Not quite the whole story

BY PRANATI MEHRA| IN Books | 31/03/2014
The 'innovative' ideas of Medianet and Private Treaties are discussed with some generosity and without examining what it did to journalists and their trade.
PRANATI MEHRA reviews Sangita Menon Malhan~s book on the Times of India

The TOI Story: How a newspaper changed the rules of the game
Sangita Menon Malhan
Harper Collins
Pages 261/Rs 350

In the good times of Indian publishing, we now have a book on the making of The Times of India (TOI) of the present day. A former journalist's account of what made the paper the world's largest-selling English newspaper, boasting a combined daily circulation of 4.5 million copies.

Sangita Menon Malhan's The TOI Story: How a newspaper changed the rules of the game tells the inside story of the transformation of the TOI from the mid-1980s to the turn of the century/millennium. It was a transformation from a staid, almost phlegmatic, politically- obsessed newspaper, to a colourful, blithe, considerably dumbed down, but hugely profitable newspaper.

The book, which was completed over 11 years, including a long hiatus in its research, also chronicles the success story of The Economic Times, the world's second largest-selling financial daily. Malhan was a senior correspondent, business, when she quit the TOI in 2001.

The branding of The Times of India in its sesquicentennial in 1988 has been described by a former key director in the group thus: “The approach was to make the Old Lady (of Bori Bunder) begin donning mini-skirts now.'' The newspaper became all that the description conjures up, albeit, in the process bulldozing the institution of the editor to the ground, and making journalism subservient to the market.

Not surprising then that the book is dominated by the man of the moment- Samir Jain-Ashok Jain's older son, who is known for his contempt for journalists and his interest in religious philosophy. Malhan quotes him early in the book, from a meeting that Ashok Jain called in 1984 to introduce Samir to his core managers and editors-, including the legendary Sham Lal and cartoonist R K Laxman.

Malhan writes: “A slim, average-looking man walked in and took centre stage. All of them relaxed. Samir did not seem overbearing or boorish. He spoke in a soft voice. His story had been unremarkable so far. Not that he was a stranger. Many in the audience had known him for years….But none would have anticipated what was in store.

“Invited to speak a few words that day, the young scion did not soft-pedal.  He came straight to the point and said, ‘Newspapers are vehicles for carrying advertisements and news is what we print to fill in the gaps between the ads.' ''

The book cites several instances of how Samir Jain went about demolishing the editor's pre-eminence, including taking umbrage at a minister pulling a chair at a TOI party for Girilal Jain instead of for him.

Samir Jain's assertion of his will on the paper came to a tipping point in 1986 when he suggested that news and views needed to be handled separately and would have separate editors, sparking off a protest by senior journalists in the paper and several exits, including that of Inder Malhotra, who quit in April of that year. Senior journalists had signed a petition against Samir Jain's proposals, which Ashok Jain later called a unionised protest.  

Samir Jain had insisted that not only would the views page be done by a separate editor, the edit page would carry opinions of different hues. News reports also had to be more interpretative and analytical. “It appears that alongside reorganizing the editorial team for better results, Samir Jain was also taking away the myth and mystique surrounding the word ‘editor’,” Malhan says.  

The idea of showcasing different opinions has been taken to a ridiculous length now with ‘The Times View’ popping out of main stories on page one!

As for editors, with Pritish Nandy, who turned around  the group’s flagship magazine, The Illustrated Weekly of India (1990), and Dileep Padgaonkar (1994) among those who shared Samir Jain's views on change initially, the book has engaging tidbits about his experiments with editors. It, however, does not tell us much about Jain's interaction with younger and latter day editors like Dina Vakil, Jaideep Bose, who piloted ET and later TOI and is now editorial director in BCCL, or the ET's Rahul Joshi, who is also the editorial director, and has often taken the brunt of controversies related to Private Treaties.

The book has details of the highly successful idea of ‘Mastermind’ - a matrix of competitive advertising rates which used the ‘bouquet’ concept to attract more ads across editions/publication. The idea became something of a model for the industry after it was refined under Samir Jain's leadership.

