<b>Aroon Purie</b>, CEO & Editor in Chief, India Today Group

<p align=justify>"I think that the whole media is in a crisis. It's a paradoxical situation. You have an exploding media, which is expanding in every segment – television, Internet and print. But I also think everybody is questioning their basic assumptions. Who is our target audience? How do people get information? When do they want this information? What are they willing to pay for information? Has news become a commodity? By information I mean news, opinions, analyses. These are the questions everybody is asking themselves because the consumer is getting information from many different sources in real time. There is no waiting any more."

e4m by exchange4media Staff
Updated: Aug 8, 2019 11:12 AM
<b>Aroon Purie</b>, CEO & Editor in Chief, India Today Group

"I think that the whole media is in a crisis. It's a paradoxical situation. You have an exploding media, which is expanding in every segment – television, Internet and print. But I also think everybody is questioning their basic assumptions. Who is our target audience? How do people get information? When do they want this information? What are they willing to pay for information? Has news become a commodity? By information I mean news, opinions, analyses. These are the questions everybody is asking themselves because the consumer is getting information from many different sources in real time. There is no waiting any more."

He started the empire with a massive failure, a miscalculation that would have had most entrepreneurs scurrying for cover. India Today was first conceptualised as a window on India targeting the Non-Resident Indian – and while his editorial team succeeded in putting together a credible and competent product, the organisation could never come to grips with the marketing and distribution challenges. The International edition was consigned to the dustbin – but not the product that had been created. It was re-engineered, and the NRI’s loss became the Indian citizen’s gain.

Aroon Purie has built his empire around the five-letter word “Today”. The bedrock was the runaway success of what was then a fortnightly English newsmagazine, India Today. He saw a need for quality newsmagazines in Indian languages, and proceeded to launch a slew of India Today versions in the vernacular – each one a resounding success. He launched a music publishing business, and named it – you guessed right – Music Today. He launched a superlatively organised Internet newspaper christened The Newspaper Today, which, like many a dotcom, sank without a trace. When he forayed into television, the holding company was called TV Today and its first offering was the Hindi News Channel, Aaj Tak – which, surely, one can translate to “Until Today”. The English news channel that he proceeded to launch is named, quite simply, Headlines Today. And when he felt that there was an opportunity to enter the newspaper business with a tabloid in Delhi, he dispensed with prefixes and suffixes – it’s called Today.

The word Today seems to have ruled a large part of Aroon Purie’s life and empire, but what emerges in a conversation with Anant Rangaswami, Editor, Impact, a premier weekly on marketing, advertising and media from exchange4media, is that he is the man who sees Tomorrow. Purie talks about media yesterday, media today and, most importantly, media tomorrow.

Q. The growth of niche magazines seems to be very slow, but you’ve done well with niche magazines or specialist magazines. This is a space you have successfully occupied. What more can we expect to see in this space?

I must tell you that all three magazines – Good Housekeeping, Scientific American and Reader’s Digest – have performed far beyond our expectations. Reader’s Digest, since we’ve taken over, has grown by over 40 per cent. It’s now 660,000 copies. Good Housekeeping within a year, is around 85,000 copies. Scientific American is almost 10,000 subscribers already. And it’s priced at Rs 100! It’s something you wouldn’t think there was a ready market for. We’re very heartened by these successes, and we’re going to launch Men’s Health in May that’s going to be the next big one. And you’re going to see many more.

The youth market is something we are definitely interested. But magazines for youth are notoriously difficult to get right because the age group moves so fast that you have to keep track of who you’re actually aiming at. But yes, it’s a market we have to look at, because of the demographics of the country.

Q. So, has ABC lost its relevance?

I wouldn’t say ABC has lost relevance. I think ABC has to change itself. ABC actually goes and looks at physical copies being printed, checks that they are all paid for to give you net paid circulation. The problem is ‘raddi’ economics does not exist in other countries from which ABC’s rules originated. There is a large degree of benchmarking. If the ABC certificate has a certain figure, then your readership has a certain figure, and you can say, “look, I am printing so many copies, and, therefore, I have so many readers.” ABC is also the first filter for readership surveys. Where do they go and survey? In that sense it is very important.

