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Prabhu Chawla

Editorial Director | 09 Sep 2011

The Indian market will survive because literacy in the country is growing rapidly. See, how regional newspapers are growing. Regional is the future for newspapers. English newspapers are concentrating on urban areas, but regional newspapers have explored new markets. Now, our English newspaper expansion has to begin in smaller towns, where the readers of English have been growing. Income is growing in small towns and subsequently buying power, and that is why newspapers will keep growing in the country.

Prabhu Chawla is Editorial Director of The New Indian Express Group. After studying economics at the Delhi School of Economics, he started his career as an economics lecturer in Delhi University before going on to become one of India’s best-known journalists.

Chawla is known for his sharp political analysis and investigative reports. In his 40 years as reporter and editor, he has written extensively on events that have changed the political course of India and the people who engineered them. He is credited with launching the regional editions (Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam) of India Today. He used to host the weekly talk show Seedhi Baat on Aaj Tak, India's most popular television channel and ‘Sachchi Baat’ on Etv network. Now he hosts ‘Teekhi Baat’ on IBN7 network.

He was the Editor of India Today and Editorial Director of the India Today Group of Publications (1996-2011); Editor-in-Chief and CEO of Financial Express (1994- 1996) and Editor of Indian Express (1991-1994).

His is one of the most authoritative and credible voices in print as well as the electronic media in India today.

In the course of his long career, Chawla has received numerous accolades. Some of the major Awards that he has received include:

• He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2003
• Global Punjabi Society Achievers Award for 2010
• Indian Television Academy Award for Best News and Current Affairs Anchor for 2009 for ‘Seedhi Baat’, which featured people in the news from politics, culture and sports
• Indian Television Academy Award for Best Talk Show Host for 2008
• Sansui Television Best TV Anchor Award for 2008
• The Hero Honda-Indian Television Academy (ITA) Best Anchor award for 2005 for Seedhi Baat
• TV News Anchor Of The Year – Telly Awards 2003
• TSR Kalapeetham Life Time Achievement AWARD for 1998
• GK Reddy Memorial Award for 1989 “in recognition of proficiency in writing about national and international events. An acknowledgement of the range and depth of political reporting in India Today.’’
• Feroze Gandhi Memorial Award for 1985-86 for “meticulous reporting of national affairs and investigative stories”
• Veeresalingam Investigative Journalism Award for 1984 instituted by Dr Vasireddi Malathi Trust Hithakarini Samaj, Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh

In this interview with exchange4media’s Nitin Pandey, Chawla gives interesting insights into his long, illustrious career, the importance of content, why newspapers will survive and why magazines need to go niche and the role of a journalist in today’s media scenario, and more…

Q. You began as a lecturer in Delhi University, then, after 11 years of teaching, you joined India Today, left for The Indian Express and then rejoined India Today first as editor of the Hindi edition and then the English one. Tell us something about the way you have seen the history of Indian Print media industry?

When I joined India Today in 1978, the Indian print media was not as competitive as it is today. At that time there were hardly any magazines. When we started our magazine, there was no magazine-culture in the country. It was more about daily news. But now there is almost a Tsunami of publications. Sadly, they all look alike and it difficult for readers to differentiate one product from other.

Thirty years back, instant news was not there. One used to wait till the morning to know what had happened in the world. And now, see the change with the revolution in TV and Internet industry. There is an overflow of information. There are more newspapers in any city in India than in any country of the world. So, Indian media industry has grown exponentially in the last three decades.

There was obviously a hunger for news, knowledge, analysis, investigative journalism, so this demand, which was not being handled earlier, was taken up by the new players entering in the Industry. I think it was India Today that posed the challenge to the existing media industry at that time – it was the first colour and computerised magazine in India. It forced the other players to change their design and content. Thirty years back, it was only content which was relevant; now the focus is more on the look and feel of the product than the content.

Q. How has the approach of Editors towards the content changed over the period of time?

Now, the challenge before Editors is to ensure product differentiation. As I said, all the newspapers on the newsstands look alike. Another challenge, particularly for newspapers, is how to present news differently from what TV has already shown people the previous night and making it relevant.

