N Ram, Chairman, Kasturi & Sons Ltd & former Editor-in-Chief, The Hindu Group of Publications, spoke to Simran Sabherwal about The Hindu’s entry into ‘Maximum City’ -Mumbai, journalistic values and why Rajiv C Lochan, MD & CEO of Kasturi & Sons, is the right man for his job.
What prompted Kasturi & Sons to finally enter the Mumbai market?
It was a back-of-the-mind idea to start a Mumbai edition when we moved into the Kasturi Building in the early 1950s, but for various historical reasons, it wasn’t done. Other publications have entered this market and The Times of India is the No. 1 player here, but we have something to contribute in terms of trustworthy and relevant journalism, fairly comprehensive coverage and a forward-looking outlook. We have a place here and it would be surprising if we didn’t enter at some point. We had a couple of difficult years but are now clearly on a growth path, both in a business sense and also editorially. We have been recruiting people after some years of cost control and it is a good time to enter now.
Will the editorial content for The Hindu’s Mumbai edition be different from its other editions? What are the changes being made for the Mumbai audience?
It will be different from our Delhi and Chennai editions, which are our strongest editions. There will be special coverage of Mumbai on at least eight pages, because Mumbai has distinctive characteristics not only as a financial capital but as a cosmopolitan place despite some forces trying to impose their narrow agendas here. Mumbai is labelled Maximum City, everything is maximum here and we have to devote special attention to it. In the subscriptions enrolled, there is a very large proportion of young people who are looking out for something they evidently don’t get. However, a complete newspaper has to target all age groups in different sections. We are not competing with the Times of India overnight.
What will be the differentiator for The Hindu in Mumbai with regard to competition from other existing English dailies?
The differentiator will be our credibility, reliability and our reputation for serious journalism. Our coverage of the atrocious 26/11 attacks in Mumbai was second to none because we went back to the families, like the New York Times did after 9/11. So, when people used to ask why don’t you come to Mumbai, I would say go online and read it for free; but now you have got it distributed at homes.
There is still a growing demand for Print newspapers here, unlike several developed countries where Print circulation has been in terrible decline; although younger people are increasingly reading news online. So you have to do both. We also have ambitious digital platform plans - Sportstar Live is a new publication, different from our Print edition. The Hindu brings with it a lot of synergies.
Newspapers are under desperate pressure elsewhere but we are still in denial about our industry. One estimate said that we have time till 2040 before what happened in the Unites States and Europe will happen here. I don’t think you have that kind of time, so you have got to do digital as though you desperately need it. You also need the technological and infrastructural backbone for this. We are lagging a long way behind as Internet penetration in India is still very low. But, how do you make digital journalism viable and profitable? Nowhere does a digital newspaper make money so you have got to find solutions and in India you have time. We are trying to accelerate and also raise the bar for our digital journalism. Businessline on campus is a new venture which is entirely digital and it is doing quite well. One lesson we have learnt is not to outsource the work, but to have your own developers who understand what newspapers are. One thing that former Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger emphasized on is the need for more developers, you won’t get anywhere in digital journalism unless you have your in-house team.
In the age of 24x7 news, what are the values you believe to be important for journalism today?
The values are obvious-- truth telling, independence, fight for freedom and a sense of social responsibility. Truth telling is not just black or white, but a question of verification. Journalism is a discipline of verification and you have to have context and background. Values are important - if you have the right values then you would do what I would call the credible information function. The next critical function is investigative, which is sometimes adversarial. Third would be the role of public education about things that matter. All of us do it to some degree, but do we realize our potential? Absolutely not! We could do much more in Economics, Science, Business and Politics. We could do a lot more if we take our public education function seriously, and don’t shoot our mouth before we think or verify. If we do these functions well, we will come to an agenda-building function, be it against corruption or for child rights or health for all.
Do you think editorial content is threatened in the time of aggressive marketing?
All kinds of elements have entered the great Indian media bazaar today. If they don’t allow independent, credible, serious journalism to be practised, then there is no chance. If you do away with the editor in a newspaper, or if you erase the line between editorial and business operations, then you get into serious trouble and this is happening in India. I do not want to name any particular organization, but you have these conflicts of interest. There are politicians, business people who have entered the scene. Journalism cannot cover their activities as any kind of claim to objectivity or neutrality or fair play. These things have to be resolved. Editors and young journalists can do their bit. They have a right to dissent, revolt against unethical practices. For example, you had a lot of paid news in Mumbai. It surfaced around 2009. Some of it has been going on for a very long time, including in business journalism, but we woke up to it because suddenly sections of the Press wrote about it. Paid news became the national political agenda with the Press Council taking it up. It came up in Parliament. The kind of shouting matches you hear on TV, you think it is entertainment, but it erodes credibility over the long term. At some point, with these rogue practices continuing, there will be a demand for external regulation. If we don’t self-regulate or become more professional and wage a war against these rogue practices, we will lose public support and politicians will pounce.
How have things changed after Rajiv C Lochan took over as the CEO and MD?
If I have to give credit to one individual, it would be Rajiv Lochan. A fairly youngish managing director and CEO, we were very keen on getting him. He was unavailable earlier and when he accepted, we were delighted. At first, he fought heroically, because it was a period of cost-cutting. But now, if one individual can be given the credit for turning the business around, it is him. He emphasizes that we are now on a path of growth in every respect. He’s a man of real integrity. We knew him from McKenzie. He was a partner and had stepped down because he wanted to work at the foundation. He was involved in a public health NGO when we got him on board.