A stock market whose benchmark index posted returns of more than 40% for three years in a row, and steady economic growth that is gradually but surely trickling down to smaller towns and cities, are increasing the demand for business and financial news. Media houses that subscribe to this theory are going all out to fill news-stands and airwaves with offerings in a genre that, until recently has had sparse viewership and readership.
Leading Indian publishers and broadcasters are launching new business titles and channels, forging partnerships and hiring regional language journalists to take financial news beyond the metros, while players in new media are readying offerings on the Internet and mobile phones.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
There are good reasons to do so. Of the 321 million Indians who have some kind of income, only 2.3% invest in mutual funds or equities, according to data from InvestIndia Economic Foundation, a Noida-based research organization.
The mean annual income of earning Indians between 18 and 59 years of age went up from Rs58,403 in 2004 to Rs71,850 in 2007, presumably resulting in higher disposable incomes. All of this points to a greater demand for news, information and advice on markets, savings instruments, insurance, real estate and commodities typically found in business media.
There are, however, concerns regarding seemingly hurried product roll-outs, especially for the regional markets. “What is the Hindi term for bull run, or put option?” asks Maheshwar Peri, publisher, The Outlook Group. “I’m not sure if these things have been adequately researched.”
Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd (BCCL) recently launched the Hindi version of The Economic Times, which according to the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) 2007 (Round 2), is India’s most read business daily with a readership of 19.86 lakh. Rival Business Standard Ltd has launched its flagship daily in Hindi and Gujarati. Deccan Chronicle Holdings Ltd announced an English business daily. Jagran Prakashan Ltd (JPL), the publishers of Dainik Jagran, India’s largest read daily, has joined hands with Network18 Media and Investments Ltd to publish a Hindi business daily. Amar Ujala Publications Ltd, the publisher of Hindi daily Amar Ujala, has said it also plans to launch a business paper.
All of them are betting on a spike in the readership of business and financial news. Currently, only 0.4% of the country reads any kind of business publication, according to the latest (September 2007) round of IRS, conducted by Media Readers Users Council, a non-profit entity.
This readership is served by about 10 national dailies and magazines. The new business publications will have to find converts among the 222 million Indians who read some publication. With titles embellished with words such as “profit” and “money”, they hope to convert middle-class aspirations into news-stand sales.
“(Regional) language readership (especially Hindi) is growing and with the boom in tier II towns, we believe consumption of business information is bound to increase. We commissioned some research and this confirmed that there was a market for a Hindi business paper,” says Akila Urankar, president, Business Standard.
Jagran 18 Publications Ltd, the equal stakes JV between JPL and Network18, hopes to leverage the strengths of the two groups to create successful regional language titles that have in-depth knowledge and understanding of business and financial news, says Bharat Kapadia, its CEO and managing editor.
“The economy has been growing and the middle class has been empowered with surplus money. They need to know how to invest, and put their money to good use. Only 4% of the population reads English publications, whereas Hindi is the mother tongue of about 40% of the country. We felt the market was ready, and our announcement seems to have triggered the launch of other publications,” Kapadia adds.
BCCL president Ravi Dhariwal said the firm believed in delivering content in the language that the reader understands the best. “As the economy and the business sector grows, there is, naturally, a growing appetite for news relating to these. We believe such news is best consumed in local languages. It communicates directly to people in a language they understand.”
HT Media Ltd’s Mint, which started publication in February 2007, was, in a sense, a precursor to the expansion currently being witnessed in the business news segment.
Mint publisher Rajan Bhalla says his publication succeeded in shaking up a market that witnessed little action for years. He says: “There was stagnation in the business news segment before Mint launched. No one was taking new initiatives. I believe Mint succeeded, being a differentiated offering, in shaking up the system and I’d rank it as a key reason for the current excitement in the category.” Mint, currently in four cities, plans to be in “all the important cities by the end of this year,” he adds.
Two English channels—NDTV Profit and CNBC TV18—and two Hindi channels—CNBC Aawaz and Zee Business—broadcast business news round the clock.
UTVI, a business news channel from UTV News Ltd, is set to go on air by end-March.
Times Global Broadcasting Ltd, the BCCL subsidiary that broadcasts the 24-hour news channel Times Now, is also reportedly planning to launch a business channel.
