The TOI STORY- Sangita P Menon Malhan
The newspaper industry in India was once organized around unstated but fairly rigid regulations. Until the 1980s, when Bennett, Coleman and Company Limited, owners of The Times of India, The Economic Times and other publications, rewrote the rules – whether they were about pricing, advertorials or editorial freedom.
Over the next two decades, the Indian newspaper industry found
itself utterly transformed. In 1985, The Times of India had three editions with a circulation of a little over 5.6 lakh. By March 2012, it had become the largest selling English daily in the country, with fourteen editions and a circulation of over 45 lakh.
As it grew, the newspaper ended up reinventing the rules of reportage, editorial policies and marketing initiatives for the entire industry. Yet, very little is known about how the Times Group changed the dynamics of the Indian media business.
Sangita Malhan, a former journalist with The Times of India, set out to remedy this. She began by interviewing the journalists and corporate honchos who had played crucial roles in the transformation of
What she has unearthed is a fascinating story of clashing egos, changing visions and corporate makeovers. A must-read for industry insiders as well as all those who are interested in the way news is produced and consumed in India.
THINK OF NEWS MEDIA in India and the image that comes to mind is of aggressive, racy, out-of-breath, near-paroxysmal anchors sharing screen space with scrolls, images, graphics and ads, coaxing news angles out of diligent correspondents – all this, done slickly, tirelessly, in real time, through all our waking hours.
The media1 scene appears as a grand frenzy; almost shambolic. A flurry of images, ideas, updates – and the familiar in-studio panellists – mingle in a relentless churn, in the battle for the TRP. At the last count, more than 800 private satellite television channels2 including 300 news channels3 across several languages were vying for viewer attention.
The consumer is spoilt for choice when we also consider the print media that is on offer. While newspapers and magazines in the print form are in rapid decline in the West, they are more than holding their own in India. They may be less obstreperous than their television counterparts, but are not any less competitive.
As of 31 March 2012, the total number of registered publications in India was 86,754, with the combined circulation of newspapers standing at 373,839,764.4 Their numbers, as well as circulation, have been growing handsomely over the years. The rate of growth of the combined publications over the previous year (2010-11) has been 5.51 per cent. And 4,545 new publications were registered in 2011-12.5
This media phenomenon in India is only a little over a decade old. Prior to that, the media was much smaller, more confined and far less competitive. Media players now are always at pains to make themselves distinct from their competitors (though to a lay viewer, they often end up looking alike).
In contrast, newspapers in the 1980s and earlier, while having their individual and distinct personalities, had a lot in common in the way they looked at their business and the unstated rules around which they organized themselves.
It may be said that Bennett, Coleman and Company Limited (BCCL), which owns The Times of India and The Economic Times, among others, was the first to break the rules.
That set the stage for a seminal change in the Indian newspaper industry in the 1980s and ’90s. To be sure, several protagonists played a part in that transformation. But this one media group remained at the centre of it all.
The BCCL story is probably one of the biggest corporate growth stories of that decade. Strangely, it has never received the attention it deserved. All the interconnections of that change have never been brought out. It is ironic that a newspaper group that regularly chronicles the rise and fall of business empires – and all that happens in between – should remain relatively obscure from public attention.
Some of this has to do with the philosophy of the group as also the obsessively low profile of its vice chairman, Samir Jain. He is rarely, if ever, featured in his own publications. The photographers of the group are under instructions not to click his pictures for use in the papers.
As for other publications and channels, his interactions are so few, with so many years between them, that opportunities to know his story through the popular media are practically non-existent.
The group’s growth has not just been about its own numbers. It has profoundly impacted the media industry in India. If the media today is market-driven and profit-obsessed, the media before the 1980s was resolutely profit-averse.
The market was rarely the media’s priority and it almost seemed to draw satisfaction from the fact that commerce did not govern its decisions.
The transformation from an inward-looking and market-agnostic media, to the media as we consume it today, was led by BCCL.
The media began breaking away from a sequacious past sometime in the mid-1980s. Until then, for decades, it saw itself in the role of a ‘watchdog of democracy’ contributing to ‘building the nation’. It had been at the forefront of India’s freedom movement. Although more than three decades had elapsed since then, and much had changed even within the media, its self-image was still tethered to its days of glory.
The break that BCCL triggered was built around the idea that the media was also a business like any other. Like any business, it had to identify who its customers were, how its products and services would bring value to them and how much the business would make in return.
As in any other business, it would have to compete with other companies, create its own value proposition and safeguard its bottom line.
In many ways, this set the stage for what came thereafter in the media industry.
With the advent of satellite television in the early 1990s and then the proliferation of news channels, the media has effectively gone to the other end of the spectrum in terms of following the dictates of the market. The BCCL’s transformation, though resented and controversial at that time, now seems far more measured in comparison.
The BCCL story is also largely hidden from public view because one part of it had to do with the ‘truculent’ treatment of journalists in the group’s publications. The company chose to get rid of those who did not understand, or agree with, its new line; they were unceremoniously removed.
