I have been with Forbes India since August 2008. I like writing about ideas, events and people at the intersection of business, society and technology. Prior, I was with Economic Times. I am based in Bangalore. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A Times of India (TOI) advert that has been running for the last three months in various regional television channels down south, starts with a montage of boring scenes - someone inaugurating a building, an election rally, a leaking water pipe, rows of men, exercising, school children with a rolling shield and so on. In the background, a monotonous voice sings a lullaby. Each of these scenes ends with a reader sleeping in various positions - standing, sitting, lying down, leaning over.
Suddenly, these nine words flash on the screen - ‘Stuck with the news that puts you to sleep?’ - and the tempo of the music changes. It's now energetic and cheerful. A stack of newspapers falls down with a thud and a printing press is in full blast in the background. The ad ends with these words: ‘Wake up to the Times of India’. The viewers are left with no doubt what soporific scenes allude to - The Hindu, ToI’s main rival in the city.
Looking at what’s taking place at The Hindu these days, it's tempting to say ‘Whether the Chennai readers woke up to Times or not, The Hindu certainly did’. After all, that’s what any competition is supposed to do. Shake the incumbent out of slumber and force it to change.
There has been a lot of changes in The Hindu of late. Earlier this month, on 18th, N Ram, stepped down as editor-in-chief of The Hindu, Business Line, Frontline, and Sportstar, and gave the charge of these publications to Siddharth Varadarajan, D. Sampathkumar, R. Vijayasankar, and Nirmal Shekhar, all senior editors in Kasturi & Sons.
“These changes on the editorial side are significant, indeed milestones in our progress as a newspaper-publishing company,” Ram wrote to his colleagues on the day he stepped down. They are “a vital part of the process of professionalization and contemporization under way in all the company’s operations. I am clear that this is the only way to face the future – the opportunities as well as the challenges.”
Last month, on 29th December, Ram gave a farewell speech to Hindu staff. He said he would continue to be available in the office in his capacity as a wholetime director and that anyone can feel free to drop into his office. However, he wouldn’t discuss editorial issues. Siddharth is fully in charge.
On the business side, Arun Anant, who has worked in Bennet Coleman, the publishers of Times of India, Economic Times etc, before going on to UTV and later starting his own consulting firm, is to join the company as CEO early next month. It never had a CEO before. Till a couple of years back, N Murali, younger brother of Ram was in charge in his capacity of MD, and more recently it was K Balaji, a cousin.
I spoke to a few journalists at The Hindu, and they said they have started feeling the impact. Sometime back when the Delhi edition of The Hindu carried a front page ad featuring a businessman - turned politician swearing his allegiance to Sonia Gandhi, in a rather indignfied way, Siddharth Varadharajan posted a message on his facebook wall : “To all those who messaged me about the atrocious front page ad in The Hindu's Delhi edition on Jan 1, my view as Editor is that this sort of crass commercialisation compromises the image and reputation of my newspaper. We are putting in place a policy to ensure the front page is not used for this sort of an ad again.”
“I am not too sure if Ram would have responded this way”, a journalist said.
They expect more changes. “From the meetings we have had so far, I get a feeling that there will more photos, sharper content; and definitely fewer events coverage that Hindu is kind of known for”, another journalist told me. And news of local interest will get more prominence. On Tuesday Hindu’s Chennai edition carried a news of a murder as second lead. That space almost always went to news of national and international importance.
Hindu was also known to be a very lenient employer. Journalists there love to rant about colleagues who have spent weeks doing next to nothing; even mistakes are easily forgiven, or punished - at worst - with a transfer. That will change too. “No one really said that in as many words, but that seems to be the message.”
Perhaps the most visible sign of aggression is a set of advertisements that Hindu launched this Wednesday. The ads - I saw two of them on Youtube - are in the form of surveys, where a bunch of young people are asked questions such as where is Tahrir Square, what’s the expansion of UPA, who’s the vice president of India and so on. The answers are all wrong and funny (For example: Who will succeed Ratan Tata?/ His son..... Mukesh Ambani). The respondents - all young and confident - are then asked a trivial question - What’s the pet name of Hritik Roshan, or Whether Aishwarya Rai’s new born baby is a boy or girl? Now, the answers are spot on. The final question: Which paper do these blissfully ignorant people read?
The answers are beeped out, but you don’t need to be an expert lip reader to know what they uniformly say: Times of India.
