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Citizens Jain : Why India’s newspaper industry is thriving


 Ken Auletta    ৮ জানুয়ারি ২০১৯, মঙ্গলবার, ১:০৯    আন্তর্জাতিক


(কেন ওলেটার এই লেখাটি ২০১২ সালের ৮ অক্টোবর নিউ ইয়র্কারে প্রকাশিত হয়। গণমাধ্যম ব্যবস্থাপনা যারা বুঝতে চান, তাদের জন্য এক অপরিহার্য পাঠ্য লেখাটি। - মুক্তবাক)

The square that borders the Dadar Railway Station is the largest of sixty-five newspaper-delivery depots in Mumbai. At 4 a.m., forty trucks and vans packed with newspapers and magazines have parked and slid open their back doors; the trash-strewn streets are otherwise deserted, and the loudest noise comes from the cawing of crows. During the next few hours, two hundred and thirty-one thousand newspapers will be unloaded, half of them published by Bennett, Coleman & Company, Ltd., India’s dominant media conglomerate. Venders cluster around the back of each truck, handing up wads of rupees to the driver in exchange for their daily stacks of newspapers and magazines. Afterward, with helpers, they sit on the sidewalk inserting supplements and sorting the stacks into neat bundles. Then they pass the bundles to deliverymen—there are some eighty-three hundred in Mumbai—who pack as many papers as they can onto motorbikes, rickshaws, bicycles, and shoulders, and set out to slip them one by one under or beside the doors of the city’s residents.

India is one of the few places on earth where newspapers still thrive. In the United States in the past five years newspaper advertising revenues have plunged by fifty per cent, to twenty-four billion dollars, according to the Newspaper Association of America, and net-profit margins now average five per cent. In India, which has a population of a billion two hundred million, newspaper circulation and advertising are rising. There are an estimated eighty thousand individual newspapers, eighty-five per cent of which are printed in one of India’s twenty-two official regional languages, and the circulation of English-language newspapers is expanding by about one and a half per cent annually. Many non-English newspapers are growing three times as fast, as about twenty million more Indians become literate each year. But, because English-language papers attract an upscale readership, they draw seventy per cent of the available ad dollars. The Times of India has a daily circulation of four million three hundred thousand, the largest of any English-language newspaper in the world. The  Economic Times is the world second most widely read English-language business newspaper, after the Wall Street Journal Both are owned by B.C.C.L., along with eleven other newspapers, eighteen magazines, two satellite news channels, an English-language movie channel, a Bollywood news-and-life-style channel, a radio network, Internet sites, and outdoor billboards. The company generates annual revenues of a billion and a half dollars, a paltry sum compared with an organization like News Corp., which produces thirty-three billion. But the pre-tax profit margin of B.C.C.L.’s newspapers is a remarkable twenty-five to thirty per cent.

The company commands half of all English-language print advertising, half of English-language-newspaper readers, a third of TV news-channel ads, and almost a quarter of all radio and Web ads. It is the largest outdoor advertising company in India. The company has no debt. One reason that Indian newspapers thrive is the absence of digital competition. Less than ten per cent of the population has access to the Internet, and, with two-thirds of the population surviving on less than two dollars per day, expensive smartphones and tablets aren’t about to replace print media as the news-reading platform of choice. Also, Indian papers are cheap, costing between five and ten cents daily. There are few newsstands in India only five per cent of papers are sold over the counter—and home delivery is free, paid for by the publishers. The actual price of each paper is even lower, because of what Indians call their recycling program. Subscribers save their newspapers, which are picked up by each month; the customer receives about ten cents per pound, and sell the bundles back to the paper companies to be recycled.

The success of Indian papers, especially the Times of India is also a product of their content and the unorthodox philosophy behind it. B.C.C.L. is a family-owned business, run by Samir Jain, the vice-chairman, and his brother, Vineet Jain, the managing director. “Both of us think out of the box,” Vineet told me on a recent afternoon. “We don’t go by the traditional way of doing business.” His company dominance can be explained simply, he added, though its methods are not taught in most Western journalism schools. “We are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business,” he said. With newspapers sold so cheaply and generating little circulation revenue, newspapers depend more on ad revenue, he said, and, “if ninety per cent of your revenues come from advertising, you’re in the advertising business. Jain sat behind a small wooden desk in an office the size of a large closet; the windows were covered by white shades, drawn against June’s monsoon rains. At forty-six, Jain looked professorial, in dark slacks and a pale-blue dress shirt, black-framed eyeglasses, and short, parted hair that has begun to turn gray. “Earlier, the newspapers were written more for the intellectual élites,” he said. “It was too serious at some point. It was not relevant to our readers.” Jain picked up a copy of the Times of India from his desk. The front page of the paper displays not six or seven stories but ten or eleven, plus a jumble of small boxes containing disparate news items, with no large photographs or design elements to provide a sense of neatness and symmetry.

