In the collective memory of Times of India journalists, the notebooks loom large; no conversation about Samir Jain can be complete without mentioning them. If Jain, the vice-chairman of Bennett, Coleman & Company Limited and publisher of the Times of India, invites you into his office for a chat, you're expected to carry a notebook, and you're expected to take notes. "We all had our Samir Jain notebooks, and anxious managers outside his cabin would hand us new ones in case we'd forgotten ours," said an editor who worked at the newspaper during the 1990s. "I even remember the type: Ajanta No. 3 notebooks, spiral-bound, in different colours."
Really diligent scribes can leave Jain's office with aching wrists. In large gatherings elsewhere, Jain prefers to remain a passive observer, but in these little conclaves, he can talk, in mixed English and Hindi, for an hour or more at a time. He is nothing if not discursive; his homilies have ranged over editorial matters, brand-building and marketing, the nature of art, the psychology of his readers, sex, literature, and-most commonly-religion and spirituality.
The energy that Jain has poured into the consideration of what a newspaper should do has only been surpassed by that devoted to the question of how it should be sold. Since 1990, he has staffed Bennett Coleman with managers from companies that have nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with the blunt art of the hard sell: Pepsi, ITC, Shoppers Stop, Unilever, Trent. When a team from Pepsi visited the Times of India in Delhi, to rebut the Centre for Science and Environment's accusations about pesticides in their colas, an editor remembered that Jain was smitten by their presentation. "He likes people like that," the editor told me. "Later, he told a couple of senior management fellows: 'I don't think there's anybody on our staff who can give a presentation like that.'"
One of Jain's most persistent legacies has been the price we pay for our newspapers. In 1994, Jain slashed the cover price of the Times of India in New Delhi from Rs 2.30 to Rs 1.50 per copy. The move, to better compete with the Hindustan Times, boosted circulation in the city from 30,000 to 170,000, and it proved cut-throat in more ways than one; that July, after newspaper vendors called a boycott of the Times of India because the price drop hurt their commissions, one vendor was knifed and others beaten up for defying the boycott.
Similarly, Jain set the price of the relaunched Economic Times, in the early 1990s, at Rs 4, and Chandan Mitra recalled him saying: "We'll slash the price after some time, after we establish that the Economic Times isn't just for Press Information Bureau handouts." When other business dailies began to dust themselves off and gear themselves to cover a new Indian economy, Jain halved his price. "He was so sure nobody would have an answer for it," a former editor said. "It was like going for the jugular."
Jain replayed this gambit of predatory pricing every time the Times of India rode in to conquer a new town, its saddlebags sloshing with cash. He made the case, one editor told me, that he was only helping to grow the base of English newspaper readers. "But clearly, it's not like that was his larger belief," the head of another daily said. "If that was so, why didn't he also drop the price in Mumbai, where the Times of India had a monopoly?" Narisetti reckons that Jain's wilful devaluation of his product pressured "the rest of the industry to be beholden to advertisers. The history of how the newsroom has become subservient to advertisers starts with this pricing model, when a newspaper is cheaper than a cup of tea."
(You can read the full article at http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/supreme-being)
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