The controversies surrounding the exit of journalists from The Times Group were analysed at some length in the past. They hit the headlines because fellow media persons took up the issue with great vigour, even as they, more or less, ignored the other aspects of the transformation of the group.
The media in the 1980s was, of course, much smaller, far less competitive and a lot less to play for. Yet the moves were audacious for that time. Take, for example, changing the look, feel and content of The Economic Times, pricing it at a premium and then abruptly bringing down the price one-day-a-week to rake in the volumes – all this made for scintillating stuff.
The group’s diligent but clever move to create a web of advertising rates for editions across the country also created new rules for the industry. Its move to cut the price of The Times of India and expand reach had a cascading effect on the industry.
After some initial hesitation, many formerly sententious rivals followed suit. This meant that households in Delhi, for instance, could buy two newspapers for the same monthly bill. This, combined with certain other factors, led to an explosive growth in readership.
To carry all this through, it was important that the organization worked as one integrated whole, focused on the overall objectives. That was not easy. Newspapers consciously separate the news side of the organization from the advertising and marketing functions. This is to maintain objectivity and ensure that news is not influenced by those advertising in it.
While the same applied to BCCL, the separation had been taken too far. Each function operated as an island. The predominant position was with the lead writers. Many of its editors were erudite, well known among the intellectual middle class and respected in the corridors of power.
Over time, however, this perhaps made them averse to change. They had strong, sometimes limiting, views on what was appropriate for a newspaper.
There was resistance, though less publicized, on the marketing and advertising side as well. People had to shed years of inertia and wake up to the new experiments being undertaken.
There was upheaval there as well, with some in the old guard yielding to a new crop of professional marketing and brand managers recruited from other sectors.
All this action unfolded in the context of major changes in the media landscape, as also in the Indian economy. The latter half of the 1980s was an interesting time for the print media in India, which witnesed a magazine boom. There was also growth and expansion of newspapers, as some of the now prominent names entered the fray during that time.
The electronic media was essentially Doordarshan. Although government-controlled, it had opened itself up to commerce. It was smartening up, having gone colour in 1982. More importantly, it was steadily expanding its reach across the country and owing to its captive position, governments saw it as a potent weapon to shape and strengthen perceptions.
The Indian economy was taking its first wobbly steps towards liberalization. The new paradigm of openness and less government control had started to become visible. It would acquire momentum and clarity post-1991. But even in the mid-1980s, a new middle class was emerging in the metropolitan cities and large towns.
In hindsight, it appears that the transformation in the BCCL was timed to coincide with these mega developments. Some insiders claim these were a conscious response to the context as it unfolded. Others argue that they were foreseen. Yet others claim that to a large extent these changes were defined and shaped by the experts at BCCL.
What cannot be refuted is that the group experienced scorching growth in turnover, profits, reach and mindshare during the decade starting the mid-1980s. In 1985, it had a turnover of Rs 73.5 crore and a net profit of Rs 1.2 crore.
The Times of India had three editions with a circulation of a little over 5.6 lakhs. By 2001, turnover had grown to Rs 1,214 crore. Net profit was at Rs 205.9 crore.
On 5 June 2005, The Sunday Times carried an advertisement which declared, ‘Shakespeare sulks. Byron blinks. And Wordsworth wails…as The Times of India becomes the largest selling English newspaper in the world’ with 2,438,115 copies. There was further growth.
As of March 2012, The Times of India is the largest circulated multi-edition daily in English in the country, with fourteen editions and a circulation of 4,575,895.6 The Economic Times is the second largest-selling business daily in the world, after the Wall Street Journal.
The group publishes thirteen editions of newspapers and several magazines from eleven publishing and twenty-six printing centres and dominates the country’s English-language newspaper arena, which has more than 11,000 newspapers. All in all, the group has fifty editions across forty cities.
The group’s financials too have come a long way. In the financial year that ended on 31 March 2011, the company earned profit before tax of Rs 1,489.2 crore on a total income of Rs 4,749.3 crore.
Along with its newspapers, the group forges ahead with its two news channels, Times Now and ET Now, an entertainment, film and lifestyle channel (Zoom), a movies channel (Movies Now) and a radio network (Radio Mirchi).
It also has OOH (out of home) advertising and event management ventures; and its investments span various other sectors such as music, films and real estate, among others.
Much has happened in terms of the group entering new areas of business, catching up on the news television business, buying and selling new brands and putting a lot of focus on the web and Internet media.
But it is reasonable to argue that the seeds for this prolific growth were sown in the early 1980s.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sangita P Menon Malhan is an Indian writer born in 1967, who began her journey by training to be a pilot but shifted careers in her mid-twenties and became a journalist in New Delhi.
She has worked with The Statesman, Delhi Mid-Day and The Times of India. In 2008, she veered towards writing fiction. Her first book, a collection of short stories for children, Rastapherain’s Tales, was published in 2010.
`The Time Has Come,’ one of her short stories, was selected for 2011 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology. She also has to her credit a collection of poems in Urdu, Nusrat-e-Gham.
The TOI story has been in the works for 13 years, in fact as she told us, she almost gave up writing the book and then picked up the threads again to finally see it happen. She is fond of languages and teaches French. She lives in New Delhi.