The man driving a tank down New York’s 5th Street is not some American General who’s on a victory parade. He was 15 and spotty when he wrote the first copy for his own magazine. He once bungee-jumped 100 metres off a Las Vegas tower to launch domestic flights. He has flown on balloons across the world. He has also spent a night in jail for smuggling records and evading taxes (he later paid them so escaped a sentence). The man is none other than Richard Branson. Crazy adventurer and successful businessman! When he was about to launch his airline’s first flight from UK to the US he called up the press in New York to announce his grand airline; Virgin. They asked him how many aircrafts he had and his team proudly said: “1”. The press didn’t bother and nobody cared. That’s how Branson decided that instead of depending on the press he would do his own thing for publicity. He drove the tank to launch Virgin Cola and shot the cannon at Coca Cola. The cola flopped but his publicity stunt remains famous. Among many, two people in India were most inspired by Branson. One was Vijay Mallya who imitated him but didn’t have his business sense. The other is Samir Jain the head of the huge media empire of the Times Group (TOI). Branson had a business principle: If something doesn’t succeed in one year, dump it. Samir Jain has it, Vijay Mallya doesn’t.
What Samir Jain learned from Branson he turned into a successful ‘profit-model’ while Mallya has only ‘models’ and no profits. Branson had remarked in an interview that he had saved his company tens of millions of dollars in advertising with his stunts which the media covered for free. That’s what triggered the idea for Medianet, Advertorials and “paid publicity” for TOI. SJ said: “When I read it, I said, ‘Oh, my God, eureka—I’m stupid!’ Why these guys are not advertising in my paper is because I’m giving them free PR”. Today, nothing is free in TOI. Want to promote an event? You pay! Want to promote a movie? You pay! Want to promote a rising starlet? You pay! Running a fashion show? Sure, TOI will cover it but sponsor wants mileage; You pay! Then followed ‘Private treaties’, a barter system, under which small companies got advertisements and publicity in exchange for equity.
In the previous part we discussed the rise of Dhirubhai Ambani in the 1980s. Samir Jain’s rise to the leadership of TOI also started around the late 80s and thus followed a string of innovations. His brother Vineet Jain, who jointly runs the business, told New Yorker’s Ken Auletta: “We are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business”. That’s redefining the business although it has been that way for ages. It used to be that newspapers as per rules had to devote at least 33% of space for news and editorials and 67% could be used for advertisements. It still may be, but supplements and pull-outs extend it beyond such limits. TOI practices are not respected by observers but none of it is illegal. What the TOI started as ‘pay for everything’ has culminated into ‘paid news’ as we now know it. While TOI may be sticking to some standards various other big and small newspapers have used the concept of ‘paid news’ widely. TOI is financially independent and doesn’t need doles from govts or frequent doses of investments. That’s the big difference.
For a newspaper whose editor once said “he had the second most important job after the PM” the TOI has more or less made the editor redundant. There are periods when TOI has even gone without an editor. It doesn’t need one. Strikingly, Vineet Jain observes: “Earlier, the newspapers were written more for the intellectual élites.. It was too serious at some point. It was not relevant to our readers”. In other words, it was about making TOI more relevant for the ‘Educated & aspiring Aam Aadmi’. I consider that a splendid move because I consider some intellectual elites to have caused more damage to India than any other group. But make no mistake, with its rise in circulation and reach the TOI did wield considerable power in the “establishment”. Vineet was invited to a function when Barack Obama visited India but he declined and he adds: “What will I do? It’s just meeting somebody, shaking hands. What’s the point... the closer I get to politicians, the more they’ll interfere. It’s a Catch-22. Politicians are no one’s friends”. Well said. Which is why it is surprising that that TimesNow has lately been frequently on a witch-hunt of certain politicians with Arnab Goswami as the obnoxious hunter.
Bill Gates was late to latch on to the internet. So too was the Times Group on the TV front. Bill Gates never recovered ground but TOI managed to make up for its TV presence. I have no data but safe to say that among English news channels TimesNow can claim to be No.1 in India. On the internet front Indiatimes occupies a strong leadership position, both in terms of news and online business. It may face threats from the likes of Flipkart in times to come; nothing alarmingly worrying though.
TOI has done away with the “intellectual” editors. I now call this tribe not editors but “editorialists” whose main job is to “swing public opinion”. It’s not as if TOI has completely ignored the “mini-bar” owning intellectual elites. Sometime back they came up with “Times Crest” just to soothe the crestfallen egos of the elites. A former head of TOI’s marketing once claimed TOI is read in the drawing rooms while local language newspapers are read in barber shops. Since then that has been altered a bit with ventures in regional languages. Latest being a Bengali version too. Surprisingly, from a drawing room paper, TOI is now frequently referred to as the TOI-let paper. It doesn’t faze them as it rightly shouldn’t any business organisation. What should be even more surprising is that despite years of Kolkata being their home, the Jains are not as Commie as most other newspapers and TV channels. It is just as unlikely that you will regularly find Election opinion polls or Exit polls in TOI. This is a job for the “swinging” editorialists and TV channels.
