Tuesday, October 09, 2012

CATASTROPHIC SUCCESS: A CASE STUDY OF THE TIMES OF INDIA

(The recent article in the New Yorker by Ken Auletta, "Citizen Jains", October 8, 2012 (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/10/08/121008fa_fact_auletta?printable=true&currentPage=all&pink=OyguV0#ixzz28hPlbFKd) inspires me to dig up this article from six-and-a-half years back.

Sukumar Muralidharan
 
April 11 2006

When the Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce was launched in 1838, its editor J.E. Brennan, had a rather lofty mission in mind. It was a matter of great regret, he said, that England paid little attention to India, which stood in great need for education, since its “capacity for improvement is inferior to none”. The newly launched organ of the British mission in India would, he affirmed, provide “the earliest possible intelligence upon all subjects of politics, science and literature”. It would record all “changes and promotions” in the civil, military and naval services, and furnish for the benefit of the “mercantile community” both in India and England, “the fullest and most authentic commercial intelligence”. And with regard to the politics of Britain, “such articles (would) be extracted from the leading organs of every political party as may present to the reader a comprehensive view of the opinions and feelings of each”.[1]

As the years passed, the newspaper abbreviated its name to the Bombay Times, while taking over and incorporating a few other journals that had been launched to serve particular sectional interests in the western seaboard town of raj. Dr George Buist, a man of allegedly brilliant scholarly accomplishments was soon appointed editor of the newspaper and served for a period of close to two decades. In the aftermath of the 1857 uprising, commemorated now as the first war for Indian independence, his strident demand that the British follow a policy of “blood for blood” excited much resentment among the wealthy Bombay residents who were principal shareholders of the paper. His frequent recourse to the imagery of the jungle and his characterisation of the natives as “ferocious tigers, treacherous barbarians and cruel savages” were deemed by the proprietors to be “illiberal, impolitic and unjust”, tending to “alienate the native chiefs and Her Majesty’s subjects from the British government” and to “excite discontent and disaffection throughout British India.” But Buist remained unrepentant, and had to be summarily removed from his post.[2]

His successor, Frank Knight, continued the policy of buying up other newspapers in the city and broadening the reach of the Bombay Times. In September 1861, he launched the journal afresh as The Times of India, explaining the change as the logical outcome of the growth of Bombay, which had become in all but name “the capital city of India”. It was a city of infinite possibilities, whose future even “the most sanguine cannot adequately forecast”, and truly “imperial” in its resources, “whether for commerce or for war”. “While the city is imperial, its Press hitherto has been, in title, only provincial, and in announcing ourselves as The Times of India we are simply endeavouring to keep up with the march of events”, he said.[3]

A century-and-a-half on, The Times of India (TOI) was preparing itself for a similar takeover of the public imagination in India’s true national capital, Delhi, its one city with historic claims to imperial status. But the times had changed and so too had the idiom of expression. The Delhi edition of the newspaper on January 30, 2006 featured stories so outlandish on its front page, that the first impulse of the reader would have been to check whether another day of dedication to tomfoolery had been invented, to compete with the hoary antiquity of All Fools’ Day. The idea, it transpired, was merely to jolt Delhi’s newspaper reading public into an awareness of the multitude of possibilities that the future held in store. Underlining its intention to think beyond the constraints and limitations of the present, the TOI had datelined its issue that day for the year 2025. Delhi it said, stood “at a tipping point”. It was “waiting to be rocketed into a higher orbit”, where it would share space with “New York, London, Paris and more”.[4]

The daily’s stated purpose in carrying out the hoax on 30 January was to drive the agenda of transforming the Indian capital Delhi from a rather slovenly, unkempt city with distinct features of the Third World, into a true world city. Two days later, the newspaper announced that it would sponsor a cycle of festive events celebrating the good life in the city of Delhi. It was to be an observance that would belong uniquely to the city and in being seen as its principal patron, TOI was without saying as much, making plain its intention to get into the knit of the city’s life. After making significant inroads into a market in which it was earlier a distinct also-ran, this was the TOI’s bid for dominance. Delhi’s traditionally leading newspaper, which had first stigmatised its upstart competitor, then sought vainly to emulate it as its leadership in the market was rapidly whittled away, was left looking on, a helpless spectator.

The TOI Story


The career of the Times of India 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 (BCCL), the company that owns newspaper, is replicating what has been done by large media conglomerates elsewhere – the subordination of journalism to the whims of advertisers.