It was a direct assault on Times. The joke in Chennai is, “the Old Lady of Bori Bunder didn’t just wake up Mount Road Mahavishnu, she literally taunted him to a wrestling match.” ---
Yet, to tie all all these to the power of the marketplace, to the launch of Times of India in its home turf, to competition-induced energy is to ignore the dynamics of family business (which Hindu is, after all) and to ignore the complex character of N Ram (who is among the most influential, and certainly the most visible member of the family).
The dynamics of this particular family business is defined by the fact that there too many of the family, and too little of the business. By one count, there are twelve members in Ram’s generation, and eighteen in the next. And Kasturi & Sons depends primarily on the one big brand - The Hindu. It’s old - it was founded in 1878. And it’s read - the circulation is over 1.5 million. The others haven’t done that well. Business Line has a good reputation as a newspaper of record, but it’s nowhere close to the top two or even three papers in its category - and it’s not profitable (when I last checked the numbers a year back). Sports magazines in general have lost all the lustre it used to have before the cable television days - and Sportstar is no exception. Frontline continues to be a niche magazine - read mostly by the liberals and the left-leaning. Some of its newer ventures haven’t done too well. The group started a regional channel with NDTV, but had to sell it off to Dinathanthi group a while ago. In short, just one business, and too many claimants.
Such a situation often leads to conflicts, and in Hindu it certainly did. N Murali, younger brother of N Ram, and one of the biggest critics of the newspaper in the recent years told Forbes India earlier that many family members felt a sense of entitlement towards to the organisation irrespective of whether they were qualified or not. And that was a source of conflict. That erupted as a board room battle in 2010. My colleagues and I tried to capture some of that drama in a story here
Perhaps no one understood the issues and the problems better than the fifth generation, sons and daughters of Ram, his brothers and his cousins. A couple of years back eight of them came together to draft and send a mail to the shareholders of Kasturi & Sons, outlining the need for professionalisation. The letter spoke about forming an executive board and a family board to separate ownership and management, as well as hiring norms and performance frameworks for the family members.
These wide ranging changes will be needed if the group decides to bring in new investors in the future - either to raise capital or to unlock the value of their holding. In fact, in 2007, the family members came close to selling part of their stake to Australia’s Fairfax. The deal did not go through. But, it became clear to everyone that to benefit from any such opportunity in the future, some cleaning up needs to be done.
The pressure to professionalise was slowly building over years, and the Hindu group would have gone for these sooner or later, even without the competitive pressure from Times of India.
The other important factor behind the change is Ram himself. Anyone trying to assess Ram’s impact on Indian journalism will have a tough time arriving at a definite conclusion. He has his share of critics - both outside and inside Hindu. (Inside Hindu, none has been as vocal as his two brothers, Ravi and Murali). Of all the criticisms against Ram, three stand out - that he is pro-China (some critics refer to the paper as Chindu), that he has been blind to human rights violations in Sri Lanka by its government as it fought against LTTE (No wonder he got Sri Lanka Rathna from that government, his critics insinuate) and that he was less than professional in covering 2G scam, giving too much space to A Raja (Hindu was seen as a mouthpiece and apologist for Raja; so much so that when a TV journalist asked him, it was sad to see him say, “For my views please read the day before yesterday’s Hindu”, N Murali told us in an interview last August.
This is in sharp contrast with the courage, integrity and professionalism that Ram has so often exhibited in his long career as a journalist. In the 80s, he published a series of stories on the Bofors scandal. I was still in school then - and couldn’t make anything out of the documents and stories that Hindu published day after day. Yet, some years later when I heard about Woodward and Bernstein, I only remembered Ram and Chitra Subramaniam.
More recently when Hindu published a series of stories based on Wikileaks, I spoke to a few journalists from the Hindu, and found their excitement contagious. That came from Ram's energetic support. Reporters who worked with Ram rave about his exacting standards and commitment to accuracy and fairness.
When Indian Express broke the story about the boardroom battle at The Hindu two years back, Ram initially threatened to sue the newspaper. When I asked around if he would really do it, the consensus was that he won’t. One senior reporter explained it this way: “He will never do it. All said and done, he is a journalist at heart.”
Guessing what went on in somebody’s mind is probably the lowest form of journalism, but we won’t be off the mark if we guess that what went on in Ram’s mind was what he put in the letter to his staff - that professionalising the operations is the best way to face the future. As a journalist he simply decided to do what he thought was the right thing to do.
Of course, I am not saying the marketplace didn't play any role in the changes. Market matters, but it helps to remember that market is made up of individuals. Individuals with their own egos, desires, strengths, failings and most important of all, values.