2 May, 2011
BANGKOK — Promoting peace with Pakistan even at a time when the Indian public is convulsed by anti-Pakistani jingoism is one amongst a repertoire of “extraordinarily bold moves” the Times of India newspaper regularly makes to maintain and build its brand image in a fast-changing country and a cluttered media market.
In a world gripped by digital, demographic, social, economic and political evolutions, “just being a newspaper is not enough,” Mr Ravi Dhariwal, CEO of the paper’s owning company Bennett, Coleman & Co, India told the PublishAsia conference here last week. “A newspaper is like a piano – we need to play every side. We need to be in everything from sex to spirituality.”
Attended by 400 media professionals from around the world, PublishAsia finally convened in Bangkok after twice being postponed due to the political problems over the past few years. The conference is organised by WAN-IFRA, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.
Many issues discussed at the conference are identical to those confronting the travel industry – technology disrupting traditional channels of distribution, pressure on small and medium sized enterprises, excessive competition, the emergence of the blogosphere and financial pressures caused by changing demographics and shifting advertising demands.
Unlike the travel industry, however, the media delivers a product that is not static but changes by the minute. This opens up immense opportunities for shaping, presenting and packaging the content in creative and different ways. In his keynote speech, Mr Dhariwal outlined some by which the Times of India maintains both editorial integrity and marketing glitz.
He said that when he joined the paper a few years ago, he was told by the outgoing CEO to never forget that “The Times of India (ToI) brand is bigger than all its past and present editors and publishers and owners combined.” Today, even as that remains as true as ever, creativity, remaining focussed on core values and not taking itself too seriously play pivotal roles in upholding the brand proposition.
With a daily circulation of four million copies, 16 nationwide editions and eight wire editions, the ToI claims to be world’s largest selling English newspaper, read by a top-end affluent readership. Both circulation and advertising revenues are growing, with no let-up in sight largely because the “demographics are totally in our favour – literacy and education levels are on the rise, along with media penetration at both the print and online levels.”
Mr Dhariwal traced how the content and coverage of the newspaper had changed over the years, in line with the country’s history.
With it first started in 1838, the ToI was only about Bombay (now known as Mumbai) and its role as a trading post. Then in the British colonial era, it reflected the nationalistic fight for freedom. After independence, more editions were added in key urban centres, targetted at the emerging middle class. The newspaper began to focus on development issues and growing sense of optimism in the country.
Then between the 1970s to 80s, the dream of India gave way to personal aspirations. Adding more editions made the ToI one of India’s true national newspapers. Between 1990 and 2000, the era of economic liberalisation began, and Indian companies were allowed to grow and flourish. Over the last 10 years, the editorial focus is about the global aspirations of being an Indian.
Mr Dhariwal said that the editorial policy is to treat “our reader as the CEO.” Journalists don’t write for the sake of winning plaudits from their colleagues or the company CEO. “We write for the readers. The preoccupation is with what interests our readers.”
He claimed that the paper has “no bias, no agenda and no judgments — we are all about giving choices. We put together different choices in front of the readers. Even on our commentary page, we put forward our view and a counterview. The idea readers get a choice.”
Once in a while, eminent persons of society are given an opportunity to become the “guest editor” for a day, with free rein to run the stories as they please. The gives the ToI “a freshness and a new thinking which is diverse. It creates news among the people. And that makes the paper newsworthy.”
Mr Dhariwal said that because time is short, and an average person takes 20-25 minutes to read the paper, it is kept between 24-32 pages, with stories running for no more than 400 words. The product is kept affordable with another novel contrarian approach. At a time of rising costs, rather than following the pack and raising its prices, the paper cut the price, which led to a surge in circulation. Now the price of the main paper is kept low but the price of a range of niche-market publications is kept high.
Responsibility to the reader is accompanied by responsibility to the society and the country.
“In a world that is often seen as being half full or half empty, we see the world as half-full. We have an optimistic view. We always find something good. We celebrate success. We are big on celebrations.”
One of the paper’s core values is its steadfast belief in the diversity of India. “We are a secular country. Nobody has a birthright over the diversity of our country – and our country is extraordinarily diverse.”
In line with this, the paper last year ran an ad campaign featuring superstar actor Amitabh Bachchan imparting a passionate message for robust, ethical nation-building. It was originally intended as a radio spot but when the actor saw the script, he offered to do it for free as a TV clip against the backdrop of a Mumbai megaproject, the Bandra-Worli Sealink, an offshore road connecting two of the megapolis’s major suburbs.
But the real impact came in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai on 26 November 2008 which were blamed on Pakistan, convulsing India in a fury of anti-Pakistani vengeance.
Rather than pandering to the jingoism, which would have played into the hands of the terrorists, the paper took another contrarian approach, launching a joint campaign in 2010 with Pakistan’s leading Jang newspaper group called “The Indo-Pak Peace Project.”
Said Mr Dhariwal, “It was an extraordinarily bold move. It was a very difficult decision I had to make. Our editors were not sure whether it was the right time to do it. They said we would get into trouble and are not reading the country’s mood right.
“Finally, we decided to go ahead with it simply because it was the right thing to do. And we hoped that by doing it we will change public perception about what happened.” The slogan, comprising both Urdu and Hindi words was entitled, “Aman Ki Asha” (Hope For Peace).
The front-page ad went a step further with a call to “Love Pakistan.” With just a few hours to go before publication, Mr Dhariwal said his ad director brought him a final cut, and he had a long, hard look at it. “As an Indian, such a statement is extraordinarily hard to swallow. I kept looking at it. It appeared to be a bit too bold. I told Rahul I need an hour to think about it.”
Finally, both the ad director and Mr Dhariwal decided to run it.
The next day, the reactions came in fast and furious. Mr Dhariwal said even his son called him to complain about the flak he was getting from his school-friends.
After the dust settled, however, the wisdom of doing the right thing began to take root. Apart from winning a number of awards, the campaign played a role in the decision by the Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh to invite the Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani to the recent India-Pakistan World Cup Cricket match and capitalise on that sports diplomacy to restart peace talks.
“We even got a call from the PM to say that he had read every word and applauded our efforts.”
The latest nation-building campaign is called “A Day In The Life Of India” and is designed to highlight “the circus that is India” through a mass collection of images, jokes, cartoons, images and experiences that “define the chaotic, quirky, maddening, yet livable India.” Readers are being invited to send in their contributions which are being uploaded onto a special website and will be eventually compiled into a book for sale to readers.
He said they also work out ways of accepting advertising from companies which cannot afford to pay for them. The ToI does the media plan and works out the cost and then asks for the ToI to get an equivalent value of equity in the company. Hence, if the product and the advertiser do well, so does the value of the ToI’s equity. “Today, we have a portfolio of over a million dollars in such investments,” he said. “We have taken a huge risk but believe this is a big contributor to our growth of ad revenues.”