The TOI- Hindustan Times Price War

An entry against the newspaper in the internet based public encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, records that in 1907, TOI launched the first price war in the Indian media industry, cutting its price from 4 annas (or one-fourth of a rupee under the currency denominations then prevalent) to 1 anna.[5] An authoritative history of the Indian newspaper industry and its role in the struggle for freedom from colonialism, puts a rather different spin on the event. The TOI, it records was richer than the competition in the Bombay market and shared the power of its Anglo-Indian patrons. But it was always under challenge from the more nationalist minded Bombay Chronicle, particularly when the sympathies of the English-reading public in the city started shifting in that direction. Thus “when the Chronicle set its price at one anna, the Times felt compelled to reduce its single issue price to one anna in order to preserve its share of the market”.[6]

However the game was played in Bombay in the first half of the 20th century, the early 1990s witnessed rather different rules of engagement in the Delhi market, dominated till then by the rather colourless and unimaginative Hindustan Times (hereafter, HT). Owned by the Birla family, then perhaps India’s most powerful and influential industrial group, the HT as a newspaper was of considerably lesser vintage than the TOI. It had been parented by a factional leader of the Hindu Mahasabha using the finances of the Birla family and, since beginning operations in the 1930s had been under secure and settled ownership. Though Delhi had become a market of interest for three other major newspaper groups – the TOI, The Hindu, and the Indian Express – HT’s dominance seemed assured and safe, until the rules were radically rewritten.

In March 1994, the TOI sharply cut the selling price of its single issue from Rs 2.40 to Rs 1.50 on all days of the week except Friday. To guard against a catastrophic drain of revenues, the Friday price was raised to Rs 6, but soon enough cut to Rs 2.90. By early-May, the results as assessed by the TOI sales management team, were distinctly promising. Circulation in Delhi city, they estimated, had increased by about 20,000 on a sustained daily basis. Perhaps a quarter of this increase had been achieved at the expense of HT.

An unexpected hitch arose from another quarter. Newspaper vendors, an organised and powerful lobby in Delhi, were worried at a potential loss of income since their fees were computed as a fixed percentage of the cover price of the newspaper. To assuage these worries, TOI agreed on an ad hoc basis, to increase the vendors’ fee from 25 percent of the cover price, to the equivalent of almost 40 percent. Whether an assurance to revert to the old pricing scheme and eliminate these contingent measures was also conveyed, remains unclear. The vendors certainly believed that the revised price schedule of the TOI would be applicable for no more than three months. The TOI management had other ideas. But three months into the new deal, vendor organisations, claiming a breach of commercial agreement, began a boycott of the TOI. It was conjectured on the basis of fairly reliable bazaar gossip, that the HT management had actively stepped into the fray by then, leveraging its relationship of goodwill with the fraternity of news vendors to ensure that the TOI’s predatory forays were checkmated.

What followed were weeks on end, when the street corners and town squares where newspapers were bundled and packed for daily distribution, resembled battle zones. The newspaper vendors, with HT officials and employees seconded as their principal advisors and strategists, managed to disrupt every effort made to have the TOI distributed. An injunction obtained from the Delhi High Court served little purpose against the raw muscle power deployed. Editorial columns in both the TOI and the HT became the medium through which the battle of ideas, such as they were, was fought. This was a world totally disconnected from the rude ground realities of brawling newspaper vendors and conniving newspaper managements. The vocabulary here was dominated by lofty notions of consumer sovereignty, of dealers coddled with an assured take from each copy they distributed, and the noble instinct of self-abnegation that had led the TOI to slash prices and contemplate a catastrophic loss of revenue in the interests of its readers.

Peace was finally established, but with a newspaper scenario transformed beyond recognition in Delhi. Apart from the HT, two other newspapers, the Indian Express and Pioneer, felt compelled to match the TOI’s offering by way of cover price. Among the majors, only The Hindu retained its older selling price, content in the realisation that its core commercial interests lay in the distant south of the country. With all newspapers published in Delhi facing a massive drain of circulation revenue, the race began in earnest for the conquest of those demographic segments among the city’s English-reading audience that would be of maximum interest to the advertisers.

