Co-founder | 23 Oct 2009
About the kind of channel we want to build, at this stage let me say we want to avoid the trend towards tabloidism. Our intention is to respect the viewers and recognise that a very large number wants good quality news… we’re not aiming to be the No. 1 channel, we are not driven by that. We aim to be big enough to be relevant to viewers and advertisers, but mainly focus on creating a different news experience for viewers. I like to tell our team ‘Let’s be like Aamir Khan. Let’s be big, but not obsessed with being No. 1. Let’s be different and better, but in a way that is widely appealing’. Of course, the trick here is not to become too different or too intellectual. That was the mistake I think the old NewsX made. It was so different and rarefied that it ended up alienating the viewers.
Jehangir S Pocha is Co-founder of IndiMedia Pvt Ltd, which owns the NewsX channel.
Prior to this, he was Editor of Businessworld.
From 2003 to 2007, Pocha was also The Boston Globe’s Beijing-based Asia correspondent. He had also spent about a decade in the IT industry, holding management positions with start-ups and Fortune 500 companies in the US and Singapore.
Born in Mumbai, Pocha did his Bachelors in Economics in 1990, followed by an MBA in 1992 from the Mumbai University. Later, he also did his Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University. He currently lives in New Delhi.
In this interview with exchange4media’s Nitin Pandey, Pocha speaks at length about the revamp and the way ahead for NewsX, the channel’s philosophy and strategy.
Q. It has been 10 months now since you have announced your decision to buy out NewsX or INX News. Whatever you had envisaged in January 2009, by October 2009 do things seem to be the way you had thought it would be – in terms of the channel, the way it stands in the market and so on?
Actually, most things have turned out to be much better than we had thought. Our market share is up and rising. I believe, in the six metros we now have something like 12-15 per cent market share, and in the past few weekends we have been the No. 1 channel during primetime. We have also been able to cut cost in the neighbourhood of 25 per cent, there is a renewed focus on distribution, where we have added additional 11 million households, in fact, we have gone free to air as on October 10. We have been able to do well on the advertising front as well.
Of course, we’ve had some setbacks and we have struggled a bit. But the situation is under control now. Whatever problems that had stemmed from initiatives the old management had taken have been mostly sorted out now. In fact, about four months after taking over, we knew what kind of channel we wanted to build – editorially, technologically and marketing wise.
Q. Could you elaborate a bit more when you say the “channel we wanted to build”, especially in light of the so-called market clutter?
Well, firstly, TV news is in its infancy in India and, therefore, very fragmented. No doubt, there will be consolidation in a few years. Having said that, English news is not all that fragmented. There are only five or six channels. Even in the US, which is a huge and mature media market, there are six major news channels and scores of regional ones.
About the kind of channel we want to build, at this stage let me say we want to avoid the trend towards tabloidism. I’m not sure that’s all people want. Our intention is to respect the viewers and recognise that a very large number wants good quality news. They don’t want cluttered screens, they don’t want people screaming at them, they don’t want everything labelled ‘Breaking News’, they don’t want excessive opinionating. They just want the news straight up, presented well in an engaging style. And there are not too many options for such viewers.
We also want to focus on viewers’ concerns. Too many media outlets seem to be serving the political crowd and their peers in the press club. Our team is made up of a bunch of people who want to serve the viewer and put their concerns first. To us, news is not just politics, and politics is not just the shenanigans of politicians. So, we cover politics, but also the real issues affecting people. For example, we have been tracking the Naxalite related developments much more than anyone else. We cover health and education more aggressively, we’ve covered the environment and business in ways that let people understand these complex areas well. We also see entertainment as more than promoting the latest movie songs, and have done some terrific interviews with people like Kamal Hassan and some great coverage on new trends in cinema and theatre. Even in sports, we don’t fixate on cricket, but cover almost everything, from football to Formula 1 to golf, and even horse racing and so on.
Q. Channels are running after TRPs, and it is often said that controversies and Bollywood celebrities get them that. Are you experiencing something similar too?
I think Indian viewers are rapidly moving beyond formulas. In the old days, three brothers getting separated was the formula for a hit film. But India has moved on. Today, movies like ‘Taare Zameen Par’ and ‘Chak De! India’ win audiences. The same progression is taking place with news viewers. So, we’re not bound by any preconception that says “give viewers one pound of sensationalism, half a pound of tamasha, a dollop of Bollywood and a pinch of cricket”. And obviously, viewers are happy with us because in the last few weeks in the six metro markets, which are the markets we are focussing on, even though we are still working on the distribution in these cities, we have consistently delivered during primetime. In fact, during weekend primetime, we have garnered a market share over 45 per cent.
The point is, we’re not aiming to be the No. 1 channel, we are not driven by that. We aim to be big enough to be relevant to viewers and advertisers, but mainly focus on creating a different news experience for viewers. I like to tell our team ‘Let’s be like Aamir Khan. Let’s be big, but not obsessed with being No. 1. Let’s be different and better, but in a way that is widely appealing’.