Also, as readers are aware of the news from TV, Internet and new media, an Editor struggles to give the story a new angle. That is why today newspaper’s headlines are becoming more opinionated – an attempt to differentiate the news. Newspapers are getting direct competition from TV and new media. For survival, they will have to become even more analytical and tell readers ‘What Next'. We don’t have to work towards ‘Byte’ journalism, but ‘Biting’ journalism.

Q. In the West countries talks are on about the death of newspapers. What is the USP of Indian market that will help in the survival of newspapers?

The Indian market will survive because literacy in the country is growing rapidly. With their facility in English growing, people want to associate more with this language. Out of 1.21 billion population of our country, very few people still read English. And as you go forward, more and more people will join the readership.

See, how regional newspapers are growing. Regional is the future for newspapers. English news papers are concentrating on urban areas, but regional newspapers have explored new markets. Now, our English newspaper expansion has to begin in smaller towns, where the readers of English have been growing. Income is growing in small towns and subsequently buying power, and that is why newspapers will keep growing in the country.

Q. After a long stint with the magazine industry, what prompted you to join the newspaper industry again?

I am a complete Print guy. I may not be reporting as much as I used to do earlier but, basically, I am a reporter. A newspaper gives you a platform where you can connect with more and more people. My job here in the New Indian Express Group is to strengthen the network. The New Indian Express is the only newspaper that has grown rapidly in terms of circulation numbers. It is the only newspaper in the country whose circulation has gone up by 30 per cent in the last few years. I wanted to associate with this newspaper which has a heritage of Ramnath Goenka, whom I consider my role model. I worked with the undivided Indian Express from 1991 to 1994. So the idea behind joining the newspaper industry was to get back to the roots and the basics.

When I was with India Today, I was getting the elite’s views; now with The New Indian Express, I am also getting the Aam Aadmi’s views. So I feel more connected with my country. India Today gave me a platform to connect with India; The New Indian Express lets me connect with Bharat. As a newsperson, I want to know what is happening in the country beyond the metros. You could say my hunger for local and regional news has brought me here.

Q. Please tell us something about your editorial responsibilities at Express. Do you command all the operations from Delhi?

We have 22 editions and they all run by the Editors at local places. But from Delhi, I am in touch with all the Editors. My job is to guide them. I am available to them for help, if required. My job is to monitor, guide and give them direction, help them in recruiting better people and train them. However, I do write my columns ‘Power&Politics’ for the Sunday magazine, ‘Race Course Road’ for the New Sunday Express and the Sunday Standard, and also respond to questions on ‘Ask Prabhu’ on I am also on Twitter and Facebook.

Q. The New Indian Express publishes from centres (in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Orissa). What are some of your expansion plans over the coming months?

As part of the agreement, we cannot operate in the North with the same title. So we started in Delhi with The Sunday Standard, which is a different title. We may launch few more editions in the South as we are expecting competition in the market. In the North, we will start The Sunday Standard in more cities in the coming days. We plan to launch three more editions by 2012. We are looking at new cities, but these won’t be metro markets. The Sunday Standard will basically be the same in the North and west. But each edition will carry its own local stories as well.

Q. Now coming to IRS numbers for your publication in the South market, the New Indian Express was the only newspaper in Tamil Nadu that has seen growth in IRS compared to last year. But overall, the readership in the state has declined. How do you view this trend?

Readership is declining because there are so many newspapers in the market. So readers may be buying newspapers, but they are not reading them. But The New Indian Express has a different DNA. We are a newspaper which takes a stand. I believe the TN market for newspapers will grow. Readership will grow if there will be differentiation in the available products. Our readership has grown because we are different from others. You will survive if you stay different.

Q. Regarding the Kerala market - Malayalam dailies have grown, but the top two English newspapers have witnessed decline in average issue readership in a year. And now, a major group like The Times of India is entering the market. What are your plans to strengthen your presence in this market?