The golden goose of advertising


Needless to say, the TOI emerged the decisive winner in that pursuit of advertising gold. It could not have been otherwise, since 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.[7]

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”.[8] It is a testament to its essential simplicity that the same strategy, when deployed in Hyderabad in 2000, encountered a rather better prepared opposition. Both The Hindu and the Deccan Chronicle, with longer established bonds in the city, pre-emptively slashed prices to retain and even increase their market shares.[9]

Lifting the public gaze upwards

Price competition had evidently reached the limits of its potential in expanding market share. The focus then shifted to the demographic character of the audience. Paradoxically, the segments of the newspaper reading public that set much store by price are of relatively less importance to the advertiser. People with high purchasing power and high individual net worth tend to be insensitive to price variables in their buying decisions. The TOI marketing strategy then devolved upon a simple principle: to bring the universe of the high purchasing power demographic into the gaze of the price sensitive buyer. It was the decade of globalisation, when the cult of the celebrity acquired unparalleled proportions and the celebration of the good life of the few became a source of vicarious delight for the many. And the TOI was instrumental in the creation of this ethos.

Initial conditions were strongly in its favour. The TOI had always been strongly entrenched in the city of Bombay (now Mumbai), the commercial metropolis that was home to most of the country’s principal advertisement agencies. Till the 1990s shifted the locus of urban wealth towards newer centres less weighed down by the legacy of the past, Bombay was the city that by far, disposed of the greatest purchasing power. Enjoying a near monopoly in this market for decades, the TOI by 1994 was estimated to have an advertisement ratio, measured as the proportion of total printed area devoted to ads, of 55 percent. In comparison, the HT in Delhi and The Hindu in Chennai enjoyed much more modest ratios in the lower 40s. This was the initial advantage that endowed the TOI with the confidence that it could launch a price war and stay the course better than the competition.

The gains of the price war would have proved ephemeral though, if the TOI had not recognised that celebrity narcissism was the wave of the future. And for those who were not fortunate enough to share in the ethos of these charmed circles, the opportunity to gawk from a distance was an acceptable substitute. Either way, the celebration of the good life was just what the advertiser wanted.

In 1997, a media analyst wrote in the respected professional magazine, the Columbia Journalism Review about the “ad/edit chemistry .. changing for the worse”. “Corporations and their ad agencies have clearly turned up the heat on editors and publishers”, he wrote, “and some magazines are capitulating, unwilling to risk even a single ad. This (was making) it tougher for those who do fight to maintain the ad-edit wall and put the interests of their readers first”.[10] The motivations of the advertisers were clear. The special virtues of a product tailored to highly refined tastes, would look distinctly less alluring when placed in an “editorial context” that bore reference to the seamy underside of life, to a world where poverty and deprivation are rampant, and ill-health and disasters -- both manmade and natural – extract an enormous toll in human suffering. As the analyst pointed out: “Colgate-Palmolive .. won't allow ads in a ‘media context’ containing ‘offensive’ sexual content or material it deems ‘antisocial or in bad taste’ - which it leaves undefined in its policy statement sent to magazines. (T)he company (has said) that it ‘charges its advertising agencies and their media buying services with the responsibility of pre-screening any questionable media content or context’.”[11]

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.

On December 22, 2003, readers of the TOI began their day with a veritable display of triumphalism by their daily habit. Blazoned on the front page that day was a message of thanks to the Delhi readership, which had ostensibly made the TOI the city’s premier newspaper. And as important as aggregate figures was the composition of the audience. “Over three-fourths” of its readers, proclaimed the TOI, were in “the highest socio-economic category”; “almost a fourth” were “executives, businessmen, (and) self-employed professionals”; and the newspaper had established itself as the “clear choice” of the youth, with about 40 percent of its readers being below 24.[12]

The basis for the celebrations were the findings of the National Readership Survey (NRS) for 2003, which had put the TOI ahead of the HT in Delhi for the first time ever. In a pre-emptive manoeuvre, HT put out a story through its own columns the same day, arguing that the NRS findings were deceptive. “Circulation”, rather than “readership”, was the more reliable index of a newspaper’s spread and influence it argued. And circulation figures as gathered by the mandated body, the Audit Bureau of Circulation, still accorded the HT a significant lead over all competitors in the Delhi market.