So, Malhan says: “For example, a display advertisement in the Bombay edition of The Times of India cost the advertiser Rs 125 per column centimeter if he bought space in the edition on a stand-alone basis. The same advertisement, if combined with Delhi and Ahmedabad editions, was offered at the rate of Rs 230 per column centimeter (Rs 118 for Bombay+ Rs 85 for Delhi+ Rs 27 for Ahmedabad).  If the advertiser added Jaipur, Patna and Bangalore'' etc… it goes on.

The TOI’s journey cannot be described without that of the Hindustan Times, its near eponymous rival in Delhi. Samir Jain fought the HT's indomitable number one position in the country's capital by launching “the battle of perception”. Jain pitched his paper as that of the aspiring middle class, a new generation of yuppies who wanted to know about new products, trends, celebrities and ideas. HT found itself slotted as the ‘bania’ paper, plodding behind a pathbreaker, but one that it came eventually to emulate.

Not before the ugly ‘Humpty Tumpty’ controversy that Malhan describes in some detail. It was April 1988 and HT had had to cut down its pages to 16 (from the 24 and 20 it promised) on two consecutive days, coupled with a hike in its advertising rates. TOI's core team, led by Jain, decided to run a cartoon on its pages for the next two days, showing an egg-shaped Humpty Dumpty, unceremoniously calling it “Humpty Tumpty has a great fall.”

Facetious? But the author says, the simmering war was out in the open. TOI got dragged to the Press Council and was ticked off for publishing the “malafide'' cartoon. From the book one cannot tell if anyone in the press commented on the crassness of the cartoon. But Jain was obviously enjoying the fight.

Malhan has captured the essence of Samir Jain's personality -- that of the classic challenger-quiet, ruthless and always a step ahead. (The book was meant to be his biography and was initially to be called “Maverick”).

She has painstakingly documented the sounds of the huge rumblings in the media of the late 80s and early 90s when the economy was opening up and profiteering was becoming respectable.

Where it scores by way of richly-mined detail, the book disappoints in delivering an adequate critique of how the TOI changed journalism in India. The media's hitherto uneasy relationship with business - slightly in awe and much in condescension - became, in Samir Jain's reign, a flaunting, rave affair.

The ‘innovative’ ideas of Medianet and Private Treaties are discussed with some generosity and without examining what it did to journalists and their trade. How editorial independence shrunk in newsrooms, and how Medianet became the precursor to what we today know as paid news.

That the TOI was sensitive to criticism and started using disclosures at the end of a news story did not take away from the stink.  

Malhan skirts controversies that are germaine to the debate on these changes-- for instance, the infamous case of Pyramid Saimira Theatres Ltd (which was a Private Treaty client of BCCL), in which a reporter of ET came under probe by the Securities and Exchange Board of India in 2009. The case was of alleged forgery of a SEBI order, with intent to jack up the share price of Pyramid Saimira. Another website later pointed out that the Times group was in a joint venture with another PR company whose representative was also named in the Pyramid Saimira probe. The whole incident was unprecedented, but hardly discussed in the mainstream media.

Or when The Hindu pointed out how a feature story of 2008 was repeated verbatim as a “consumer connect initiative”, (or an advertisement) in several editions of the TOI in 2011 when Parliament was to debate the controversial genetically modified seed biotechnology of Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech.

One looks for information in the book which is still unavailable: How did journalists cope with the changes? Were stories killed? Tweaked? How, for instance, did the TOI treat the biggest stories of the two decades? The Narmada Bachao Andolan story, the Harshad Mehta story (which the paper broke), the Hindutva story or the Ambani brothers' strife?

Were the private treaties a good business idea, apart from being an unethical one? Senior journalist Sandeep Bamzai's column in a certain website in 2009 titled ‘This Goliath has tripped on its own,’ did not seem to think so. So, are they junked now?

The epilogue to the book does touch upon some of these questions and also does not quite tell the whole story of how the rules of the game were changed. 

Malhan says she started researching the book first in the 2001-02. Those who spoke to her were helpful and willing, even if they insisted on speaking off the record. And since the book came out in late 2013, it has done well with its first print being sold out. Though journalists called her and gave their opinions, none has reviewed the book.

She did get a call from the Times, though. The offer was for her to join Samir Jain's office. (She has declined.)  

Disclosure: Pranati Mehra worked at The Times of India, Mumbai between 2005-09.

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