Jaldi 5 with Vivek Gupta, MD & Ed-in-Chief, Sanmarg: Being small helped to be fleet-footed and be experimental

29 Nov,2021

Vivek Gupta

Vivek Gupta

Vivek Gupta is Editor-in-Chief and Managing Director of Sanmarg, a 90-year-old Hindi newspaper which started in Kolkata and has now spread itself to many parts of the East. The paper is a leader amongst the affluent Marwari community and the Hindi-reading MSMEs of the region. Gupta has been involved with Sanmarg right from the age of 17 and is a hands-on promoter who keeps a sharp eye on all aspects of the newspaper on an ongoing basis. We revive our series of short ‘Jaldi 5’ interviews with industry leaders with Gupta, who would decidedly count among the more erudite media owners in the country

 

Q01. We know you are a key member of the ruling dispensation in West Bengal, so may not like the usage of the phrase, but would you say that the ‘Achche Din’ are back in newspaper publishing?

We live in a hyper-competitive world, where in a sector good and bad results are dependent on the response of the players. I have encouraged and tried convincing my entire team that it is the action which changes the thing. Today, I can say with pride that this ACT (Action Changes Things) thinking has kept us, as Davids, alive and kicking while a lot of Goliaths are complaining. Pundits have always predicted doom for the newspaper business in the face of rising popularity of digital. To answer your question in your own language, we managed to hold on to our ‘achche din’ however the definition of ‘achche din’ are now very different from the past.

 

Q02. As you look back at the pandemic and the two waves of the virus attack, would you say that the dice was severely loaded against small publishers like yourself?

Absolutely. We were born about 90 year back as a community newspaper in an alien land. It was essentially for the migrant Marwari merchants. Kolkata, being the cultural capital of India, was (and will continue to be) a land of English and Bengali language publishing. Without realising, we became a force to reckon with in spite of being in a third language. We never wanted to go out of Kolkata and Bengal so remained small yet happy serving the needs of this community which practically are the largest contributors of the state’s commerce. Right from the onset of the pandemic we knew that ‘burre din’ is round the corner and it is our size which helped us make changes fast. Yes, there were financial implications but we punted against all odds and today it gives me immense pleasure to see that the silver line is much closer that it would have been if we didn’t ACT (pun intended).

 

Q03. One of the key cost centres of the media business has been staff salaries, though not as much with the non-English media. We’ve heard that you also retrenched a fair number of people in the pandemic. Talk us through the various steps you took to keep costs under check?

Being small helped to be fleet-footed and be experimental. We embraced the concept of productivity and technology. Instead of retrenching people we re-structured the organisation around productivity. Technology helped a lot but it was mindset of people which saw us reducing unnecessary costs without giving up the product quality

 

What also helped us is the understanding that for newspaper advertisers, newspapers became a must. As we are practically the only newspaper for the affluent (with significantly higher purchasing power than the other people of the state) Hindi reading population of the state, which the advertisers also knows very well. We had faith in our readers and knew they will never desert us. While we rationalised expenses on one hand, we invested in alternate distribution system and retained our cover price and advertising rates on the other hand.

 

We also capitalised on certain opportunities. Firstly, our Sunday circulation has always been twice that of week days at a cover price of Rs 7 (which probably is as high as a morning newspaper price in India). Add to that the fact that people spent much more time at home. Which helped us drive the weekday circulation. Besides, our language competitors from neighbouring states discontinued local operations which helped us convert a lot of competition readers. Not being from this state they depended heavily on national news while for us the state always remained the main focus. We also saw a lot of circulation increase in rest of the state (other than Kolkata)

 

Q03a. There is a charge that media companies which have been profitable for years should have absorbed the losses and not passed on the (negative) effect to employees. Your view?

We have always believed in that. We motivated people for multi tasking and reskilling. Yes a few could not reinvent themselves who eventually moved on

 

Q04. We saw many large-sized display ads and jackets in Sanmarg, around the Durga Puja and Diwali seasons. While the volumes are there, has the value gotten back to 2019 levels? Or are you still discounting?

We never believed in mindless discounting. We always knew that advertisers for whom we matter they will especially during festival time as that is also the buying time. Here also we had the understanding that the amount of cash available for consumers, mainly our consumers have increased multi-fold during last 18 odd months. We got the rates that we deserve

 

Q05. What was the biggest lesson that you as a media-owner learnt from the pandemic?

In one word, faith that it is the action which changes things. We reimagined the market place in deep details and reengineered our operations accordingly.

 

 

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