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Guest Column Retrofit: When provincial town mindset meets big city reality

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Guest Column Retrofit: When provincial town mindset meets big city reality

Even as March 31, 2009 came and went into the sunset, one begins the new financial year with great trepidation. I know of many people who are still to get jobs after the Sakal debacle. Remember that the paper shut down abruptly on November 30 last year. After much procrastination by the employer and downright haranguing by the employees in Delhi, the owners deigned to pay four months’ salary as severance pay. This acted as a buffer, but only just, as many of those employees remain unemployed. And given the state of despair in the media economy, I don’t see many of them landing anything very quickly. I guess one will have to be inventive to survive. But nevertheless, a great pity for many solid careers that have gone into a tailspin due to ‘provincial town mindset meets big city reality’. So, why did things come to such a sorry pass?

These are people who chucked up their jobs with respectable organiSations. The lubricant of lucre playing a pivotal role in transferring their allegiance to what looked at least on paper like a sound and robust regional newspaper group. In fact, the Marathi paper is backed by a major Maratha politico’s family. So, prima facie one would have thought that not only does the group have deep pockets, but it would have sound managerial bandwidth. But tall claims and taller ambition have destroyed many, including Alexander the Great, who had set out to conquer the world and ended up dying at a young age. Moths to the flame is an adage as old as the hills. This was a classic case of a moth being attracted to the flame of heady combination of ambition and aspiration. My question is, was he misled? Was he led up the primrose path unwittingly.

Why then did this paper die a natural death so quickly? Conceived as a multiple edition English daily with its hub of operations based in Delhi, it seemed like a brilliant idea. But ideas are aplenty in this world; they have to be backed by hard-nosed decision making ability. An ability and acumen that can be used to build a rock solid business. It requires an edifice of blood, sweat and toil. One cannot do business on the basis of a whim or a fancy. You cannot make do with a Band Aid, quick fix frivolous approach. Regional newspaper barons want to walk up the aspirational ladder. But there has to be a modus operandi, a gameplan. If the Agarwals of Bhaskar have managed to bridge this vernacular-English chasm through their joint venture with Subhash Chandra, then they have done so because they have stayed the course. It is a brutal and grueling steeplechase. Certainly not a business for the faint hearted. Till recently, DNA was losing Rs 12 crore per month, and I guess is still haemorrhaging. It started out as a voluntary retirement scheme for Bennett employees, but quickly acquired the hue of a terrier. A terrier snapping at the heels of the gargantuan The Times of India. But I guess they have managed to launch in Mumbai, Pune, Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and are committed to their project. You have to be a braveheart to be in the newspaper publishing business.

First crawl and then walk and still later fly; that is the normal progression. In Sakal’s case, bravado and derring do wasn’t backed either by financial or management bandwidth. Talk is cheap. And so it was in Sakal’s case. Before it could say Jack Robinson, its competitor TOI relaunched in Jaipur, bolstered its edition in Pune, launched in Goa, while DNA landed in Pune. Meanwhile, Sakal grappled with Delhi-centric realities. Salary structures, transportation costs, operating expenses and the like are in a different league in the Capital. Pune is not Delhi and vice-versa. Newspaper ground zero in small towns is at complete variance with the way things are managed in metros, especially Delhi and Mumbai.

Now we come to the weakest link in this content aggregation saga. A local sponsor was found by Sakal to put together the tentpoles for his assault on the English press. A few good men and women have a garrotte like grip on the English media and they don’t like wannabes to jump into the fray. So, in this case, something with a trans-continental nomenclature was found and given the mandate. This was Sakal’s B Team in the Capital. A sad bunch of worthies caught in a time warp, where Scottie was not beaming them up but down. For over eight months they tried their level best to rig up a super structure to put together a newspaper. They failed. A cost benefit analysis would tell you that it couldn’t have worked due to its very structure and attitude. Strange maglets with stranger titles were part of this operation. For eight months salaries were paid, expenses incurred and net result - nada, zilch, cipher.

Now let me give an example. The local sponsors were given the responsibility of the edit page and the op-ed page. A thousand dollars a day was the budget for the edit and op-ed page. Something unheard of even in TOI and HT, two of the largest newspapers in the land. Then there were a dirty dozen manning these pages – the spectrum was wide and varied – they were all paid top dollar. Between the $1,000 a day and the dirty dozen’s salary package, a cool Rs 2 crore was being spent by Sakal. Brilliantly crafted stories ranging from menstruation on a Sunday morning to an exposition on the Sunderbans delta were promptly coughed up by them for readers in Pune. There was a disconnect. And there was a cost overload. Between the two, there was no way in hell that the project could succeed.

The paper was put to bed in Delhi for Pune and subsequently it would be for other centres. On April 1, mind you very aptly All Fool’s Day, the project was kickstarted and the minuscule staff told that they had to launch on May 7. The paper was launched and then it began to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Sakal’s costing was exposed in next to no time. The worthies with continents and ocean nomeclatures tried to hang on to their dream, but the plug was pulled brutally on November 30. Pretensions are fine, delusion of grandeur even better, but these thought processes have to be suitably matched with action and purpose. Unfortunately, that was not the case at Sakal. In seven months flat, Sakal shut down its Delhi operations citing the global meltdown as the raison d e’tre. What did Bear Sterns or Lehman Brothers have to do with a newspaper in Pune and Delhi? I can understand the Evening Standard being sold to a Russian oligarch or the Boston Globe going under, but why pray did you start a newspaper if you cannot sustain it for more than six months. If telly land had the Mukerjeas burning holes in rupee notes, then Sakal’s management team and its local sponsors found new ways to mismanage operations. In both cases, it is the hapless employees who paid for the sins of the owners or the management. Gutless and clueless, they have done in so many people.

If there ever was a primer for how not to bring out a newspaper, then Sakal would pen it with the verve and velocity of a MacLean or a Ludlum. Sadly, this is all in the past, the reality is that many of those employed by Sakal remain out of a job.

(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist who started his career with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi - with The Indian Express, Illustrated Weekly, Sunday Observer, Dalal Street Journal, Plus Channel where he ran India's first morning business show on Doordarshan, The Times of India Group, Business India, Hindustan Times and Reliance Big Entertainment. Starting his career as a cricket writer, he graduated to becoming a man for all seasons under Pritish Nandy, who he considers as the premier influence on his career. Since he studied economics at Calcutta University, Bamzai decided in 1993 to branch out into business and financial journalism. Familiar with all three media, he is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir. The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not necessarily those of the editors and publisher of


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