Bombay Times started something that many others followed. Here's how a city supplement changed newspaper journalism.
When Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai were crowned Miss India (Universe and World respectively) way back in January 1994, few would have dreamt that they were destined for bigger things. Blink-and-you-miss stories appeared in newspapers marking their achievements since much of the space in newspapers was given over to 'serious' reporting.
"The immediate catalyst was that when Sushmita and Aishwarya won their crowns, the main edition gave it little coverage. The fact that our own sister publication was not in favour of featuring entertainment news, the need for a retail advertising platform and the idea of celebrity reportage together gave birth to Bombay Times in 1994," recalls Guha.
India's Page 3 pioneer, which started off as a tentative offering, stood its ground and is 18 now. In human terms, that means adulthood. For all these years, Bombay Times has unabashedly been the purveyor of news that covered style, glamour and celebrities. afaqs! Reporter explores how a city supplement triggered off a new genre of news, swept the youth off their feet and changed journalism.
The reforms announced by then finance minister Manmohan Singh in 1991, also had people looking at new forms of consumerism. This was a chance for brands - local, national and global - to make hay. The think tank at the TOI, led by Guha, realised that retail advertisers would jump at the opportunity of a lower-cost alternative to the main paper.
Bombay Times was initially published twice a week - Tuesday and Friday - for a year. For the first few months, it did not do well. Things were so bad that those in charge used to sit and calculate whether they have made profit or loss, at the end of each week. Apart from the business questions, the supplement had to put up with snickers from its many detractors, both consumers as well as the competition. A Page 3 publication was not a newspaper, felt many. But the snickers gave way to reluctant admiration as Bombay Times entrenched itself. The competition too followed suit with alacrity.
Till about two decades ago, one had to wait for fortnightly or monthly style or fashion-based magazines for celebrity-related news. Bombay Times dished out the same stuff faster and the concept clicked with advertisers and young readers.
The business model was simple. Run it only if it pays for itself. The company put in force, a flagship advertising rate card that was modified with special rates exclusively for Bombay Times. It was also decided that Bombay Times would be a free supplement and distributed as a part of the main paper.
While invitation pricing made it even more attractive for first-time retail and local advertisers, readers found the content inviting.
According to a media expert, TOI realised, over time, that young people just read the free supplement, not the main paper. The management, sensing a golden opportunity, believed that if the frequency of the supplement was increased, the chances of youngsters picking up the main paper was better, thus increasing the readership.
Rahul Kansal, chief marketing officer, Bennett Coleman & Co, says that the main paper was designed to be an information-oriented product, whereas Bombay Times was introduced to bring the readers closer to the city they lived in, through news that was from the perspective of entertainers and entertainment. "It proved to be an excellent tool to get more readers and they became point of entry into the youth market for us," recalls Kansal.
The acceptance of the content was recognition of the fact that readers were happy to read about the news beyond politics and economics. "The growing consumerism, along with a change in attitude of the younger people towards life, made it clear that the youth would be the dominant consumer class. And, as a newspaper, we had to tailor our media offering for them," adds Guha.
Kiran Khalap, co-founder of Chlorophyll, is of the view that such a supplement represents the democratized version of an illusion created by films. "These supplements," he points out, "brought that illusion into a person's hands. The supplement became a part of the reality."
As Bombay Times attracted more local and retail advertisers, the model was copied by many of its competitors. For retail advertisers, this was a boon. It gave them more than one option to be seen along with other national brands - at much cheaper rates. Such supplements became the ideal platform for lifestyle brands, garments, educational institutions and healthcare service providers. Strangely enough, it failed to attract national brands, despite the lower rates.
Media planners say that initially national brands were wary of the company they shared media space with. A well-established brand would not want its ad to be seen next to that of a local saree shop or a jewellery showroom. However, this doesn't hold true any more.Says Ravishankar N, media partner, Media Planning Associates, "Because of the nature of the content, lifestyle brands started advertising in these supplements. The clients today choose the main paper for its brand communication, whereas supplements have become the tools for tactical communication like announcement of sales, offers or launch of new showrooms."
Another significant consequence of the rise of the entertainment news genre was paid editorial. In March 2003, as advertisers demanded more prominent exposure - and not just display ads - the Group launched its controversial offering, Medianet. It was a service designed to allow companies to buy editorial space in its supplements. Calling it the next phase of newsgathering, TOI argued that advertisers no longer wanted to depend on conventional measures.
It triggered off an uproar. Journalists claimed that this would result in the commoditization of news. Sonal Kalra, editor, HT City (Hindustan Times' supplement), says, "The competition in the market makes it imperative for us to cover the same kind of parties and feature pictures of people who are 'celebrities created out of page 3 reportage'."
John Thomas, former chief of bureau, Deccan Herald, says, "In the process of catering to the flashy segment of the society, such supplements dented their own credibility and that of others. Anybody who gets something done for money will want to tell a few others how they swung it. So the word gets around that Page 3 coverage can be bought."
Between 2002-03 and 2006-07, ad volumes for Bombay Times grew by 89 per cent, while between 2006-07 and 2011-12, it grew by 157 per cent. According to media observers, the ad:edit ratio for supplements in the TOI stable has changed dramatically. When Bombay Times was launched in 1994, the ratio was 70:30 in favour of editorial. It changed to 60:40 in 2000 and, at present, is 50:50 and there are days (which have retail ads, announcing sales and offers) when ad content goes up to 60 per cent.
With time, the entertainment news genre seeped into television too. The success of such supplements meant that the business model was copied not only by other newspapers, but also television.This genre was made for TV's visual sound-byte approach.
TOI reacted quickly. In 2004, it launched Zoom, a 24-hour entertainment channel that was based on the print version. However, the TV model wasn't as successful as the print version. The exponential growth of the digital medium has pushed the print medium to reinvent itself to match the real-time prowess of the former.
Social media added another dimension to dissemination of news. Updates are becoming news. Does this mean that a Bombay Times - or any newspaper for that matter - will lose its relevance sooner than later?
"The focus needs to change from people's faces to style statements. That's the only way this genre can survive," says Kalra of HT City. Now that they have tasted blood, the supplements will rise to the occasion.
Based on additional interviews with: Arunabh Das Sharma, BCCL; Debraj Tripathy, Mediacom; Harish Bijoor, Harish Bijoor Consults; Mallikarajunadas CR, SMG; Mandir Tendolkar, Dainik Bhaskar Group; Shripad Kulkarni, Allied Media; T Gangadhar, MEC, Nandini Sardesai, Sociologist; Vanita Keswani, Madison Media Sigma.