Jain flipped through the front section, which featured a mixture of national, local, and international news: a monsoon alert, graft charges against a Presidential hopeful, a Mumbai train collision, and a story about the Taliban’s praise for India’s refusal to get militarily involved in Afghanistan. Investigative stories are rare. The Times of India sees itself not as an agenda-setter but as a bulletin board, a mirror to what happened yesterday. The first section had many ads, and there were several advertising supplements. The papers innovations begin in its eight-page second section, which is titled the Bombay Times but is known in-house as Page Three. The section brims with color pictures of seductive women and muscular men, along with stories of Bollywood stars, handsome cricket pros, and international celebrities. The lead story that day described how aspiring actors, including a sultry Saiyami Kher, “are keen to start their innings in Bollywood.” Jain explained that, like the surrounding stories, it was written by members of the reporting staff and paid for by the celebrities or their publicists.

Most of the section was filled with ads, or with stories that were ads; a similar section appears in each city in which the Times is published. An internal company report in June lauded the strategy as “so important that today nearly all Bollywood movie releases pay for promotional coverage ahead of movie releases, and actors/actresses pay to develop their brand through coverage in the paper.” Tucked under the section’s masthead, four words in small type inform the reader that the contents are an advertorial, entertainment promotional feature. Jain insisted that this meets the transparency test. on my masthead he said. It says advertorial clearly. All newspapers in the world do advertorials. But in the Jains newspapers the advertorials are written by staff reporters, and a reader needs a magnifying glass to be alerted. Jain got the idea for this section several years ago, after reading an interview with Richard Branson, the owner of the Virgin Group, in which Branson remarked that the reason he parachutes from airplanes and performs similar stunts is that, with this free publicity, he annually saves his company tens of millions of dollars in advertising.

“When I read it, I said, Oh, my God, eureka I m stupid! Jain said. Why these guys are not advertising in my paper is because I m giving them free P.R. If a Bollywood studio or a car company sponsored a fashion show, the show wont be ignored by the paper, Jain said, but the name of the studio or the company won’t appear. They are promoting a brand, Jain said. Pay me for it. The Jains call this ad-sales initiative Medianet, and Jain contends that it is more honest than what existed before, when reporters were slipped envelopes with cash or accepted favors in exchange for positive coverage. Why shouldn’t the paper, instead of the reporters, collect the bounty? Medianet generates about four per cent of the company’s revenues, a sum that is expected to double within a few years. Another innovation, conceived by his brother Samir, is referred to as private treaties or brand capital. Under this program, the newspaper offers a deal to smaller companies: it accepts ads in exchange for equity in a company.

B.C.C.L. insists on one-third cash as a down payment and accepts real-estate ownership in lieu of equity; the resulting ads appear throughout the paper. The company has a stake in more than three hundred and fifty companies, and this accounts for up to fifteen per cent of its ad revenues. In the U.S., several years ago, editors of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal debated whether readers would be served, or journalism harmed, if the business department sold discreet ads that appeared on the papers front pages. At the Times of India, or the Times Group, as the company is often called, the business side need not ask permission. The entire front page might be sold as an ad, for four hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Or two-thirds of it might be sold, or half, or a wraparound banner might be attached to the page; or the front-page ad might be followed by another, on page 2, with the normal page 1 buried inside the paper on page 3. For a hefty fee, the Times of India will even change the name on its masthead to, say, Wakudoki India (as it did on June 21st), a play on a Toyota ad campaign that claims that the car “makes your heart go waku-doki. Samir and Vineet Jain make no pretense that what they do is a public calling. Rather than worry about editorial independence and the wall between the newsroom and the sales department, they propose that one secret to a thriving newspaper business lies in dismantling that wall.

