, Sharma is regale a visitor with reminiscences and reflections about a career that has covered every newspaper in Trinidad since 1940.

For the last 30 years in the period since, it has been a career that combined journalism and newspaper business administration, even though, as Sharma admits, the business side has progressively assumed a larger share. "I still feel very much a part of the writing side," says the man who has been Express South Manager since 1967 and national Circulation Manager since 1974.

"Newspapering" is what Sharma has done for most but not all of his working life. A Hindu pundit with a licence to perform marriages, he had worked as a Hindi-English interpreter in rural courts and, before that, as a lawyer's clerk in San Fernando.

The contacts made in those fields throughout south Trinidad supported his sideline as a penny-a-line (three cents on the front page) Trinidad Guardian correspondent. Regularly, he would deliver news stories, handwritten in block letters, to the Guardian's San Fernando office, and Sharma began to see the possibility of a viable career in journalism, as the newspaper business seemed about to take off.

As Sharma remembers it, universal adult suffrage was the continuing big story in the second half of the 1940s and the early 1950s.

"That's when newspapers started to relate to mass readers, and there was a dramatic rise in sales. Before that, the grassroots bought newspapers maybe only on a weekend. But now we were seeing newspapers getting to the masses as the masses got involved in national decision-making.

"Well, that's my own little concept," Sharma adds with a self-deprecating shrug.

Acting on his "concept" in 1952, he dropped everything else to become a full-time correspondent. By then, the Guardian was paying six cents a line for a front page story. "And we had to fight for that," he recalls.

But Sharma who two years before had invested all of $10 in a second hand typewriter had by then become the essential journalistic hustler.

He grew adept at devices like "typing a story in three different angles to get into the two editions of the Evening News and the Guardian the next morning." He also learned to find stories with good follow-up potential.

As the only corespondent operating south of San Fernando, and using his excellent contacts with rural police and other officials, six-cent-a-line Harry Sharma could, in a productive month, earn as much as $850.

The Guardian never rewarded the Sharma energy with a staff appointment. That came in 1956 from the rival Chronicle which, the following year, made him branch manager in San Fernando, a job he would later do for the Mirror and the Express.

A nose for news and a head for business are what Sharma has brought in these jobs. But in 1967, having gone through the collapse of both the Chronicle and the Mirror, it took faith and fervour to answer the call back to the newspaper business then materializing in the form of the Express.

But he answered the call.

"We came back, sometimes I feel, with almost a feeling of vengeance.
We came here to establish a NEWSPAPER!
It wasn't easy.
What they said wouldn't last three months, six months, is the Express today -
a living example of what can be done
by people who dedicate themselves."

Speaking with pride about the achievement represented by the Express today, Sharma identifies both business and journalistic miles-tones on the long road to this point. Without question, Ken Gordon's arrival in 1969 as managing director was for Sharma a vital turning point.

"Ken Gordon put his finger on the immediate need, and he converted most of us into better managers through delegation and the practice of management by objectives," Sharma says, noting that the growth of the paper also afforded an opportunity for personal growth.

The measure of this progress from edge-of-bankruptcy floundering of the early years to the later solid self-assurance is that Express managers like Sharma became, in their respective fields, sources of technical assistance to newspapers in Barbados, Jamaica, St Lucia and Dominica.

It thus happened that, in 1977, Harry Sharma, a self-described "sixth standard boy," boarded an aircraft for the first time in his life, on the way to help the Barbados Nation put its circulation in order.

The Sharma credentials as a circulation expert were of course earned by getting ever larger numbers of Express newspapers into the hands of Trinidad and Tobago buying public.

Twenty years ago, the Express sold 19,000 copies in the week and 32,000 on Sunday. As of December 31, 1986, daily Express circulation was 58,495 and Sunday 73,830.

Using Audit Bureau of Circulation figures, Sharma has shown that between 1970 and 1986, the Express has had an 82 per cent increase in daily circulation and a 48 per cent increase in Sunday. Sharma's analysis further shows that the daily Guardian, over the same period, had a 6.5 per cent increase, but the Sunday Guardian's circulation actually declined by about six per cent.

The Express' circulation benefited from the Guardian fire which left the Independence Square daily the only one in the country for about two years. Acknowledging this, Sharma points out that the Express did not capitalise on its rival's misfortune by increasing advertising rates at a time when its daily circulation reached 68,000 and Sunday 93,000.

The Sunday Guardian still manages to outsell its rival by about 10,000 copies. "Old habits take some time to die," Sharma remarks. "Comics are a habit-forming thing," he adds, referring to the colour comics that generations have grown up enjoying with their Sunday lunch. But armed with his figures and fortified by his self-confidence, he argues that circulation trends unquestionably favour the Express.

Sitting in his manager's office in San Fernando, the old roving reporter is still drawn to the excitement of the news. He laments: "There are larger numbers of younger journalists today, but we don't have many leg people, and there's sometimes not enough news evaluation. The older ones are bogged down in other aspects of life and survival. We can't contribute our full share."

For Sharma, the 20 Express years have been rewarding and remarkable for the successful collaboration of people involved. "The Express is a success story in itself," he says, "and it's all been done by a team of people who brought the paper to where it is today - from the time when it was thought we couldn't make five years.

Today, the reading public should feel proud to know we've had such people in this country who could do that."


(Sharma, a member of the International Circulation Managers Association, retired as Circulation Manager in 1988, but continued with the EXPRESS as consultant until December 1994)

E-mail comment or views to:
Harry S. Sharma
or
Get a Copy
The Trinidad EXPRESS Story
from
TRINIDAD EXPRESS