Arnab Goswami is a trendsetter. He took Times Now to the undisputed leadership position with his flagship Newshour. After quitting the channel, Arnab is set to launch the much-awaited Republic TV, in the next few weeks, which he says is the first journalist-run, journalist-owned, and journalist-managed venture. The average age of Team Arnab is 25, which, he says, reflects the changing India. Asserting that Kendriya Vidayalayas are the future of the country, Arnab says his would be a Hinglish channel. In a freewheeling interview with BW Businessworld’s Suman K Jha, he rubbishes the charge that he’s pro-Modi, citing stories like ‘Lalitgate’. He says some channels are begging distributors to stop Republic telecast for a month. He also says he has declared his independence from Lutyens’ media which has not done much in the last 70 years. He also says that he’s confident of expanding the news-watching universe.
First of all, the nation wants to know: when does Republic TV take off -- any dates you have in mind?
I don’t have the precise dates in mind myself but I am working on an average estimate and it could land anywhere between a few weeks. It’s not in the region of too many months now; we are very close to launch. I believe in launching a perfect product, so till I am really happy with the final product of what I have created, I would not like to put it out on air. I believe in practice. When we are ready, we will be going on air pretty soon.
You were a leader; your flagship show the Newshour was the market leader. So how do you plan to re-capture that leadership position, do you have any targets and timelines in mind?
I don’t have to recapture any position. I was the market leader with Newshour; we will come back and be the leader again. There is no leader right now, as you know the English TV news market is flattened out, despite attempts by some channels to take slices and project themselves, everyone is claiming they are number one right now, which proves there is no leader. A flat market where there is no leader is a great situation for me to be coming in. I am not particularly delighted in the 15-20 per cent drop in the rating of Times Now, because that is the channel I led and there was a 20 per cent gap between us and the competition. There was also a 50 per cent plus gap between us and the competition in super prime time. That gap has disappeared. Am I happy about it? No. Is it a good position for me to launch Republic in? Yes. So I don’t need to recapture any area. Republic is the leader on Day One.
Who are you competing against?
I am competing against our own innovations in journalism which me and my team have brought over the last 10 years. The soul of our journalism resides within us; we are not competing with anyone in any specific English news genre. We have to take the form of journalism that we do to a higher level, greater levels of aggression, accountability, responsibility, investigations, interviewing. We will start doing that all over again. You know you can’t compete against anyone, people keep saying news genre is watched by six percent of total TV viewing audience, I am not going to compete within that six percent; I am out there for the other 94 per cent. For me therefore it will be self-limiting to say that I am one more player in the six per cent space, I am there for the other 94 per cent. My style has always been to expand the audience -- that’s what I did with Times Now. We expanded the English news genre, now we will expand the whole genre.
You talked about expanding the news universe. The English news channel universe has got an increase of 45% of viewership in the last one month, according to BARC ratings. So you think these are encouraging signs for you?
Yes, these are fantastic signs for us. But I have always said English news viewership has not been completely reflected in the numbers that have come up. I think the numbers will grow to over 100 per cent soon.
The English news genre today is growing at the rate of five or six times compared to Hindi channels. Five years back only Hindi channels were growing. Why is English growing five times as compared to Hindi? It is simple -- because people are speaking more English nowadays. They are communicating in Hinglish. I am riding that wave.
There are multiple news channels in the English universe. How many do you think will survive the long run?
For me there are no players. There’s only Republic and the rest. You will remember there has been my show and there has been the rest of the shows. Why did we get 80-85 per cent viewership? Why has that now collapsed? Why is Times Now unable to get beyond what it’s getting right now? So we are not competing against a bunch of players; we are the leaders. As the English news genre is concerned, we must be clear -- people go with honesty, straightforwardness, and directness. So there is me on the one side, and there are other copycats on the other. People are not going to watch the copycats. There will be copycats and those copycats will battle among themselves. I wish them luck. I request them even now to please evaluate what they are doing, copycats never succeed. In the absence of the original, some copycats might have fun for a while, but that fun is not going to last beyond a few more weeks.
