Sandeep Amar defies the conventional image of a chief executive officer. During a long conversation with exchange4media at The Express Building in Sector 10, Noida, he prefers sipping diet coke from a can instead of coffee. Wearing a half sleeved sweater, Amar admits that he doesn’t follow the routine 9-5 work cycle. Often working beyond midnight to take Express Digital to new heights, he says, “My philosophy is burn out than fade away. That’s the way I like to do business.”
In June, Amar joined Express Digital in the capacity of a CEO. A product of Delhi University’s Faculty of Management Studies (FMS), he studied chemistry at Hansraj College. He proudly refers to himself as a “junior of Shah Rukh Khan”. Prior to joining Express, he was CEO at India.com, a joint venture with Zee Media being on board. The initiative’s success is considered to be the biggest achievement of Amar’s professional career. As he takes a cab everyday from Pitam Pura in north west Delhi to his office, Amar walks in with a single-minded focus of “doubling the numbers and revenues” in the next six months.
Revenue creation is the focus
Deriving its revenues primarily from advertising by financial players and mobile phone providers, Express Digital is a profitable company with a small amount of syndication revenue as well. Under his watch, Amar claims that the organisation will post a 100% growth rate. “Last year, if we have done X, this year we will do 2X,” he says after politely declining to reveal the actual revenue figures.
However, demonetisation may hit Amar’s plans. The sucking out of cash from the market has been met with scepticism from advertisers. Media buyers have cautioned that the total ad spends might go down. But Amar insists that while “people have cut down non-essential purchases”, there will be no “immediate impact” as “budgets have not changed”.
Pointing out at the advertising offers from the auto sector, he mentions that advertising in certain cases has risen. At Express Digital, advertisers have so far refrained from postponing or cancelling their purchases but Amar believes that there is some worry regarding reduced investment in the new financial year.
Hoping that it will not be significant, he says, “In the next three months, there will be no impact. After that, impact will come if there is no government decision (vis-a-vis direct and indirect taxes).
Stressing that “I don’t have the liberty to change my targets”, he remarks, “We have to double the revenue. That’s the way I generally like to operate.”
The digital space
At Express Digital, the old mantra of “journalism of courage” is held in high esteem. Narrating an anecdote of a bank chairman being unhappy with Express’s reportage, Amar states that they don’t bury stories from their reporters even though there might be a risk of losing access to film stars and irking mobile phone brands.
“These are fundamentals of business,” he asserts. On the third floor of The Express Building, a team of web editors sit and manage the various websites of The Express Group. Much of their work revolves around uploading wire copies on the main website of The Indian Express. As per Amar, though, there is no dearth of exclusive content on IE’s website.
Claiming to have overseen 100% traffic growth in the past six months coupled with tripling of original content, he argues that the pace of digital media renders wire and print news stories irrelevant for the website. “We are dong 200 stories per day on The Indian Express only,” he mentions
A staffer told exchange4media that The Indian Express is embarking on a different sort of a route by publishing episodic summaries of television serials like Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai. When the question is put to him, Amar responds, “(We publish it) because I think there is a lot of demand for it.” Not just television serials, IE has also been publishing HD and bold images of female Bollywood actors like Sunny Leone.
Backing the initiative to the core, Amar states that the project includes pictures of the likes of Juhi Chawla and Pooja Bhatt. Pulling out a story on Aishwarya Rai, he shows exchange4media the number of shares (45,000) on it. Explaining the demand and audience for such work, he opines that the website is not publishing revealing images. Commending the popularity of Sunny Leone and Salman Khan, he adds, “Bollywood, cricket and hard news are the heart of the country.”
Another criticism that is levelled against Express’s main website is its supposed lack of innovation when it comes to video storytelling. The videos mostly feature in-house discussions by journalists. Unlike Hindustan Times, Express hasn’t produced several video stories from the ground. Insisting that “videos have got to make more sense in the ROI department”, he suggests that the focus is on driving top notch discussions with a quality evening show for the viewers.
InUth is for the youth
In October, Express went live with InUth, a “video-first” platform billed as the “homepage of Indian millennials”. While Amar criticizes politically influenced websites which “pollute” journalistic standards but achieve popularity, he is all praise for a few digitally-driven platforms. “Vox, Vice, Mashable, Buzzfeed and Gawker, I love these five companies,” he admits.