ABC is a valid exercise. As long as they start tuning themselves to modern times, ABC will be immediately relevant.

Readership, of course, is the most important. That’s what an advertiser looks for. There’s a constant debate on how to keep improving the methodology for readership surveys. That’s a valid debate, because you’re getting huge swings. There’s IRS, there’s NRS, each one has its own methodology; there are publications which get the short end of the stick. That is an ongoing process. Readership is a very good measure that should not be discarded. We need to figure out how to make it more relevant and accurate. It’s one of the best international practices. There’s no doubt in my mind that both these bodies (ABC and Readership Surveys) are relevant currencies and must be improved.

Q. What about Target (magazine for children, now defunct)?

All the children’s advertising had moved to television. All the Cokes and the Pepsis and the Cadbury’s had moved away from print. In order for them to advertise in print, you need huge circulation – 100,000, 150,000. Till you reach figures like these they won’t even talk to you – and that’s a very tough proposition.

Q. You’ve often spoken of passion as a prerequisite to succeed in this business. What is there in your DNA that allows the passion to transcend through the organisation – and resulting in your not losing people?

I think the first thing is the way we do business. We believe in ethical business, editorial integrity, empowering people to do their job and professional excellence. There are certain values that we have been able to perpetuate in our organisation. That certain things are not negotiable. The people who stay on subscribe to these values and enjoy working within the Group. They are then given the freedom to operate within those parameters.

I think it’s a combination of all factors in terms of the freedom to operate, creating a challenging environment. I think everybody in this organisation works hard. They’re pushed to their professional limits. We’ve put a big premium on learning – that is, you keep improving on the job. All these, I think, result in people feeling good about working in this organisation.

Now that we’ve grown into different media, there are different opportunities. They feel there are opportunities for growth in different spaces. Recently, we’ve come up with an internal website where we post all vacancies, and encourage people to apply for cross-functional jobs.

Everybody has to face up to reality today. How the environment is changing, you have to keep pace with it. Certain media is hot, certain media is not so hot. That’s a fact of life.

Q. Do you see stings as an important component of your editorial products? Stings and investigative journalism?

The key thing is investigative journalism. The sting is a matter of technology. Investigative journalism is something that should be encouraged in India. There are so many things which are wrong which can be put right by exposure. Whether you do it through a sting, or whether you do it through looking at a lot of documents and researching yourself really doesn’t matter. Investigative journalism is very much a part of journalism and should be encouraged by all media. But it should be done with a degree of ethics and in public interest.

Q. In radio you have done some odd things. You sold RED FM then within a few days bid in Phase II and got frequencies in the same cities and more. What are you up to?

Well, someone was willing to offer us a good price for RED FM and was in a hurry to get into the business, so we sold it, but without a non-compete clause. Then we bid very smartly in Phase II and got the three metros with the lowest cost bids. If we had stayed on with RED FM and migrated to the new regime, it would have cost us Rs 30 crore more. So, we wiped out all our cumulative losses and got back into the business. Not a bad deal. Also, we have four other stations. The share of radio in the ad pie is bound to grow and we are confident that we will be one of the leaders. We understand the business.

Q. To get back to what you were saying… you’re going to have to marry print with the Internet, with SMS…

Everybody looks at themselves increasingly not as a magazine publisher but as a content producer. Hopefully, valuable content, which is platform agnostic. Then, how do I leverage my brand as a content producer beyond just giving information? The key in the future is interactivity. How you can interact with your reader, involve him with your experience and this is where Internet will play a key role and even events like conclaves. The second important part is that for me to make content valuable, I need domain expertise – which means journalists must have expertise in a particular field. Otherwise, you're going to be taken over by blogs. Blogs will file unedited, unresearched information from everywhere, which people will feel is the same if not better than publishers. Unless you're able to say, "Look, I have some exclusive piece of knowledge and information because of my study or because of my access", only then will people be willing to pay for it.

Q. You’ve got virtually no presence in the newspaper arena – except for Today. Are you tempted to take Today to other towns, which might have a situation amenable to an afternoon paper? Are you tempted to get into the newspaper business itself?