You talked about the expansion of English news channel universe, but many people think that English news channel universe does not matter at all and is inconsequential when seen in context of Hindi news channels. So how do you challenge this notion and can this be changed?
I don’t want to challenge the notion. I just shared with you the numbers at which the English news genre is growing which is 500% greater than the Hindi news genre as per the latest BARC figures that have come out. So I don’t think I need to challenge it, the numbers prove for themselves. I am not competing against the Hindi news genre; the English / Hinglish news genre seems to be a high impact genre where conversations also start. Advertisers are not in my view unidimensional in their approach towards any product; the advertisers today depend as much on the conversations, ability to have a domino effect in terms of social impact. They also are good citizens of this country. So they want a kind of news which makes longer, deeper change in this country. They would like to see campaigns, they would like to see news channels fight for women’s rights, civic issues. We have consistently done that and I am blessed to be in a situation where people associate that form of journalism with me. I am here to do things that have a positive impact on India. I am not here to take a share of the pie. I am here to appeal to 100% of the TV news home viewers to watch me, I am not here to take some Hindi pie or English pie.
You have been stressing on this lately that you believe in Hinglish news genre. So is it a conscious shift in building the market or you think you’ve always symbolized this?
I don’t know why people sometimes use so bigger words, I think they are alienating themselves from the audience with greatest respect to anchors who have done it in the past, they should also correct themselves. Some anchors who still speak in the Doon school language must understand that Doon school is not the present or the future, but the past of the country. Kendriya Vidyalaya was the past, is the present and is the future of this country. We must today rise above the false pretences of elitism which English news has come to represent in some sections. I come from a more broad-based version of what India will be, that’s why I am not fighting English as a language and when I talk about Hinglish. I talk about it as a metaphor, an adjective rather than just a language. So please don’t mistake what I am saying. I am speaking in English but I can easily migrate to 3-4 other Indian languages. That is my strength and not my weakness.
The conventional journalist was always a faceless entity, so he was just a medium between the reader and news. You, on the other hand, have a rockstar’s reputation. So do you think the role of a journalist has been redefined, where he is as much as a subject, as the subject s/he investigates?
I don’t consider myself to be a rockstar entity. I don’t think any journalist should be faceless or nameless. However some media organizations which believe it is their purpose in life to denigrate the editor. Let me make it clear, that I have always worked for my brand of journalism and not for any corporate media group ever and I made it clear when I was working with a corporate media group that I was answerable to myself. So I don’t believe in the concept of faceless reporting, so a reporter must be strengthened and must be respected. Why are some media groups insecure about editors, anchors and reporters being well-known and having a name. These media owners represent legacy institutions, they have not built the institutions, and they have inherited them. We are not building Republic as an inheritance. I haven’t got it as an inheritance from my family; I am building it brick by brick. I think it is a more honourable way of doing it. When I build it brick by brick I also respect the professionals who work for it. These are not my employees, these are my partners. I’m not insecure of them. I appeal today to all right thinking journalists to rise above media owners who have made it their ultimate wish to run down journalists. Don’t work for media owners who run down journalists, who run down content creators. They might pay you money but it’s not worth working for them.
You have been calling Delhi media a compromised media. Why do you have such notions about the Delhi media?
You must understand that even when I speak about Lutyens’ media, I am speaking about it as a moral metaphor. There is a media which has not had the courage or the spine to stand up to the corrupt -- that is the compromised media. I will never salute that media. Even if someone is 70-year-old and is factually incorrect, a person must stand up to that person and say that he is incorrect. Similarly in my case the Delhi Lutyens’ media has existed for 70 years. Simply as a new player I don’t want to show them too much respect for their age, I want to see what they do, and the fact is they haven’t done very much in the last 70 years. That’s why I call them compromised.
