Read All About It! India's Newspapers Go For A Face Lift!

Seeing a threat from TV, India's papers get lively-and glitzy

The interior of Bombay's Times of India, the flagship publication of the country's most powerful newspaper group, defies all stereotypes of what a newsroom should look like. Once a grubby space smelling of smoke and take-away curry, the renovated sections of the company's 19th century neo-Gothic headquarters are sleek and air-conditioned. With shining granite floors and ornate marble doorways, the place feels more like the lobby of a grand hotel than a workaday Indian paper in Bombay's historic Fort district.

The Times's face-lift is just one facet of the enormous changes now sweeping through India's newspaper industry. With television mounting a major threat, the country's newspaper publishers are cutting back on their stolid political coverage, introducing readable new features on lifestyle and business, and zipping up the graphics of their broadsheets. The venerable Times of India, New Delhi's Hindustan Times, Bangalore's Deccan Herald, and Madras' The Hindu are all upgrading their printing technology and grabbing circulation from weaker competitors.

HIGH-MINDED. The man who started the race to modernize is Samir Jain, owner and publisher of the Times. An eccentric recluse, the 43-year-old Jain is also obsessed by American management style. He abandoned the Indian tradition of running newspapers as low-profit, high-minded guardians of society and started to market the Times aggressively, cutting the cover price, raising ad rates, and pushing new, glitzy color supplements on such topics as celebrity gossip.

Critics say Jain caters to the lowest common denominator. But Bombay's readers, especially members of the new middle class, love the makeover and have pushed the Times's circulation to 1 million, up from 600,000 in 1991. Now, Jain's holding company, Bennett Coleman & Co., is India's most profitable newspaper chain: Net income grew from $3.8 million in 1989 to $50 million on revenues of $230 million last year.

Jain's results woke up India's 5,000-odd newspapers, which serve 100 million readers in 14 languages. In 1994, a sharp new entrant--The Asian Age--introduced separate sections for national, local, and business news. Now, nearly all of India's major papers use sections and supplements. Close competitors of the Times group's papers, such as Bangalore's market-leading Deccan Herald, have added color, too. And when the Times's Bangalore edition cut its cover price from 6 cents to 4 cents, the Deccan Herald had to drop its price the next day.

The competition is so intense that for the first time, India's papers are advertising to gain circulation. "In this environment, the No.1 paper makes the profits," says T.N. Ninan, editor of New Delhi-based Business Standard, which, though more respected, is a distant second to Jain's money-spinner, The Economic Times. The Deccan Herald even takes out ads in the Times's Bombay edition, targeting the yuppie audience. In New Delhi, the Times has taken on market leader The Hindustan Times with discounting and an advertising blitz. The Times's Delhi edition is now only 70,000 copies behind its rival. Meanwhile, weaker properties like The Indian Post have gone under.

ATTRACTING NOTICE. India's publishers also face the encroaching grasp of television. Even though the print media command 60% of India's estimated $1.7 billion in advertising revenue, television has already cornered 25%, up from about 15% three years ago. In a country that is 48% illiterate, television and radio have a tremendous appeal. "I worry about [Rupert] Murdoch," says Tariq Ansari, publisher of the Bombay tabloid Mid-Day. Murdoch owns 50% of Zee TV, India's most popular channel. In response to the threat, Indian publications are acquiring their own channels and radio shows.

The newfound vigor of India's best publishers has attracted the notice of foreign companies, even though foreign investment in Indian papers remains prohibited while investment in television is permitted. Undaunted, London's Financial Times is seeking an equity position in the Business Standard, a paper with which it has an editorial tie-up. And Dow Jones & Co. of the U.S. reprints a page of The Wall Street Journal in the Indian Express daily. Yet with or without investors from abroad, India's newspaper publishers are well on their way to reinventing their industry.

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