As a person in the media there’s no question of our not continuing to look at a newspaper opening. The issue is, the newspaper players are all well established giants. There is no point getting into a market unless you are absolutely sure that you are going to succeed – that is my philosophy.

I must be absolutely sure in terms of the amount of money it will take and the amount of time it will take in order to dislodge the big players – that is the key question.

You are seeing something happening in Mumbai and everybody is watching how that plays out. There are many openings in newspapers of a different kind, which we will continue to look at. The afternoon slot is something we got into because we thought the Metro in Delhi would be a good launching pad for this kind of a newspaper. We will continue to explore such possibilities. We are also looking at other cities.

Q. It’s 30 years now, and you’ve been an unusual case in that we’ve had one player ruling for so long. Even when you went from fortnightly to weekly, you became the leader instantly. How do you see this whole genre – the general interest news magazine – panning out in the next 10 years?

Firstly, I think the position of India Today in the whole media space is not fully appreciated. India Today has nearly 50 per cent readership share of all English magazines and over two-and-half times its nearest rival. Its SEC A readership is more than its rival's total national readership. India Today is perhaps the only truly national media brand and, with its five editions, it has a readership of over 20 million. The combined readership of India Today English and Hindi is more than 50 per cent of the readership share of the mighty Times of India and Nav Bharat Times with all its editions. The point of all this is that we are very uniquely placed but we are not finished. We have a clear growth path in language editions, there are 12 major languages still left, and in lateral extensions as we have done with Simply Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and now even community-wise with Simply Gujarati and Punjabi. And, then, Spice and Aspire. Plus, there are many more in the pipeline.

Q. What about the ‘Simply’s? Could we see these being spun off as separate publications?

Our strategy there is completely different. We are adding value to the India Today reader. That is what our proposition is – giving the India Today better value for his money. We’re giving him Spice, we’re giving him Simply and many other magazines – Money Today. This is building value in India Today. But these magazines could well be made available without India Today very soon.

Q. A question that I would like you to spend some time on. The whole issue of sting journalism. In some ways you’ve been a strong supporter of sting journalism, in the sense that you believe stings, which expose corruption is good for the country. You’ve been a supporter of Tarun Tejpal, and so on. But sometimes, stings can go horribly wrong… they can be misused. How does an organisation keep tabs on misuse? Do you think it’s wise for a newspaper to publish the Salman tapes, and a few months later you discover that they were doctored tapes? You can do people terrible harm. This could happen in print, in TV. How does one handle this? How do you, personally, ensure that none of your editorial products is open to misuse?

The test is very simple. It has to answer the question: is it in public interest? I think the unwritten guidelines deal with this. Each sting operation is discussed in detail, on merit. Is it in public interest? We’ve come across so many tapes, which are of people’s personal lives, we’ve just thrown them away. It has to have some limits where it does not intrude on people’s privacy, or in any way endanger them. The fact that whether the material is genuine goes without saying that the responsibility rests on the media to verify its authenticity. That is why channels chose not to carry the Amar Singh tapes. Everyone was delivered a CD.

Q. Where systems are not in place – and I don’t want to name channels – there have been instances where they put up a story where they haven’t done the background checks because the pressure on the journalists to break stories is so high. How does one deal with this?

That is a professional failure if someone has not done his job right. There is no pressure to break wrong stories. In any process mistakes will happen. The concerned media must apologise and make amends in the best way it can.

I’ve always been a proponent of self-regulation. The industry must get together and lay down some standards – whether it’s the Indian Broadcasting Foundation or INS.

The other problem is that the laws of the country are not enforced. There are laws regarding defamation, obscenity and incitement to communal discord. If you find a channel has broken the law pull the channel’s license and take him to court. Let the government enforce the law. You enforce the law and 90 per cent of the problem will get taken care of. However, I sincerely believe that the media by and large in India has been very responsible.

Q. What can you do about that?

Here, we are trying to bring in international practices. We are trying to get other people involved as well. We’ve been in discussion with MARG to try and improve the way radio is measured. It’s become too much of a function of brand building. You spend money on brand building, you get listenership. In fact, (listeners) may be listening on your station, but they will name the station which spends more money on brand building. That needs to be corrected.

