Demoting news and readers

The leading Engish newspaper, The Times of India, provides a curious example of how a newspaper re-invented itself to meet market forces, even at the cost of media ethics

Sukumar Muralidharan Delhi

The career of the Times of India (TOI) since the early-1990s at least, has been a saga of how the race to the bottom is the most profitable enterprise for a media institution. When newspapers were mired in old habits of thought, clinging to outdated beliefs that they served a public purpose, the TOI boldly proclaimed its exclusive devotion to the commercial calculus. It tided over the storm of derision that it invited, striking out along the path of squeezing out the last rupee of advertising revenue available in the market. And it succeeded not merely in maximising advertising revenue yield, but even in sharply boosting circulation and profitability.

Ever since, the TOI has been the role model for the Indian newspaper in the age of globalisation. When the relevance of the medium to its traditional constituencies has itself been called into question, the TOI has not merely remained relevant, it has created new constituencies along with the lifestyle paradigms it has propagated.

As a case study, the TOI is important for understanding the media as a social and political institution in the new world order. This is particularly true in the Indian context where Bennett Coleman and Company Ltd. (BCCL) that owns the newspaper is replicating what has been done by large media conglomerates elsewhere — the subordination of journalism to the whims of advertisers.

The golden goose of advertising

The TOI by 1994 had long since internalised the most significant rule of competition in the market for advertisements. Simply put, the advertiser was king and the readership a distant abstraction that did not have any immediacy to the newspaper, except as a burden to be borne. A recent chronicle of the Indian media industry records that the history of the press in the country can be written in terms of a significant point of inflection. The print industry, for long mired in romantic recollections of its contribution to the Indian freedom struggle, deluded in the belief that it had a role in underwriting the quality of the public discourse, was shaken out of its reverie by Samir Jain who entered his family business as a decisive player around the mid-1980s… An account of the TOI’s breathtaking innovations in the newspaper industry informs us that Samir Jain’s achievement was to use “simple marketing principles and good business sense to transform a down-in-the-dumps publishing company into a profit machine”.

The TOI’s distinction was in being way ahead of the curve when it came to adapting its editorial content to the need of the advertiser. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the TOI began a shift of content towards fashion, lifestyle and entertainment that had its loyal readership thoroughly flummoxed, used as it was to an intensely political discourse, intimately engaged with public causes. But even as many among the older audience cancelled their subscriptions in disgust, the newspaper succeeded in attracting new readers from unexplored demographic segments, like the youth and the high purchasing power strata. The results were dramatic.

And the bottom line flourishes

In 2001 for instance, BCCL was the “second most profitable unlisted company in India”, recording a net profit of Rs 2,059 million, which was well over twice the figure registered the previous year. In comparison, other media companies turned in distinctly anaemic performances. Kasturi and Sons Ltd, publishers of The Hindu, declared a net profit of

Rs 222.5 million and the Indian Express group reported Rs 23.6 million. But the weakest performance, expectedly, came from the newspaper that had suffered the misfortune of encountering the TOI at its most aggressive. Hindustan Times’ (HT’s) net profits in 2001 were down by over 96 per cent at Rs 5.8 million, and the company seemed rapidly to be plunging into the red.

Matters did improve in the following years though. In August 2005, the HT, which had been among the most ardent nay-sayers in the matter of foreign direct investment in the print media, came out with an Initial Public Offering (IPO) of shares. Early convictions having evaporated in the heat of competition with the TOI, foreign entities including Citigroup and the Henderson group, were expected to pick up sizeable chunks of the IPO.

The two media giants evidently accepted an uneasy coexistence. In terms of content and target audience, they now looked like clones of the same cell. But the media landscape in which the peace was established was a very different place. Where once Delhi had a choice of close to 10 daily newspapers published locally in the English language, the number of serious options had declined badly. Several of the newspapers that used to offer competing menus and priorities to the public right up to the early 1990s were now hollowed out financially, compelled to reach ever deeper to appease politicians and advertisers, merely to bring out a day’s edition. BCCL itself ended its decade-and-a-half of rapid commercial growth with a much leaner portfolio of publications. Its daily newspapers, the TOI and the Economic Times, were far and away, the leaders of their respective market segments. But several other prestigious mastheads, including The Illustrated Weekly of India and Science Today in English, and Dinmaan, Dharmyug and the Navbharat Times edition at Lucknow, all regarded at one time as serious participants in the public discourse in the Hindi cultural area, had passed into history.