The TOI hit back with another front-page salvo the following day. “At the top”, it proclaimed in bold print, “there’s room for only one”. And with an abundance of pedantic zeal, it sought to explain to its readers what the essential differences were, between circulation and readership, and why its claims to leadership in Delhi were absolutely watertight.[13]

The celebrations continued for another day. The edition of the TOI on Christmas eve moved the venue of the festivities from page one to two. It featured two photographs, of the Dalai Lama and Hindi movie star Amitabh Bachchan, posing with editions of the TOI, and a chorus of acclaim from well-heeled businessmen and executives, about the pioneering new path that the newspaper had embarked upon. For those who were still a little squeamish at the cocktail of froth and celebrity vacuousness served up by the daily supplement issued with the newspaper, the Delhi Times, there was a celebratory article on that phenomenon of the publishing world. The Delhi Times, wrote a breathless reporter for the TOI, was “where an infotainment (sic) revolution is shaped and reshaped every day”. “In a day and age when the newspaper has outgrown its pristine format to assume a millennial avatar, Delhi Times – by being in sync with the pulse of its audience – is constantly in dialogue with its readers”.[14]

And the bottom line flourishes


The financial performance of the Indian media is generally difficult to monitor, since most entities are either private limited companies, which are entitled to accounting confidentiality, or unlisted public companies whose parameters remain the preserve of a select few. A website specialising in media related matters does a significant public service in collating the figures for India’s major media players on a fairly regular basis. And the results that it has uncovered are little short of astounding. 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. HT’s net profits in 2001 were down by over 96 percent at Rs 5.8 million, and the company seemed rapidly to be plunging into the red.[15]

The misery was by no means over for the HT. Figures available for 2003 from the same source report that BCCL’s net profit for the year stood at Rs 1,664 million, while Kasturi and Sons earned Rs 315.5 million. HT again was languishing at the bottom of the heap. Though its figures were not quite as dismal as two years prior, at Rs 18.4 million, its net profit seemed derisory in relation to the standard established by its main competitor.[16]

Matters did improve in the following years though. In August 2005, the HT, which had been among the most ardent naysayers 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. In an analysis of the attractiveness of the offering, The Hindu Business Line, a financial daily published by Kasturi and Sons, reported that the HT bottomline had improved for a variety of reasons. It had managed “to come through a difficult period with a substantial expansion in circulation for the New Delhi edition”. Circulation had stabilised at the “one million plus level”, contributing to “greater clout with advertisers”. Advertisement rates had been raised in May 2005. And in March of the same year, the HT and the TOI had agreed on a concerted rise in cover price of about 30 percent. The “price-cuts that hurt profitability”, the analyst concluded, appeared “to be a story of the past”.[17]

With the declaration of the truce, 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 ten 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, contributing in their own ways to the richness of the public discourse, 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, had passed into history. Increasing profits and financial clout was achieved in short by a palpable loss of media diversity. That the ends of consumer sovereignty have not been served by the price war in the newspaper market or by the aggressive advertisement-oriented strategy of the TOI group, is a conclusion that for many, seems indubitable.

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 proprietorial 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 bottomline. 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.

The Times Of India gets agitated over ‘human rights’


Early in 1997, the Enforcement Directorate, an agency of the Indian government that is mandated to pursue and prosecute offences under the country’s Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) opened investigations into a number of possible violations by BCCL chairman Ashok Jain. The case involved opening bank accounts overseas without authorisation, money laundering and other offences.

On March 30, 1997, the incumbent Indian Prime Minister, H.D. Deve Gowda, was told early in the afternoon that the Congress Party whose support in the lower house of Parliament he enjoyed, had chosen to withdraw its sustenance. The decision conveyed in a letter to the President of India by Sitaram Kesri, president of the Congress party, left most observers mystified, including other elements within the senior leadership of the party. Deve Gowda duly resigned after failing to win a vote in Parliament and a successor was nominated from within his party, who the Congress then undertook to support.

On May 1, 1997, this writer with two professional colleagues, interviewed Deve Gowda at his residence in New Delhi. The general impression was that he had lost favour with the Congress because of the spate of investigations launched during his tenure into cases of political corruption involving the party. When the issue was posed in this manner, his response was simple: while in office his intent had always been to let the law take its course. Out of office, his greatest source of satisfaction was the belief that nobody could accuse him of ever having intervened in the due process of law, even where the appeasement of political confederates would have brought him rich dividends. The question was then posed, about Enforcement Directorate investigations, into possible violations by “various individuals”. There were reports that these inquiries were being blocked by the political leadership, impelling some civic-minded individuals to file a public interest petition in the Supreme Court of India, demanding that the investigation be given free rein. As Prime Minister, Deve Gowda himself had irately once referred to these petitions as a manifestation of “political interest litigation”.[18]

Out of office, Deve Gowda was less given to the rhetorical flourish. “Public interest litigation is the right of every citizen of this country”, he said: “If he or she feels that some injustice is (happening), he or she can go seek redress through the courts. But so far as this allegation is concerned, it has not come to my knowledge”.