As the business grows, the research will become far more accurate. They will have to measure recall of programmes, which will indicate the radio station that they are listening to…

Q. They’ve tried to do this, they’ve tried to link the radio jockey with the programme and the radio station, and it has proven to be a complete mess. Respondents named Jockey A, Station B and Program C! It’s going to be complex. Therefore, again, people with a newspaper would probably find it easier…

If you put more filters into the question… that is, ask more questions which will tell you the guy is really confused in terms of what he’s listening to. It’ll give you a better idea of what the actual listenership is. The people who are in the industry will, sooner or later, get together and ask for a fairer listenership research, which is not dominated by one player. There is going to be an industry view on this. Whichever is the best international practice, and whichever is the fairest is really what advertising agencies and the radio players will push for.

Q. Are you looking for overseas players to invest in your radio foray?

We are looking for international partners in radio who are in radio and can add value to the business. I believe the foreign equity cap at 20 per cent is not consistent with television. News is not allowed on FM. Therefore, it is purely entertainment like TV channels, which have no cap on foreign equity for entertainment channels. Even for news, it is 26 per cent. So, radio is totally out of sync.

Q. Another area in which you are completely absent, and which you could be looking at, is Outdoor. Almost every major player in media is looking at outdoor and taking strong positions…

Quite frankly, I have no interest in outdoor, because I see no editorial value there. It is pure infrastructure. We are an editorial driven company, and if we can add editorial value to a business we would surely be interested in it. Otherwise, it is just trading.

Q. Back to the issue of measurement – on television. You are now a very big player on TV, how are you dealing with the fact that a news channel can never really deliver huge TRPs. Niche channels, with the present system of measurement, hardly register. Your channel is on air, you’re spending money on it – but it’ll never deliver high ratings. It must put your sales team under pressure all the time. Do you have any issues on measurement of television?

That’s also an ongoing process for improvement of viewership data. What they need to do is to increase the number of boxes, they need to expand the TRP towns. That’s how you widen the net and actually reflect true viewership. There’s a lot of extrapolation that goes on in order to arrive at your viewership. Something needs to be done to get more accurate. More boxes, bigger sample.

News channels actually get a very high share of the advertising when considering their small viewership. I think it’s about 10 per cent of the advertising and 5 per cent of the viewership. That’s because they deliver a different and very relevant audience than the entertainment channels.

Yes, the viewership of smaller niche channels, which deliver very good eyeballs, get lost in the wash. Smaller channels, which actually have viewership which doesn’t get reflected as much as they deserve.

I’m attracted towards what I define as reality TV. Anything that is non-fiction. It could be a gaming channel with shows like KBC, reality TV, health channels and so on. I don’t think we have the core competence to produce soap operas.

Entertainment, I feel, is well served by existing players and we have a very strong film industry, which supports these channels.

Q. Can you take us through your satisfaction levels on Today and how it’s grown?

Today is now around 60,000 copies. The biggest problem with Today is its distribution. There is no afternoon distribution network. The morning distribution network just vanishes. We have been forced to build our own distribution network, and that has taken time. It’s a proprietary network, in the sense that we own it. In that sense its valuable.

As the Metro grows into areas that relate to this kind of product, Today will grow.

I’m quite happy with the editorial product. It is a different kind of tabloid, a different kind of newspaper than you see in the market. It’s addressed more to the younger generation, deals with subjects, which are very local and does not pretend to be a national daily. And above all, it has got attitude. An attitude of audacity and irreverence. I think it will give you a readership of a kind which other newspapers don’t give you. A lot of people get their morning newspaper and don’t even read it. The newspaper is one product which people stop consuming and the producer will not know it till much later just because they can’t get up in the morning to stop it and it’s a habit and so cheap. I would like to see how many would buy a newspaper off the newsstand. I think Today has a great future; get our distribution right and take it to other cities like Mumbai.

Q. While on these magazines – a question which you are probably best qualified to answer. How would you differentiate between a niche and a special interest magazine?

To me, special interest is slightly broader than niche. They are B2C. Special interest would be Men’s Health, Good Housekeeping, these kind of magazines, which are focussing on a particular activity or a broad target audience. Niche is B2B. It is like doing a magazine on say, chemical engineering or construction that becomes much narrower. Magazines like this, to my mind, should be purely cover price driven. You should recover all your costs through the cover price. If advertising does come, that’s jam. If it doesn’t, your business model is still sustainable. Its valuable editorial for that niche audience and they should be willing to pay for it.

