Tracking the rise & rise of the Times: Q&A with author

13 Sep,2013

 

Delhi-based Sangita P Menon Malhan was trained to be a pilot, but started flying high once she turned a full-time journalist and later got into creative writing. She has worked with The Statesman, Delhi Mid-day and The Times of India and published a book for short stories for children – Rastapherian’s Tales and a collection of poems in Urdu – Nusrat-e-Gham. The TOI Story has been in the works for 13 years, in fact as she told us, she almost gave up writing the book and then picked up the threads yet again to finally see it happen.

 

Before you read this interview of Ms Menon Malhan with Pradyuman Maheshwari of MxMIndia, we suggest you read the extract at http://www.mxmindia.com/2013/09/the-toi-story-inside-the-mind-of-samir-jain/

 

Would you say the Pritish Nandy quote on the back cover – “Commercially, Samir Jain was the best thing that could have happened to The Times of India. But he destroyed an institution and made it a great big factory” – possibly sums up your book best?

Absolutely, although the factory seems to be doing a great job as far as net net results are concerned. His was the most explosive of the hundred-odd interviews. He was candid and voluble, and said several things that have not made it to book. His views, in spite of this quote, were pragmatic and honest. He spoke about what worked at The Times, and what did not, which really forms the core of the Bennett, Coleman success story. Decisions are taken based on their projected returns; dispassionately, even ruthlessly; and anything or anyone that comes in the way, is ‘allowed to’ fade out.

 

It’s good to see several leading lights going on record. Any one who refused to do so (other than Samir and Vineet Jain) or who spoke and then asked for anonymity?

Well. If I reveal those names, won’t I have ‘revealed’ it all! J Yes. There are a few who requested/ suggested anonymity. They shall stay ‘Deep Throats’until someone digs up their identity.

 

You’ve worked with The Times of India for some years. Do you find many other newspaper groups are now emulating the Times way of doing things? Or should one say the times are such?

That is undeniably true. Rivals and competitors of the Times began emulating it way back as the early 1990s when they realized that these moves worked. The pricing game, the focus on the citizen rather than the State, the added elements – supplements, religious nooks and corners, the pizzaz and glamour, the focus on profitability… have all been almost directly taken down from The Times’ model for growth and expansion; and for domination. We do live in an age of economics, as we always have. Today, however, there is greater acceptability for the term wealth generation. It is a legitimate pursuit. Like a Salvador Dali painting….you may or may not like it but you will certainly not be able to ignore it. That said, there is yet scope for ethical business.

 

Your book and many previous accounts of The Times of India are centered around Samir Jain. Interestingly, it was he who demolished the indispensability of any individual in the team. But his stature (and that of his brother) has indeed grown. So is Times in effect also what we disparagingly call (many Indian managements) a lala company? Or are business and editorial biggies suitably empowered?

The interesting thing about success stories is that irrespective of how many people or ideas form a team, it is the vision that matters. And, Samir Jain did have a plan, a purpose. He ensured that he had some of the best minds in the country around him so that he could hear them, assimilate what they had to offer and prod on. But the targets were ‘his’. And that makes all the difference. The greatest of leaders have used their armies to get to their destinations. To that extent, they are not redundant. It is the input that is king.

 

Samir Jain is a man of enormous contradictions. Despite the aura around him, I do believe it is his squad/ battalion that keeps churning up ideas. I don’t subscribe to the view that Bennett, Coleman is a lala outfit. ‘If you have an idea that will work to benefit the overall aims of the company, you will be empowered at The Times Group’ is what I heard during the research. But you do have to align yourself with the reigning philosophy of the organization. And, I was told that high quality debates and differences of opinion are welcomed.

 

He was among the first media barons to hire professionals from FMCG majors to bring in a certain rigour?

He did that with a vengeance. I remember Satish Mehta telling me how enthusiastic Samir Jain was about having people from the ‘dark side’ around him. These were men and women who brought in a perspective that may have been alien to the editorial cadre at the organization during those tumultuous years in the mid to late 1980s and during the early 1990s.