You also reckon that opinion is the future of journalism. Some will say that it’s putting conventional wisdom on its head. Do you think you are ahead of the times when you say this?
When you say ahead of the times people might mistake it as I am really ahead of the times. In that context in which people may mistake it, I must say that, I am ahead of the Times.
Facts are necessary because we have broken stories on the basis of facts with deep analysis and understanding. But I believe that facts are available and opinions are sacred. But we have done enough work in the past 10 years for people to know that we have not been incorrect with our facts. I mean we are so good with facts that the only time a picture of the judge went wrong on our TV channel I was dragged to the court for a 100 crore case against me. I stood in court honestly; I faced the Supreme Court judges at that time. So I have made personal appearances in court well enough to know that facts are important. With my brand of journalism I should also know that I must be extra careful with my facts because I may mess around with the wrong kind of people and having being aware of those kinds of risks, I still continue to do what I have been doing. But my statement that opinion is sacred is not a denigration of needs for the facts.
But many people who are conventional school will say…
I don’t believe in any conventional school, who is this conventional school, who are they to teach me, why do they come from, what have they done which I have not? 85 per cent of the people of this country have watched me and that conventional school is struggling with the 15 per cent. I do what I do, but that is in my original style with my original team of journalists. Why should I believe that a bunch of copycats is a conventional school? This is the new form of journalism and I have rejected the old form. You should not ask me about the conventional school, I have declared my independence from the media of Delhi, so take it as that. This is the declaration of independence. So this constant question about conventional school is something I don’t understand.
You are also positioning Republic as player in global news gathering. We don’t have an Indian perspective of the news globally. So how confident are you taking forward this journey?
I am very confident about it. When we began Times Now, we went out honestly and raised considerable amount of investments from Reuters to build the channel. At that point of time I am also proud to tell you that people of 15 nationalities were trained in television by me. Some of the global news editors of CNN are trained in the Lower Parel newsroom where I operated from. It gave me the confidence to know that we can operate with a multi-cultural, multi ethnic environment and I think there is no reason for us -- content creators – should not be able to not disrupt the environment. The question is do we do it on our own or do we do it in collaboration with others? Do we play it on digital or do we share it on TV as well? How do we stream the content, what is the nature of the content, where do we produce it, where do we edit it, what styles do we look at. These are the questions in my mind for the course of next 6-12 months I will unravel my plan once I launch the Republic TV with Republic World. We already have various exciting investment options on how to grow that business. I think with a fair amount of prudence and commitment we will be able to achieve it in 2017-18, I haven’t made a formal corporate announcement of it, but it’s around the corner.
It’s been seen that global media players rarely succeed without state support. So you think it’s a feasible idea?
There is a difference between existing and succeeding. You succeed only when you are in a competitive market. So the absence of competition will not justify your claims that they succeed. State support is unnecessary.
You say that digital ad sales are up and print sales are down, television and digital need to be synergised. What is Republic’s roadmap on this?
Many print companies in 2017 have de-grown. Most of the companies are growing at a rate lower than the rate of inflation, and many editions are closing down. I think that the vernacular print media has a longer shelf-life. I think that the English print media has fair amount of difficulties ahead and the advertisers are also very smartly assessing their options. I think print in terms of reach and impact is on a significant decline, especially English print. My intention is not to talk about others but to funnel TV and digital and to grow on the basis of them.
You say that digital will be the second distinctive identity for TV. But you have not been active on social media. Times Now may be, Republic may be, but you don’t even have a twitter account.
I don’t have the time to keep writing stuff on twitter and like I said I don’t want it to be a one way traffic, I don’t want to misuse the medium. Republic has a very strong presence on twitter. When we launched we got 40,000 followers in the course of 45 minutes. I value that support, you get thousands of people following up every minute and I value it. I am not on twitter because my bandwidth is a bit limited right now with the launch of republic. But Republic will be very active in social media for all the digital natives.
