Ravi Dhariwal, CEO of media colossus Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd (BCCL), which owns the Times of India, among a host of other publications, speaks to Anjali Puri on brand-building, media ethics, controversies and critics.
If newspapers are a brand, as your group believes, what does that make news: a malleable, adaptable, changeable product? Is it any different from selling soap?
I think the principles are the same, whether you sell newspapers or Nokia or Armani jeans. It is a brand, we do believe that, but with that comes a tremendous amount of obligation. A brand doesn’t change its colours everyday, it doesn’t change its philosophy everyday. A brand is reader-centric or consumer-centric. Our paper is not for our editors or for the political class. It is a consumer product, for the common man. We don’t believe in products that are just editorially driven. Of course, you may have a great editor with tremendous empathy with the common man, but to me, that’s not by process, that is by accident. By process, we want our editors to be totally tuned in to the concerns of the common man, and our brand philosophy gets us there.
How do you know what the reader wants?
We get our editors to talk to our readers all the time. They constantly search for reader relevance. Do you see our editors at high-falutin’ power lunches or power parties? No. We have town hall meetings where editors talk to people to understand their concerns. We have a marketing department that researches what is important to readers. They feed it back to editorial. We are delighted that our editors find that extremely useful.
“Our editors are not found at power lunches or power parties. We have town hall meetings. They talk to people.”
It was the Times that taught the Indian media that newspapers must pay for themselves. But readers have also seen walls collapsing between advertising and editorial. One question that comes up time and again is: is there a cap to greed? It seems like everything is on sale—the masthead, the front page, the editorial columns, the headlines....
Our editorial is priceless; it is never up for sale. I have worked here for 10 years now, not once have we ever influenced editorial decisions. We have no political agenda, our agenda is only reader engagement and relevance. We believe it is because of that that we get great advertising. Our editorial department and advertising department are totally separate. There is a Chinese wall. But if a client wants a particular design on the front page, why not? It does not upset what our editors write. To say that editors own that entire real estate, and nothing else should happen on it, is an old-fashioned formula.
What about the controversy relating to Medianet?
Medianet only operates in our advertising supplements. There have never been any Medianet stories in our main paper, ever.
But there is no clear demarcation there, between what is paid for and what is editorial.
There is hundred per cent demarcation. Our supplements or features are not news. To say that our Education Times (a supplement) is news, or our Delhi Times (another daily supplement) is news is to change the meaning of news. They are not under the editorial control of the Times of India editor. Our main paper is news—and there is no paid news.
“We’d take paid news in a paper in Vidharba? Why, we could have made crores by aligning with a major party!”
But does the reader understand that?
Of course he does. Do you think the reader is a fool? If we were doing something horribly wrong with Medianet, why would advertising be continuously coming to those supplements? The advertiser knows. And please look at our Medianet stories. Forget about paid or not paid, tell me where we have misled people in these stories.
There was a year-long series of articles on the brand Olay in Delhi Times. It was a paid marketing campaign, but a media ethics report says this was not clear to readers.
Even if you make an advertisement, and put a circle around it, how is that important? Why is it important that it should be made clear to the reader? Are we writing something that is wrong? This kind of thing is only important to media persons. You as an editor would make a big deal about it, by saying this is my territory....
No, it creates a buzz. It gives the impression that you are endorsing a product objectively, whereas you are doing so because you are paid to.
We are not endorsing any product, and the reader understands it.
Is it true that one of the reasons Medianet came into being is that deals were being made between journalists and PR agencies and you wanted to eliminate that?
Yes. A large part of the reason for Medianet was that.
But why not eradicate the corruption instead?
There is no corruption now. We are saying this is totally an advertising supplement and it is not news. We are totally opposed to paid news.
Brand Wagon? The Times of India offices in New Delhi. The newspaper prides itself as a brand.
Let’s get your word on another controversial issue—private treaties.
Ninety-nine per cent of journalists don’t understand what private treaties are. Private treaties are just a way by which the advertising is paid for, not in cash, but in equity. Just like a cash advertiser cannot expect to influence editorial, no private treaty client can expect to influence editorial. He signs a contract that clearly states that he will not get favourable editorial coverage. Our editors don’t even know who our private treaty clients are.
“Others look very carefully at what we do. They think we have made a mistake. When we succeed, they copy our idea.”
You must be aware of SEBI’s guidelines—that when you publish stories about companies you have private treaties with, you must state clearly how much of their equity you hold.
We have been doing that, for the last two years. We don’t have to state it in every story. We have written to SEBI, pointing out that the moment you tell a journalist that you have equity in this or that company, you are biasing him, either positively or negatively. We don’t want to bias our journalists. But if a reader is interested, we direct the reader to the relevant websites where we have disclosed this information.
That’s a cumbersome process.
If it’s an IPO, if it is price-sensitive information that SEBI should be bothered about, we always disclose a private treaty. But disclosing it in every article is unrealistic. A paper is put to bed at 11 pm at night, and we have 500 private treaty clients. Is a journalist going to keep on checking in the short time available whether we have a private treaty with this or that company?
But the Press Council has endorsed SEBI’s guidelines.
We endorse the objective of making sure that editorial is not influenced by our commercial interests. Give me one instance where our private treaty investment has had favourable editorial mention, or a story has been suppressed.
The point is, we don’t know. These are opaque areas.
Journalists know, you guys know. We believe in the objective laid down by the Press Council, we never want to do paid news.
Has the group ever taken criticism on board, or are you so sure of your strategies that criticism doesn’t matter?
Our strategies are dynamic, they change with time. But we are very sure of our editorial principles. We give total independence to our editors. Name one editor in the country who is as independent as our editors. Many other newspapers have either some community agenda, or some political agenda, some bias. We have none.
