At Digipub World, India's first convention on web publishing which concluded last week, the legendary journalist and commentator, Shekhar Gupta, was on stage with Sreekant Khandekar, curator of the conference and co-founder of afaqs!
Earlier this year, Gupta raised equity for ThePrint.in, his online news venture, from a bunch of respected high-net-worth individuals. Among them: N.R. Narayana Murthy, Ratan Tata, Nandan Nilekani, the Uday Kotak family, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Vijay Shekhar Sharma.
On stage at Digipub World, Gupta opened up about The Print and what it takes to do balanced journalism in the face of social media pressure.
Khandekar: At this stage of your career you had many options. Why launch a website?
Gupta: There was no epiphany. Actually, I was sceptical of digital because I have seen print companies spend far too much money on it. Digital is fashionable. Media owners gave digital to their children to run and it burnt enormous amounts of money. We had seen established print companies make nothing out of digital.
But in 2014, when I quit my last paying job, things changed radically. My weekly column appeared in India Today and then in Business Standard, both established publications. I realised that I was being read neither on the print version nor the digital platforms of these publications. Instead, I was being read predominantly through social media shares. So, the realisation for me was: there are many different ways people will get to read what you write.
Khandekar: Why did you decide to call your website "ThePrint.in" - especially since you were also associated with TV?
Gupta: Television for me was icing on the cake. I saw the power and value of television, but it was always print first for me. And you should stay with your core strengths.
Khandekar: Sure, but you could have called it something else and still had long-form journalism.
Gupta: There is a general belief that when people switch from print to digital, they lower their diligence levels. So, the editorial questioning, editorial diligence, what we will publish, what we don't publish - there is laxity there. The idea was to use digital as a platform and yet maintain the diligence of print.
Khandekar: Online lacks the resources that print has. Also, it is more competitive on a minute-to-minute basis than print. How will you be better placed to practise good journalism when compared to any other online brand?
Gupta: Resources are always finite. It is wrong to believe that print has enormous resources. And when certain print publishing groups do have funds, owners don't spare those resources for journalism - because they don't have to. It is not a straight forward equation. You have to make use of the resources you have, employ them judiciously, take judicious risks - and then hope for the best.
Khandekar: When Shekhar Gupta the entrepreneur talks to Shekhar Gupta the editor, what do they talk to each other about?
Gupta: I would love to say they tell the other, "You suck!" and sometimes it's true. When I took over the CEO's job at Express, which I held for 13 years, I said to my team: there is now an even higher Chinese wall between sales and editorial. I am sitting on top of the wall and making sure there is no compromise. We produced a code of ethics for our journalists, which everybody had to sign. Everybody in sales and marketing had to sign a clause saying they would not do anything to bring that code into disrepute. So, handling two jobs is challenging, but it is also quite useful.
Khandekar: You have got into a space where you are surrounded by large sites that belong to legacy print publishers. The ad rates in general news are the lowest. How will you sustain yourself? Or do you have something in mind other than online?
Gupta: Actually, you learn as you proceed. When you look at the legacy online publishers, whether from print or TV, none of them would survive if online actually had to pay for the content - which they get free from either print or television.
On the other hand, online-only publishers are able to generate content that's sticky, but it is not of the quality that big dailies produce. Now, can you combine the content quality that big dailies produce with modern technology to build a new business model online? So, we have taken a 'panga' and we are trying to build a new business model.
Khandekar: When you write for an established publication like Indian Express, India Today or Business Standard, you and your readers know what to expect from each other. But when you are on Twitter, where in spite of being a latecomer you have a disparate 1.7 million followers, how do you decide what to say? Do you have to dumb down? How do you find a balance between the liberals and the right wingers?
Gupta: To be honest, I was contemptuous of Twitter and social media until three years ago. I thought it was a waste of time. One advantage of my ignorance was I didn't know how much I was being abused!
After quitting Express, I went to India Today for a couple of weeks and decided I wasn't ready for another full time job. I thought maybe I could set myself up as a public intellectual-cum-writer-cum-speaker-cum-performer like Fareed Zakaria (host of CNN's flagship foreign affairs show). When I sought his advice, he said I should do two things - one, write a substantial book every three years so that I keep my ideas going; and two, I should take to social media.
When I asked him why social media, he said, "The media owner is arrogant that he can take away your platform and, with that, your audience. If you do social media, the media owner can take away your platform, but you take your audience." This was an interesting lesson.
This was fresh in my head when I met a PR professional, Amith Prabhu, who also asked why I was not on Twitter. When I told him I was thinking about it, he set up a handle in my name and started tweeting from it. The next day I had about 3,000 followers. I asked (TV anchor) Rahul Kanwal for help and he took it up from there. In a week it became 10,000 followers. That's how my Twitter journey started.
Khandekar: That's an interesting anecdote. Back to my original question: when the audience is heterogeneous and they either love you or hate you, how do you decide what to say every day?
Gupta: You should say what you believe even if you turn out to be wrong. Of course, there is pressure in social media to have your piece shared and liked. But it's a trap. The trap is: like talking to like, getting likes from likes. This is very tempting, but this is not journalism. Put another way, it is tempting to be polarised. Because if you are polarised, that pole coalesces on your side anyway. The other pole abuses you but this one runs to your aid.
If you are not polarised, you will be in a situation where no one comes to your aid. If you are okay with being trolled by both sides then there is a way out and that is: don't be polarised, be polarising. Meaning, on any issue, take a polarising position, take a clear position, be it left and right, depending on the merits of the issue.
Khandekar: You have raised money for your venture. What has been your philosophy behind it?
Gupta: The model is that there should not be a dominant shareholder. Ideally - and I have not said this before - none of our shareholders will cross the threshold of 5 percent. That guarantees our freedom and it guarantees their (shareholders') freedom.
Because whenever a government gets uncomfortable with what media is saying, they tend to call shareholders. And if a shareholder has a very small stake, he can rightly respond by saying that he doesn't have a say in what the website is doing. That keeps the shareholder safe.