The lapse of over nine years since then has freed this writer from the assurance of confidentiality given as a professional courtesy to the former Prime Minister. What transpired off the record, once the tape-recorders were switched off, can now be recounted. Referring back to the question that had been posed about “various individuals” managing to sabotage the course of investigations, Deve Gowda brought up the specific case of the FERA offences involving Ashok Jain. And he was categorical in asserting that the singular reason why Kesri had withdrawn support, was Deve Gowda’s refusal to do his bit in blocking these investigations.[19]

By March 1998, Deve Gowda’s successor had also been unseated and a government of a completely different political stripe installed in office. Yet the Enforcement Directorate could not be deflected off course. The TOI meanwhile, had begun a regular front-page column titled “Human Rights Watch”, borrowing the name of a respected international voluntary organisation for the decidedly more mundane purpose of suppressing a criminal investigation into an individual’s business transactions. There were horrifying stories of harassment and torture, of the selective victimisation of particular communities, and testaments of support for the victims of Enforcement Directorate excesses, from businessmen and legal luminaries. These reports began appearing from the time that the Enforcement Directorate raided BCCL offices in Mumbai, Calcutta and Delhi in January 1998.[20]

In May 1998, the TOI management summarily dismissed H.K. Dua from the post of “Editorial Advisor” that he had enjoyed for a year. His appointment to this rather vaguely designated post – it was not clear from the formal title he enjoyed, whether he was to advise the management or the journalists – was integrally related to the TOI’s effort to reduce the function of the editor to that of a cipher. To meet the formal requirement that an identified individual should be ascribed with responsibility for news items featured in any day’s edition of the newspaper, Dua was featured on the printline of the TOI while he held the position of editorial advisor. It was a clear case of responsibility without power, since the content of the news pages in the TOI was by now almost entirely within the domain of the advertisement department.

In March 1998, Dua’s name was removed from the printline of the newspaper and substituted with that of Pradeep Guha, an executive director of BCCL. Cut to the quick, Dua penned a letter to the BCCL chairman on March 22nd, accusing him of acting in an “unfair, illegal, arbitrary, administratively improper and malafide” manner. Ashok Jain, he said, had called him from the hospitalisation he had sought as a safe haven against the investigating agencies, to ask him “to lobby with political leaders to seek their help in the FERA cases he (had) been facing for some time”. Dua had then refused on the grounds that the lobbying function was no part of his responsibilities as editorial advisor. A few days later, he records, “Ashok Jain asked me to write articles in his favour to create a helpful climate before the Supreme Court (took) up his cases”. Dua, in his own narration of these events, responded with some asperity, pointing out that as “editor”, he was committed to the defence of the public interest. And it was not clear to him how the defence of Ashok Jain in a case involving financial crimes, met that function.[21]

TOI takes on the Press Council


Dua was rubbed out of the printline of the TOI in March 1998, but formally served his dismissal only two months later. The indignity that was inflicted on him roused several other professionals to action. Kuldip Nayar, a veteran journalist, then a member of the upper house of the Indian Parliament, raised the issue in that forum as one meriting action from a constitutional standpoint in defence of the right to free speech. And the social scientist Rajni Kothari, one of India’s most respected public intellectuals, condemned the event as “an attempt to humiliate the entire editorial fraternity”. “The blame for this cannot be laid entirely at the door of the management”, he said: “Journalists are also to blame, especially those who put together the ‘Human Rights Watch’ columns in the newspaper”.[22]

With public indignation building up, the Press Council of India (PCI) in August 1998 issued an unprecedented stricture against the TOI, accusing it of “carrying on a campaign against the Enforcement Directorate with the manifest intention of pressurising and deflecting it from performing its lawful duties”. The Indian Newspaper Society (INS), a powerful lobby representing the print media industry, responded within a week with “a strong objection” to the PCI’s action. With little concern for propriety, the INS president went on to question the credentials of the PCI chairman P.B. Sawant, a former Judge of the Supreme Court of India, who had earned almost universal respect for the depth and integrity of his rulings from the highest judicial bench in the country. Sawant’s remarks, said the INS, indicated an “ignorance of the ground realities of the industry as well as (an) absence of understanding of the climate in which India has created a free and independent media”.[23]

