Prachi Srivastava and Saumya Tewari

“News is an ocean in which people are swimming in different directions” Aroon Purie

TV Today Network recently shut down its English news channel, Headlines Today, and replaced it with India Today Television. This new entity will now partner its Hindi news powerhouse, Aaj Tak. As it turns out, later this year, it will also be 40 years since the birth of India Today magazine, as also the group.

What compelled the group (the privately-held Living Media owns a majority stake in the publicly-held TV Today Network) to adopt a name on television that harks back to print? The group also has a vast number of brands spread across magazines, digital, radio and television. How does the group create synergy from all these disparate media properties? How is it readying for a digital future?

afaqs! spoke to India Today Group’s Aroon Purie (founder, chairman and editor-in-chief), Ashish Bagga (group CEO) and Kalli Purie (group synergy and creative officer) to find answers. Excerpts:

Edited Excerpts

Why was this the right time to replace Headlines Today with India Today Television? Because you have new faces in Rajdeep Sardesai and Karan Thapar?
“News is an ocean in which people are swimming in different directions” Aroon Purie

Aroon Purie: Basically, the digital environment. Consumers take in news via different media through different times of the day. Say, a newspaper in the morning, updates on the mobile during the day and a magazine for a weekly analysis of developments. We decided to integrate all these mediums into one entity.

Ashish Bagga: Over the past year, we have built bench strength for the channel. We felt that in this cacophony of noise and news becoming inseparable, there was space for a strong, credible, sober voice for news in the English space. We believe that nobody else has the capability to deliver this.

We began examining consumer insights and worked with brand consultancy Chlorophyll on the launch. The new channel makes us multi-screen and seamless. There is a roller deck, top band, bottom band and, the good thing is, the interplay between all these makes viewers stick to one screen.

Kalli Purie: Also, under India Today, we had print, website, social media, and also a mobile app. What we didn’t have was a television presence. Putting in a TV channel has made India Today one seamless, holistic brand, which always was its vision. Headlines Today was seen more as a general news channel. India Today is focussed on 22-44-year-olds. If the screen is too digitally savvy for a 55-year-old, so be it. We have made our choice.

India Today is associated with print. Why didn’t you consider a connection with your powerhouse Hindi channel Aaj Tak instead?

Ashish Bagga: Aaj Tak is a credible news brand that we created in the Hindi genre. Later, we built Dilli Aaj Tak and Tez around it.

“News is an ocean in which people are swimming in different directions” Aroon Purie’s performance gave us the confidence to look at launching India Today Television. In last 12 months, the whole digital landscape has changed dramatically. It is becoming more accessible, bandwidth is increasing, kids and national figures, like the PM, are turning to digital. The idea is to have two large platforms across formats. For Hindi, it will be Aaj Tak and in the English space, it will be India Today. We will leverage the content base of and for the news channels.

In spite of the continuing success of Aaj Tak, why has it been so difficult to replicate the same with Headlines Today?

Ashish Bagga: Headlines Today has gone through various iterations, in terms of its positioning, TG and formulation. This is a seamless switch. We used Headlines Today to experiment and get to this stage.

From a business standpoint, how are the challenges in English and Hindi news broadcasting different?

Aroon Purie: The art of any medium is to understand the audience. Hindi is more mass, hence the language and subject of coverage reflect that. English is a very small audience - around four million - and even the rating system is fluid. The audience here is more sophisticated, metro-centric and requires a different content approach. Integration with English magazines will be a good force, amalgamating TV’s live coverage with an in-depth understanding of magazine reporting. We would like to bring print journalists on TV for stories, discussions and debates.

Ashish Bagga: Hindi news is a far bigger genre than English - at least three times as much - and, therefore, the monetisation capability in Hindi news broadcasting is that much higher. But, fortunately for us, the headroom to grow in English is also huge.

Mr. Purie, you have seen the news business over 40 years. What are your observations?