Sometime back Arnab launched a major witch-hunt against Suresh Kalmadi and CWG. Ah I guess that had something to do with TOI not getting certain CWG media contracts which were doled out unfairly to NDTV and CNN-IBN. Fine! TOI as a group also hounds Narendra Modi frequently. Partly understandable considering Modi had slapped a sedition case against their Ahmedabad edition. But the excessive witch-hunt of Nitin Gadkari is certainly inexplicable. The insipid Gadkari is not even news-worthy most times. That’s a rare political witch hunt the truth of which will unfold in time. What TOI started as a revenue generation practice others have used for both political and business profits. If you filter and crunch all the news for a whole day it wouldn’t last more than 15 minutes. Add regional news from all states and it still wouldn’t last an hour. So what do our 24X7 news channels do? Repeats, yes! Then you have all the shows on cars and bikes, Bollywood pre-release promos, Foodie programs, Cars and bikes, Marks4Sports, Hills and environment and so on. All of it, I repeat, all of it is paid for and sponsored. None of these programs are genuine news items or documentaries. And most of all, political news is also paid for and sponsored. Panellists on debates are also paid for appearance (Not party spokesmen). Quite often the debates are “fixed” as in match/spot fixing in sporting games.
Even as I write I watch NDTV doing a 5-minute promo for Café Coffee Day as “news item”. Most people would confuse this nonsense for Sunday trivia but it’s not. It’s a cleverly disguised paid promo (Sunday, November 11, 9.20am). For the quarter ended September 2012 NDTV showed another loss of 16 crores. This must add to their heavily accumulated losses but still companies keep pouring funds into this channel. Must be some magic, eh? Reliance has indirect investments in NDTV through DE Shaw. Jindals have invested in NDTV. Surely, there must be something about NDTV’s failing business that holds an attraction for these investors. Reliance infused some 1400 crores in the TV18 network (CNN-IBN and the gang). If “Congress toh apni dukaan hai” and Reliance is minding that store then guess who’s minding the store for Reliance.
One of the good things about TOI’s full front-page-ad sheet is that you can safely remove it and dump it; which is what most people do. TOI being the leader others followed their example and tried but failed to evoke the same PR revenue. So instead, political PR was the next best choice. Some like to call the TOI a TOIlet paper but one of the realities they have accepted is that the “Editor” is useless. For that reason the TOI is far less biased than its competitors. Most wouldn’t know who the TOI editor is. Compare that with editors of Hindustan Times, Indian Express or The Hindu or TV channels. Compare Vinod Sharma, Shekhar Gupta, Vardabhai, Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai. Who do you think are more biased and pepper their news items with a definite tilt? Some even peddle outright lies as news. TOI does have its bias but it’s clearly in favour of business more than politics or govt. Why do you think TimesNow is perceived to be less biased when compared to NDTV or CNN-IBN? The answer is not hard to guess.
Samir Jain is a very reclusive man and said to be quite spiritual. He doesn’t make too many public appearances, not even in the awards shows of his company. If Rahul Gandhi really wanted to learn “BackOps” he should have chosen Samir as his teacher. Vineet Jain in contrast is more in the public eye. Even the frivolous “Aman Ki Asha” campaign is nothing more than a business campaign and not some Track-2 diplomacy. You can tell by the increase in ‘Shaadi’ classifieds from Pakistan in their papers. TOI doesn’t have to depend on the govt for money. Indian Express wouldn’t survive without doles from the govt.
Like Dhirubhai Ambani, there is no Padma or any major award decorating Samir or Vineet Jain. While petty media celebs like Barkha, Rajdeep, ShekharG and others have many such awards. If Congress is a “Dukaan” for Reliance there must be some playing the role of the “Delivery boys’. TOI is not that delivery boy, I leave it to you to guess who the delivery boys and girls are. Yes, TOI does mind a store, one of its own, that of covering up the business-end of crimes. Don’t expect TOI to bother too much about corruption or exposing politicians or govt; Nitin Gadkari is an aberration. Don’t ever expect TOI to expose any major advertiser or major business unit. Its business is not political but of turning every available cm and mm of its newspaper into money.
Quotes of Samir Jain and Vineet Jain and some trivia from “Citizens Jain” by Ken Auletta in The New Yorker (October 2012)