This controversy soon exploded into a public exercise in vituperation. The INS took exception to further observations by Justice Sawant that private ownership of the print media potentially embodied a serious hazard to the public interest, which made other forms of control, including cooperative ownership, worthwhile options to explore. The PCI in turn, responded by dismissing the allegations of “hostility” and “bias” levelled against its Chairman. These “unfortunate, unwarranted and completely unjustified” accusations amounted to actions “against the Constitution of the land” which allowed for a variety of ownership forms over public institutions. Implicitly referring to the dissent that had been expressed within INS councils over its decision to engage a distinguished public functionary in an unseemly verbal brawl, the PCI characterised the attack on its chairman as a violation of the “constitution of the INS”, which betrayed “ an outright partisan attitude”.[24]

The controversy threatened to burgeon out of control, but with Ashok Jain’s death in February 1999 while under treatment for a serious heart ailment in the U.S. city of Cleveland, Ohio, the belligerents decided to call a truce. If anything, the equations between the editorial and business functions of a newspaper were left further embittered by these inconclusive engagements. And in the years to come, the TOI was to establish a new orthodoxy in the diverse manners in which the constitutional right to free speech, and the right to access media time and space are understood.

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 regarded as beyond the pale, PR agencies had come in from the cold and were enjoying a new respectability as legitimate sources of news. 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.

Subtlety aside, this was a reference to the pervasive journalistic practice of accepting and even actively soliciting, monetary and other forms of gratification for news and editorial coverage that might be of material benefit to particular individuals or entities. Through Medianet, the TOI was, in deference to established rules of market competition, curbing this corruption of the trade by institutionalising it. Objectivity and integrity of editorial content would no longer be at risk from the susceptibility of individual journalists to material inducements. The organisation itself would bear that onus of vitiating news content in pursuit of its monetary aggrandisement.

After making “infotainment” a staple of the media industry, the TOI was now fostering a new hybrid entity called “advertorial”, which would allow sponsors to feature stories of particular interest in its news columns. All this would be done, the TOI management note concluded rather implausibly, “without breaching the boundary wall between advertising and content”.[25] 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 colour photograph of 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.[26]

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.[27] 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 weblog 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 intimated and alarmed at the lack of public response, Maheshwari shut down his blog.[28]

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. Profit finally is the most effective solvent for all the ethics and principles that journalists may in their quixotic fashion, still choose to cling on to. And the momentous debates, which went up to the highest judicial forum in the land and generated subtle and often pathbreaking enunciations on the right to free speech, the right of access to media space and time, and other matters of great public import, (see the following piece, Free Speech and the Right to Commerce) have all been reduced to the single imperative of profit. The fundamental rights are a live and vital charter for those who can pay their way to it. The others may just have to wait for providence to endow them with ownership over a newspaper.


Box 1. The TOI Empire

On 30 January, 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.

Some of other brands owned by the group include The Economic Times (a leading financial broadsheet), the Navbharat Times (a Hindi daily broadsheet), the Maharashtra Times (a Marathi daily broadsheet) and Times FM (a FM Radio venture).

On May 30, 2005, the TOI group launched Mumbai Mirror, which it advertised as the country’s first daily newspaper in the compact format. The newspaper is distributed free in various parts of the city and apart from drawing a fair volume of advertisement support, has been instrumental in the TOI group’s strategy of checkmating competition from a Mumbai edition of the Hindustan Times and the newly launched Daily News and Analysis, backed by a conglomerate of prominent media houses.

The TOI group also owns what it likes to call two “power brands” in the magazine segment. Femina, the country’s longest-running magazine meant for women readers and Filmfare, the most recognisable though not perhaps the oldest magazine on the Indian film industry, continue to be profitable propositions, which is why they have survived the holocaust in the magazine market that consumed some of the group’s other products. Since foreign direct investment was allowed in the print media industry, these two magazines have been spun off as the property of a subsidiary company owned by the TOI group, in association with a British media house.

Aside from this very minor qualification, 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.




Box2. Keeping up with the Jains

The Times of India was founded on November 3, 1838 as The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce. Daily editions began in 1850 and by 1861, the newspaper had acquired the identity of The Times of India. By the late-19th century this newspaper company employed more than 800 people and had a significant readership in India and Europe. Originally British owned and controlled, its last British editor was Ivor S. Jehu, who resigned the editorship in 1950.