Special interest magazines cannot survive on cover price alone. They need advertising and normally address a broader target audience although segmented.

Q. Where will we see Living Media more dominant? In niche or in special interest magazines?

Living Media will straddle across all magazine segments – general, special interest and niche. At the moment we find that the niche magazines that are already there are underpriced. But this will change in time.

Also, I think there is still scope for mass circulating general interest magazines, specially in regional languages.

Q. Who’s going to bite the bullet here? The leader ought to be the one to do it. Why not India Today at Rs 35?

Well, we exist in an environment around us. A newspaper is priced at Rs 2 to Rs 2.50, that sort of sets the benchmark. If they increase their prices, it will set the ball rolling for magazines. I think sooner or later reality will set in. Advertisers will not continue to support and subsidise media forever. Somewhere along the line this is going to break the camel’s back. You’ve got to produce content that people are willing to pay for. That’s why editorial content is the most important. That has been the theme of the India Today group as a whole – editorial excellence. Invest in editorial; everything else comes later. If you invest in editorial, that editorial is going to be valued. That is when you can charge money. We’ve raised it (India Today cover price) from Rs 15 to Rs 20; down the road we will continue to keep looking at the market to see how much the reader is willing to pay, and also what the rest of the environment is doing.

The people who are charging less money are not new challengers. The newspapers that are doing this are from existing groups; they are doing it for their own business and competitive reasons, which I believe are short term tactics. If you compare the price of newspapers and magazines with other products like a price of a movie ticket in a multiplex (Rs 150) and price of a newspaper of 40 pages for Rs 2 or a magazine for Rs 15-20, it is ridiculous. Sooner or later there has to be some parity.

Q. There have been, for you, many defining moments at India Today, almost milestones. The Emergency, perhaps, was one such milestone. Can you take us through three or four such milestones?

Firstly, I'm a very bad historian. Excuse me if I don’t remember all the benchmarks. But a couple of them do come to mind; definitely 1977. That's when the elections took place after the Emergency was lifted. That's the time Indira Gandhi was thrown out – I think that’s the time that India Today really took off. That's the time that there were so many stories that were coming out, that were suppressed during the Emergency. Then you had the change in Government, Mrs Gandhi losing her deposit against a joker like Raj Narain, the first time that there was a non-Congress government in power, that too a coalition of parties headed by a character like Morarji Desai – very interesting times. That was the time that India Today captured the whole scene in a very imaginative and colourful way that got people's attention. From there on there was no looking back. We had a team of young reporters, who just went out and told it the way it was. It was good writing, good pictures and newspapers were just not up to it. That is where India Today established itself as a newsmagazine.

From then on, India has been through such a dramatic time, with the fall of the Janata Government in 1980 and the return of Indira Gandhi, the rise of Sanjay Gandhi, his death then the induction of Rajiv Gandhi, the assassination of Mrs Gandhi and so on. It was such a turbulent period in India; an exciting time; it was ideal for a newsmagazine like India Today to report these events and it did it with clarity and credibility. That’s why India Today has got its leadership position in the media.

Q. It was originally conceived as a magazine for the International Indian community.

It didn't work out. It's a funny thing, but actually India Today was born out of a failure. The fact is that we didn't realise how difficult it was to market such a product to Indians living abroad. Indians are scattered all over the place. North America was a major market, UK was another one. It's very difficult and expensive to reach them. We soon realised that this was going to be a very long haul. As an experiment, we put some copies into the domestic market and discovered that there was a greater degree of acceptability. Soon, from that point on, we started building on the domestic market. The big lesson we have learnt is to build a strong domestic market before you go international. You could apply this to any other product.

