Home / Opinion / Troubled Mahavishnu

The Hindu board meets every month. Last month, it postponed a decision on the editorial leadership when editor-in-chief N. Ravi steps down this month at the age of 66. Last week, it took that decision, making the current editor Malini Parthasarathy the sole editor of The Hindu. With this, the paper reverts to what used to be the norm before the advent of N. Ram as editor-in-chief in 2003—a single editor. From its inception.

The apparent camaraderie at the end of the day-long board meeting when all family members on the board endorsed the decision on Parthasarathy, could be shortlived. Stability at this media company—run by a fractious family of four branches—always threatens to be tenuous. Privately, its members must be telling each other, “Wait till the next coup". These have now taken place in 2003, 2012 and 2013. The two strong personalities in this low-key South Indian family are Ram and Parthasarathy. Each previous boardroom upset has tilted the fortunes of one or the other.

Right now, Kasturi and Sons Ltd is beset by larger problems, which affect the company and the newspaper it publishes. It is difficult to tell whether the Mahavishnu of Mount Road (as it is nicknamed) is more afflicted by its financial uncertainties or its editorial ones.

In the year ended 31 March 2014, the company posted losses for the first time. It put the figure at 65 crore in an office announcement and attributed the loss to having to pay the wage board mandated salaries for the staff. (People familiar with the matter say the current financial year may see similar losses as well.) The announcement was made to explain why it was not paying bonuses.

And after Parthasarathy and Ravi took over the editorial reins from Siddharth Varadarajan and Ram in October 2013, the paper has lost both big names like P. Sainath, and Praveen Swami as well as some good reporters. Given the allegedly whimsical nature of editorial decision-making over the past year, and the temperamental handling of staff, will editorial talent worth hiring stay away?

Among the big family-owned newspapers in India, The Hindu has always been in a class of its own. It was paternalistic, it looked after its employees, paid mandated salaries, met healthcare costs and even the less competent were not sacked or moved around. In return, non-family employees were expected to know their place in a set-up where the owners also worked in the publications. All of that was easier when it was king of its market with no competition to worry about.

The entry of competition into its territory changed that. First the Deccan Chronicle came, then The Times of India. The latter now offers its product at 1 to The Hindu’s 4, takes away advertising and has affected circulation. TOI puts employees on contract whereas The Hindu has unions, which still exercise considerable influence over some members of the proprietor family.

While the wage bill has ballooned after a Supreme Court order making wage board scales mandatory for non-contractual employees, the company’s bottom line has also taken a hit because of starting a Tamil paper in 2013, also called The Hindu. Board members feel it needs to be marketed better to make the investment worthwhile.

A Business Line edition begun in Mumbai 10 years ago is not doing well either. The Hindu’s own circulation figures, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, dropped by some 77,000 copies between July-December 2013 and January-June 2014. It has picked up circulation again thereafter, overall, but insiders say that is a gain from the school edition in Tamil Nadu, which brings little advertising.

The most visible action at the paper these days is cost cutting, across the board. Smaller offices may be closed. Employees got no bonus last year, no annual increments, no saris and dhotis at Pongal. The 2 thali at the Chennai office canteen is now 20. Incentives are being offered to staff to shift to a contract system of compensation, something other newspapers, not just The Times of India, did much earlier.

Less visible is the strategizing that goes on as the management attempts to fight back. One CEO was hired in 2011-12 and then fired, before that the management used to be run by family members. Last June, another CEO took over, who is also on the company board. Around the same time, two independent directors, Vinita Bali, formerly of Britannia, and S. Mahalingam, formerly of Tata Consultancy Services, joined the board. They attend board meetings every month to advise on market strategies and management systems.

As the culture of a feudal family set-up yields to better management practices, a remuneration committee has been set up, which will determine pay scales for new family members coming into the company to work there. Two members of the fifth generation currently work in the paper.

But some practices remain problematic. The Hindu is today a 1,000 crore company with a growing family eyeing opportunities within it. Its shareholders have expanded from the two sons of the founder to their 40 descendants and spouses. There are 11 whole-time family members on the board, drawing salaries.

Exactly two out of those 11 (including Parthasarathy) will have an assigned role. Yet in the statement of profit and loss for 2013-14, all 11 were shown being eligible for a total compensation package each of 49 lakh a year. Whether these salary and perk packages will survive the overall cost cutting remain to be seen.

Sadly, the paper’s cost cutting is affecting readers. Those in Delhi now get a thinner paper with less pages, at twice the cover price of the edition sold in Chennai where the pages are more in number. Supplements like the Sunday magazine, Literary Review and Metro Plus are down to four pages, and on thinner newsprint than before. Good stories are fewer, given the editorial departures, the travel budget cuts, and the constant shuffling of beats under the current editor. A reader who picks up The Hindu today may find herself spending less time on it than she did before.

As she assumes sole charge, Parthasarathy’s challenge will be to ensure that a paper whose voice has always counted matters as much as before.

In a statement issued on 29 January, the Hindu said, “Sevanti Ninan’s OpEd piece titled “Troubled Mahavishnu" that The Mint carried on January 28th 2015 is riddled with factual inaccuracies, presents inferences as facts and is tendentious, drawing unwarranted conclusions based on a lot of what is pure fiction—for instance, the jibe “wait till the next coup". There are egregious errors such as stating that the Board meets every month and that the decision on editorial succession was postponed. We are disappointed that a reputed newspaper like The Mint has allowed such unverified, sweeping commentary that doesn’t deserve to be taken as serious or responsible journalism, which is supposed to be first and foremost a discipline of verification. For the benefit of the readers of The Mint, we would like to place on record our outrage at this piece of journalism."

Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.

This column has been updated to incorporate a rejoinder by The Hindu.​

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