Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

The ideology behind media investments

In a sense, recent investments in media start-ups go back to an earlier era when trusts were set up to run some of the great papers of the day

Swarajya, the 60-year-old liberal magazine founded (in 1956) by freedom fighter and India’s last governor-general C. Rajagopalachari and revived by Kovai Media in September 2014, is looking to raise funds. It is eyeing a January 2017 deadline for this and expects to raise 30 crore. That appears to be a significant investment for a magazine and a website barely two years old.

When it was relaunched, Swarajyamag.com began with an angel investment of about 40 lakh. In February 2015, it started the print version. In September 2015, Swarajya was valued at 20 crore, according to its editorial director Sandipan Deb, and raised funding of about 6 crore. The investors included some of the biggest names in Indian industry who, surprisingly, do not want to be identified.

But their anonymity does not take away from the fact that they were investing in Swarajya’s ideology. The magazine’s website clearly states that “Swarajya 2.0 will be an authoritative voice of reason representing the liberal centre-right point of view." It further states that “Swarajya will be a big tent for liberal right of centre discourse that reaches out, engages and caters to the new India in a manner that’s not arcane, abstruse, arrogant or self-referencing."

Its investors probably readily agreed to back Swarajya’s creed as there could not have been an immediate profit-motive or expectations from a media start-up. People who have invested are obviously those looking for a magazine which is socially, politically, economically and culturally, right of centre.

Clearly, there’s a class of investors in the media whose interests are less commercial and more altruistic, although the last may be a bit of a misnomer. Their motivations can range from promoting an ideology or cause such as the need for a platform to voice a pure market-driven, right of centre publication of the kind that Swarajya is, to a straightforward intent to ensure an institution doesn’t fold up for lack of funding.

In this sense, they go back to an earlier era when trusts were set up to run some of the great papers of the day as happened with The Guardian (run by the Scott Trust) or The Tribune that was launched in Lahore. This form of ideology-based investment is in fact an old trend. Authors Matthew Gentzkow, Jesse M. Shapiro and Michael Sinkinson, in a July 2012 paper titled Competition and Ideological Diversity: Historical Evidence from US Newspapers, wrote that early 20th century American households preferred reading political content in newspapers that “reflected their own ideological viewpoints". As a reaction to that, newspapers of the day tweaked their content to those political preferences.

To be sure, Swarajya may now be eyeing similar investments from ideologues who believe in its philosophy. It is expecting a sizeable valuation of 80 crore when it goes for its next round of funding. The website’s numbers are encouraging: Swarajyamag.com has 320,000 Facebook followers and one million unique visitors a month.

Besides, the magazine has more than 9,000 subscribers. The numbers may be small but the magazine subscription is not discounted and costs 1,200 a year. Advertising has also started to flow, although most long-term deals have been signed with public sector companies. Deb claims the magazine represents a liberal world view. “But yes, we celebrate the Indic civilization, and we are proud to be Indian," he says.

So are all recent investments in media start-ups driven by ideology? C.V. Madhukar, an investment partner who leads governance and citizen engagement investments at Omidyar Network, an early-stage investment firm, does not agree. In India, Omidyar has invested in Scroll.in and Newslaundry.com. Madhukar admits that he’s often asked why Omidyar invested in a left-of-centre media product, Scroll.in. “When we invested in Scroll, it was just an idea. All we were promised was a compelling editorial product. We have also invested in Newslaundry and don’t know where to place it really. The genesis of our investment is agnostic of ideology," he says.

Rohini Nilekani, chairperson of Arghyam, a funding organization which manages groundwater and sanitation projects, who invested in Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) some years ago, echoes the sentiment. She claims she invested in the journal because it plays a significant role in propagating certain kinds of ideas and evidence, including subaltern voices, which need expression in a country like India. The investment was made five-six years ago when the magazine needed help financially, to modernize and to go digital.

It is a highly respected academic journal, and researchers and academics vie to get their byline in it—one of the few such journals in India, she says. EPW is run by a public charitable trust and currently has a corpus of 12 crore.

Was hers an ideological investment then? “In my case, my ideology, if I must confess to one, is that of the preservation of diversity. As a funder, I am willing to support individuals and institutions that are demonstrably committed to the largest public interest, that demonstrate high integrity and clarity of thought…," Nilekani says, adding that they need not necessarily believe or express everything she believes in. “I am quite okay with differing points of view. That’s why I can comfortably fund a somewhat ‘right-wing’ think tank, even as I fund something ‘left-wing’ like EPW. This is important to explain, because, in my understanding, I am true to a higher ideology, which is freedom of expression, freedom of the press."

Nilekani is also one of the co-founders (along with Wipro’s Azim Premji) of IPSMF (Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation). She says it was co-founded “to preserve the role of the press in our democracy, in a small way". The foundation has a corpus of 150 crore that it will split among 10-15 media companies over five years.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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