Q. It is a tougher and tougher market. You’re competing with television, with the Internet.

I think that the whole media is in a crisis. It's a paradoxical situation. You have an exploding media, which is expanding in every segment – television, Internet and print. But I also think everybody is questioning their basic assumptions. Who is our target audience? How do people get information? When do they want this information? What are they willing to pay for information? Has news become a commodity? By information I mean news, opinions, analyses. These are the questions everybody is asking themselves because the consumer is getting information from many different sources in real time. There is no waiting any more. In my opinion, this question is more critical for newspapers. Today, newspapers no longer break stories. I don't get my F.I.R. (First Information Report) from newspapers any longer. I get this from the evening broadcast or morning broadcast, or even my mobile phone.

Newspapers have to go beyond just delivering what has happened the night before, which I already know about. I think that's the crisis they are facing – and they haven’t, to my mind, been able to successfully meet that challenge.

Q. Are we going to see newspapers becoming more analytical, more comment oriented?

They have to! Are they tuned to do it? Can they do it in 24 hours? Can they maintain quality? They have to reinvent themselves. Magazines have been doing this from the beginning. That is their niche. Magazines deliver understanding, thought and memorable pictures. That’s the need, which magazines will continue to fulfil.

Magazines will remain relevant because they are used to doing what is urgently required to be done now by newspapers. Television has no memory; it's difficult to remember what you saw a few minutes ago because you are captured by the new images on the screen. I think magazines are well placed in today's environment. They, of course, like all print media, will have to adapt to the new media of the Internet and news channels by leveraging their content and brand.

Q. India Today and Business Today are trying to come to terms with NRS, IRS, ABC in the sense that there is discomfort with these measures. You are one of the few groups to have spoken about it. Spoken about it through action – you don’t seem to care about ABC. What do you think can be a neutral, credible measure of how a magazine is doing or how readership is doing, or whatever?

Let me first tell you about ABC, because I was intimately involved in ABC. I was the Chairman of ABC, a member of ABC. We didn’t walk out of ABC just like that. We made great efforts in trying to tell them, “Look, ABC is not reflective of modern times. How do you market products? How do you price them? How do you reach your readers? You have to change the rules under which you decide this is paid circulation, this is not. We prepared an in-depth document, which told them that newspapers were going through what we called ‘raddi’ economics. The ‘raddi’ value of my newspaper is more than what I pay for it. You can. Therefore, just print the newspaper, get an ABC stamp on it, and the dealer just dumps it as scrap. The paper does not even get to the reader. This is the big problem with ABC and I believe it still exists.

For magazines, it’s a question of marketing in terms of gifting premiums, holding subscription drives; all those rules they are not willing to change. We said this is not the way magazines can be marketed. We said, “Look, unless you are willing to change, we are going to walk out.”

Q. You’ve also been saying that magazines and newspapers are underpriced in India…

Not just magazines; the whole of media is underpriced. Cable television is underpriced. Take what you get at home and compare the 200 channels you’re getting for Rs 350 or Rs 500 per month and convert it into dollars – that’s around $10. Newspapers are priced at around 4 cents, Rs 2.00 here, compared to the New York Times at $1 (Rs 45) or London Times at 60 p (Rs 46).

Q. You were one of the first players in the Internet space with The Newspaper Today, which fell by the wayside. We’ve not seen anything in that space from the India Today Group.

The e-newspaper that we launched was an idea way ahead of its time. It was a wonderful idea. It looked like a newspaper, it felt like a newspaper, it had audio in it, it had video in it, it was updated as the news went along minute by minute and you could customise it. We’ve put all the software in a box and could relaunch it now that net advertising is picking up.

Q. What will it take for India Today to go back to ABC?

We’ve given a long proposal to them in terms of what we feel they should take into account for arriving at net paid circulation. They treat magazines as newspapers. The main problem is that all these bodies have long been dominated by newspapers. That’s why we’ve formed the Association of Indian Magazines. Magazine publishers got together and said, “look, we need a different body because we have different concerns. We print on different paper, we have different issues with the government.”

The AIM is a very valid body, which will get stronger over the years.

Q. Will content be more king than ever before? Are we then reaching an era of great editors?

Content will always be king. The question is what content will consumers pay for since news is a commodity. It is not an era of great editors but an era for great experts. Exclusive valuable content is the name of the game. Then you add on the bells and whistles of interactivity and different delivery platforms. Internet is a great leveller by making information freely available. Great editors will be those who attract and retain great experts.

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