“Digital is good for journalism and for IE”

The Express Group founder Ramnath Goenka’s grandson Anant Goenka recently joined the newspaper group as director and head of new media, to revive the new media business. In this conversation with Rahul Kumar and Anand Srinivasan, he discusses the print journey so far and the group’s strategy ahead.

23 Jan 2014 | By Rahul Kumar

Rahul Kumar (RK): When did you join the family business?
Anant Goenka (AG): I joined on 16 January, 2012. Before joining the Express, I was with Spenta Multimedia’s business team in Mumbai. My profile was client acquisition, tracking revenues and coordinating with the editorial department. Prior to Spenta, I spent three months working with the commercial team at Bloomberg, London where I was involved with digital advertising sales and in Bloomberg’s expansion strategy in the EMEA region. At Bloomberg I was on an academic internship as part of my Master’s degree in print journalism from the Annenberg School of Journalism, University of South California.

RK: What prompted you to join the Express Group and what are your points of focus in the organisation now?
AG: I guess it was a matter of time. I have always wanted to join my family business and build on the wonderful legacy and institution my grandfather built. Growing up in his house at Express Towers, I was brought up in the environment of newspapers and have always been very inspired by stories of his battles for free press. 

I am in-charge of new media here. New media includes anything besides print, including online, mobile, apps and anything that might come in the near future. Largely, the new media segments we operate in today consist of mobile and web content. Indian Express website approximately receives 70 million online page views a month. As a group, we’re clocking 90 million page views a month – all from very high profile, elite audiences across the world.

RK: After having a footprint in the new and print media, are there any plans to enter the broadcast media, through radio and TV channels?
AGIn the prevailing conditions of the industry, if we would have been in the TV business, we would have been broke by now. Many TV channels have lost a lot of money. Besides, most of the news channels aren’t strictly doing just news today. The Express brand is recognised for high quality, credible, no-nonsense news. That’s our core competence. And broadly speaking, the business of news on TV is actually very poor.

Speaking of radio, we’ll be very interested if the government changes its stance and allows airing of news on private channels. Entertainment radio channels today do a lot of news in the name of entertainment, like stock market, cricket match scores, bollywood buzz, etc. Their coverage of local issues and the opinions voiced by the radio jockeys (RJs) are extremely irresponsible and very often inaccurate. Government needs to decide its stance on news on radio before we can really take a call on getting into the radio space.

RK: Indian Express has titles in English, Hindi and Marathi.How is each language market different? And is there a plan to diversify into other Indian languages as well?
AG: We are still seeing growth in English language publications, with our titles Indian Express and Financial Express. We are seeing a lot of growth in Marathi with Loksatta too, and Loksatta is one of Maharashtra’s most successful brands. So we have to ride this wave very well. According to me, there is a lot of work to be done in both these markets and we have a long way to go.

RK: According to FICCI-KPMG reports, India’s regional languages show more growth as compared to English. What is your take on this?
AGAdvertising and readership are two different sides of the news sector. While Hindi has the largest readership share by far in India, English is the largest revenue-generating language. The Hindi market according to me is stagnant, given the number of players in this space. Yes, Indian languages have been growing. I think it’s only a matter of time before advertisers start appreciating the power of regional newspapers.

Thinking on a longer term, even with high-speed internet connectivity, regional papers like Loksatta have a particularly exciting time ahead. But news has been and always will be a tricky business. We should learn from the mistakes the West has made by giving newspapers for too cheap and heavily discounting their rate cards, and protect our long-term business interests.

RK: Will there be any other revenue model for newspapers except the advertisements?AGYes. Right now, the only model in line is to start charging more cover price for newspapers and stop providing free content through your online mediums. In print, we should increase cover prices and increase rates of advertising.

RK: Industry specialists say that lower cover price of Indian newspapers is one of the major factors of newspapers growth in India. Will hike in newspapers’ cover price not affect the growth? And being a highly price sensitive market, will readers pay more?
AGWe have to ensure that somebody who wants to read our papers has to pay for it. Narendra Modi charging five rupees to hear him speak at a political rally is an example of how, as a society, we’re being encouraged, and rightly so, to pay for content that we want to consume.

Those who don’t want to pay, let them not pay. But the fact is people who will pay the increased cost would be the right audience, people who will engage with the brand, with the content that we put out, and would be the right audience for the advertisers too. To have a true journalism business you have to opt for a sustainable business model otherwise you will have to face pressure and influence by some force of the universe.