Talking about Republic, you say that you will be the voice of 1.3 billion people in India. You sound very much like Narendra Modi!
Why should it be presumptuous to say that you speak for the people? Is it not be the responsibility of every journalist to speak for the people? That way you would say that every member of my team sounds like a politician. I say to people on a daily basis that we should speak on behalf of the people and understand their sensibilities, what works for them, what doesn’t work for them. There is no political angle in this. I don’t have the money like some of those other media corporate companies so I am going around people, making speeches, and we are well recognized. You must understand that this is essentially a David vs Goliath fight and unfortunately I am having to share this with anguish that in this fight some are going around telling the distributors that they will pay them 6 or 8 months of distribution fee upfront so that they can stop Republic from being broadcast for one month. To stop us for 1 month they are willing to pay for 6-8 months. I think this is so negative, it is so desperate and paranoid and people with pride have gone along and said this to the distributors.
They are begging the distributors to stop the broadcast of Republic for one month. Is it not frightfully shameful? I want to ask the Goliath what they are scared of. The fact is that they are scared of the honest journalists. You see, journalists are content creators, we bring pride to the profession. I request this Goliath not to embarrass itself in the media Industry. As I said, I am here for a long time. The Goliath must understand that the David is here for good. If they block me for 1 month or 6 months will I disappear? Is there a dearth of screens where our journalism will appear?
This sense of panic is very unfortunate. I want to tell this Goliath that a flop channel which has been renamed twice already, and has been renamed the third time, with the same flop content and masqueraded as a new channel, as some kind of a countervailing strategy to take on Republic. You can’t stop the people of India. So when I say 1.3 billion people, their might, the want, the desire of 1.3 billion people put together on one side vs the desperate attempts of one Goliath on the other. This time the content creators will win, those who have inherited businesses will lose.
Would you also like to name those players?
It is for the people to judge. This is something which I needed to share with you to send a message out that you must not embarrass yourself and you must not try and bring in unhealthy practices in the Industry, however paranoid you are with the launch of Republic. Every day morning waking up and giving interviews about not allowing Republic to crush us, we will pay money etc... it’s a sign of panic.
You have established a kind of credibility that not many can match. But many say you are pro Narendra Modi, you go soft on Modi. How do you respond to this charge?
I don’t respond to anyone except my viewer. My viewer knows me and trusts me. I have a connect with my viewer.
I am also a viewer. If I may ask you that you were soft on Mr. Modi and not soft on Rahul Gandhi, how will you respond?
I would want to ask you, in turn, please name the journalist who broke the story called ‘Lalitgate’. Answer my question.
And name one more journalist who broke a story of that kind of story in the last 2 years. Name one journalist who has been boycotted by all political parties. I use my freedom of expression well, I don’t use it to support those who say, “Bharat ki Barbadi”. I use my freedom of expression to break scams and to take on the corrupt. From CWG to ‘Lalitgate’, I have for the course of the last 20 years proven my independent journalism. You want me to respond to the pseudo elite Lutyens’ brigade which has nothing to speak against me but to throw mud at me. Republic is a movement which is unstoppable. To prove my journalism today is not necessary for me.
So does it bother to you when your rivals claim to see BJP links in you, even in your lineage and your product?
I don’t respond to people who are illiterate about the facts. But since you have asked me this question let me tell you. Have you done your research before asking me this question? Are you aware that my grandfather Gauri Shankar Bhattacharya was a leading Left intellectual, leader of the opposition in Assam who left the mainstream Left party to start his own? Look at his background in the circumstances and understand for how many years he was a freedom fighter, underground. My other paternal grandfather Rajnikanta Goswami was a respected Congress leader who gave up politics after Independence to continue as a government lawyer, one of the most respected citizens of Assam. My uncle Dinesh Goswami, was the leader from a regional party, who was independent for a long time in the Rajya sabha. If you talk about lineage you must check out the real lineage and know that there are people in politics from all sides. However having said that I am a journalist and I don’t want to get drawn in these questions.