Since the launch of InUth, questions have been raised regarding the objective of the website. A staffer points out that unlike Express, the product appears to be very different. For some, it is reminiscent of ScoopWhoop, a website which is often criticized for allegedly dumb, clickbait content.
Maintaining that InUth will be doing truth telling and credible journalism only, Amar says, “InUth’s objective is not to become ScoopWhoop or Buzzfeed. InUth is very different. We want to cover what is youth’s view on it. Topic is the same but what do young people think about it.” The format that InUth has chosen for telling the stories that the youth is interested in is video.
But the beginning has been far from satisfactory. The website is not doing as many videos as it was supposed to and technical glitches pertaining to sound have ruined quite a few. “We had a target of doing 70% content with videos out of which 40% will be original video. We have not been able to achieve the target of 40%,” Amar concedes.
But he is confident of better results. InUth’s vision is not to have a separate team for doing videos. Instead they are recruiting multimedia journalists who are capable of writing, shooting and editing on their own. Training them for such output is another task which Express is certain about. “Our final objective is that 80% of our articles should have home grown videos,” Amar says.
Expressing his faith in the young bunch of journalists, he mentions, “Boys and girls are very excited. We have done a lot of experimentation with v-logs. A person holds the mobile phone with a selfie stick. We are learning the technicalities and voice is something which was an earlier issue. We have resolved it now.”
Express and others
Before arriving at Express, Amar had stints with both The Times of India and Zee Media. Referring to TOI as an “MNC kind of company”, he appreciates their working style as one driven by “qualitative thinking and planning”. According to Amar, Zee doesn’t take “a lot of time in taking decisions” and “money is not an issue”.
At Express, the “focus on editorial is huge” owing to its reputation for serious journalism. “In terms of pure journalism and focus on credibility, Express is miles ahead of any other company,” says Amar. Informal interactions over a period six months between Amar and Anant Goenka, Executive Director at The Express Group, finally brought him to Express.
He candidly says that he has had a “far closer” working relationship with his boss at IE when asked to choose between Anant Goenka and Punit Goenka of ZEEL. For him, “the next generation of stakeholders are brilliant” with a “fantastic” and “positive” outlook.
The presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Express’s prestigious Ramnath Goenka Awards 2016 raised quite a few eyebrows. Akshaya Mukul, one of the awardees, refused to collect the award in person. The same evening saw The Indian Express’s Chief Editor Raj Kamal Jha deliver a spirited address. “Criticism from the government is a badge of honour,” he said.
Amar doesn’t understand what he terms as a “purist philosophy” when it comes to severing communication with the Prime Minister. “He is the Prime Minister. I am a very big critic of demonetisation. But he is the Prime Minister. He is our only hope,” he says. He feels that the controversy surrounding Jha’s speech was “unnecessary” because he heard it live and it “didn’t feel controversial till I read it somewhere”.
Keeping such controversies aside, he says, “I am a business person. My understanding is that lets create user value to create monetary value.” In the coming year, IE has about 5-6 projects in the pipeline. “There is a big launch coming up in January. It’s a tech piece but more focussed on decision making and buying mobile phones,” he mentions.
He hypes it up by claiming that it will be the “best designed product” in terms of content management system (CMS) and user interface (UI). Other experimental projects are on lifestyle and women. A stealth project is underway aimed at the vernacular markets.
Amar promises that Express will bring out content in Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu. “Whichever market we will go to, we will challenge the leader. If we go to Malayalam, we will challenge Malayala Manorama and we will beat them,” he says. At The Financial Express, the online edition intends to become number two in the next twelve months. Presently, it lags behind the websites of The Economic Times and Moneycontrol.
FE is in the process of rolling out the most innovative company pages. Amar mentions that the best is yet to come with a “video-first” approach. Last month, CNN News 18 announced that it will be creating integrated newsrooms in Mumbai and Delhi. But Express Digital seems to be in no hurry when it comes to integrating their print and web operations. “I think there is a different requirement of digital. Technology integration will happen but team integration may or may not happen. Technology integration has to happen,” Amar says.
With publishers increasingly strategizing around search engines and social networks, Amar realizes the challenges faced by the news media industry. He is confident of tasting success but frank in his admissions. “I think the publishing business is not a sexy business at all. It is a very difficult business to do. Almost mission impossible,” he says.