The news business has certainly evolved. When India Today started, it changed the way newspapers were doing journalism. During the mid-70s, newspapers were drab, reporters never went out for spots and overseas reporting was limited. We changed that. We also introduced technical changes – in terms of pictures and photography and bringing more colour to the magazine. Later, newspapers started emulating magazines, there was a ‘magazinification’ of newspapers, which showed up in supplements, colour pages, and an increased focus on feature writing.

News television came through Doordarshan, so we dabbled with an innovative concept of news on video through the video-cassette recorder (VCR) called Newstrack, back in 1986. It was a monthly 90-minute video news which had 30 minutes of advertising - believe it or not! - and 60 minutes of content. We used to distribute it to video libraries from where people could rent or subscribe to it.

Then, video vanished and satellite television brought the 24-hour news channel format in India. These channels have changed the game as well as other publications. Now, the FIR of the news happens on TV. On top of that is the digital revolution spearheaded by mobile apps and websites. All these stages have changed the way news is consumed and, in that process, the way news is being created. News has become an ocean in which people are trying to swim in many different directions.

You have stayed away from entertainment on television. Why is that?

Aroon Purie: I don’t understand entertainment and I’m not interested in it either.

Universally, a gloomy picture is being painted of the magazine industry. But, that is where your group gets its identity from. Comment.

Aroon Purie: We are a legacy brand which has grown along with the changing news environment. We have been early adopters, be it in magazines, television or the digital news business. The group is transforming itself into one big ‘news brand’. Increasingly, people are going to look at the quality and value of content instead of its source. Synergy between various news mediums is the way forward in this business and we are gearing up for that.

As far as the magazine business is concerned, research has shown that people are either reading long or short pieces. So, in that sense magazines can give readers a perspective and in-depth understanding of subjects which television can never provide. Online it becomes cumbersome to read long pieces, especially on mobile phones.

What has been the learning from your English tabloid, Mail Today? If you had to do it again, would you do it differently?

Ashish Bagga: If we had to do it again, we would have put a lot more emphasis on digital. Also, I would have probably launched the edition in two or three key cities rather than in just one, taking into account the investment appetite. Otherwise, the way we’ve addressed Mail Today, it is differentiated from a demographic standpoint. It is pretty disruptive and addresses both male and female audiences equally.

It is pretty much the universal paper for India. We did that keeping in mind that, in the future, if we go to other cities, the main editorial kitchen of Mail Today should be able to serve those cities. Just because we are in Delhi, doesn’t mean we are a Delhi edition.

You sold off Red FM, then launched Oye FM and are now planning to exit the radio business altogether. Why?

Ashish Bagga: Radio is largely entertainment. We thought that radio would be opened to news, but that didn’t happen. If you want to be in entertainment, you need a network and the clout of 20-30 stations which others have but we don’t. We would rather put money in digital, news and invest in the areas which are synergistic with what we do. News is intrinsic to our DNA, not entertainment.

Monetising digital is something all publishers in the world are struggling with. What are the challenges in creating synergy from all your disparate brands in magazines, radio, newspaper and television?

Kalli Purie: Our digital business has always been pushed to break even and does not just burn money. Our digital business is not struggling. The big challenge is to get people to take ownership of their own brands, but to also see the bigger picture. The biggest challenge in synergy is that each of these brands is sustainable and stands on its own two feet. That comes from the financial rigour the team has put in, and you just don’t keep on adding extensions which are parasites.

There were two big barriers we worked on. First, the physical barriers. Now, everyone sits on the same floor. Second, showing them that that as a journalist, going to different mediums doesn’t kill your story but amplifies it, gets you impact. If you tell them that everyone is the same and you have to share the content, then you don’t have any ownership for the individual platform you were working on. We have given them these dual, schizophrenic responsibilities.

What are some of the group’s synergy products and how do they work?

Kalli Purie: India Today Conclave, a product that has come out of synergy, is an example where print works on the thought leadership topics and picks experts, while the television team makes it interesting and watchable. It is heavily promoted on social media.