The emasculation of the editorial function

This transformation of the newspaper in the advertisement and circulation aspects also meant initiating radical changes in the editorial function, which had to adapt itself to the new imperatives of providing a hospitable environment — a “feel good” ambience — for advertisers to display their wares. Earlier editorial priorities, which bore a relationship to the world that the majority of people actually lived in, had to yield before the demands of fostering the mania of entertainment and celebrity lifestyles. The task should have been by all indications, especially difficult in the TOI, which had a strongly entrenched journalistic culture and a team of writers and commentators that with some justification, took pride in running the most respected editorial page in the Indian media.

Samir Jain’s disdain for these traditions was never a secret. Soon after assuming the office of Vice Chairman in BCCL, he is known to have begun a sequence of duels with the editor of the TOI, Girilal Jain (no relation) over the utility of maintaining an intensely political and public-oriented discourse on the editorial pages of the newspaper. The Vice Chairman’s view was that the editorial page output served no purpose other than drawing the attention of the political and bureaucratic class, who needed little education in any case and contributed little to the financial fortunes of the newspaper. Girilal Jain, a man of strongly held views and ample professional confidence, was indulgent towards the man who he knew would at some stage inherit undiluted proprietary authority. But as far as the editorial processes of the TOI were concerned, he kept Samir Jain at arm’s length.

The chemistry between management and editorial soon deteriorated and shortly after the TOI completed an ostentatious celebration of its 150-year jubilee in 1988, Girilal Jain was eased out into retirement. From then on, Samir Jain’s writ ran unchallenged. He finally stamped his authority on the editorial department in 1994, nominating a director of the company to serve as editor of the TOI during a three-week absence of the regular incumbent. At the same time, the editor’s understudy, who would have been expected to assume charge, was asked to attend to the management functions normally discharged by the director.

The message was clear: editorial was no different in its importance to the newspaper than any of the management functions. The final concern was only for the bottom-line. Only those who were prepared to abandon the conceit that they could make a difference to the quality of the public discourse need entertain any ambitions of working with the TOI. In the years that followed, the designation of the “editor”, an integral part of a newspaper, was itself chopped and changed. It underwent various transformations that were devoid of sense or logic, before the BCCL management finally settled on having editors for each market, defined in a territorial sense.

Pay your way: fundamental rights as commerce

In March 2003, the TOI announced a new initiative that was professedly a part of its effort to stay current with journalistic practices in rapidly changing times. For an enterprise as crass as charging a fee for favourable coverage in the editorial space of the newspaper, the TOI managed to adopt a rather lofty idiom of expression. The “Medianet” initiative, as it was called, was in the words of the TOI management, part of their “desire to drive the market, to constantly break new ground”. The function of a newspaper, as the explanatory note put it, was “to act as an information provider”. That definition had “remained unchanged over time”, though the character of information had changed. So indeed had the means of information gathering — the network of correspondents maintained by the newspaper and all its subscriptions to news agencies, were simply failing to match the voracious appetite for information that was manifest among the larger public.

The deficiency of traditional news-gathering techniques was apparent especially in new areas of audience interest — such as “lifestyle, fashion, entertainment, events, product launches, social personalities and city happenings”. Public relations agencies had a much more sensitive feel of the social pulse in these areas, and journalism had recognised this reality. Once considered rather suspect as sources of news, PR agencies had come in from the cold and were enjoying a new respectability as legitimate stakeholders in the domain of public information. Yet no feasible method of regulating the flow of news from this source had been devised, in the TOI management’s estimation. Medianet was precisely such an effort.

