New Delhi: Ravi Dhariwal, chief executive officer (publishing) of Bennett, Coleman and Company Ltd (BCCL), publishers of The Times of India and The Economic Times (ET), oversees $1.1 billion (around 6,775 crore today) print media business, which makes a profit of $300 million a year.

Retiring in March 2015, Dhariwal is keen to start his own venture, probably in media, “if a PE or an industrialist" gives him “lots of money". (PE is short for private equity). “I have one more inning left in me," says Dhariwal, who worked at Hindustan Lever Ltd and PepsiCo International for 12 years each and spent the next 13 years expanding BCCL’s newspapers. In an interview, he reflected upon his achievements and media issues. Edited excerpts:

How has your print media journey been?

Print in India is a remarkable story, especially if you contrast it with the rest of the world where it is declining. Riding on the back of higher literacy and incomes and growing urbanization, the print industry here has been remarkably resilient and innovative.

I can say that we set in place the model for affordable newspaper cover prices in India, which are a fraction of what’s available in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. We can justifiably take credit for protecting the print industry in a substantial way.

When I joined the industry 14 years ago, our turnover was probably one-fifth the current turnover, one-third the size in terms of circulation, one-thirtieth the size in profitability. Over the last nine years when I’ve been the CEO of the company, the regard for our newspaper brands has grown. We have more local editions than probably anyone else in the world. We are India’s third largest language company with dailies in Kannada, Gujarati, Marathi and Bengali. We also have the finest bunch of editors and management people.

I am very proud of what I will leave behind, which is a strong business centred in the customer. We have also taken with us the vision of the two brothers (BCCL proprietors Samir and Vineet Jain) who built the company to a great extent.

What vision did they set out for you?

Nothing was set out formally but we all knew we needed to grow the value and profitability of the company. We started the combo offer, expanded in languages and launched a new title, Mirror, all over the country. We were very dependent on two or three cities earlier. So we expanded and diversified. Earlier 100% of our business was print. Today only 70% is print. We are leaders in radio, in television news, in Out of Home business and are among the top five Internet companies in the country. Except for the brands launched in the last two years, everything is profitable.

You are criticized for lowering the newspaper cover prices and damaging the newspaper industry.

It is surprising that people think this way. Ninety percent of our revenue comes from advertising. If we grow print, we get much more money in advertising. Not just us but everyone has grown bigger in terms of profitability—Hindustan Times, Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar. Rather than accuse us of low cover price, people should give us credit for the business model we have created and others have followed.

You are also criticized for treating newspaper like a consumer product.

There is nothing derogatory about FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) products. I am glad we treat it like an FMCG product. But ours is a creative product. The rules of an FMCG product are that it should be relevant and people should love it. Unless people like the product, we are not going to sell.

But journalism cannot be a product.

A newspaper produced by journalists is a high-end product. It’s not equal to a pin or soap. It is high-end like a painting by an artist or a book by a novelist. It needs marketing, pricing and distribution. Ultimately it is a consumer product as it is consumed by a consumer.

It is believed that at Times group, marketing interferes with editorial.

There is interaction between the two but it is about understanding the readers, about research or getting involved in campaigns that we do together, whether it is Aman Ki Aasha or ‘Lead India’ or ‘Teach India’. We believe that our editors are good because they understand the consumer. They are not ivory tower editors. They work closely with marketing.

Doesn’t marketing dictate the editors?

Never. Our editors are free. We have a very interesting system. We don’t have a party line or a house line. For instance, Times of India could go hammer and tongs against some government policy and ET can totally support it. While ToI mounted this fantastic effort Aman Ki Aasha, Times NOW was hammering away at Pakistan at the same time. We do not control our editors.

Any failures that you recall?

I am sure I have my bunch of missteps. But it’s been more successes than failures. We need to further expand in languages and get into entertainment and sports television.

You failed to launch the Tamil paper which was being planned and lag in the Hindi market with Navbharat Times (NBT).

We are planning to launch a lot more language papers and it (Tamil) will happen. NBT has been launched in Lucknow. I won’t be surprised if Raj (Jain, who will be joining BCCL in December from Bharti Retail) takes over and launches NBT everywhere very quickly.

You were planning an initial public offering (IPO) six years ago. What happened?

I am glad it did not happen then as the value of the company is much more than what it was six-seven years ago. IPO is a very personal decision of the two brothers. If I were in their place I would also vacillate because we do not need the money. We are cash-rich. So the IPO will always be for a totally different reason.

What reason?

It could be a major acquisition or it could be to make the company a little more public so that it puts the right amount of pressure on the management.

You have been squatting on the Financial Times title for two decades.

Why doesn’t (The) Telegraph leave the title? Telegraph is also an international brand name. It is a matter of principle. The matter is in the Supreme Court. We have won all other cases. Financial Times belongs to us. We registered it in the PRB (Press and Registration of Books Act) long ago. We have a publication under the title which makes us a little money. If they want it, they should come and have a settlement discussion with us.

Is The Economic Times being rebranded as ET?

We keep having these debates and discussions. Economic Times is Economic Times right now.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has proposed restrictions on cross-media ownership. Do you agree with its proposals?

Trai set up cross-media ownership restrictions for the sake of plurality. India has 94,000 registered print titles and over 400 news channels in 20 different languages. It is one of the most plural mediascapes any where in the world. Therefore no one person can dominate. ToI (Times of India) is the largest selling English newspaper in the world but it is read by just 2% of Indians.

Secondly, Trai thinks Internet is not important. In five years, Internet penetration will be higher than print penetration. Internet does not differentiate between print, television, video and radio. It is a converged medium. People will be accessing Net on their phone all the time. So what cross-media are they talking about?

The third thing that Trai has steered into an area it does not understand: private treaties or Brand Capital as it is called in Times. (Trai recommended a ban on private treaties.) I think it has read one article on editorial influence and private treaties. I challenge anybody to show me one report in ToI or ET which is favourable to our private treaties clients.

When we do not give any editorial preference or leeway to our cash advertisers who are much, much bigger, why would we give it to people who will pay us after five years? The blame is totally misplaced.

How large is your private treaties business?

It is large and fabulous. We have 600 companies in Brand Capital. Our investments are upwards of $1 billion and we’re happy with the returns.

The new Indian Readership Survey (IRS) is another bone of contention for you.

We believe the new IRS is totally flawed. While the design is fine, the actual fieldwork is flawed and so the results are flawed. If our circulation is higher than our rival’s, how can their readership be more? How can their per copy readership be three times more than ours? It defies logic.

It is a sample survey and it has to be accurate. For example if you go to a household and the person says ToI and HT (Hindustan Times) is recorded instead, a readership of 20,000 goes haywire.

But now the findings have been audited by an external agency.

We want MRUC (Media Research Users Council) to share the audit report with us. They want us to sign a non-disclosure agreement, that is, we can see the report but we cannot talk about it. But why shouldn’t we talk about it if the audit says the survey is flawed? They cannot tie us down like this.

What are the major pressure points in the media business, going forward?

One big issue is that large corporates and governments withdraw advertising at will. Today at least four state governments do not advertise with Times of India. They say our coverage is against them.

The information and broadcasting ministry should form policies that government or quasi-government bodies and even corporates do not influence our editorial by withdrawing advertising. Tata did not advertise with us for five years. The Ambanis banned us for five months.

Today there are at least 12 advertisers who have banned us. They believe that our editorial is negative. This is against freedom of press.