Shobhana Bhartia has let professionalism, not her persona, carry the day for her media empire
There is no other way to say this. But Shobhana Bhartia is a very good looking woman in a very Audrey Hepburn-kind of way: slender, graceful and classy with a pixie hair cut that completes the elf-like image. Add to this her easy demeanour — unassuming way with people and propensity to let her team run their ships on their own terms — and it is entirely possible to imagine an unlikely publisher in a business otherwise populated by extraordinarily mercurial, passionate and colourful characters.
Take her counterpart Samir Jain at the Times of India for instance. People who have seen him at close quarters describe him as disarmingly charming, gracious to a fault, wickedly funny – traits, however, that are completely overpowered by the sheer weight of genius he carries and his notorious reclusiveness. His flagship brands, the Times of India and the Economic Times are modelled almost exclusively on his view of the world.
On the road to dominance through most of the Nineties and the early part of this decade, he uprooted many fondly held assumptions in the publishing business. The five Ds of Indian Express — death, decay, destruction, disaster and disease — as he liked to call them, make for compelling stories that win prizes. “But hard news is inversely related to advertising,” he once wrote in a note to his editors. Therefore, the argument went, it is important to strip content of the five Ds and replace it with celebration as the central theme. That his ideas have worked is now beyond doubt and publishers and editors across the world look at Samir Jain’s intellectual bandwidth with both awe and envy.
For that matter there is Aveek Sarkar of the Kolkata-based Ananda Bazaar Patrika. The Renaissance Man, as he is called, Sarkar is an authority on practically everything under the sun. A connoisseur of the fine things in life, he too, like Samir Jain, runs his flagship publications, the Bengali language Ananda Bazaar Patrika and the Telegraph in his own image. It may have cost him the numbers and top line growth, but Aveekbabu isn’t the kind of man who gives a damn.
Then there is Aroon Puri of the Living Media group. A chartered accountant-turned publisher, 34 years after founding the company, he continues to be editor-in-chief of the company’s magazines. In all these years, recalls a senior associate, not a single page in its flagship India Today has ever gone into print without him having gone over it with a fine tooth comb — whether he is on vacation in the Bahamas or recouping at home from a bad bout of flu. To that extent, his job is a remarkably tough one. The buck stops at his table both when it comes to editorial focus and revenue generation.
The point here is simple: As a thumb rule, in the publishing business, newspapers and magazines are proxies for their publisher’s personalities. But if you were to go by this thumb rule, Shobhana Bhartia is schizophrenic. To get a sense of that, take a look first at HT Media’s flagship publications,
Hindustan Times (HT) and Mint.
The former, an English broadsheet, has over the last couple of months under a new editor, Sanjoy Narayan, gone through dramatic changes in terms of its editorial focus. It has worked hard at acquiring a peppier new look and an editorial focus that appeals to a generation that places a premium on snappy content. I conducted a very unscientific, quick dipstick poll with a few young people between 23 and 27. They unanimously voted in favour of the new look and feel.
The latter, a business newspaper, was the first Berliner in the country. Launched in association with the Wall Street Journal, Mint is as different from Hindustan Times, to borrow a cliché, as chalk is from cheese. Its umbilical cords severed from that of the parent, it caters to an audience favourably disposed towards reading. Since its launch in February 2007, first to derision and then to critical acclaim, it has cemented its position as the second largest selling business paper in the country behind the Economic Times.
That said, let’s get this right first. Bhartia isn’t schizophrenic. She is just playing to a plan.
Her father, late K.K. Birla, insisted she spend a few years in the backseat, understanding the business. And so Shobhana Bhartia opted to spend time at the Washington Post. When she finally got home and assumed charge, she had a few notions on what a newspaper ought to be like, largely fashioned by her days at the Post.
Instead, she found herself pitted against well-entrenched unions that opposed anything and everything she believed in. She couldn’t figure out, for instance, why workers at the press ought to be fed milk three times a day. Neither could she understand why modernisation was viewed with suspicion. “Newspapers in India,” she says, “were not meant to be well run businesses, but a cause.” Those were different times, a socialist time.
Flustered, often at a loss in the early years, and at times convinced by the end of it all she would be shorn of all the idealism she had gotten into the business with, Bhartia learnt her lessons well.
For one, she was convinced professionalising the place was the way to go. She admits she made a few mistakes on the way. And that she has had to make a few unpleasant course corrections. But that is par for the course. “I view it as a personal failure if I cannot identify the right talent to run the place. Once I’ve done that, I don’t believe in breathing down their backs. I think it undermines them,” she says.
In some sense, that explains why the Hindustan Times and Mint are such different animals. HT is something she inherited. It came with all the attendant baggage and legacy issues that she has battled to change. It is only over the last couple of years that Bhartia and her editors have been able to hammer it into a shape they believe is closer to the India we live in.
Mint, on the other hand, is the outcome of a different era and a different Shobhana Bhartia. “I am a more idealistic person now,” she says. That is why when the company thought up a plan to launch a new business paper, she was clear it would have to be insulated from everything she had battled in the past. So she did everything differently; from identifying Raju Narisetti as editor, then with Wall Street Journal to housing the new operation in an altogether new office. “We wanted a certain kind of professionalism. That is not to say HT isn’t professional. But there were mindset issues,” she says.
True to her promise, she let Narisetti create a dramatically different newsroom culture and a newspaper quite unlike anything readers of Indian business have seen. And to her credit, when detractors kept insisting it was only a matter of time before the project would have to be abandoned on the face of mounting losses and hopeless economic conditions, she gritted her teeth and backed her team to deliver. Mint’s losses are now in single-digit crores and close to turning in operational profits.
By all accounts, Hindustan, the Hindi newspaper she backed, is clearly the fastest growing in its genre. It isn’t as if all is smooth sailing for her. Her online attempts are still bleeding. “It bothers me,” she says. “But nobody in the world has thought up a viable business model yet.” As for the radio business that HT Media has gotten into, while the stations are doing reasonably well, verdict on the business is still not out. But as she says, “This India allows me to dream. I now have a right to dream and I must.”
I view it as a personal failure if I cannot identify the right talent to run the place - Shobhana Bhartia