 

Once you’ve decided who are going to be, the strategies do fall into place. Therefore, since you – the newspapers – are a product, how can the ‘old’ shoe… fit!

 

The next generation of the family is steadily taking charge? Would you see The Times of India change 30-40 years from now, when the Jain brothers relinquish charge?

Don’t we all want to know the answer to this question! I’m not too sure if the next generation is adequately excited about this business. I have no evidence to prove what I just said, either. These are things I’ve heard. One can be certain though that a lot of thought is currently being put in at the organization to take on the future. There is no other option.

 

I believe change is upon The Times of India already. With the combined pressures and challenges of the medium, the threat from the digital tsunami, the fast-changing needs of the new generation, the power of technology and shrinking revenues from the current streams, the model will have to change. Everything is infotainment-led. Easy access matters. Newspapers may need to change their ‘delivery’ methods.

 

Your book mostly interviews and speaks to a lot of people in Delhi and is based on the time when the brothers – Samir and Vineet – took charge. An equally interesting period of the group was before when the editors were gods and Mumbai was where the action was?

Indeed that was a great period. One can only imagine how power and glory rested elsewhere during those years both in terms of location and with respect to the ‘gods’ who enjoyed them. As a person, I’m fascinated with stories of victory. And, the more troubled and tortured, the better. I was naturally attracted to this tale and kept my focus here. I had heard enough of the ‘golden’ age from my father, who was also a journalist. Besides, the challenge was to unravel this piece, more so because it was reportedly (pun intended) impossible.

 

As someone who has studied the group and now chronicled it, what do you think is driving the success of the Times: the business or editorial department?

Like in the Mahabharata/ the Bhagwad Gita, it is the clear combination of both. I fight to win. That is my value system. I shall stand by it. It is clichéd to accept that the reorientation of the business ‘approach’ worked for The Times. Yet, the focus on the ‘product’ was equally sharp. You can have a great product launch based on claims and hype but if you cannot sustain that… with a genuinely strong product, how far can you go! The editorial department may have had to ‘suffer’ the change more than its marketing/advertising counterpart. But it had to be ‘converted’.

 

You took 13 years over the book. Do you find the group has changed in this period? If yes: Anything specific…

I find that most people who matter in the organization have ‘come around’. I still get a lot of unprintable stories, off-the-record, but there is a general ‘acceptance’ of the norm. Even journalists speak the language of the organization now. They seem quite convinced. The fusion has taken place. The two sides are one, at least for the record. Sitting at a coffee shop, far away from the headquarters, however, some skeletons do tend to tumble out. But appearances are kept up. It is all very well.

 

Any reactions from Times House to the book? Or from the Jains? Do you think you’ll still get invited to write for the Times?

Nothing yet. I did send Mr Jain a copy of the book with a handwritten note. I remember writing to him toward the end of 2000, informing him that I was planning to work on such a book. ‘This is a leadership study. And, it must not be halted,’ I had mentioned. It is creditable that the study was never halted. I walked into Times House so very often and interviewed so many people there. The brand managers at Times House were extremely helpful and courteous with even the most disturbing questions. That, and much else, couldn’t have happened without an ‘all-clear’ from ‘above’. My target was to write the book. How The Times reacts to it is its outlook. It is sheer serendipity that this book has somehow decided to come alive in this the 175th year of the newspaper. It has been written for the consumer of news and information in this country. And, I hope it has a great journey.

 

The TOI Story

(How a newspaper changed the rules of the game)

By Sangita P Menon Malhan

HarperCollins Publishers India

Cover price: Rs 350*

Paperback, 261 pages

(check amazon.in, flipkart.com for a lower price)

 

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  • Guest

    It will be interesting to see how ToI handles the challenge from the internet, which is changing the economics of printed newspapers.

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