Viewership share of business news in the overall television pie has grown manifold, from 0.1% in 2004 to 0.5% in 2007. The advertising share of this genre grew from 2.6% in 2005 to 4.0% in 2007, according to data from TAM Media Research.
This share is only going to go up, according to Arun Anant, CEO, UTV News. “Currently, the appetite for business news is very high and (this is) growing. One, we are talking about an 8-9% GDP growth year-on-year, and everybody wants to participate in the growth story. Second, the definition of business news itself is broadening. Today, Bollywood is also business; so is cricket… There is space for many more channels here,” Anant says. UTVI will be the country’s third English business news channel.
When asked about BCCL’s plans for a business news channel, Dhariwal said: “Well, it has been in discussions for a while, and continues to be in that stage.”
HT Media’s Bhalla declined to comment when asked if Mint had plans in the broadcast space.
Business channels recently came under scrutiny after the former chairman of the market regulator, Securities and Exchange Board of India, M. Damodaran, criticized “anchor-investors” and slack adherence to disclosure norms by market experts offering advice on TV.
Indian business channels are also inducing investors to become traders, says Amitabh Chakraborty, president, equities, Religare Securities Ltd, a Mumbai-based brokerage. “The electronic media has a big bearing on retail investors coming to the market. They are inducing investors to become traders, especially in a bull market.”
While there is no independent data available for the readership enjoyed by websites offering business and financial information, anecdotally, these sites are extremely popular with the trading community as well as retail investors.
“Our business and financial websites have enjoyed a 100% growth in the number of hits they receive during the past year,” says Surya Mantha, CEO, Web18 Software Solutions Ltd, the Internet arm of Network18.
Web18 operates sites such as Moneycontrol.com, Indiaearnings.com, Poweryourtrade.com and Commoditiescontrol.com.
Reuters India Pvt. Ltd, the Indian unit of the global news agency, will add a trading channel to its website, in.reuters.com, in a couple of months, says Sameer Shah, senior company officer, Reuters India.
“Unlike websites of brokerages, there is no conflict of interest here, as the trading transaction on our site will be enabled by a third party. The information and advice on our site will be absolutely independent,” Shah adds.
The firm also has a product targeted at farmers, called Reuters Market Light, which offers information on crop prices, commodities, weather, etc. on the mobile phone.
Business Standard’s Urankar says the firm will set up online editions in Hindi and Gujarati.
Both readers and advertisers, says Urankar, are showing interest. “There’s a lot of interest not only from tier II towns, but even metros. We are confident we will be able to build up a sizeable circulation.” And the numbers will draw in advertisements. “Advertisers will see value in the large base of the mid-sized business community that we will deliver, especially the SME group,” Urankar adds.
Advertisers, too, strike a positive note. “It’s a chance worth taking,” says R. Gowthaman, managing director at communications agency MindShare South Asia, a unit of GroupM Media India Pvt. Ltd. “There is a lot of buoyancy in the market. If these products catch on, we’ll look at them more closely.” At the moment, Gowthaman’s policy is to “wait and watch”.
Going regional makes perfect business sense, according to an analyst. “Currently, the premiums commanded by English metro dailies are 9-13 times that of regional dailies. There will be a convergence in these rates as more consumption comes from non-metros, and advertisers want to reach that audience. Many businesses are also opening up in these smaller towns, and they’ll advertise, too,” says Rajesh Jain, who heads the information, entertainment and communication practice at audit and consultancy firm KPMG.
Not everyone shares this optimism. “To me, many launches seem unplanned or inadequately planned. Some are even launching with no announcement beforehand. I’m in this business, I know you can’t launch titles overnight. It doesn’t work that way,” says Outlook Group’s Peri. His own group recently launched Outlook Profit, a magazine targeted at those active in the stock markets.
BCCL’s Dhariwal said he was unsure about the space in the market. “Whether the market will be able to support so many new dailies and so many channels, only time will tell. We have our doubts, but let’s see how it plays out.”
With Indian stock markets also starting to swoon, it is unclear if investors who are fleeing the markets will find the time—and money—to buy more business dailies and magazines or watch more business channels.