As far as profit margins are concerned, Indian newspapers are not in loss, but the money loss to each copy is not good to grow the business. One of the mistakes the West made was to combat the decline of print by giving newspapers away too cheap. We must learn from them: quality and credibility of your content will bring quality readers and they will be ready to pay. Until recently, we were proud to be India’s most expensive English newspaper, and now The Hindu selling in Delhi for Rs 8 is  testimony that people are willing to pay for quality content that they want to consume.

Delhi: The walls of the edit-room has several framed milestone editions of the newspaper

RK: According to you, what are the trends in the newspaper industry?
AG: One, definition of news is changing. Today, readers are becoming more discerning consumers of news. We are all differentiating ourselves by our style of writing and the stories we like to cover. We are all becoming a bit territorial about our market. Multiple publications and sources of the news are attempting to meet the changing psyche of the readers.

RK: Since you have joined as the head of new media, what kind of policies have you made and implemented?
AG: So we launched India’s first news website: expressindia.com, this must have been in around 1996. We had to have the word ‘India’ in URL at that time, hence ‘expressindia.com’. We started to focus on online news back from 2011 and our traffic has multiplied three times in a period of the last 20 months since then. We have grown our revenue more than four times and I can happily say that we are ahead of most of our competitors. We had 8,000 likes on our Facebook page two years ago and now we are close to seven lakh Facebook likes; all grown organically.

We have won gold for social media in the Wan-Ifra Digital Media Asia Award in November 2012, and that was just five months after we got into social media. We currently have about 13 websites and 60 people in our entire team, including social media. We did Stumble Upon, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. We’re breaking stories on the web, we’re integrating better with the print guys by doing value-adds online and our teams are helping in the news gathering/story pitching process. We’re a much more active part of the edit meeting and we’re getting the entire company to work together in providing an exception news product both in print and on the web.

RK: Was new media a cake-walk for you?
AG:  I visited around 14 newsrooms in America, big to small. And I spent a lot of time with LA Times (Los Angeles Times). Every legacy company has similar constraints. We have more than 450 journalists in our group. It’s tough to get people who have been print journalists for two decades to summarise their story to 140 characters, file another web-only version of around 250 words, then a short story of 350 words and finally an analytical feature or an article of 1,200 or more words. The entire process takes time and needs a lot of hard work. Existing culture and mindset are a real challenge for us, as is in any other legacy news media company.

RK: There are a lot of questions on infrastructure when we talk about new media in India. How do you manage those challenges?
AG: We had problems of site crash and phishing attacks in the beginning. It took me around eight months to really understand the problems and get around the infrastructure issues. Today, I can say, our site will never crash no matter from where you are accessing the site and which browser you are using. Earlier, we had servers sitting in our offices, today I think we’re the only news website to be fully hosted on Amazon’s cloud servers. My advise to our industry professionals, is to think open-source and consider using cloud computing and sharing the resources. Apart from this, we will be the first company to partner with Automatic – the company that invented Wordpress. Our re-launched Indian Express website will be fully on Wordpress. We will not use any in-house, custom-made CMS (content management system). Our earlier CMS was built with The Guardian; it lasted for almost 10 years. The Indian Express website has seen a surge in traffic from mobile, from 5% to 35%. This, despite the fact that our total traffic has multiplied at least three times.

When we launched an Android app for Loksatta, we got 10,000 downloads in the first week. In fact, digital is complementing newspapers. You read the newspapers in the morning and later in the
evening, share and comment on the article. India is the perfect market for each medium to co-exist.

 Biggest stories find place in this corridor of excellence

RK: What about the business model? Is it similar to print?
AG:  Unfortunately, yes. The business model of online is similar to print and it is not healthy since it is advertisement driven.

RK: Will we see a paid viewership or readership for new media?
AG: Of course, you will see the paid model for new media. There has to be a pay wall for e-readership. But I think it will take time. I don’t want to shut the current growth phase. My gut feeling says that we will have it once the general elections are over.

The wall describes 75 years of journey of the group

RK: Has Indian Rupee-devaluation affected the new media?
AG: Websites have definitely benefitted because of dollar revenues. But it is insignificant compared to the increase in the cost of newsprint.  Newsprint gets more expensive; 20% increment in your biggest raw material. Most of the newspapers houses are suffering with the increment of raw material cost.

RK: Government of India (GOI) has proposed 49% Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in print media. Your comments.
AG: The Indian Newspaper Society (INS) has given a green light for FDI in print media from 26% to 49%. Now the matter is with Government of India. I won’t comment specifically on FDI in news, but I do think that generally, our economy could use some foreign investments.