In terms of operational control, the TOI group is today managed by two brothers, Samir and Vineet Jain, who hold the respective designations of Vice Chairman and Managing Director. In terms of family genealogy, the brothers are great-grandsons of Ram Krishna Dalmia, a businessman adventurer who bought the newspaper and all associated publications off its British owners in 1946 for the princely sum of Rs 20 million. Possessed by a fatal streak of vainglory, Dalmia imagined himself at the dawn of Indian independence, as the vanguard of a new social order, arguing his quirky and quixotic cases on politics and economic policy through the newspaper he had acquired. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru reacted with an instinctive animosity towards the socially reactionary agenda that Dalmia quite unabashedly espoused. And when the BCCL owner was found to have done his case no favour by his decidedly unsavoury pursuit of business interests in insurance and civil aviation, he suffered the ignominy of conviction under the law. The TOI group remained under government oversight under a rarely used provision of India’s company law, until the Jains succeeded in gaining control of the company. The story is recounted with the unavoidable veneer of filial affection by one of Dalmia’s daughters in a recent book. (See Neelmia Dalmia Adhar, Father Dearest, The Life and Times of R.K. Dalmia, Roli Books, Delhi, 2003.)




[1] Quoted in Margarita Barns, The Indian Press, A History of the Growth of Public Opinion in India, George Allen and Unwin, 1940, pp 228-9.

[2] Ibid, p 258.

[3] Ibid, p 270.

[4] The basic philosophy of the newspapers’ campaign for the Delhi market is available on the web at the following address: http://chalodilli.indiatimes.com/articlelist/1393834.cms.

[5] See the chronology available at the following web address: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Times_Group.

[6] Milton Israel, Communications and Power, Propaganda and the press in the Indian nationalist struggle, 1920-47, Foundations Books, Delhi, for the Cambridge University Press, 1994, p 23.

[7] Vanita Kohli in The Indian Media Business, records the advent of Samir Jain in two section heads in her chapter on the print industry. “Then came the business..” says the sub-head on page 22, registering the momentous impact of Samir Jain’s entry with the following section, which bears the heading: “That Samir Jain changed”. A bitter business rival of the TOI group is quoted grudgingly conceding that the entry of this individual was among “the biggest milestones in the newspaper business in India”.

[8] Vanita Kohli, p 25-6.

[9] A reasonable account of how TOI’s strategy of a price war in Hyderabad was checkmated by rival papers with deeper roots in the city is available in this October 2000 report, sourced on the web at http://www.reachouthyderabad.com/newsmaker/bs15.htm. An assessment by a media monitoring enterprise in July 2001, just under a year since the TOI launched its Hyderabad edition, provided the following summation: “TOI launched its edition here late last year. … Most of TOI’s key moves in a new market, were by then, very well known… TOI was pre-empted much ahead of their launch. Deccan Chronicle was given a complete makeover… (And) even The Hindu wore war paint in anticipation. Almost a year and three Resident Editors later, TOI in Hyderabad seems poised for a long haul. It has barely 5 percent of the city’s English readership universe….” This account of the Hyderabad newspaper market and various other print media battlegrounds is available at: http://www.exchange4media.com/e4m/mediaresearch/research_detail.asp?section_id=2&news_id=3577.

[10] Russ Baker, “The Squeeze”, Columbia Journalism Review, September/October 1997. As illustration, the following case is cited: “A major advertiser recently approached all three newsweeklies - Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News - and told them it would be closely monitoring editorial content. So says a high newsweekly executive who was given the warning (but who would not name the advertiser). For the next quarter, the advertiser warned the magazines' publishing sides, it would keep track of how the company's industry was portrayed in news columns. At the end of that period, the advertiser would select one - and only one - of the magazines and award all of its newsweekly advertising to it.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] The Times of India, New Delhi, December 22, 2003, p 1.

[13] “The ABC of NRS”, The Times of India, December 23, 2003, p 1. In explaining the issues involved, the TOI could not resist a gratuitous sneer at HT, which had apparently just a few months prior, debunked the rival, Indian Readership Survey and upheld the NRS as the exemplar of rigour and accuracy. The IRS in 2002 had put the TOI in the top spot in the Delhi market, while the NRS had stuck with the established order of precedence. Though this discrepancy may have been on account of differences in sample sizes and techniques, there have been other instances when the two rival surveys, which are backed by competing consortia of media organisations, advertisement agencies and market research firms, have reported starkly different results. This has led to some suspicion that the exercise of measuring a newspaper’s reach and the demographic constituencies it serves, is not entirely an objective process. With the disposition of large volumes of advertisement money riding on these results, they could be permeable to influence from the organisations that sponsor them.