Samir Jain may be one of the more unusual media executives in the world; certainly he is one of the least visible. He has never granted an interview and made only a brief appearance, two decades ago, in a chapter on the Indian press, in Nicholas Coleridge’s book “Paper Tigers.” Indian news-service photographers are under standing orders to snap his picture, but they rarely succeed, because he attends few public functions. His wife, Meera, with whom he had an arranged marriage when he was twenty-seven, is said to have no interest in the business and keeps an even lower profile. I met Samir two yearsago, during one of his trips to the U.S. to speak with people in the media. He told me about the unusual ad-sales strategies he had implemented, and of his newspapers’ vibrant growth. If I visited India, I asked, would he talk with me about his business? He said that he would. Times executives generously Samir declined to meet. The reason he probably doesnt give interviews is because he doesnt want the fame, Vineet told me.It doesnt drive him. He doesnt want to be covered in newspapers and talked about. He rather be humble.The brothers are both press-shy.On a rational basis, they believe we should not explain to our competitors what we are doing,” Ravi Dhariwal, the companys C.E.O., said.

They will follow us eventually. Samir Jain is fifty-eight, but he looks older, his once stark-black hair now gray. He follows a strict vegetarian diet and has a slim frame and face; his clothes tend toward the baggy, his buttoned shirt collars loose. He often speaks in parables. Namita Gokhale, a well-connected novelist who co-directs the Jaipur Literature Festival, once sat next to Jain at a dinner. Jain told GokhaleI think history doesnt exist, and if I were Prime Minister I would ban the study of history. Gokhale devilishly responded,What I do is give you two tight slaps and a kick, and if you cant remember it agree theres no history! Jain politely smiled, turned away, and ignored her the rest of the evening. Jain spends about half the year at the company’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai, and divides the rest between international travel and spiritual retreats, particularly in the holy city of Haridwar, a six-hour drive north of New Delhi, where he has a home. Here he and fellow-congregants wash away their sins in the River Ganges, do yoga, meditate, and chant. Inside the company, an aura has enveloped Jain; when he enters a room, executives rise. They know not to interrupt him during his daily. or when he is engaged with his spiritual family. They groan when they are invited to an event at his house, knowing they will not be served alcohol. But he is not a forbidding figure; he always invites visiting Times executives to board at his home, sharing family meals.

The first filter he uses in any decision is Will this be spiritually O.K.? Will I be able to go to my guru? Dhariwal told me with admiration. He discusses a lot with his guru, I think. And if his guru doesnt bless it, I think he just drops it. Times of India has belonged to the Jain family for more than sixty years. It was started in 1838, by British owners, then swallowed five decades later by a joint British holding company, Bennett, Coleman & Company. Not until 1946, a year before India won its independence from Britain, did an Indian, Ramkrishna Dalmia, purchase the paper and the holding company. An ardent nationalist, Dalmia was a champion of the independence movement. He was also a man of many whims. He fathered eighteen children with six wives, three of whom lived concurrently in separate homes. Dalmia was more interested in politics than in newspapers, and he entrusted the company to his son-in-law Shanti Prasad Jain, the grandfather of Samir and Vineet Jain.

Under India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Dalmia was prosecuted for embezzlement and fraud. When he was released after two years in prison, in 1964, his son-in-law and daughter rebuffed his efforts to resume command of the company, creating a rift between the Dalmias and the Jains. Shanti Prasad’s son, Ashok Jain, took over in the nineteen-sixties; in 1975, Ashoks eldest son, Samir, joined the company as a junior executive, after receiving a university degree from St. Stephens College, in New Delhi. During the next seven years, Samir concentrated on the media business, while his father focussed on running the more than ten companies that made up the non-publishing parts of B.C.C.L., including cement, jute, and textile businesses. By the late eighties, as vice-chairman, Samir had assumed command of the company. In the nineties, his father, pursued by government charges of fraud and seeking medical treatment for a weak heart, left for the United States; Vineet joined Samir in 1993, as the deputy managing director, after graduating from the American College of Switzerland.

Although the brothers confer on all points of the business, Samir concentrates on newspapers and broad strategy, while Vineet focusses on television, radio, and the Internet. Company executives rarely address Samir by name, preferring instead to call him V.C.; they address Vineet as M.D. When Samir Jain first took over, the various businesses of B.C.C.L. were in decline. With national literacy rising, he decided to gamble on newspapers. He led long strategy sessions. “His mind was very clear about what business we were in,” Bhaskar Das, who became Samir’s principal sales executive, told me. “We knew we were in the business of aggregating a quality audience. Before that, we just sold advertising space.” Das, who joined the Times Group in 1980, is a member of the company’s board of directors and now serves as president and principal secretary to Vineet. He is tall and lean, with a chiselled jaw and silver hair that falls to his shoulders, and wears designer glasses. “We are a derived business,” Das said.