Readership of dailies has declined in Kerala because of the lack of a news environment. The top two English newspaper of the state, including ours, are politically oriented newspapers. And nothing much has happened in the political environment of the state in the last one year. But TV channels have launched in the Kerala market and TV has expanded.

Q. So do you see a market for more English newspapers in the Kerala market?

It will be difficult for a new entrant in the state. You will survive only if you have something new to offer. With schemes you cannot get readers. You need to give content, only then will you get the readership.

Q. While in Orissa market you have declined in AIR, in Andhra and Karnataka, your newspaper is not even in the list of top ten newspapers? How do you see your performance in these three markets?

Orissa is a very slow growing market, because the state has yet not developed. As the state will grow, demand will go up. I see Orissa as a major long term investment. Right now, our concentration is on Kerala. And we plan to expand in other parts, including Andhra, Karnataka.

Q. You have seen the North Indian Print market closely over the years. And, now as you are working with a South publication, how do you differentiate the North and South Print markets? What are the key differences of both the markets?

Time spent on newspapers in South India is much higher than in any other part of India. In the South markets, there are limited newspapers, hence the time spent on one newspaper is higher. Readers are more discerning and visible and look for better content. In South India, readers actually read the newspaper, while in the North, they ‘see’ the newspaper.

Q. Now a non-editorial question - The New Indian Express is a well-known brand. For a newspaper brand like yours, do you think marketing and promotional activities are required? How much do you focus on marketing your newspaper?

Marketing and promotion play an important role in generating readership numbers. They ensure visibility and keep you top of mind with readers. So we have launched a lot of brand building and promotional activities. For instance, we are doing a lot of events. We recently did a one-day conference in Delhi on clean energy and another one on education in Chennai. We plan our events around issues that we believe in and which we feel impact this country. Events increase the visibility of your product. But ultimately the news content of a newspaper is its best promotion.

Q. What amount of budget do you spend on marketing of the newspaper?

Our budget for marketing has gone up substantially. I cannot give you specific numbers. If you have to reach newer cities, you will have to be visible. TBWA Anthem is the agency which is looking at all these things for us now.

Q. You had a long stint with magazine industry, how do you view the future of this industry? Would you like to associate with the industry again?

Newspapers are becoming magazines now. Hence, magazines cannot survive unless they become niche magazines. General interest magazines have lost their relevance and need to reinvent themselves in terms of presentation and content. They should cater to small groups of people rather than focus on the masses. Magazines dealing in Lifestyle, Jewellery, and Wedding, etc., are doing very well.

Q. In convergent media scenario, how do you see role of a journalist changing?

A journalist has to be multifunctional now. He has to be presentable for TV as well as a good writer for print. He should also be able to think in terms of generating content for the web. On top of that, he needs to have good people skills. When we recruit someone, we look at all these aspects. But most importantly, I look at what he can contribute to content.

Q. A section of the media had named some Indian journalists in the Radia tapes controversy issue. How do you view the role of Media in reporting on this particular issue?

I don’t want to go into the motive of that - because while journalists were targeted by it, bureaucrats were not. Why? I believe, when journalists collect information, it is a situation like 'everything is fair in love and war', unless the journalist is involved in some sort of a deal. Some journalists may have crossed the line but, ultimately, there was no charge that was proven against anyone. You can go to any extent to get a good story, but compromising your integrity and acting as a messenger for somebody is not acceptable. The Radia tapes taught valuable lessons to journalists on ethics and how far to go for a story.

Q. How did you develop a knack of smiling and asking fierce questions to your guests at the same time in ‘Seedhi Baat’?

People have always perceived me as serious and aggressive. But when ‘Seedhi Baat’ was started, I decided to take a different path. I decided to be direct and aggressive, but with a smile. This style came naturally to me. I did not practice it. I used to refer to my guests as targets. If you want your target to get trapped, you have to be smart. The smile came to trap the target. I've changed my shows, but not my directness. Even the names are aggressive – ‘Seedhi Baat’, ‘Teekhi Baat’, ‘Sachchi Baat’. The style of my new show on IBN7 is sharper than any verbal weapon could be.

Website: The New Indian Express

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