The Times of India, a journalistic business

Article  by  Hélène LECUYER  •  Published 15.04.2014  •  Updated 15.04.2014
Times of India, Hélène Lecuyer, InaGlobal
The Times of India, the world’s leading English-language newspaper, continues to be highly profitable due to a marketing strategy that is shaking up journalistic practices, for better or worse.

Summary

The world’s most-read English-language daily is not British or American, but Indian. With a circulation of over 3.5 million and a readership estimated at 7.6 million, the daily dominates the subcontinent’s English-language press by a wide margin. It is also considered as the most prestigious Indian paper, all languages combined. The history of the 235-year-old Times of India is tightly interwoven with that of the Indian nation, with all of the virtues and flaws that this entails. But it has been able to conserve its predominant status thanks to diversification and an aggressive marketing strategy, criticized at times for how it blurs the lines between journalism, news and advertising.

The rise of a colonial title or the conquest of the Indian elite

The first edition of the Bombay Times, direct predecessor of the Times of India, was published on November 3, 1838. Created by colonists for colonists, at the time, the newspaper was published twice a week and featured news from Britain as well as local Bombay news. Twelve years later, in 1850, the newspaper became a daily, undergoing a transformative process that led to the first issue of the Times of India in 1861, a nationally-oriented newspaper whose interests gradually detached from those of the United Kingdom, aligning with those of the British colonists. According to the historian Edwin Hirschmann, author of Robert Knight, Reforming Editor in Victorian India, the stances taken by its first editor-in-chief, Robert Knight, allowed the Times of India to acquire an Indian rather than imperialist identity; furthermore, the first Indian investors became stockholders in a newspaper that, while not pro-independence, was able to assert a certain freedom in its tone toward the British government, particularly when the latter made decisions that ran counter to the commercial interests of its colony. This has marked the newspaper’s history, from empire to independence, from one editor-in-chief to another – ever-discreet, and seemingly frozen by posterity in the hallways of the Times and the portraits scattered on the walls – according to its staff of journalists. The Times of India tends to avoid entrenched positions and partisan ties. At most, it displays a certain amount of skepticism at times, as under Nehru’s socialism. Without strong identification, apart from being favored by India’s English-speaking elite, it has crossed the decades, continuing to grow thanks to its innovative management and marketing approach, particularly during the 1990s and 2000s: in 1996, it crossed the threshold of one million copies and just four years later, in 2000, that of two million copies.
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Enemy brothers

However, the Times of India has a nearly-as-renowned rival: The Hindu. Established in 1878, it has long peacefully coexisted with the Times of India, with the two papers divvying up the subcontinent. The Times of India dominates in the north and in the financial capital, Mumbai, while The Hindu has a hold over Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where it is the English-language paper with the widest circulation.
 
But starting in 1991, while The Hindu embodied stability and (according to detractors of the Times of India) proper journalistic practices, in keeping with the more traditional and conservative south of India, the Times of India took advantage of the liberalization of the economy to undertake aggressive development, viewed at times as poorly organized, even hyperactive. The Times of India unashamedly went after advertising revenues and celebrity journalism, but above all sought to move in on its rival’s territory. In 2008, it launched a local edition in Chennai, traditional bastion of The Hindu, sparking off a battle of giants (the two papers have a combined daily circulation of over five million copies) and leading to an amusing exchange of jibes via advertising campaigns. The Times of India implied that its competitor induces sleep in a commercial featuring Chennai residents using their copy of The Hindu as a pillow.
 
 
 
The Hindu replied with a commercial featuring the “Shining India” youth, whose modern clothes and electronic gadgets don’t stop them from displaying complete ignorance of the most basic current affairs – apart from the sex of the baby of ex-Miss Universe and Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai. The name of the paper read by these poorly informed young people is bleeped out, but the slogan leaves no doubt: “Stay ahead of the times”.
 

Today, The Hindu claims [+] NoteThe latest results of the Indian Readership Survey are sharply contested by certain newspapers.X [1] to be the English-language paper with the highest readership growth, although it does not yet have the largest readership. It also presents itself as a torchbearer for independent quality journalism. But the battle for Chennai is far from over: just five years after its launch, the local edition of the Times is on the heels of The Hindu, and its circulation is only 30% lower than that of its rival.

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Low prices and advertisers, the two pillars of the Times of India

Low prices and advertising are the twin pillars of the Times of India’s marketing strategy, and are mutually reinforced in a virtuous circle, wherein advertising revenues make possible a pricing system verging on dumping, while the readers attracted by this system draw in the advertisers. The Times of India fully embraced this strategy in 1994. At the time strongly identified with Mumbai, it decided to undertake a price war to win over the Delhi market, considered the country’s most important, and where, with only 70,000 copies sold, it occupied the position of challenger to the Hindustan Times (300,000 copies).
 
