The October 25 English edition of India Today magazine carried, what in journalistic parlance is called, a scoop. Pranab Mukherjee, the Congress Party’s senior-most leader, posing with his feet up on an ottoman, confessed to an India Today reporter that he was resigned to not becoming the prime minister, ever; and that he would not join a Rahul Gandhi-led cabinet. It was the first provocative political story to have appeared in the magazine in a long, long time.
After years of conceding its bark and bite, the magazine caught the attention of practically everybody in the media business. Wasn’t this the same title that was content following the agenda set by television and daily newspapers? “India Today was once the voice of God. It was at the centre of the national discourse in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” says Tarun Tejpal, editor of newsmagazine Tehelka, who worked at India Today between 1988 and 1993.
Tejpal says it was exemplary for reportage and for producing tidy, thought-through stories. “It was the voice of a new kind of journalism in the ’80s. Today it is just wrapping up the news for you.’’
But the 35-year-old magazine now has a feisty 60-year-old M.J. Akbar as editorial director. As things turned out, Mukherjee had casually told Akbar what was on his mind. At the next edit meeting, Akbar promptly commissioned a story on Mukherjee. When asked what if Mukherjee denies the whole thing in a formal interview, “We’ll still run the story,” Akbar said without blinking. Since he’s taken over, sources at the magazine say, he’s commissioned at least half a dozen edgy cover stories, most of which are around Indian politics.
While he has editor-in-chief and owner Aroon Purie’s full backing, the marketing think tank at the group is believed not to be too happy with the return-to-politics strategy. Ashish Bagga, the CEO of Living Media India (LMI), India Today’s parent company, says that no general interest magazine in India “can escape politics”. A source at the company says that their marketers’ research suggests readers don’t like cover stories with politics as the central theme. The magazine’s best-selling cover every year for the past several years has been sex surveys.
It is a theory Akbar’s predecessor Prabhu Chawla had bought into and articulated to the magazine’s editors and reporters when they gathered for a two-day brainstorming session at Delhi’s Taj Mahal hotel in 2002. “Politics and states were barely discussed,” says a reporter present at the meeting. Chawla said the magazine’s target audience is the young and upwardly mobile. Since then, the magazine has tried hard to shed its lineage and focus instead on lifestyle, travel, health and Bollywood. “But I don’t think they’ve been able to overhaul their product to appeal to the current generation of readers,” says the Starcom MediaVest group’s CEO for South Asia, Ravi Kiran.
Bajaj Auto, a permanent fixture on India Today’s back cover for more than three decades, snapped the relationship recently. Explains Amit Nandi, vice president at the company, “It was like wallpaper. It didn’t matter whether or not we were in the magazine.” India Today had stopped reaching out to Bajaj’s mass-market audiences in Tier II and Tier III cities, he explains. Nandi reckoned Bajaj could sell its premium bikes to audiences better through automobile magazines. “From our point of view, India Today is no longer the first port of call in magazines,’’ says Ravi Kiran.
Instead, half its readership now comes from Mumbai and Delhi. Its total readership has shrunk from 27.8 million (in 2007) to 17.8 million in the first quarter of 2010, though the trend has dogged the industry as a whole.
Insiders say Purie was often unhappy with the transition and three years ago even privately suggested to senior editors that they should think about converting India Today into a monthly. That, Purie argued, would give editors room to step back more often and come up with compelling ideas. But Chawla and others in the management reckoned this would dilute the brand. In fact, one senior manager suggested they publish twice every week. But that was in 2007. A year later the global economy went into a tailspin and LMI posted losses of Rs. 30 crore on revenues of Rs. 375 crore for the year ended in March 2009.
Bagga says advertisement revenues were down 15-20 percent. Print runs on all titles were slashed and the company consumed 10 percent less print than it did the previous year. It merged the marketing and sales staff of India Today’s peripheral brands such as Spice and Aspire. All promotions and marketing activities were stopped. Bagga says salaries were frozen, but no editorial positions were cut. The senior management also took a 20 percent pay cut. Purie, Akbar and Chawla declined to speak to Forbes India for this story.
