City-specific editions or localised supplements of national - or even regional - dailies have always been a big draw with readers. And print heavyweights like The Times Group (with the likes of East Delhi Times, West Delhi Times, Ghaziabad Times in Delhi, and Thane Times, Kalyan Times and the like in Mumbai) and Hindustan Times (HT City) have used them with great élan.
In the same way, Chennai, over the years, has developed a strong culture of independent neighbourhood free mailers. The weekly, locality-specific mailers such as Anna Nagar Times and Adyar Times have been so good in keeping track, that, in the bargain, they have forced print heavyweights of the region such as The Hindu to look at the coverage of local issues with a lot more interest.
Though it has taken close to a decade for Anna Nagar Times, Adyar Times and now Mylapore Times to really take off, the climb has been worth the while. "From being a standard eight-page weekly in October 1993, they now have 24 pages each and even went up to 28 pages on occasions," says bureaucrat-turned-editor publisher, S.P. Ambrose.
What started as a venture to keep two men occupied after retirement is today a success story that everyone wants to emulate. Ambrose recounts an incident dating back to the time when he retired from service in 1992. His colleague K.S. Ramakrishnan had
just joined as director of Indian Newspaper Research Organisation and was mulling an early retirement. It was around this time that Ramakrishnan was toying with the idea of starting a journal and registered the title 'Mylapore Times'. "During my stint in the U.K., I had seen how county newspapers could thrive. So I told him (Ramakrishnan) we should think of a venture which would not only keep us occupied but also serve society," says Ambrose.
The rest, as they say, is history. The duo hired Vincent D'Souza as editor for Anna Nagar Times and Adyar Times and launched the two mailers in October 1993. The investment: Rs 1 lakh. But, of course, the going was far from smooth. While Anna Nagar proved to be an instant hit and managed to break even within three months, Adyar Times started losing money. "I thought it was unfair to pull one success story down due to the losses made by another and the two became independent entities," recalls Ambrose.
To wipe out the losses, Adyar Times switched from being a free mailer to a subscription-based one. The mailer was offered at Rs 100 for a year and Rs 50 for six months. The frequency changed too - from being a weekly, it became a fortnightly. The fallout was disastrous. The circulation dropped by half - from 6,000 to 3,000 - within a few weeks. But things were to change soon.
Ambrose and his men launched a major initiative - talking to students and housewives on a one-to-one basis - to sell the concept. It was like a word-of-mouth campaign. These guys, in turn, went out and began talking to their friends, relatives and colleagues and even to agencies and advertisers, claims Ambrose. The idea clicked. Within a year, things began to look up. Adyar Times reverted to being a free mailer. Ambrose remembers the efforts of one Crystal Easdon, whose initiative gave a major boost to Adyar's circulation. "I decided to employ her,'' he says. Adyar Times' circulation now stands at 5,000 every issue.
"Considering our growth, Ramakrishnan and I decided that we should stick to our own ventures and let Vincent (D'Souza) start Mylapore Times (in 1995) on his own. Since he has been extremely dedicated to the cause of the small newspaper and has been through the ups-and-downs of my venture, he is now a partner in Adyar Times and handles Mylapore Times independently," says Ambrose.
It is difficult to contain success, as is apparent from the way these ventures have grown. After the success of Anna Nagar Times, Ramakrishnan started Mambalam Times in 1994 and D'Souza kicked off a slew of ventures and alliances along similar lines. Thus, there is Pondicherry Times (into its fifth year of operation), Arcot Road Times (into its second year), and of course, a NET initiative www.kutcheribuzz.com that caters to the connoisseurs of music and dance. KutcheriBuzz is also available as an offline monthly bulletin.
Between the three, Anna Nagar, Adyar and Mylapore Times reach almost one lakh homes. They are, according to D'Souza, managed and sold just like any other newspaper. They have stood their ground offering eminently affordable rates and no bargains/deals or discounts.
These mailers have generated great interest among advertising agencies as well. "I would consider Anna Nagar, Adyar and Mylapore Times for my clients as these have proved their abilities in sustaining reader interest. People actually talk about them and look them up for their daily requirements," says R. Krishnaveni, media supervisor, Mudra, Chennai. Krishnaveni has used them for her client Satyam iWay when it opened its Internet café in Adyar.
Tariffs for Anna Nagar Times is comparatively high "due to its popularity and demand", says Ambrose. For Adyar Times, it stands at Rs 90 per column cm, while for Mylapore Times it is Rs 80 per column cm. Among the trio's other ventures, Arcot Road Times sells space at Rs 60 per column cm and Pondicherry Times for Rs 50. With time, ads have grown - from small classifieds to include product ads from agencies as well as from corporates that are released directly. (And these have been the usual 20/3, 20/5 and 15/3 in size.)
"Each of our papers offer a different proposition," explains Ambrose. "The content of Adyar Times is designed to cater to the taste of the rich, upper middle-class neighbourhood in the southern end of the city. Arcot Road (towards western end) is a middle-class neighbourhood. The content has been designed with that in mind. Anna Nagar (at the northern end) offers perhaps the most desirable combination of residence and commerce. So the content is laid out with the two segments in mind."
D'Souza says the trio's business model is difficult to replicate. "The wannabes typically fail to feel like newspapers. In their attempt to rope in ads, they mess up content. On the other hand, biggies find the sheer economics of going too local, unsustainable. It cuts both ways. Just as we cannot grow to be The Hindu, the reverse cannot happen," he explains.
All said, these localised mailers couldn't hope to generate the kind of revenues that local dailies do. "These free mailers are extremely effective for retail-related ads. We have used them for our clients in specific localities. But for clients who are looking to reach out to a wider audience, spread across Chennai, we would any day look at The Hindu or other vernaculars dailies," opines Sunder, senior consultant, O&M, Chennai. Meanwhile, city-specific dotcoms like www.chennaibest.com and www.explocity.com have started eating into the ad pie, just as The Hindu and even the vernacular press has started wooing neighbourhood commerce.
But Ambrose remains unfazed. "These have not really undermined the growth of neighbourhood free mailers as a unique bonding has been forged with homes here. We steer clear of international and hard news and have a soft focus. At the end of the day, things like why my neighbour is willing to take on Sanskrit classes and how a local road has too many potholes is of utmost importance to this audience," says Ambrose.
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