Let’s talk about your investors. How much funding have you received and how much are you expecting in near future?
My investors are on the Internet and each of my investors believes in my journalism. My investment is from my viewers, my viewers invested me, and they watch me. This is the product of their trust. I am launching this organization as a movement and not as a business; you must understand that and not look at Republic in conventional ways. This much I will tell you as a straight answer to your question, my investment is in the public domain. I request all the media companies, including yours, to come clean with the entire investments, down to the last rupee, and update it on a weekly basis. That is what people expect from a media company. I make a promise today that the funding of Republic is in the public domain and will continue to be in the public domain forever. But I want you to go and ask all the other big media companies about their fronted and real investments, about who are they fronting for and who their real investors are. If you get an answer to all of that, come back and come compare the funding of the Republic and you will understand that the answer is available at the push of a button.
What’s your stake in the venture?
This is a venture which is out there; the investment pattern if you check will be easy to understand. It is our organization. This is the first journalist-run, journalist-owned and journalist-managed venture. I have never done things for money. This is a function of my faith.
What is going to be your revenue model? How do you sustain yourself in the long run?
Through advertising wherever it comes, of course. As of now the media business is largely driven by advertising and not by subscription and I guess we will have to be following that trend as well.
What has been the response from the advertisers?
We have got a fantastic response from advertisers. Almost all advertisers are moving away from legacy institutions to Republic. There is a line-up of the best names who are advertising with Republic as our sponsors, advertisers. Why are they doing that; why is this the most exciting media launch of the country this year and maybe for a long time? Why will Republic have with it the best of the names associated with it in the world of advertisers? It is because all these advertisers believe in us. They have seen my shows and they know my journalism. My relationship with my advertisers is at a very personal and empathetic level. That’s the connect that we need to have. I often tell them that they are also the part of the story of changing this country. Advertisers are also viewers, they also want to have impact; they also want to change the country.
How soon do you think you will break even?
By the blessings of God and the support of people we will be able to do that. However, I am not obsessed about it. As I told you I am not a businessman. I am more bothered about the content that we are creating. I am quite sure that if the content we create is successful, the advertising will follow and the organization will do well. But having said that let me tell you there are people in this organization who have come on a salary cut, people who have joined me just because they believe in my journalism, I don’t weigh them in money and neither do they. We must look at Republic therefore as a different kind of organisation in the current media scenario.
You are a big name in the industry. Why are you not roping in more star names for your venture?
We have not made any public announcement yet. Why should you presume who I have got in who I haven’t? Of course we won’t launch the organization without having a strong editorial team, we are building a strong editorial team and some of the finest names in the business are already joining us.
Chitra Subramaniam, who broke the Bofors story, is our editorial advisor and I am very proud of her.
We have, Niranjan Narayanaswamy who has joined us as our editor on our newsdesk. He is a fantastic talent, he joins us from the Times Network. Charu Thakur, who is the president of content and chief executive producer, is by far the best news production professional in India today and I am very proud to have her on the team. We have Hariharan, extremely popular anchor from Thanthi TV, who is joining us very soon. We have Army veteran, Gaurav Arya, who has joined us as a strategic affairs expert. This is the future of journalism in India and we are building a very vast pool of contributors, producers, editorial staff and reporters. Abhishek Kapoor who has joined us as our executive editor in Delhi is a fantastic political journalist, as are Aishwarya Kapoor, Prema Sreedevi. They are very senior and finest journalists from India today. Snehesh Alex Philip, who has joined us from PTI, was working in Pakistan and has the honour of being one of the two Indian journalists who were asked to leave Pakistan. This is the future of journalism.
One of the investors in your channel happens to be Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who is an office bearer of NDA in Kerala. All of us know that his organization writes letter to employees saying their edit line should right of centre, pro-military, pro nationalism. Some would say you already have that edit line. Do you think your edit line would be guided by a similar philosophy?
