Ashwini Gangal
Interviews

"Digital is an opportunity to not get restricted by geography": George Varghese, CEO, The Indian Express

Over a cup of green tea in a Loksatta-branded mug, George Varghese, CEO, The Indian Express, talks about what digital is, and can be, for his brand.

The paper is projecting digital revenues of Rs 24 crore this year. In the first quarter of the current financial year the paper has recorded a bottom line of Rs 2.2 crore, on digital; last year, the annual bottom line was Rs 2.4 crore, on the medium.

On its website, The Indian Express claims to have 30 million unique visitors and 108 million page views per month. The Indian Express app has been downloaded over four lakh times.

Edited Excerpts.

Edited Excerpts

On 'The Intelligent Indian', his core TG...

These are knowledge-seekers who want different points of view and want to understand the relevance and context of news. For them, news is not trivia. The intelligent Indian exists across demographics. It's a myth that young people do not want to get into depth.

Historically, Indian Express, unlike its rival brands, hasn't enjoyed an impenetrable 'fortress' in any region. Is the border-less realm of digital your way around this problem?

It's an opportunity.

Digital gives us a great platform to reach out to our TG, across regions. Many youngsters - digital natives - got exposed to The Express on digital first. Digital is helping us make more people aware of what Express stands for. So yes, you're absolutely right, digital is an opportunity to not get restricted by geography.

On monetising digital...

It is a challenge, but significant profits are coming from digital. Is digital going to cover all our costs and then be profitable? Maybe not. Today, digital doesn't provide that kind of revenue. But over time, it will.

There's no incremental cost that we're putting into digital. And advertisers are coming in. We're working on creating more digital inventory and generating more page views. That is the principal source of revenue on digital. As we get more mature, one or two years down the line, we'll have more sources, but today, it's largely dependent on the page views.

With digital, it's very easy to get caught up in the page views game, isn't it?

That's the challenge.

Our digital function is led by Anant Goenka, our chairman Viveck Goenka's 27 year-old son. One day, he is going to run the paper; that's why he has a larger perspective. If I had a 27 year-old who is not part of the larger group running the digital front, there might have been conflicts, because he would have had a different set of priorities.

On the type of advertisers digital attracts...

Builders, financial institutions, the travel industry... we've got a great response from airlines too.

In print, over the past year, we have seen major growth in FMCG advertising. Real estate is doing well. The financial segment has been under-performing but we're optimistic that it will open up over the next year or so.

On his sub-brands...

We're not dependent on any one publication for our revenue; it comes from The Indian Express, Loksatta and Financial Express, in that order. Express is providing maximum profit for us. But, over the past year, the big jump in revenue has come from Loksatta - it is our fastest growing brand. It has got a huge response from advertisers. As a group, we haven't leveraged the strengths of Loksatta as much as we should have. We've started doing this. The time people spend with the Loksatta, as compared to any other newspaper, is almost two and a half times more.

On the role of the newspaper editor...

In Express, editors are always larger than life. But editors come, editors go. The newspaper remains the same. I don't think individuals make institutions, especially institutions like ours that have so much heritage and history. The values of this institution come from its founding fathers. In this newspaper, I don't think any individual coming or going makes any difference.

On completing two years as CEO of The Indian Express...

It's like being on a mission. Unlike most newspapers, where the objective is to make profits and more profits, here the biggest objective is to be true to the values we stand for. And while doing that, ensuring financial viability is the biggest challenge.

You worked with Indian Express during 1988-98. On then Vs now...

Newspapers were much 'larger than life' back then; they got a much larger, more significant share of the advertising pie then. This share is shrinking. Digital is growing. Television is much bigger today than what it was then. Today, one has to learn to live - and stay relevant - in this new ecosystem.

Breaking news is no longer the prerogative of - or differentiator for - newspapers. Newspapers, in the way they used to be, are dead. Newspapers have to evolve.