RK: What changes will we see after the implementation of your policies and decisions?
AG: You’ll see a more digital savvy group. You’ll see several initiatives to take the legacy viral and, no matter what the commercial pressures are, you will never see any compromise on the quality and credibility of our journalism.

RK: Any comment on the size, in terms of monetary value of the newspaper industry? Apparently your publication gets more government advertisement, is it true?
AG: I think TV was Rs 20,000 crore and print was Rs 18,000 crore. Totally, it should be approximately 40,000 crore of ad revenue spent in India out of which TV and print has roughly an equal share. Directorate of Advertising & Visual Publicity (DAVP) accounts for less than six percent of our total advertisement revenue. Sure, PSU Banks and LIC-type clients may be relatively larger advertisers, but I’m certain that that’s the case with other publications as well. This year, some of our advertisers include upmarket, high-end real estate projects, and Tissot, Gulfstream, Toyota, United Technologies, Kelloggs, Dell, Acer, etc dvertise with us, but they give advertisement to every


Expressing design changes in an arty way

Spine of a good newsroom: editorial desk

RK: Being the second-largest populated country in the world and ranked as 105th literate country in the world,what chances did you have of capturing this huge market?
AG: More content you serve, more readers you get – this is the beauty of digital. Nobody has seen three times growth in one-and-a-half years. We cover a variety of markets and variety of news. Digital is good for journalism and for The Indian Express!

RK: Will mergers and acquisitions make any impact on the printing facilities of the companies?
AG: Considering Vijay Karnataka’s takeover by Bennett Coleman or Mid Day and Nai Dunia’s takeover by Jagran Group, the acquisitions have been done with a motive to improve printing facilities and increase efficiency and quality of print.


RC Malhotra - all India controller – production, Indian Express

RK: What are various initiatives that the Express Group has taken?

RC: We have made several changes on the technical front; few of them are adopting pre-flight and ink-saver software, use of Vio green plates, automatic plate processing through CTP, automatic plate punching and bending through Nela, PIV for tension control, automatic ink pumping, and conveyor and stacker installation. In addition to these, we have also adopted motorised cut-off and side lay control, MPLS network across all Indian locations, digitally archived all editions, and included VOIP, video conferencing and VPN facility in our units, and commissioned SAP based tools in media marketing, scheduling, page making, accounts, payroll departments.


RK: Does the size (broadsheet, Berliner or midi and tabloid) of newspaper really matter for printing process?

RC: Selection of paper sizes is a big issue which is dependent on many parameters such as cut-off of machines already installed, the general trend of the industry, consumer taste and convenience, advertiser compulsions, corporate strategies, and easy availability of the newsprint.


RK: For flawless production and satisfaction of the newspaper industry, what are the precautions to be taken by the ink, paper, and printing press manufacturers?

RC: The manufacturers of ink have to ensure proper tack, viscosity, thixotropic properties of ink and should avoid using materials leading to odours. The newsprint should have less fluff, less show-through, uniform GSM, optimum porosity, tearing resistance and opacity values across the batches. Press manufacturers should see if the variable cut-off can be incorporated in the design.


RK: There is much more attention on the environment; and recycling of paper is in focus. Do you anticipate any kind of printing problem with recycled newsprint?

RC: The printing industry is a critical and serious participant in the global go-green effort. Aside from the feel-good factor involved in reducing one’s own carbon footprint, let’s be honest and admit that people use recycled newsprint because it’s cheaper. However, recycled newsprint does adversely affect the quality of printing and require additional time and energy to maintain the equipment and machinery.


RK: Waste in a big concern in newspaper printing presses, how difficult is it to manage?

RC: Waste is a major concern, but it is dependent on several factors. The level of automation plays a significant role in controlling waste; albeit, it is difficult to decide how much to invest in automation to save wastage of newsprint. The waste depends on many factors, such as, quality of newsprint, multiple handling, transportation and storage, level of automation of the machine, skill of the workmen and print runs. Sometimes the capital outlay for the automation is so huge that it stops most of the companies from taking those initiatives for newsprint waste reduction.

The Indian Express has taken a few initiatives to reduce newsprint waste. Today, all newsprint consignments come in containers, which helps reduce multiple handling. The unloading is done with the help of fork lifts, reels are vertically stacked and accounted for by FIFO, and are only shaved when put on the reel stand. Also we have installed auto-pasting systems, and there’s constant training and upgrading of the skills of workmen, and of the registration systems on the presses.