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‘The Hindu’ proposes a break in tradition

‘The Hindu’ proposes a break in tradition

New Delhi: The 132-year-old Hindu newspaper may be about to make a break with tradition with the proposed appointment of a professional journalist as editor, thus far the preserve of members of the founding family. This could also involve the stepping down of family members from editorial positions, according to N. Ram, editor-in-chief of The Hindu.

“Separation of ownership and management is a principle many successful organizations maintain, and when it comes to newspaper organizations, eight of the top 10 English newspapers in the country have a non-family professional as editor," Ram said in a release late on Thursday. “Siddharth Varadarajan would be The Hindu’s editor responsible for selection of news under the The Press and Registration of Books (PRB) Act when N. Ram steps down as editor-in-chief of The Hindu and N. Ravi steps down as editor of The Hindu."

This follows decisions arrived at by the board on succession on 18 April, as part of which it adopted a code of editorial values. The resolutions that were adopted will go to the shareholders of Kasturi and Sons Ltd, the company that owns The Hindu and its sister publications, next month for approval, Ram said.

“The other directors working on the editorial side would also step down from their current editorial designations in such time as the board may decide and become part of a committee of the board of directors known as the editorial board," Ram said. “The editorial board would be available for advising the editor responsible for selection of news under the PRB Act, but would not have any role in the day-to-day editorial functioning of the newspaper."

The board decisions initially came to light when Ravi, the youngest brother of Ram, sent an email to the company’s 870 journalists on 20 April seeking their support and “understanding". He said he was opposing the move to appoint Varadarajan, currently national bureau chief at The Hindu, as editor. Ravi said the 12-member board had proposed the removal?of himself and other family members, including Nirmala Lakshman and Malini Parthasarathy, joint editor and executive editor, respectively.

Of the 12 members, seven voted in favour of Varadarajan as editor, he added. Even K. Venugopal, joint editor of The Hindu Business Line, also volunteered to retire at the meeting, he said. In response to Ravi’s email, Ram sent a note to employees explaining the move.

“The board decided to adopt the principle of separating ownership and management not only on the editorial side, but also on the business side, where the appropriate changes are expected to be made in the next few months," he said.

The discussions were “not only in pursuance of the directions given by the Company Law Board, which declined to intervene in the matter of editorial succession, but asked the directors and the shareholders of the company to ‘consider’ the issue ‘without much delay’", he noted.

The publishing house made news last year when N. Murali, managing director of the firm and Ram’s second brother, was replaced by K. Balaji, another board member. The matter had reached the Company Law Board, Chennai, which ruled in Murali’s favour, reinstating him.

While Ravi termed the current move as an “unfair, wholesale removal tactic", some see the change as inevitable.

“Though print media is largely controlled by families even today, the overall landscape for the medium has changed," said Jehil Thakkar, executive director (media and entertainment) at audit and consulting firm KPMG India Pvt. Ltd.

Apart from being a necessary qualification for overseas investment, non-family leadership is also needed to widen the footprint.

No media firm can afford to be a “territorial leader", he said. “To be a national leader, one needs professional management and best practices to evolve."

It is not clear if Ram’s move is aimed at attracting investors, considering its earlier attempt to rope in Australian media firm Fairfax Media Ltd did not materialize. When asked about foreign investment, Ram said the matter could be discussed in the future. “There is nothing concrete on the matter at the moment," he said.

Indian rules allow up to 26% overseas investment in “Indian entities publishing newspapers and periodicals dealing in news and current affairs, with suitable safeguards such as verification of antecedents of foreign investor, keeping editorial and management control in the hands of resident Indians, and ensuring against dispersal of Indian equity".

Asked if Varadarajan can be made editor since he is a US citizen, Ram said: “I don’t think there is any bar."

Ravi said an extraordinary general meeting has been called on 20 May where the 50 shareholders will decide on the next course of action. The meeting will also discuss the need for a corporate governance policy.

“What our company desperately needs is a succession plan. We need corporate governance with the changing times," Murali said. He said the issue first cropped up when the company was in talks with Fairfax in 2007-08. “That’s when both Ravi and I started mulling a retirement age for the board of directors, the need to have an orderly succession plan."

In fact, Ram had agreed to retire at 65, a commitment he did not keep, Murali said.

According to Ravi what is happening now is not succession planning, but “dictatorship".

The Hindu has been facing competition in its backyard of Chennai lately from The Times of India, published by Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd. Readers in Chennai fell from 1.28 million in third quarter of 2010 to 1.22 million in the fourth quarter, the Indian Readership Survey said.


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