 
The Times reduced its sales price by a third, from 2.30 to 1.50 rupees. This decision immediately sparked off a strike by retailers, paid in percentage of sales price, but the Times of India didn’t back down, and its English-language press competitors were forced to follow in its footsteps to survive. In 1999, the Hindustan Times, which had since lost its leading position, reduced its sales price to 1 rupee per copy. The whole of the profession unwillingly joined in on the price war, which increased its dependence on advertising revenues: in the early 2000s, the ratio of advertising profits to distribution revenues stood at 95:5 for English-language papers, and in 2003, an Indian Parliament committee officially expressed its concern over the omnipresence of advertising in newspapers, recommending the implementation of a ratio between the number of ads and the number of articles – a proposal that ultimately had no impact.
 
 
The Times of India, like the whole of the Indian press, has now once again increased its prices, notably to take into account the rise in the cost of printing ink (largely imported) and the rupee’s strong devaluation. According to one rumor, this decision is a result of the anger of Vineet Jain – member of the family that owns the Times of India and current head of the press group that the daily belongs to – upon discovering that a household employee of his sold old copies of the Times of India by weight to a rag-picker (or raddi, this being a common practice in all Indian households), earning a sum superior to the paper’s sale price. For now, this price hike – extremely limited, simply reverting to the level of the early 1990s, while there has been inflation of 400% in the meantime – has not affected circulation, which is still on the rise, nor has it led advertisers to flee: the Times of India holds the lion’s share of the advertising market, its rates are the highest on the market and its Mumbai edition, the country’s most profitable.
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Diversifying in all directions: celebrities, lifestyle and local news

Despite its long history, the Times of India has never been a newspaper that is frozen in terms of its editorial practices or stuck in the past. It has always sought out innovation and its vision of journalism – or rather, of news, as the managing director of Bennett, Coleman & Co., the press group to which the daily belongs, is fond of saying – is above all that of journalism that sells. Starting in the mid-1990s, the decade in which its circulation exploded, the Times increasingly began featuring celebrity news, lifestyle, fashion and more, through the numerous supplements offered with the paper. In 2005, it also launched the tabloid, Mumbai Mirror, which is distributed for free with the local edition of the Times in Mumbai. It subsequently created editions for Bangalore, Pune and Ahmedabad.
 
 
This transformation strengthened the paper’s attractiveness for advertisers, who found ever more overlap between their products and article content, but was strongly criticized by the competition, which faulted it for granting more importance to false steps by models during fashion shows than those made by government ministers. The Times of India also strengthened its presence throughout India by offering local editions in fifteen first- and second-tier cities. In a press release, the Times of India furthermore declared to be seeking to “bring readers an infinite selection of news sources, through local and national news and advertising”. And this is perhaps the daily’s most surprising feature: its willingness to clearly display the importance of advertising in the publication, affirming that advertising is a source of information on level with all the rest.
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Debates over editorial independence

The Times of India shares the flaws of the subcontinent’s other papers and the Indian nation as a whole. In a country where corruption is part of daily life, scandals at times sully the paper’s reputation, and a journalist may be arrested for having accepted or asked for money in exchange for their silence. It is also common knowledge that favorable coverage of a politician’s campaign, particularly during local elections, has a price tag. Another aspect is the permeability of the borders between different departments. For a given article, a marketing executive might play journalist to cover a prestigious event, as denounced by Sucheta Dalal, a journalist known for her ferocity in uncovering scandals and who has now left the paper. But the most controversial element is the existence of Medianet, an agency founded in 2003, charged with negotiating agreements between outside companies and the various newspapers in the Bennett, Coleman & Co. group, including the Times of India.
 
The group’s CEO has justified the creation of this agency by voicing concern for transparency, in order to avoid arrangements between newspaper public relations departments and companies seeking coverage of their products, performances, events and more. In theory, these agreements should translate into clearly identified articles, which would only be used for supplements. In reality, it is at times hard to tell the difference. The phenomenon has grown to such an extent that in 2011, Ambika Soni, Minister of Information at the time, voiced her concern, affirming that it endangers democracy and media credibility. In an extended interview given to the newspaper Outlook India, Ravi Dhariwal, the press magnate who controls the Times of India, denies the controversy, resolutely reaffirming that newspapers are products: “I think the principles are the same, whether you sell newspapers or Nokia or Armani jeans…Our paper is a consumer product…for the common man”. He also defends the agreements between advertisers and the newspapers in the group that he oversees. It is indeed possible to buy advertising space in the pages of the Times of India, paying in shares rather than money. In this way, the Bennett, Coleman & Co. group was able to acquire shares in over 500 different companies. For Ravi Dhariwal, this does not imply a conflict of interests: “Just like a cash advertiser cannot expect to influence editorial, no private treaty client can expect to influence editorial.” It is in any case impossible to cast doubt on Mr. Dhariwal’s business sense, or on how the Times of India has been able to maintain a successful and profitable existence over the decades.
Translated from French by Sara HEFT
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Photo credits :
Main image : Hargitay / Flickr
Reader of Hindustan Times (Meanest Indian / Flickr)
Newspaper seller (Caroll Mitchell / Flickr)
Damien [Phototrend.fr] / Flickr
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  • 1. The latest results of the Indian Readership Survey are sharply contested by certain newspapers.
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