New Delhi: Anant Goenka , 27, son of Viveck Goenka, chairman and managing director of Indian Express Ltd, is getting ready to relaunch the group’s websites in September. He took over as director and head of new media at the Express group last year and has since visited 13 global newsrooms to understand the digital business.
He shares Express founder Ramnath Goenka’s passion for news and holds a master’s degree in print journalism from Annenberg School for Communications, University of Southern California. Anant Goenka spoke in an interview about the digital challenge and his attachment to the newspaper. Edited excerpts:
When did you take over the new media business and is that your only responsibility?
My KRA (key result area), so to speak, is really digital. I formally joined on 16 January 2012. My dad believes in vaastu and according to the Tamil calendar you don’t really do anything (auspicious) between 15 December and 15 January.
How have the last one-and-a-half years been for digital?
In India, there is a large element of adapting in digital right now... like journalists producing for print and online. One thing that is missing is something dedicated to just digital. When you look around, the finest news sites or finest web plays are pure-play digital operations. Huffington Post and BuzzFeed are pure-play digital news sites. Huff Post was the largest news site in the world. It had nothing to weigh it down in terms of legacy media.
The largest news site today is Daily Mail’s mailonline.co.uk. It has an independent editorial and branding philosophy. There is a wall between the newspaper and digital. The really successful people have been those who haven’t had to adapt but who have been able to completely break away and think pure-play digital.
You mentioned visiting newsrooms around the world. What was the purpose?
It was to see what they are doing. It was very educative. Today The Washington Post, The New York Times—the kind of setup they have for their video operation, (it) can match any business news channel in India. They have got that kind of production sense as part of their digital operations.
I got to sit in on the LA Times morning edit meeting that starts at 10.30… the amount of time they dedicate to digital… Their professionalism is something we have to learn from, it’s incredible. So everybody (features, city, metro, sports editor, among others) comes and says ‘this is the value-add for web. By 2pm we’ll file this, by 4pm we’ll file this.’ It is perfectly time-bound. The digital managing editor is there talking about what angle would work best.
How much are you investing in new media?
I am not sure I can give you the numbers. There has been significant investment. We are not taking any money home, what we earn we invest back. Express was the first news site in India. So it has always been profitable. We have had a margin but only up to a certain level. We have not taken the next leap. The reason for getting me on board was to take it to the next level. I have already done one facelift.
By the end of September, we are hoping for a mammoth new launch. We are doing it all in-house. In an environment where news is getting commoditized, you need to have differentiated news, which we are working on. Delivery, design and packaging of news is very important. We have hired a team of young people, 60 of them in Delhi and Mumbai, including consultants, designers, tech and content people dedicated to digital.
In January 2012, we were doing 20 million page views. We closed June 2013 at 60 million. That’s 3x growth in traffic. In November 2012, we were awarded gold for social media in Asia at the Wan-Ifra digital media Asia awards. This was for our unconventional approach to Facebook, focusing on content beyond regular news and on engagement (talking about us) instead of building a base of likes. Our Marathi paper Loksatta’s Android app was downloaded 10,000 times in the first week of its launch.
Do you monetize your mobile apps?
We could do much better. We are giving it too cheap. We have to charge more for mobile and digital inventory. I think the stupidest thing in the whole industry is that people go around with their print sales team and sell value-adds for too cheap. That we have completely stopped. Our growth has been incredible—40% in a year.
When did you realize you were interested in the newspaper business?
I always loved it. There are photographs of Ramnath-ji taking me to the press at a very young age. The press was in my house, it was in the basement of the Express Towers (in Mumbai), so every night I would always take a walk down with dad or mom. I’ve always had a lot of love, passion and affection for Express because of the kind of stories that you hear about it, kind of change it’s made with the Emergency stories. It’s too inspiring to be able to walk away from. It’s always been something that I wanted to do.
So how about taking on a bigger role?
It’s been my passion all my life so I’m always hoping for it but that’s a question for my dad. Tell me what he says when you ask him.
There is talk of the foreign direct investment (FDI) cap in media being further liberalized. In case that happens, would the group be interested in bringing in a strategic partner?
We need more money in India. The Indian economy needs it, but whether Express is pro-FDI or not, I’m going to say what everyone says—no comments.
Is there an interest in television or radio?
This is not necessarily dad’s or current management’s view but I strongly believe if we entered television when everyone was getting a news channel, we would have been in some pretty deep trouble. TV channels have lost a lot of value over the past five years. I think there’s still some scope for consolidation before news on TV starts making more business sense. Whether this will happen before digital and conventional TV converge is anyone’s guess and I suspect the success of 4G rollout in India will be the principal factor.
In reference to radio, our core competence is news. Government must come clear on its stand on news on radio first. Today, we often hear radio jockeys with a big following going beyond the stocks, match report and gossip and doing some pretty irresponsible news-based opinion pieces. So far the authorities are ignoring this but I think it’s about time they clarify their stand.
There is always this mystery around The Indian Express business model. Does the paper survive on rental income, since its circulation and advertising seem limited?
You’ll be very surprised. We survive on just the media business. Express Towers, which is our largest property, is a subsidiary company where ICICI Ventures has taken a big stake. There is a certain revenue that comes from that. But that money goes away. The Indian Express runs purely on digital revenue, however small, advertising and circulation revenue and a little bit from the printing jobworks we get. From a pure P&L (profit and loss) perspective, without rentals, we have been profitable for several years now.
I think the Express model is something that nobody seems to understand or get because it defies logic in terms of conventional wisdom which is to print several lakh copies, lose Rs.4 per copy and dump it all over India. We have a small circulation, we go to people that matter.
But you mostly get government advertising.
I don’t know why that notion is there. For us, DAVP (Directorate of Advertising & Visual Publicity) would contribute less than 20% of the total ad revenue. We have a certain kind of readership and I think we get enough advertising. Sure we could get much more and I always think we need to be a little more aggressive in terms of our business. But advertisers who have worked with us recently to reach our loyal, unduplicated, high-profile audience both in print, digital and other activities include Tissot, Schneider, United Technologies, Mercedes, Gulfstream, Ford, Tata Motors, Dell, Acer, General Motors, IBM, DLF, Raheja Developers, Kellogg’s and Unilever, among others.
What kind of relationship do you share with the editor?
I think Shekhar (Gupta) has done a fantastic job with Express. If you look at the last 13 years, we have had some really rough patches. I think ever since the family fight, and ever since Express was split three ways, it really cost the group. Real estate, what is worth about a billion dollars now, went to Ramnathj-ji’s daughter-in-law, Saroj Goenka. Manoj Sonthalia, my uncle, got The Indian Express in the south.
We had to let go of Express Towers in Noida. In Delhi, we have been very unlucky. We pay market rent on this building (Express Building on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg) to Saroj Goenka, dadiji as I call her. The position that we have today is something that has worked but it also worked because of Shekhar’s complete editorial independence. And he has ruthlessly cut costs. We have come down from 4,000 to 2,400 people.
HT Media Ltd, publisher of Mint and Hindustan Times, competes with The Indian Express in some markets.