Business has bounced back. The number of ads in the first 21 issues of India Today increased from 642 in 2009 to 765 in 2010. Bagga says the publication business was profitable in the previous year as well. It was just that other parts of LMI lost money. That said, India Today is still top dog. With a readership of nearly 18 million and according to Bagga, an advertising share of about 60 percent among its peer group, it is still a formidable leader. Business may have improved, but reviving editorial is a much more arduous job.
Mobashar Jawed Akbar, popularly called MJ, is an interesting choice to lead the resurgence at India Today. A year after the Puries founded the magazine, Akbar, then just 24, launched Sunday, a political weekly from the Calcutta-based Anand Bazaar Patrika group. The magazine quickly became popular for its political and investigative stories. Six years later, Akbar launched The Telegraph, a daily that successfully unseated The Statesman as the leading newspaper of Calcutta. He then dabbled in politics for a while.
His return to journalism was rather tepid. His first baby, The Asian Age, remained a fringe player. A more recent venture, Covert magazine, was a failure and a weekly newspaper, The Sunday Guardian, which he started 10 months ago, is still in its infancy. In that sense, his current assignment could also mark his comeback.
Tejpal says India Today remains a great institution and Aroon Purie a fine leader. But the magazine has lost its centrality in national discourse. The sentiment is echoed by India’s best-known photographer Raghu Rai. “The electricity and the immediacy have gone out of its photo coverage,” he says. Rai was photo editor of the magazine throughout the ’80s and is credited with many a memorable photo feature, including one on Indira Gandhi and another on Mother Teresa. But that was not how things were meant to be.
The magazine began life as a filler, so to say. The Purie family owned the Thomson Press in Faridabad. When he joined the family business after graduating from the London School of Economics and later qualifying as a chartered accountant, the shy, cigar-loving Aroon Purie took over the magazine that his sister had started a year earlier to keep the press occupied.
“There was no grand vision. We stumbled from one thing to another,” Purie told Careers360 in November 2009. He said it was a niche magazine, a comprehensive news digest, meant for Indians living abroad. But it failed. So Purie decided to put it into the local market and received a good response. He poured money, resources and guts into the venture.
By the early ’80s he had assembled a formidable team led by his Doon schoolmate Suman Dubey. He hired Raghu Rai as photo editor and Aurobind Patel, a crack designer who had worked for The Economist and was consultant to several British newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and The Times. The others included T.N. Ninan, Prabhu Chawla, and Shekhar Gupta — all of them went on to become editors of leading publications.
“Aroon was looking to transform India Today into a serious newsmagazine,” remembers Rai. In the mid ’80s, Purie appointed Inderjit Badhwar, another schoolmate of his, as executive editor. Badhwar had spent the previous 20 years in America, making a name for himself as an investigative journalist under the tutelage of famous muckraker Jack Anderson. Purie handed over the magazine to Badhwar on a seemingly unending leash. “The idea was to quicken the pulse of the reader,” remembers Badhwar who held the reins of the magazine for more than a decade. “Aroon used to say news is what someone wants to hide. The rest is advertisement.”
Badhwar says Purie had a unique ability as both a chartered accountant and editor to find the bottom line quickly. And he spared no expenses for a story. “Aroon used to say ‘you don’t have to give a damn about the budget. That is my headache’,” says Badhwar.
That was why the magazine had the spunk to hire a plane for its reporter to give readers a first-hand account of the monsoon approaching the Kerala coast. When thousands of people died in the infamous Bhopal gas leak, Raghu Rai was there to document the horror of industrial accidents through the ghoulish face of a half-buried child. As thousands of frenzied kar sevaks brought down the Babri Masjid, a dozen India Today reporters and half a dozen photographers recorded that as well. Their reports and pictures finally culminated in a searing edition, “India’s Shame”. When tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the magazine was a witness. Money did not matter. The story was paramount. And it told the tale with unmatched elan and accuracy.
