Forbes will stick to its DNA: R Jagannathan

25 Jun,2013

 

R Jagannathan or Jaggi, as he’s popularly known, is a veteran business editor, having worn the biz ed hat several times over. As Executive Editor of BusinessWorld (way back in 1987 till 1990), Business Editor, India Today (1990-91), Founding Exec Editor, Business Today (1992-93), Resident Editor, Business Standard (1993-96), Editor, Financial Express (1996-2000), Editor, myiris.com (2000-02), Exec Editor, Business Standard (2002-05) and Editor – DNA Money (2005-07). In June 2007, he was made Managing Editor and later Executive Editor of the six-edition DNA news daily, a position he held till 2010. He joined the Network18 group in 2011 to launch Firstpost and in March this year, he was elevated to Editor-in-chief, web and publishing for all of the Network18 group’s print and online publications.

 

Late last month (May 2013), Mr Jagannathan took charge of Forbes India after four senior editorial heads including Founding Editor Indrajit Gupta exited the organization in controversial circumstances. The Editors’ Guild of India and Press Club Mumbai deplored the development and issued statements even as, according to rumours, Mr Gupta and his colleagues have taken the Forbes India management to court on the issue.

 

MxMIndia spoke with Mr Jagannathan last week to find out how the transition has been and specifically what are the changes he’s planning to bring about in the fortnightly magazine.

 

One can’t start this chat without asking how the transition has been. There was evidently much sound and fury when it happened.

Yes, as far as I am concerned it was totally unexpected because as late as last year and even early this year there were several meetings with Indrajit and all to discuss common newsroom ideas and various things so I thought everybody would’ve been little bit prepared for it. So when the announcement was made in March, we were ready for it and we were not pushing it too fast also because we wanted people to buy into the idea of the common newsroom. I think for about a month I was attending their meetings just to understand their processes and various things. I always believe integration processes are slow, it takes time and we need to get people’s buy-in so that’s what I was working towards. But somewhere along the line, probably they were not happy with the idea.

 

As a journalist who’s been through the ranks and who has seen things from both sides, did you find the entire episode unnerving?

No, it was not unnnerving for me because I believe that certain things have to happen because today the cost of content is very high regardless of whether you are running a print publication or a dotcom. You have to see how you can synergize and get additional kinds of content from multiple sources so the move towards common newsrooms sort of has to happen. In India, it is happening at a slower pace than elsewhere.

 

Integration is always a tough process…

Of course it is. You are dealing people who have a way of doing things. Let’s say if you are in a magazine you are used to writing, say, one story in a fortnight whereas in Firstpost we are in a newsroom where we are churning out lot of copy on a dynamic level so obviously it will take some time…

 

As somebody who has set up and worked with business magazines for long, what was your view of Forbes India when you took charge? And how has it been so far?

Forbes is a fantastic product and is well accepted by the market. Anybody starting Forbes four years ago was doing the right thing by going in the direction that they were going. Later, ForbesIndia.com was set up so everything was going according to the plan. The only thing is that as you move along, you’ve got to see the challenges ahead and be pro-active. As a category, magazines have been stagnant for a long time and struggling in all domains. So just because you are not struggling does not mean that you should not prepare for the future. It’s this thinking that led the management and us to look at how Forbes needs to be in the future.

 

You’ve helmed Forbes India editorially for a month-odd now. Any changes planned?

No, nothing very significant because it’s not that everything in the past was wrong. We have made incremental changes in some parts which were not working… which you have to do regardless of who is the editor. You have to constantly keep reviewing the product and make it elegant.

 

The one important thing that I am probably changing has to do with the fact that you are a franchised edition of a globally accepted product. So, there is no need for you to reinvent the wheel in India, you don’t have to stuff in India content because you are a foreign product with an Indian DNA. In fact if you make it more and more Indian, you are competing with Business Today and Business World. Now you want to be in a category where you are a global publication which has an Indian element in it. So what I am doing is not chucking great content and replacing it with 70 percent of your content. You do the other way around… you make sure that the 30 percent of the Indian content measures with the global brand and do that.

 

What is the content ratio now and what it’s going to be?

We haven’t significantly changed it but we have started the process. I think earlier Forbes US content was more like 40-50 percent or maybe lesser. Sometimes it was even 30 percent to 20 percent. But we are making it more like 50-60 percent range…

 

Forbes India often was often fairly aggressive in its journalism. There was this story on DNA I guess when you were editor which was pretty damning… Are you going to follow the same aggressive approach?

See, I do not know entirely what was done in the past, but you certainly have to tell the truth. There’s no doubt about that. But, as far as the core philosophy of Forbes is concerned, it’s largely pro-business, it is not meant to be an NGO. It is not meant to be anti-capitalism. We are for capitalism but not for crony-capitalism, so there is a difference. We don’t want to say that capitalists are good even if they are doing rotten things. We are not in the business of saying that the government is a lovely thing, food security is great. All those things we are not going to do, so I think shift in focus is happening little by little. We have not entirely changed it. We have an approach where we say entrepreneurship is key. We believe that if entrepreneurs are given the right inputs, India will benefit because entrepreneurs can create jobs that governments cannot.