The other product is DailyO, an opinion-based website which features pieces from leaders within the group as well as outside, on different genres. The third is a data journalism app, Newsflicks, which looks at data analytics and comes up with stories based on data. It has a tangential way of looking at things. We are working on India Today One, an idea that spells out that we are one team comprising social, digital, print and television.

Digital advertising comes nowhere near paying for the kind of high quality news and feature content your company creates - and mobile advertising even less so.

Aroon Purie: Globally, publishers are looking at their legacy media financing their digital media. Everybody foresees a dignified decline in print and an increase in digital as audiences move there – though, in India, it may not happen as fast as elsewhere. We are more fortunate because the traditional media is still paying well, but we are investing in digital all the same.

“News is an ocean in which people are swimming in different directions” Aroon Purie

Kalli Purie: Digital makes money but not as much as traditional media. It’s not cents anymore, however. The comparison was between cents and dollars, and now we are in between.

The bigger point here is that the model it is going to survive on is the ‘lean on me’ model. For instance, social media has fantastic reach and is fast, unlike print, but the latter has fantastic reporters, real network, real pulse. So, one helps the other and is feeding into each other.

Aditya Birla Group took a 27.5 per cent stake in your holding company, Living Media, in 2012. There was a report late in 2014 in Business Standard that the group was considering selling its stake. Comment.

Ashish Bagga: Aditya Birla continues to be invested in the company.

Some people argue that mobile will be the primary screen for news and entertainment in the next three to four years. Do you agree?

Aroon Purie: One cannot predict the future; however, the movement is in that direction. The model behind monetisation of this trend has still not been found. As a content provider, one has to be present in that space if audiences are moving there. But, television news will still exist because unlike mobile, TV gives a ‘community’ experience. People will end up consuming more content, thus multiplying the demand, which is a good development for the media business.

Do you see yourself becoming a digital-only company in future?
“News is an ocean in which people are swimming in different directions” Aroon Purie

Aroon Purie: It depends on the consumer requirement. I do not think any medium will die in India as all mediums are still growing. There may be some changes as consumers move and advertising shifts.One must always follow the money. If advertising shifts towards a particular medium, one will end up spending more time and resources there. There have been forecasts about the death of broadcast journalism which I don’t believe in. It may transform, for example - news videos on the internet, but it will not die.

A Note From the Editor

This cover story has a special meaning for me. I learnt my journalism, through much of the 1980s, at India Today.

Psychologists think that much of a child's attitude to life is formed by the time he or she is five. Similarly, I believe that the first few years in our professional life are critical. Our half-formed notions about basic issues like the relationship between effort and reward, team work or the very fairness of life are either validated or crushed in the work place. I was lucky to have found India Today.

Newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s were unbelievably dreary. A bunch of magazines, led by India Today, shook news journalism by questioning everything, including government.

Aroon – as we all called him in what was still a small company – was passionate about this new form of journalism and was willing to bet big money on it. In the early 1980s, when everyone worked on typewriters, the company imported a mainframe publishing system, an Indian first. He got in an international designer, India's top photographer – and many of India's best journalists gravitated towards India Today.

In those staid, pre-television times, it was full of argumentative young people. It was also the first Indian publication to introduce the American practice of the copy desk rewriting articles that senior correspondents had put down. They just hated it.

And were we paranoid about making mistakes. Many years later I bumped into a sub editor who went on to work for several national dailies. He put it so beautifully, "India Today is the only place where a sub editor will, at 2 am, walk one floor down and open the library to check whether 'MF Hussain' is spelt with one 's' or two."

Also, as journalists we had the freedom to write what we believed in as long as we could argue the facts out. There was no question of being influenced by an advertiser. Edit and sales were sharply segregated.

My stay at India Today lasted nearly a decade. I wonder sometimes how my professional world view might have been, had my training been at some large, lifeless, bureaucratic place with little place for initiative.

Though I have always been grateful for my grounding at India Today, I am not certain if I have ever formally thanked Aroon. I might as well do it now.

Thank you, Aroon!


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