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Keeping up with the Times: Slippery slopes in India's flourishing English news landscape

Keeping up with the Times: Slippery slopes in India's flourishing English news landscape

Flash quiz: what is the highest-circulation English-language newspaper in the world?

(Hint: Rupert Murdoch doesn’t own it.)

The correct answer, as you are likely aware, is the Times of India, which has a circulation of 4.3 million, and reaches an average of 7.64 million readers with each issue.

While money may not exactly be growing on trees in the news industry these days, the 174-year-old title, published by family-owned media conglomerate Bennett, Coleman & Company (B.C.C.L.), is planted in fertile soil: it is the most widely read English-language daily in a country where newspaper circulation is rising by 8 percent per year overall, and 1.5 percent per year for English-language newspapers.

But for the company’s senior leaders that’s not the point, or at least not all of it. “We are not in the newspaper business,” Managing Director Vineet Jain told the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta in a recent interview; “we are in the advertising business.”

Auletta’s comprehensive article on India's flourishing newspaper landscape (Citizens Jain, Oct. 8) is filled with similarly revelatory statements from the straight-talking younger Jain brother (Samir Jain, the group’s pious Vice-Chairman, remained silent) and other members of the group’s management.

“If ninety percent of your revenues come from advertising, you’re in the advertising business,” the younger Jain continued. Indeed, while readers are asked to pay very little for a copy of the Times of India (about 3 U.S. cents), the preferred status of English-speakers in the eyes of India’s advertisers means that English-language titles draw 70 percent of the country’s available advertising money. Much of this goes to the Times of India and fellow B.C.C.L. paper the Economic Times, which after The Wall Street Journal is the highest circulation English-language business daily.

This does not always enter the conglomerate's coffers in the most conventional ways. “Both of us think out of the box,” said Vineet Jain of himself and his brother Samir. Here are some examples of their creative (and controversial) thinking:

  1. Private Equity: A solution for smaller businesses competing with multinationals for ad space is the “private treaties” or “brand capital” programme, whereby the newspaper will run ads in exchange for equity in a company. According to Auletta, this accounts for up to 15 percent of B.C.C.L.’s advertising revenue, and it owns stakes in more than 350 firms.
  2. Paid Content: Through a programme called Medianet, the Times of India contains articles marked "advertorial, entertainment, promotional feature" that are penned by the newspaper’s editorial team, and paid for by movie stars and their publicity teams. Vineet Jain told Auletta that he came up with the idea while reading an interview with Richard Branson, in which the Virgin owner said that he performs high-profile stunts for free publicity. “When I read it I said, ‘Oh my God, eureka-- I’m stupid!’” Jain said, describing how he realized that his newspaper was covering potentially lucrative events like fashion shows and film premières for free. “They’re promoting a brand, pay me for it.”
  3. Vanity Mastheads: Not only can an advertiser buy the entire front page of the newspaper for $450,000, but the Times of India sold its masthead to Toyota this summer. A partial flap like the New Yorker’s obscured the first part of the masthead on July 21, replacing “The Times of-” with “Wakudoki-” India, Wakudoki being something (perhaps onomatopoeic) that happens to one’s heart when one beholds a Toyota automobile (according to the ad campaign).
  4. Financial Blockade: When the Financial Times began trying to move into India’s market 20 years ago, rather than letting it encroach on the territory of B.C.C.L.’s similarly blush-coloured Economic Times, Samir Jain simply registered the trademark “Financial Times” in India. “Two decades later, the case is still winding its way through the Indian court system,” writes Auletta.
  5. Competitive Pricing: To trump former circulation leader the Hindustan Times, Samir Jain knocked a third from the price of the Times of India. It worked. Later, noticing that the Calcutta zoo had managed to attract long lines on Mondays by slashing entrance prices on that traditionally sluggish day, the elder Jain did the same thing with the newspaper, slashing the price on Wednesdays, and then three days a week in certain areas. Again, circulation rose.

Price wars may be seen as poor sportsmanship where colluders are concerned. Registering another publication’s name as a trademark may be a dirty trick, and selling one’s masthead may seem, to some publications, akin to selling one’s soul. But these last three are not the tactics that critics of India’s news industry find most corrosive.

Far more dangerous are the first two. Sponsored content runs the risk of being mistaken for straight news, especially when the disclaimer is in small print, thus holding the potential to mislead the reader by having him imbibe a paid message, blindfolded. In 2010, a reporter from the UK’s Sunday Times got in touch with the Times of India's Medianet, pretending to be a PR representative for a firm about to throw a party in Delhi. The Medianet executive reportedly said that 27 pounds per centimetre would buy the firm front-page coverage of the party in the Times of India’s society section, and that the attendance of enough celebrities (provided at an extra cost) at said party would allow the coverage to be “dressed up as a genuine news story.” Hmm.

For a news organisation to exchange ad space for equity in a company, moreover, is to take a vested interest in that company’s success, thus compromising the editorial department’s ability to report honestly about said company. This was exemplified in 2008, when an elevator crash on a construction site in Bengaluru killed two workers and injured seven. Sobha Developers, the company in charge of the site, did not figure in the Times of India’s reporting of the incident, while it featured “explicitly” in the reporting of its competitors, media criticism site the Hoot reported. A possible explanation? Sobha Developers was one of the Times' “private treaty” partners.

Where press freedom is concerned, these breaches are capital sins. Or in this case, sins brought on by the excessive sway of capitalism.

“Before him, the newspaper business was run almost like a nonprofit,” said Hindusian Times Editor-in-Chief Sanjoy Narayan of Samir Jain, whom he credits with making the industry a profitable one. “He’s been emulated by everyone else.”

In India’s booming world of English-language news, the Times play the role of the Joneses; other newspapers are swallowing their pride and trying to keep up. Aroon Purie, the CEO of India Today Group, suggested to Auletta that B.C.C.L. had spurred a race to the bottom of sorts, which empowered “brazen advertisers” to ask other newspapers, “If the Times of India does it, why can’t you?”

In a talk titled “Indian Media’s Dickensian Age,” TN Ninan, Chairman and Editorial Director of BSL, which publishes the Business Standard newspaper, put it neatly: “We have never had such a vast audience or readership, but our credibility has never been so tested," he said, according to FT. "The quality of what we offer to our public has never been better but that same public can see that the ethical foundations of our actions have plumbed new depths."

"It is unquestionably the best of times and it is also, unfortunately, the worst of times.”

Sources: New Yorker, FT, Guardian, BBC, Hoot (1) (2), Indian Readership Survey

Photo of a newspaper vendor courtesy of Samer Mereani via Flickr Creative Commons


Emma Knight


2012-10-22 17:34

Shaping the Future of the News Publishing

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