The final gatekeeper was Purie himself who insisted on seeing every page before it went to press. It didn’t matter which part of the world he was in, pages were faxed to him for approval. Many stories never saw the light of the day for several months because they were not perfect. Former business editor Hardev Sanotra says, “It was not uncommon to hold stories for as long as a year.” Sanotra, as editor, is now preparing to launch Financial World, a business daily from the publishers of Tehelka.
By the mid-1990s, the English edition of India Today was the undisputed leader selling over four lakh copies. Its reign was, however, about to be challenged. Tarun Tejpal left India Today and after a brief stint at the Indian Express group joined Vinod Mehta to found a new weekly newsmagazine, Outlook.
Published by the Rahejas, it hit the stands with a bang, quickly capturing the imagination of the reading public with sensational stories that made India Today, then a fortnightly, look jaded.
Its publisher Maheshwar Peri says Outlook never intended to take on India Today. “We were targeting the space vacated by The Illustrated Weekly of India [a magazine published by The Times of India group],” says Peri. The Weekly had shut down in 1993 after a run of 113 years.
India Today watched Outlook with competitive wariness for a year and half. It then dropped its price from Rs. 15 to Rs. 10 and turned weekly. It had finally come down from its pedestal to join the rat race.Tomorrow
Chief Executive Ashish Bagga stoutly refutes that the magazine has lost its touch or declined qualitatively. Bagga, a stocky Punjabi who speaks Tamil fluently because he was born and brought up in Chennai, says India Today’s content is based on continuous reader research. “We are very closely plugged in as far as readers within our competitive framework are concerned.”
For the past seven years, India Today’s circulation has stagnated around 4.7 lakh, which includes 1.2 lakh copies sold in bulk to hotels, airlines and hospitals. Bagga, however, considers it an achievement because the magazine raised its cover price from Rs. 15 to Rs. 25 in two stages. Readership and advertising revenues clearly show India Today is the leader, he says.
The changing market also forced the group to adopt a strategy known well to newspapers as the armada plan. It ring-fenced the India Today brand with smaller, focussed titles like Spice and Aspire, distributed free with the flagship. Bagga says the group will soon be a six-spoked business spanning television, India Today English, language publishing, distribution chain Media Mart, a new e-retailing venture with Axel Springer of Germany and a yet-to-be-disclosed venture.
The group is also considering a new plan that will merge its entire journalistic might into a common newsroom, a person familiar with the matter says. That will put hundreds of journalists in one giant newsroom pool from which each of its media channels could draw from. It will reduce multiplicity of reporting and reduce variable costs. For instance, its bouquet of television news channels could theoretically use one crew to cover an event. Bagga declined to comment on the plans.
Akbar, it seems, is already trying it out at India Today. He has brought in old hand Harinder Baweja to strengthen investigations. She has joined Headlines Today, which too is under Akbar, but is expected to bolster the magazine’s editorial strength.
Insiders say he is already at work, galvanising the bureaus to contribute fresh story ideas. He is pushing senior editors to travel more. Akbar himself is putting in over 12 hours on production days, going through each and every copy, suggesting changes and sometimes even rewriting them. But the big change is the twist he is able to give to political stories. “He has surprised at every edit meeting so far,” says a senior editor on condition of anonymity. Now, apart from the weekly editorial meetings, he leads a daily morning meeting with the political bureau.
Soon after taking over, he wrote to his colleagues saying he doesn’t want “cut-and-paste” journalism. Instead, more feet ought to hit the ground. What that means is fairly simple, say insiders at the magazine. Senior editors now guide a story from the beginning to the end with Akbar personally taking the lead. Regional stories, which were being written out of Delhi with marginal inputs from reporters on the spot, are now going back to where they ought to — their respective bureaus. Akbar has the mandate to revive the magazine’s old edge. And this is perhaps the best chance to reclaim his as well. (Additional reporting by Rohin Dharmakumar & Deepak Ajwani)
(This story appears in the 05 November, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)