Shekhar Gupta | No question ever of any company owning even a single share in IE

Shekhar Gupta | No question ever of any company owning even a single share in IE

New Delhi: Shekhar Gupta, group editor-in-chief of The Indian Express Ltd, which publishes The Indian Express(IE), The Financial Express(FE) and Marathi newspaper Loksatta, recently announced a tie-up with the Financial Times(FT), Pearson Plc’s UK-based paper.

Last week, the company also filed a case against The New Indian Express for using “Express News Service" with bylines in its new weekly paper The Sunday Standard, which has been launched in New Delhi. Such usage violates the agreement signed with the promoters of The New Indian Express, said Gupta, who runs the publishing business for Viveck Goenka, the adopted son of the late newspaper baron Ramnath Goenka. He spoke in an interview about his company’s plans and its relationship with Reliance Industries Ltd. Edited excerpts:

On the arrangement between ‘The Indian Express’ and ‘The New Indian Express’

We (The Indian Express) cannot go into four states in the south and Orissa with any brand called Indian or Express. But The Financial Express is there. That is part of the settlement.

Similarly they (The New Indian Express) cannot come to the rest of India with any brand with that name. And that is the reason we went to court earlier. They were using IE on the masthead in the south. It has been withdrawn now. IE is a derivative of The Indian Express. That’s our trademark.

Another case was filed last week because The Sunday Standard in Delhi was using Express News Service, which, we believe, they are not supposed to.

On the deal with the ‘Financial Times’

It is a straight content relationship. We have rights to certain volume of content. It follows the typical syndication guidelines. It will be mainly in FE and much less in The Indian Express. In a week or 10 days we will start using FT content.

On plans for ‘The Financial Express’

Readership figures that we got for FE lately do not do justice to the paper. How can your readership be much lower than your net paid sales? We are not a rich media organization rolling in cash so we can distribute free copies.

I am also told that sometimes aberrations come when you are on the lower end of readership. We are not letting this bother us too much. FE needs more content. Financial Times is an investment—from us, not from them. It is not cheap. We pay for their content.

On whether the relationship could grow into an equity stake

The principle is quite simple—you either play each ball on its merit or bowl at one batsman at a time. There is nothing on the cards as yet.

On helping ‘FT’ regain rights to its name in India

You flatter me. But I am not so easily flattered. I know perfectly well what we are capable of… FT-Pearson are big boys. They can look after their interests.

On television and radio

We are focusing on our papers. What you will see is the enhancement of our paper in Kolkata as our new printing press becomes operational in 30 days.

On the paper’s crusading image and profitability

The question will always be there. We are in journalism because we love it. Obviously, journalism should produce profits and revenues. But we are not in the business of printing currency. We pay ourselves very well. We are never short of resources for covering a story, and all the resources are generated by us. We generated a very healthy Ebitda (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) this year and last year. You can do good journalism and yet make profits.

On the numbers

This year’s Ebitda is 39.71 crore on a revenue of 345 crore. In 2009-2010, the number was 26.64 crore on a revenue of 322 crore.

These numbers are for the publishing business. They do not include rental income. We effectively separated the fourth estate from real estate when we restructured the company three years ago.The property (Express Towers at Nariman Point in Mumbai) remained in the original company and the publishing businesses were moved to a new company—The Indian Express Ltd—in a demerger. It has a brand new balance sheet that is more or less debt-free. For real estate, we have a minority partner in ICICI Venture. It manages our building. Both have become profit-generating businesses.

On going public

We have to do the right thing at the right time.

On whether the cap on foreign direct investment in print media is likely to be raised

No. But it should. It is silly to make a distinction between 26% and 49% foreign equity. These are artificial barriers and they should go. If you are ready to expose apple growers of Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir to apples from New Zealand you can expose the Old Lady of Boribunder to Rupert Murdoch.

On whether Reliance Industries has a stake in the paper

What is there to explain? The shareholding statement is published every year in the paper. Express Holdings and Enterprises Ltd, the holding company, is 100% owned by Viveck Goenka. Then there is Viveck Goenka himself and a small bit of shareholding is with me. The shareholding of every company is listed by every company with the ministry of corporate affairs. I am surprised this question gets asked.

I have handled the management for this company for a long time. This company has gone through due diligence by the finest team of experts in the business. There is no question ever, ever of any corporate whether its name begins with R or T or B or XYZ owning a single share.

Funding cannot happen under the table. The issue is that the fight between Reliance and Express was so vicious that films are being made on it now.

What is our challenge as editors? We cover Reliance as any other corporate. Sometimes difficult calls have been taken because Express has a campaigning mindset. The solution is to do straightforward classical journalism.

We are instruments for nobody.

On whether he likes TV or print

I love print. I love the buzz of a newsroom. I have only one television show. TV forces me to go out and meet somebody. About my other TV appearances, Indians are genetically trained to give gyaan.

In India, print and TV complement each other. TV arouses people’s curiosity, print answers their questions. The news channel economics in India is twisted while print has a more robust business model.

On media executives and editors joining politics

Certainly nobody should become a party member. If somebody becomes a member for a party, it has problems. But it is also honest—you are declaring that you are member from this party so everybody knows what to expect. At the same time, I do not think any mainstream editor can be a Rajya Sabha member from a party. If the old convention had been maintained that the nominated seats are meant for people of eminence, scientists, film-makers, lawyers, journalists, who otherwise will not be able to come into public life…then there would have been no problem.

Over the past few decades this has been completely compromised.

Nobody has approached me yet (to nominate me) so I can’t say I was asked and I refused. It is a decision each individual will make.

It is very possible you take this and still maintain sanity…

Your own proprietor (the chairperson of Mint’s publisher HT Media Ltd, Shobhana Bhartia, is a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha) has done it gloriously well. I read your paper. Her being a Rajya Sabha member has not influenced anything.