 

So good business is good and bad government is bad. We want less government and more business very clearly. I mean those are the broad philosophies of Forbes and that philosophy we have to adopt here.

 

Will you continue with the current periodicity?

 Yes, we will be fortnightly as we have always been. In fact what we do is like even in the past when we have special issues, we will have additional issues.

 

And will Forbes life continue as is?

We do plan to do some tweaking in the product because I think it is little more artistically-oriented right now. It should be a little more lifestyle-oriented so we will be looking at content probably in the next few weeks. The current issue is going to bed, it’s doing well and has a fair amount of ads. We want to see if we can make it much better commercially and it’s far more oriented towards Forbes Life as it is in the US.

 

Internationally, Forbes has a few extensions like Forbes Woman. Are you looking at those in the near future?

No, what we may have is special issues which might come free with the magazine but that is like once in a year. We want to make sure that the core brands – Forbes India and Forbes Life, and Forbes India more than Forbes Life – will really succeed. It is a crime for Forbes India to not make money. Forbes is about the rich, about being profitable. So Forbes has to be profitable and we will be profitable if we stick to our core DNA, which we will.

 

But the dynamics of the business are such that they weigh against all magazines.

Yeah, so we are also tweaking the business model which is basically to be a little more asset light. That is we have a core team of editors who will continue to remain there but we are also taking more content which we will get others to do on a project basis so it’s not like we want to do everything in-house. Hence many things will get changed so that the cost factors probably work out a little better.

 

Does this mean you will shed some weight?

No, we are not shedding any more weight except if anything happens through the process of natural attrition.

 

But there will be some re-allocation?

Yes, because we are expecting people to contribute more so you bring down costs either by getting people to be more productive or you don’t replace when people leave.

 

And on the website, will we see changes there too?

We think ForbesIndia.com is eminently monetizeable because it has a very strong business environment in which advertisers want to put in money so we think we will build the brand by increasing the content in that and certainly it will be grown

 

Will it be a business-y Firstpost?

No, Firstpost and Forbes are two different brands and there is no question of mixing the two brands. Firstpost is an edgy, opinionated site. What we may do is occasionally re-publish some stuff from here for Forbes. And where it is relevant, the reverse also. People working for the two places might contribute separately for the two brands. A brand is a brand, you don’t want to screw up by mixing up the two brands.

 

It’s about people synergy that is the person in Forbes might write something for Firstpost and the person in Firstpost might contribute and do something in Forbes Life. So in a sense it’s like free-of-cost content in some ways because you are doing it in the spare time. You are doing additional work, so it’s not about mixing up the brands.

 

So, how do you divide your time? You have held multiple hats in the past but here Forbes must be taking a fair bit of your day?

I think it’s largely a time management issue. In the first half of the day, I work for Firstpost and in the second half, I look at Forbes. This is a fortnightly so you need not have to look at it daily. At a later stage, there may be a line editor working under me who will be doing the actual running of the Forbes part but we have not come to a decision on whether to do that or not. In the foreseeable future at least I will be running the magazine and after that we have to internally discuss how it will go forward.

 

What about the other publications which are part of your portfolio?

There also there are some degrees of synergies that we have built in…

 

Journalists typically crib about more work for the same amount of money!

I have always believed that it’s not about more work or less work. It’s that journalists are very bad time managers. When I was in Business Standard, we had a Financial Times editor working with us and we used to ask him how he manages to file five stories a day. He said, “We have our beats and everything and there may be a story outside the beat that the editor might assign you. It’s a standard formula in terms of what kind of stories you do. You talk to a guy, a rival or whatever it is. Writing a 500-word story doesn’t take more than an hour or an hour-and-a-half so I can easily file five stories a day.” And this is for a newspaper. The point is in India the average newspaper reporter does one story and thinks it’s a great thing. Of course we do have great faith in the so-called exclusives. Often the exclusives are defined by the reporter and not actually what the reader wants. At Firstpost, I could do much more in the 8-10 hours because if you constantly look at how your time is going, you realize that you can actually do more.

 

Would it help having a different breed of journalist for an integrated newsroom?

Yes, unfortunately we tend to recruit the same people we know but when DNA started, one of the suggestions I made to the promoters was that beyond a few top level editors, you should spend six months taking on an entirely new breed of journalists who can be trained in your drill. On what makes for a story, how you should write a story and this is how many stories I expect you to file. Be internet-driven first and then write for the newspaper. This was the plan that I had made, but they were so excited about the product at that stage that we never went into it. But now there’s an opportunity to achieve that…

 

Finally, would you say it’s going to be business as usual for Forbes?

Yes, the responsibilities of content for the people will change a bit. But that’s at the margin because we want them to settle in first and then start contributing in other parts.

 

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