“When the advertiser becomes successful, we are successful. The advertiser wants us to facilitate consumption. Jain encouraged his executives to push back as he honed plans to forge a stronger business. He’s one of the most challenging and stimulating men I ever met, T. N. Ninan, a former editor of the Economic Times, who is usually a critic, said. His mind is active. He reads peoples motives very well. Jain recruited managers from consumer-product companies like PepsiCo and Unilever and invited them to attend editorial meetings. Credit cards, which, at the time, were hard to get in India, were secured for members of the sales team but not for the editorial team. This was Jain’s way of downgrading élitist newspaper editors who might want to leave a mark on the paper, thereby constraining his ability to make business decisions. Editors tended to be pompous fellows thundering from the pulpit, speaking in eighty-word sentences,” Rahul Kansal, Jain’s executive president and brand chief, told me. They saw themselves as part of nation-building, as part of a big dialogue. It did not connect too well with younger Indians. Samir Jain pressed his executives to create a more youthful paper. Articles would be shorter, sentences snappier; there would be more sports, less politics, more Bollywood, more color, lower necklines, and few book reviews.You can’t write about Mahatma Gandhis birthday for a fifteen-year-old, Das said. You can give a passing reference for the grandfather.He added, Everyone wants to feel young, think like the young. Youth is an aspirational band, not a demographic band. So if you make the paper youthful it satisfies everyone. Aspirational is a word one hears often around theTimes offices, as a way of characterizing the sunny outlook that the Jains say their readers want. We keep saying the glass is half full, not half empty, Vineet said.

Poverty, given that its not a condition to which one aspires, receives scant coverage. In the early nineteen-nineties, Palagummi Sainath, now a rural-affairs editor at the Hindu, wrote several dozen newspaper reports on rural poverty as a freelancer at the Times. Later, when he spent four years living among the Dalit community, often described as the untouchables, he didnt bother submitting the pieces he wrote about them to the Times. He recalls Times editor once asking him why he was pitching a story on rural poverty: How is this relevant to our readers? By the mid-nineties, the Times referred to itself, as Das did in his conversation with me, not as a newspaper but as a brand,” with target audiences that advertisers coveted. Although there is no absence of bleak news in the Times railway accidents, terrorist attacks, bureaucracy, corruption our general take on life, and it comes back to our editorial philosophy, is one of optimism, Dhariwal told me.

When a tsunami struck south India, the Times tried hard to find some good stories there heroic rescues, families reunited. Recently, when Rajat Gupta, who was born in India, was convicted in New York of insider trading, the lead story on page 1 of the Times focussed on the human dimension and was headlined jurors were in tears as they held gupta guilty Shekhar Gupta, the editor-in-chief of the Indian Express a more hard-hitting paper, said that when he and Samir Jain encounter each other Jain usually hands him underlined copies of Hindu scripture and affectionately admonishes him that my publication is too dark. Little more than a decade after Samir Jain assumed control, the company had become the largest media corporation in India. “I would give all credit to my brother,” Vineet Jain told me. The company also benefitted from a warmer economic climate; starting in 1991, India privatized many industries and reduced regulations. The government would continue to be the sole provider of news that aired on state radio; elsewhere, market forces were usually allowed to dominate the media. Although the Jains were friendly to advertisers, they played hardball.

“We tell advertisers that if you want to be in the Times of India you have to drop our Marathi competitors and take the ads to our Marathi paper, a senior executive, who asked not to be named, said. We told advertisers that if you want the Times of India in Mumbai you drop the Hindustan Times. When the salmon-colored Financial Times prepared to expand into the Indian market, Samir Jain worried that it would undercut his salmon-colored Economic Times. So in 1993 he registered the term Financial Times as a trademark of his company, and declared that if the British paper entered the country it would be violating his intellectual property. Two decades later, the case is still winding its way through the Indian court system. Jains artillery against existing competitors involved reducing newspaper prices. In 1994, when the top-selling paper in New Delhi was the Hindustan Times, Jain slashed the price of the Times of India by a third, to one and a half rupees, or about three cents. He took care to build a bigger ad-sales force in advance, because he knew that with lower circulation revenue the paper would need more ad income. By 1998, the Hindustan Times had slipped to second place in New Delhi. When Jain cut the price of the paper in Bangalore to a single rupee, Siddharth Varadarajan, one of his editors and the current editor-in-chief of the Hindu, told him, This is predatory pricing. Jain responded, Absolutely not. By lowering the price, I am expanding the number of readers. The gamble paid off: home subscriptions to the Times increased fivefold.




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