By Manjeet Kripalani
Tarun Tejpal isn't much of a businessman, and he's proud of it. All the editor-in-chief of the tiny Indian e-zine Tehelka.com cares about is journalism, and it shows. In March, Tehelka.com nearly brought down the Indian government with a videotaped exposé published online and broadcast on television and radio of middlemen, politicians, and military officials accepting bribes in defense deals. It caused a sensation in India, which is just what Tejpal intended to do: After all, tehelka means sensation in Hindi.
The defense scandal wasn't the first time the year-old Internet startup caused a stir. Last May, it exposed match-fixing in professional cricket, leading to players and game officials being fired or quitting the sport.
Not a bad start for a journal that has raised only about $1 million. When most other dot-com sites were dead or dying last year, Tejpal got some banker buddies in Bombay to invest in his dream of bringing investigative journalism to the Web. Now, with the defense exposé, ordinary Indians feel they finally have a champion.
Not all Indians know what a dot-com is, though. Unlike TV and radio, Internet penetration in India is limited. The day Tehelka released the detailed script of the defense investigation online, TV and radio stations and even the print media carried the story to the rest of the nation. In the hinterland, villagers who found out about the scandal courtesy of radio or TV think Tehelka is a large machine capable of rooting out corruption throughout Indian society.
Tejpal doesn't intend to disappoint them. A seasoned journalist who worked as a reporter and editor with India's best publications, including The Indian Express, India Today, and Outlook, he says he has seen India's body politic become so rotten that brazen acts of corruption and venality hardly elicit public outrage anymore. The Indian press too, he says, has become apathetic, with stories determined more by advertisers than newsworthiness. It convinced Tejpal that "India needs professional dissenters."
Given that the technology allows for stories to be released via the Internet, TV, radio, and print simultaneously, as Tehelka did so effectively with its cricket and defense exposés -- dissenters like himself can become pretty powerful.
The bearded, relaxed, 38-year-old Tejpal hardly looks like a powerbroker. But in fact, the work done by his site has made him so potent that the Indian government thinks he needs protection. Getting to his terraced office in a shady residential area of New Delhi requires going through checkpoints of top-level armed security guards. However, Tejpal is convinced it's a way for New Delhi to keep an eye on him in case he has other governmental exposés in mind.
ON A SHOESTRING.
And he does. Aniruddha Bahal, the Tehelka journalist who penetrated India's defense establishment, says he receives seven to eight decent leads a day for investigative stories. "Good journalism empowers people," he says. "We can strike a blow on behalf of the people."
Indeed, the site's 45-strong, fiercely independent staff would love to follow all the leads, but the company is still tiny and resources are limited. Tehelka has spent just $1.2 million since it began, mostly on salaries and story costs. The defense story cost $23,000. It would have been more, but they ran out of money to pretend to bribe politicians with. "Where were going to get $30,000 for a bribe?" Tejpal says. "So we just went public with the story."
Almost instantly, page views at the site went up from 500,000 a day to 3 million, and banner ad sales are up to $8,000 a month -- from zero -- despite the fact that Tehelka.com has no marketing team. Ranking and research company Alexa puts Tehelka as one of the top five Indian Web sites, in line with that of the century-old Times of India. And while almost every other dot-com in India is languishing or dead, Tehelka is a hot property. Indian media company Zee Telefilms is eager to buy in and is performing the due diligence to acquire a 26% stake in the site. Zee says Tehelka fits in with its own need for "quality content," but the site's popularity clearly counts for a lot.
The renown from the defense scandal has its dark side. The Indian government is investigating the trading activities of the site's initial investor, Bombay banker First Global, claiming it profited from insider information the day before Tehelka's defense exposé was made public. First Global claims it's a victim of government harassment.
However, Tehelka's raison d'etre has been served: to help root out corruption in India. "We have brought the corruption issue to center stage in India again," Tejpal says. "Four or five stories like this in a year, and people in public office will be forced to clean up their act." Already the shamed Indian government has been reacting positively. A huge customs corruption racket was exposed by government investigators in April, and politicians in other states were nabbed for being bribed.
Tejpal says Tehelka stands out from other online journals because it sticks with what it knows, focusing on investigative stories instead of being a general-purpose news site. "We only know how to be good journalists," he says.
Unlike most dot-coms, which usually triple journalists' salaries when they sign on, some of Tehelka's top scribes actually took a pay cut when they joined Tejpal's team. At about $12,000 a year, they earn less than what they could command at other magazines. Still, it has managed to attract the best talent like Bahal, and columnists like author Arundhati Roy and Kushwant Singh.
They believe the payoff will come when the site becomes profitable and they get a piece of it. Says Bahal, a former Outlook staffer and now Tehelka's co-promoter and editor in charge of investigations: "If we make it, we'll make it big." Tejpal says profitability is three years away. The site is free now, and Tejpal makes most of his money by charging newspapers $1,000 a month to use his material. He's looking into the possibility of eventually charging for subscriptions.
Even fans like Ravi Trivedy, executive director of PricewaterhouseCoopers in Bombay, worry that after a fast start, Tehelka may not make it as a business. "Tehelka has done India a great service, but it needs to have a solid business model to survive as a business proposition," he says.
Still, Tejpal is optimistic and is busily making plans to turn Tehelka into a real business. "We are very badly calibrated, and our services are lousy," he admits. "Our editorial is strong, but our technical and finance side is weak." He is working on increasing news and research content, and adding audio and video. Tehelka will soon get a marketing team and a chief operating officer of its own, and Tejpal plans to branch out into book publishing, TV, and music.
As for Tehelka.com, he's looking to spin it off eventually into an independently financed and run operation. The Web site still has enough in the kitty to last the year, but Tejpal plans to travel to California this year to raise funding through expatriate Indians in Silicon Valley who understand media and technology businesses. They're a good bet, because they "don't depend on India, and India's government, to earn their money, and won't be vulnerable to pressure."
Tejpal says he loves the Internet. "It allows you to push the boundaries a little. You lose some of the rigor of print journalism, but gain in innovation." So far, Tejpal's gain has been India's gain, too.
Kripalani covers Indian business news for BusinessWeek from Bombay