Shweta Mulki

"This was a tiny channel; a love project almost": Faye D'Souza on Mirror Now

A look at how the channel and its 'calm' editor plan to take on legacy channels.

"This was a tiny channel which almost started off as a love project," recalls Faye D'Souza, executive editor of Mirror Now, talking about the latter's genesis. "Both Anand and I believed that if we do news that is about people, it will resonate."

Two weeks ago, on a day when most channels focused on the controversy around the film 'Padmavati', Mirror Now's flagship primetime show - The Urban Debate - used that buzz to highlight farmers' protests on prices. They did this by placing Padmavati visuals alongside farmers' images and 'explaining' why the latter was more crucial. A clever hook. Ditto during Ivanka Trump's visit where Secunderabad residents were shown protesting about their localities needing attention.

Be it about a child lock system in cabs that alerted women or potholes, the team's pick of stories seem to be working with many videos going viral and the channel (the erstwhile Magicbricks Now 're-branded' as Mirror Now) has grown over 100 percent in viewership since March this year. It even cut into BARC's top 5 in the English news channels genre at one point. Though the channel is inspired by their parent group's Mirror brand, the connection ends there.

At 36, D'Souza, perhaps the youngest editor in the news television space, recalls that the estimates for Mirror Now were fairly conservative and costs are still low. There was no budget for a big bang launch. "We keep an eye on everything, including the number of branded mugs we can afford," she smiles.

The channel's citizen-centric stories are well received on social media, which in turn was a substitute for traditional marketing during its launch. It's a young team too. "We started with 21 people and many are in their twenties. We make Game of Thrones references, but they can also reel off data on roads and transport with ease," says D'Souza, wishing, however, that the 'young ones' could spell a little better.

Times Network MD and CEO, MK Anand, believes that once you have the reach fixed with the right distribution, what you put out after that is what mainly gives you time spent. "News channels are narrow as a product as they pick just 3-4 stories a day and the focus is on 'attention-grabbing. But there are other compelling stories of human interest being left out," he recalls.

Anand says that re-branding Magicbricks Now to Mirror Now was incidental. The former coincided with the worst time that the real estate business was going through and was further accentuated by demonetisation. "There was a closure decision, but before writing it off, I thought we could make it that specific space for those other stories," he explains.

Speaking about D'Souza, Anand says, "Faye is grounded, persistent and even-tempered, that's important as a lead manager. Magicbricks had exposed her to this, but post that, the way she conducted herself and got resources out of the existing two channels was something else. It required a lot of internal selling and pitching. She's a no-nonsense person and that comes across on-air."

D'Souza, who grew up in Bengaluru, went to Mount Carmel College and has had stints in CNBC-TV18 and ET NOW where she was editor-Personal Finance (she still anchors Investor's Guide that's been running for nine years now) before this. In college, she spent two years reading the news on All India Radio. That modulated voice is now known to bring down the average noise level on news television.

The decibels may be down but the drama isn't. D'Souza silencing a guest who made sexist comments on her show went viral; post the Harvey Weinstein case, there's been a string of videos showing anchors tackling chauvinist comments. "I've had people say to me on-air - 'Emotional mat ho (don't get emotional)' and I've called that out. If someone says something derogatory or sexist to me in any room, the reflex action is to point it out," she asserts.

On the dramatic pauses, she adds, "We are not going after drama, but there's a strong attempt to make people identify with issues and make them part of the fight. And what we cover is not just a Mumbai or Bangalore or Coimbatore problem."

Mirror Now has dedicated entire shows to problems like prices of vegetables and eggs and the domino effect it has on the economy. Farmers' issues are especially close to D'Souza. "My father is a coffee planter who made sure we knew how long it takes for vegetables to grow and what the farmer gets out of it," she reveals.

Edited Excerpts

Going back, what were the stories that triggered the idea of a citizen-centric offering?

We started off by advising home buyers and that eventually became about bigger issues concerning homeowners. For instance, the incomplete Dwarka expressway - on the back of which 17,000 homes were sold; with people waiting years for the electricity and a sewage system to be completed which gets laid with the roads. Another was the case of a 20-year-old physiotherapist in Mumbai who was killed in her home as she slept (by a silent stalker who accessed a wall).

These became 'eureka' stories where we saw a larger space - they started doing better than the real-estate portion and we found that gap. While most channels used politicians' voices, no one gave citizens that power and we wanted to level that.

Most news channels rely on high-decibel panel fights while yours has emerged as a calmer voice; will it always be about the debate?

The truth is that you can get more opinions and voices through debates, but we make sure that everyone gets heard in that very finite amount of time. I actively discourage panellists from talking over each other. Loud debates are so last season - they give people a headache. We want genuine takeaways for the audience.

There's no first-movers advantage really in news. What happens when other channels copy you?

On last count, we saw three mainstream legacy channels picking up stories like us. It shows what kind of a trend we've set because everyone was only talking about Pakistan and stone pelting. It may be more competition, but we have to constantly think ahead of the pack; focus on the right stories. We don't touch them if we don't have all the information.

Do you lose sleep over ratings?

Whether I believe in ratings or not, I have to keep an eye on them because that's where advertising is sustained. But it bothers me that female viewers are completely discarded in the cut that advertisers see. We know we have a big base of female viewers. Are they assuming that women in this country only watch 'saas-bahu' stuff?

There would be this immense pressure in general news versus business news where you come from...

I'm forcing myself to get a number of hours of sleep every day and focus on health. The luxury that we have is that we don't have to compete to get breaking news thanks to Times Now, so we can spend some time on research. Business news teaches you to really get under the skin; explain things like economic concepts better.

Do you have to actively pick different stories from Times Now?

Yes. Our stories are very specific and citizen-driven. An overlap can happen during floods and stampedes, but it's what we do day in and day out. We, in turn, approach mainline stories differently - in GST or Aadhar, we look at how it's affecting the citizen.

And is there a conscious effort to steer clear of being a personality-driven channel?

Yes, we do have a bouquet of senior journalists now that we are building up as anchors of strong new shows.