Your editors are said to be faceless. The charge is that it’s not just that the market is king, but that marketing is king.
No, our product is king. The greatest magazine in the world today is The Economist. Do you know who the editor of The Economist is? Do you know whose byline is with an article? They are totally faceless, and it is still the most credible magazine in the world.
It is credible for a variety of reasons—it does not dumb down, it doesn’t trivialise news.
Nor do we. We led the charge on CWG, we exposed IPL. I don’t think our paper is dumbed down, it is highly intelligent; it is for young people who have limited time. As for editors, we have never wanted trophy editors. Our editors are extraordinarily intelligent people who want to be in the background. Jaideep Bose (the Times of India editor) is probably the finest editor in the country.
Are there any ethical dilemmas for the Indian media? What about the electoral paid news controversy?
I think it is terrible. It should never be allowed. We should make stringent laws to ban it. That destroys a paper.
P. Sainath, a journalist who deposed on this issue, mentioned Vidarbha Plus, a Times of India supplement, publishing ads in the form of news for a candidate.
That is Sainath’s personal view. The Press Council has examined it, our reply is in the public domain. This is absolute rubbish. We would take paid news in a Vidharba paper? Why, we could have made thousands of crores by aligning ourselves with major parties like the Congress or the BJP!
Coming back to ethical dilemmas...
The right way to manage editorial and advertising is a constant issue. I worry about newspapers where the publisher makes a private deal. Half of them are politicians, aren’t they? Why do they get into Rajya Sabha? What are these if not alignments?
What about alignments with advertisers?
There was a time when two brothers in the corporate world banned us in advertising. Each thought we were siding with the other. We must be doing something right. One of the country’s largest business houses did not advertise with us for five years. Yes, we care for our advertisers, but not at the expense of editorial. We try and manage the line of tension between advertisers and editorial. We have been doing it for 170 years.
Do satisfy our curiosity on a letter making the rounds, about the Times offering the organising committee advertising for the Commonwealth Games. Did you bid for a Rs 12-odd crore contract?
We did not bid. Just like we give a proposal to any advertiser, we did offer this proposal.
You sought official newspaper status for the Games?
Events have an exclusive media sponsor, don’t they? We were seeking that status. They said they weren’t going to have any exclusives. We said, fine. It is an insult to our journalists to say that influenced our (critical) coverage of the Commonwealth Games. We were very angry when this link was made. We are not blackmailers.
Let’s go back to something you spoke about earlier—brand philosophy. Apart from the focus on reader relevance, which you mentioned, what else is there to the Times of India philosophy?
We have a way of presenting news. We believe in looking at life optimistically: we believe in a glass half-full rather than half-empty. We believe in a celebration of good things. We don’t take sides, we try and present both sides of a view. We believe in a tone that is adult-to-adult. We also believe in having fun with our paper—playing around with our masthead, quirky stories. We believe in an emotional connect with our reader, so we do programmes like Aman ki Asha. We also believe in individual freedom. Our core belief is that the individual is bigger than the family, family is bigger than society, society is bigger that the city....
Your pre-Commonwealth Games coverage was very combative; it wasn’t a glass half-full approach.
Things like the Commonwealth Games are of extreme relevance to readers. Every ordinary Delhiite’s equity was vested in the Commonwealth Games, they were its owners. If things are not going right, we aren’t going to shy away from exposing that.
How much has the Times of India’s philosophy been shaped by the post-liberalisation ethos?
We have a very liberal view of the world. We believe in free people, free enterprise, free thinking, diversity, that people are different, they need to be treated with respect and love. And that’s not only about the paper, that’s the philosophy of the company.
You’ve confounded many of your critics by being extremely successful. Is there one key ingredient, above all?
The two brothers, Samir and Vineet Jain, have led extraordinarily well, they understand the business very well. Also, the company works together, very cohesively. There are no conflicts between editorial and marketing and sales, and they all bind into this philosophy. It is a very aligned company, and it’s creative. There is a premium on creative thinking within the company.
How is it rewarded?
It gets rewarded not so much in terms of money, but in recognition. These (creative) people go up within the corporate hierarchy; they become closer to the two brothers. They are creative people themselves and like creativity around them.
Creativity is also about taking risks, so if it doesn’t work out, then what?
We cut our losses. It’s happened, we’ve tried many things with the Times. Some things have worked very well, some were probably ahead of their times. We launched speed news, but later realised that was leading to confusion so we withdrew it. Taking risks is encouraged in the company. Nobody is penalised for taking risks.
Some people say you were inspired by Murdoch, and others that you’ve clearly out-Murdoched him, if not in the scale of empire-building, certainly in nurturing and growing brands.
I don’t think we’ve been inspired by anybody or copied anybody. If there is one person who led this whole thing, it is Samir Jain. He did bring in a lot of radical ideas...low cover price, giving a great offer to advertisers, making sure editorial is in focus not with the power group but with consumers. He shaped this philosophy.
Have you outdone Murdoch?
We are the world’s largest English newspaper, we are still growing, partly because of India, and partly because of how we handle this business. I don’t want to make comparisons with Mr Murdoch, but I think they are struggling with growth. We have a much more brandcentric and consumer-centric approach than any other media company, worldwide, that I know of.
Do you think the Indian media world gives you your due?
They look at what we do very carefully, and the first reaction is: “They’ve made a mistake, they’re going to lose their shirt on this one.” When we doggedly succeed—sometimes, we fail—they jump on the bandwagon and copy it, whether it’s low cover price, how we deal with our advertisers, or private treaties.