Let me declare it to you that I am pro-military, pro-India, pro-nationalist. That does not make me right wing. I think it is a pseudo, elitist un-researched, Lutyens’ media philosophy which describes people who are pro-army and pro-nation as right wingers. 99 per cent of India is, 100 per cent of India, should be.
I am extremely proud of my investment that we have received from Asianet Online Private Ltd. Asianet is the oldest TV news channel in India, fiercely independent and I am very proud of the investment and I am proud to have Rajeev Chandrasekhar as one of my largest investors.
Like him, other investors believe in our journalism. Our journalism will speak for itself.
You say that you are pro-military. So how do you deal with the criticism that comes with the declaration?
I don’t care, there are people who have not written a single story or have done a single expose write articles about me. I wouldn’t worry about them. I have no time for such criticism, these are armchair critics and they will continue to do their job and I will do mine. I am independent of them and independent from them. This is the birth of a new media which is far more confident. Why should we worry about those who are not in touch with the times?
You say that you value the investments from Rajeev Chandrasekhar, but does the association with the BJP worry you?
I have answered that question quite clearly that I value the investment by him and each one of my investors believes in my journalism and I am very happy about it. Now all that we need to do is launch the channel.
Do you think India media has somehow, somewhere lost the anti-establishment character and does that worry you?
I am not the part of that Indian media. CWG, 2G, the Nirbhaya campaign, Anna campaign, Lalitgate… these stories are not pro-establishment, so I don’t know which media you are talking about. As I told you I have declared my independence from the fake media. This is the birth of a new media. Do I agree with the fake media? I don’t. Does the fake media like me? They don’t. That’s where the equation and relationship ends, beyond that there is no point in passing comments on each other.
You are an editor, you are an entrepreneur and does this worry you at times because entrepreneurship comes with its quota of risks?
Risks excite me, there is nothing that worries me, everything I take upon as a challenge on myself. It’s so exciting to be the David in the story where there is an ageing Goliath on the other side. I think this is the greatest motivator for me. People are really excited about Republic because of the sentiment we bring with it. I must tell you that I am blessed to have a superb management team headed by our CEO Vikas Khanchandani. He is a fantastic young profession, he is meticulous, he is honest and a man of great integrity. S Sundaram, the CFO of the Times Network, has joined me as the CFO. Jai Chauhan who is the chief operating officer digital technical operator is the first technocrat to head the technical operations and editorial department in our digital side. Some of the innovations that he is going to bring with Republic World are absolutely amazing. With such a great team you don’t worry and think of the future and the think that I said when I left Times Now that the game has just begun.
The average age in your team is 25, and for digital it is around 22-23. So does that reflect the true nature of changing India?
Yes, it does and I am happy about it, it motivates me while the compromised media doesn’t like me, the new media has welcomed me and they know that I started by fighting a lonely battle but today I am not alone, today I have thousands of young journalists who are with me. And you are right about these people being in the 20s, I have learned a lot from them. And I really look forward to working with this bunch over the next ten years. I think it keeps me alive and on my feet and I think this is the one reason why Republic will be a great success.
You have taken Times Now from 0-50 in your avatar, will we see you in another avatar or will we see the same Arnab?
Like I said I am not here to take a part in the 6 per cent, I am here for the 94 per cent. There are a lot of people in India who still do not watch news; my responsibility is to make them watch news. As far as I am concerned I will just go with the wave and see what happens.
It is said that apart from being the editor, you also spend lot of time in marketing, like what works and what doesn’t.
Not really, I am more interested in parts which have to do with editorial. I am quite obsessed with promos and graphics but we have a great team who are doing that so I am spending more time on pure editorial work. I also like to underline the fact that I am essentially very proud that I am an editor and I will remain an editor. I am the editor-in-chief of Republic, which is my first and final role. All business roles are secondary.
(This article was first published in BW Businessworld)