Of course, the trick here is not to become too different or too intellectual. That was the mistake I think the old NewsX made. It was so different and rarefied that it ended up alienating the viewers. For example, because most channels have cluttered screens, the old NewsX chose to be minimalist. But that was too boring. So now, we are focussed on being clean – not minimalist, not cluttered, but somewhere in the middle, where you have enough information on the screen to satisfy people. It’s all about creating a balance.
Q. And how are you monitoring your content to ensure that that is the kind of news that is going on the channel?
It’s about orienting and motivating the reporters and hence, getting them to see the story from a certain eye. We have been doing that for the last three to four months now, and I think regular viewers will tell you that News X provides a very different viewing experience now. I must also clarify that this is not a comment on what other channels are doing. I have great respect for our competitors. All the other channels, particularly NDTV, have been in the industry for a long time and they have done a great job of developing our industry and serving our democracy. It’s just that we don’t want to imitate our competitors.
Q. Before we get a bit more into the various steps you have taken in the last six months, are you planning any new channel?
Not right now, because our focus is to get NewsX right. We have less money, smaller pockets compared to our competitors, and so we must be cautious and also stagger our expenses. We are also going relatively slow in some areas because any change is hard for organisations and NewsX has already been through a lot. For instance, we are slow in hiring senior people, because we want to pick carefully, and also because the organisation must be able to digest their entry well. Hence, we have hired department heads only every month or so – this brings only one or two senior people in at one time. For example, we just brought in Monjit Sharma as Sales Head, and the month before, we brought in Shamya Dasgupta to head sports, and before that, Nitin Sukhija to lead entertainment, etc.
Q. Could you share more on that? What is the ideal number of people that you want in the company?
There are two to three senior positions that we would be filling up in this month, too, basically the Head of Output. Next month, we will finalise a National Bureau Chief.
Size wise, right now we are 300 people. I think the ideal number for a quality news channel like ours is between 250 and 300. But I think we need to be at the upper end of this figure because we will soon be relaunching and that’s a huge job.
Q. In the news business especially, it is believed that it’s a game of number of channels. It’s not the channel’s share you really talk about so you actually go for group share. It makes sense to have three or four channels because this is the way that you can maximise your revenue. But that's not true in case of NewsX, because it's a lone channel...
I think what you are saying is right. But it’s not possible to execute this overnight. You have to become circumspect about the pace at which you are growing. Building the second channel before stabilising the first one doesn’t make sense.
Q. Would you like to share the thought process that you have kept in mind in the last 4-6 months to build NewsX, for hiring the kind of people you want to hire?
We are picking people with gumption, who are committed to news as a public service, and who have the mentality to work in a start-up. But mostly, our team is made up of people who are very smart and savvy. You see, we can’t compete with Times Now’s deep pockets or NDTV’s footprint or CNN-IBN’s market penetration. The only way we can take on our competition is to out-think them. So, we are hiring people who can work on smart stories that have meaning and are relevant to people, that have an impact and that will stay in people’s mind. Also, I am very focussed on our organisation’s rate of learning. Our success will be very dependent on how fast we learn as an organisation. So, we are focussed on internal learning and picking people with the adaptability and attitude for learning.
Q. What about the channel rebranding plans?
We are speaking to various designers and we are just about to nail down the contract. We have received proposals from some of the leading design houses from the US and the Continent - we are in the final negotiation stages about costing and other details. Right now, we are completely into the redesign – both of the channel and the website. Alongside, we are working on the new campaign for the relaunch and exploring the possibility of a new brand name for the channel. We are having regular meetings with the staff. Updating them with what we are doing. We are doing meetings with different departments, too, to keep them informed about all such changes. But there is still time before I can speak to you on that.
All I can say is that there is a fair amount of excitement within the organisation on the plan we have and the teams are all geared up for taking the brand and the channel to the next level.
Q. Both your partner and you have a print background. How has television proved to be as an experience so far?
Well, we’ve had to learn very fast! Vinay (Chhajlani) is one of the smartest people you will meet and I’m just lucky that I have a natural disposition towards the visual medium. I think each discrete task in TV is much easier than in print, but TV has so many moving parts that on the whole it’s a more complex machine. Of course, complex organisations are best managed though good workflow processes and efficient use of technology. These are critical in TV and we are working on these two areas in a very dedicated manner. Having been in IT before I came to media, I find the systems in TV quite easy to understand. What is key is that we develop the discipline and work ethic needed to make them work optimally. And this is happening.
I think the medium – be it print, TV or online – doesn’t make much of a difference as long as you are clear in your fundamentals about the kind of journalism you want to indulge in. Think of music. Once there were 78 rpm records, then 33 rpm, then 45 rpm, then spool tapes, then cassettes, then 8-track, then CDs, and now MP3s. The medium has changed, but musicians still make music.
So, we’ve just adapted our basic approaches to business and journalism to TV. And more change will surely come. Let’s face it, the consumption of news will drift very fast to newer mediums of the Internet and mobile, something which we are actively working on. For example, our website now has India’s first high-quality online live streaming. We are also in the testing phase of getting the TV feed live on mobile platforms. We have also built strong communities on Facebook and YouTube. In fact, the NewsX page is among the most viewed news channels on You Tube. So again, what matters are your values, your skills, your adaptability and your approach, not the medium.