How Samir Jain created the modern Indian newspaper industry

By , The Caravan | In Media Publishing | December 06, 2012
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The Caravan magazine, in its media special edition, profiled Samir Jain, vice-chairman of BCCL (Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd). Excerpts from the piece.

Excerpt One

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."

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New initiates into Jain's meetings have made the mistake of decorating the pages of their notebooks with aimless doodles; old hands learn at least to scrawl down key words, lest they be quizzed the next day or the week after. It can be a chore; it can also be downright galling. After a cordial conversation in 1986, when Jain was still finding his feet around the paper, he pointedly told one editor, decades his senior: "It's so nice discussing these matters with you. But when others come to see me, they bring a notebook. Maybe you should too." In response, the editor told me, his voice still bearing embers of anger, "I said: 'You may own the paper, but this is not tolerable.' Then I came downstairs and wrote out my resignation letter."

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.

Samir Jain

Over the last two-and-a-half decades, Jain has imprinted himself indelibly onto the Times of India, and thereby onto Indian journalism. In his newsroom, Jain is sometimes referred to, discreetly, as "Supreme Being", and his will can be difficult to fathom. He preserves an Olympian detachment from his newspaper's coverage of politics, and editors attested to me that he never once calls to inquire about the next day's headlines, let alone to push a line in favour of one party or another. Simultaneously, though, Jain has been exacting and forceful in his mission to shape the Times of India-its editorial philosophy; its news priorities; its gimlet-eyed focus on the bottom line-in his image. His demands can sound abstract or whimsical, and he is frequently elliptical about spelling them out, but he is insistent that they be met.

Excerpt Two

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."

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