[14] “DT: A constant celebration of life”, The Times of India, December 24, 2003. page 2.

[15] The website in question which tracks key issues in the South Asian media is www.thehoot.org. The story cited, is titled “Most profitable Indian media companies” and is available at: http://www.thehoot.org/story.asp?storyid=Web210214166108hoot12302002684&pn=1.

[16] The story can be found in a story titled “India’s most profitable media companies”, available at: http://www.thehoot.org/story.asp?storyid=Web202159222135Hoot43904%20PM1512&pn=1.

[17] “HT Media: Invest at cut-off”, The Hindu BusinessLine, July 31, 2005; available at: http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/bline/iw/2005/07/31/stories/2005073100751100.htm

[18] The full interview was published under the title “I never interfered with the due process of law” in Frontline (The Hindu group of publications, Chennai), May 30, 1997, pp 25-7.

[19] Obviously because of the sensitivities involved in a case involving one of India’s leading media magnates, this case went largely under-reported. Ashok Jain himself went on record on a few occasions to deny all allegations of wrongdoing. He also was rather bitter about the lone newspaper that seemed then to have space to devote to the case, The Statesman. But he was candid about admitting his close relationship with Sitaram Kesri in the interview that was published in July 1997, three months after Deve Gowda’s ouster: “He (Kesri) is an old friend of the family. My parents were very helpful to him early in his political career. Subsequently, he rose on the political ladder completely on his own. My father died about 20 years back and Kesri has been a treasurer of the Congress party under three-four prime ministers. I can't remember having played any role in helping him rise in politics in the last 20 years. It was entirely on his own. He is not indebted to us in any manner for that. On the other hand, in the last 20 years, I can't recollect a single instance where Kesri has helped us”.  The original source of the interview is unknown, but it is available on a site maintained by Outlook magazine, at the following website, which requires registration: http://www.outlookindia.com/fullprint.asp?choice=2&fodname=19970716&fname=interview&sid=1. The veteran politician George Fernandes, then in opposition and perhaps able on that account to speak with relative freedom, observed in an interview dated February 28, 1998, that “the Deve Gowda government fell for no reasons other than Sitaram Kesri's 40-year-old relationship with Ashok Jain of The Times of India. Kesri, in fact, was on the board of directors of one of the group companies as far back as 1967. Deve Gowda refused to oblige the Kesri-Jain combine on several issues… Deve Gowda had to fall. It was that simple”. This interview is available at the time of this writing at: http://www.rediff.com/news/1998/feb/28george.htm.

[20] Few concurrent reports on this campaign by the TOI group are available. Sudha Mahalingam, a correspondent with Frontline, closely followed the Enforcement Directorate investigations and at considerable personal risk, unearthed valuable facts that have now become part of the public record. Some of her reports are still available online and particular reference may be made to “Rights and Wrongs”, Frontline, March 6, 1998, pp 99-100, available at: http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/fline/fl1504/15040990.htm ; and “Citizen Jain”, Frontline, July 3, 1998, available at: http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl1513/15131110.htm.

[21] Again, the most reliable recounting of these events which is readily accessible is by Sudha Mahalingam in Frontline, June 19, 1998, pp 86-8; available online at: http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl1512/15120860.htm.

[22] Ibid, p 88.

[23] Ajit Bhattacharjea, “Pressures on a profession”, Frontline, September 11, 1998, pp 114-5; available online at: http://www.flonnet.com/fl1518/15181140.htm.

[24] Sudha Mahalingam, “The Press Council vs the INS”, Frontline, December 4, 1998; available online at: http://www.flonnet.com/fl1524/15240970.htm.

[25] The entire concept note of Medianet is available on the web at: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/cms.dll/html/uncomp/articleshow?artid=39286961.

[26] Hemal Asher, “Is this journalism”, Midday, May 11, 2004; available at:
ww1.mid-day.com/news/city/2004/may/83022.htm.

[27] M Raja, “Dirty laundry at the Times of India”, Asia Times Online, May 18, 2004; available at: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/FE18Df05.html.

[28] A thorough account of the episode is available at the Online Journalism Review, published from the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California. See: www.ojr.org/ojr/stories/050315glaser.

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