All this would be done, the TOI management note concluded rather implausibly, “without breaching the boundary wall between advertising and content”. To make this vital distinction between “paid for” content and the rest of the news, the reader needed supposedly, only to look to the bottom of the item in question. A discrete legend printed there would alert him to the fact that a particular item was being featured under a Medianet sponsorship.

A year later, a rival media organisation in Mumbai that had been tracking the career of the Medianet initiative, reported that the identifying legend had entirely vanished after a few months. There was in short, no way that the reader could differentiate between an advertorial and an authentic news or editorial item. It was also reported that Bombay Times, the city supplement issued with the Mumbai edition of the TOI, had been charging for featuring photographs on its front page at the rate of Rs 1,254 a square centimetre. An art gallery owner in the city, while declining to give precise figures, was prepared to admit that he had instructed his PR agency to set aside a budget for coverage in the TOI. And the fast food chain McDonald’s saw little amiss in conceding that the coverage of the launch of its home delivery service, which featured a topflight female model, had been paid for. The Medianet rate card that had come to light then, revealed specific rates for coverage in a purported interview on page one of Bombay Times, and other tariffs for being featured on pages two and three.

A commentator from Mumbai said shortly afterwards, more in sorrow than anger, that for “millions of Indians (who had) grown up with the TOI, its growing crisis of credibility is like watching an old friend become mentally unbalanced from an addiction to greed and power.’ Whether he suffered any adverse consequences for daring to critique the new trends in the media is unclear, but a professional journalist who ran a web log in his leisure time, often featuring trenchant satire on the bizarre new trajectories in journalism that the TOI was exploring, had to close down his enterprise under the threat of legal action. Pradyuman Maheshwari, a journalist with the Maharashtra Herald in Pune, received his first legal notice for running a story on his weblog reporting a deal that TOI had allegedly concluded with Reuters for launching a TV channel. The story was perhaps two years ahead of time and was soon picked up by other newspapers — testament to its underlying journalistic competence and quality. But Maheshwari was soon served a legal notice and lacking the resources for a prolonged battle, compelled to take the story down and apologise. As a media analyst reported, “even the apology upset the (TOI), and they told (Maheshwari) to take it down so there wasn’t a backlash against the paper”.

When the public-spirited journalist carried 19 postings in the following weeks, including some that were bitterly critical of the Medianet initiative, he received a much longer legal notice. Among other things, Maheshwari was accused of being “constantly engaged in criminal conspiracy” against the TOI and causing the organisation “grave harm and loss of reputation”. Now thoroughly intimidated, Maheshwari shut down his blog.

Medianet is now business as usual in the TOI group. The wave of adverse notice that it generated has subsided and the bottom line of the company endowed with greater lustre.

This is from a case study of The Times of India for the “State of the Asian Media Report” to be launched soon by IPS in Bangkok




New horizons


On January 30, 2006 the Times group announced the launch of Times Now, a satellite television channel covering news and current affairs. Launched in association with the international news agency, Reuters, Times Now came as the finale of a rapid process of diversification which had seen the group venture into FM radio, music publishing and retailing, internet commerce, and the lifestyle and entertainment segments of satellite TV broadcasting. By extending its reach into the final frontier of television news and current affairs, the company was fully geared to consolidate its position as India’s dominant media entity, capable of leveraging its diverse strengths in print, television and radio for the ultimate in commercial synergy.

It is a measure of the company’s success that it has managed a massive and rapid process of expansion and diversification without diluting its ownership structure. It has retained the character of family ownership that has for long been an entrenched, and seemingly eternal feature of the Indian media industry. Other firms that were as zealously guarded in terms of ownership have chosen to go public to adapt to the financial realities of what is called, rather wishfully, the marketplace of ideas. But the TOI retains its closely held ownership character and continues to be ahead of the curve as far as the rapidly changing media environment is concerned. It manages effortlessly to adapt to every commercial contingency and indeed, over the last decade-and-a-half, has set the pace of change and established a commercial environment for the print media industry that other enterprises have vainly sought to adapt to.