The Hoot invited Bharat Bhushan to write a media business piece on creating a market for a tabloid in India.
In early 2006, the India Today Group and Associated Newspapers of UK, the publishers of Daily Mail, decided to enter the daily newspaper market in India with a tabloid. Most people thought that the joint-venture would fail. There were already seven English language broadsheets being published from Delhi, in addition to two tabloids, five economic dailies, nearly a dozen newspapers in Hindi, and then there were scores of 24X7 TV news channels to choose from.
The market was dominated by players who had been in the business for decades, one of them for over a century. They dished out settled fare, and the average reader was accustomed to it. Newspaper loyalties, conventional marketing wisdom said, tended to be stronger than those of married couples – readers might stray here and there briefly but they always returned to the security of what they were used to. Under these circumstances, it was a bold decision to enter the market and try out some radically new ideas that would set the new product apart from existing broadsheets. Not only did Mail Today make a splash in the market, it swam against the current, and continues to survive.
Mail Today was essentially based on the Daily Mail and its success as the newspaper of “Middle England”. The idea was to import its format and adapt it to Indian conditions with the expanding Indian middle class as its target readership. The estimates of the size of the Indian middle class range from 50 million to 300 million and it is expected to grow tenfold by 2025. Most of it is concentrated in metropolitan cities, is educated, professional, and upwardly mobile with a considerable number of working women in its ranks. Everybody speaks to them – from politicians to advertisers. But nobody speaks for them. A paper on the lines of Daily Mail could fill that gap.
However, there were crucial differences as well as similarities between “Middle India” and “Middle England”. The readership for a newspaper similar to the Daily Mail would, therefore, be different in India.
The Daily Mail’s politics was right of centre, more oriented towards the Conservative party; against Britain joining the European Union; inward looking and parochial in terms of protecting essential “British values”; against immigrants and liberal immigration laws; there were far too many celebrities to write about; and because of the liberal society it was published in, the paper could push the boundaries while publishing bikini-clad or semi-clad women – although it must be said that the Daily Mail, unlike the Sun, never published pictures for pure titillation. It was a newspaper designed with women readers in mind and would never do anything that would upset the primary reader and decision-maker – the lady of the house.
The Indian middle-class was relatively less inward looking; welcoming of liberal western values; supportive of multiculturalism; was pro-globalisation, and was for India joining regional market structures. There were not too many celebrities to write about in India – except Bollywood and sports stars – and all of them had pretty thin skin.
As far as glamour went, one could not push the boundaries too much in terms of using pictures that could border on the obscene or which the women readers, which Mail Today also targeted, would find offensive. What could be construed as obscene was clearly a cultural construct and, therefore, the public exposure of the human body -- male or female -- was bound to be viewed differently in India both by the readers as well as the law of the land.
In terms of similarities, the Indian middle-class was as concerned as its British counterpart about an insensitive and interfering government and pompous, corrupt, and criminal politicians. It was passionate about protecting its hard-earned income, nurturing the family and its values, demanding better healthcare, and concerned about changing weather patterns and global warming.
Mail Today was targeted at these middle-class readers who wanted crime and criminals to be punished, justice to be a matter of right, political leaders to aspire to greatness and not to the least common denominator of baseness. They wanted to be well armed with knowledge to take on the world while also wondering whether chocolate was good for their love life. These were the concerns of an intelligent and educated middle class who aspired to improve their lot.
Their concerns were not local or regional and not dependent on whether they lived in Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore. They were pan-Indian or at least pan-Metro Indian. A newspaper on the lines of the Daily Mail could cater to their needs by making news and creating campaigns which reflected their concerns. It could eventually also be a multi-edition newspaper published from several metros simultaneously.
At Mail Today we were convinced that India was ready for a general interest, national, mid-market tabloid whose core readership was young professionals, middle-class families, and young women. We specially wanted to target the women readers but without making it a newspaper only for women.
The attempt was not only to rethink the newspaper market but to rethink what a newspaper should be, how often could the readers be persuaded to pick it up – only once in the morning or several times during the day -- and how to create a newspaper which would have something for everyone in the family.
We thought that such a newspaper would have to be ahead of the curve in terms of its design. While newspaper readers in India were used to thinking of serious, authoritative newspapers only as broadsheets, there was a clutter associated with the format. Broadsheets come folded in several sections and with unwanted inserts which fall all over the place even if the paper is handled carefully. Elsewhere in the world, research had found that younger readers -- especially women – preferred a quick and manageable read. We assumed that professionals in India were equally time-starved as in the West. They did not have the patience to handle messy newspapers and they might appreciate a newspaper of a size that was easy to handle. The choice was made to have a newspaper of almost the same size as the Daily Mail. Since the term “tabloid” was associated with scandal sheets and sleaziness, the term was substituted with “compact”.
Mail Today emerged finally as a fairly reader-friendly newspaper with a clean, simple and easy-to-navigate design. It was different from broadsheets not only in size but also in its layout. Its selection of news and its display were different from those of the broadsheets. The single-story front page gave an immediate focus to the day’s developments. We tried to make its headlines convey strong opinions rather than be neutral and “objective”. We put faces to stories and tried to choose heroes and villains. And we gave readers both serious and light stories side by side.
Like the Daily Mail, we also decided not to structure the newspaper around narrow news categories such “City”, “NCR”, “Region” or “States”, “Nation”, and “International”. The best stories were featured in the most prominent places – as the Splash or the single front-page story, as pushes on the front page which invited the reader to go to these stories directly, or as special display stories inside. A local, foreign, or regional report could surface anywhere in the newspaper depending on its importance or the flow of the newspaper in terms of balancing serious stories with light, unusual, and often whacky ones. Only the business and sports stories had designated slots in the paper.
We decided that we would not be a newspaper of record and therefore, did not have to report details and facts whose public significance was limited and irrelevant to most readers. The readers were a ghostly presence in Mail Today’s newsroom decisions – we wanted to surprise them every morning, shock them sometimes, laugh along with them, and feel indignant along with them about what was going on in our society.
The prevailing journalistic wisdom was not to take on the high and mighty, and especially never to poke fun at their pretensions. Vast amounts of what they did everyday was not written about because it was said to be “personal”.
But it was clear to us that our reporters and the newspaper would have to cross a certain line to report on the personal lives of politicians and celebrities – and write about things they did not want to bring into the public sphere. Our reporters would have to go into the border area of the personal and the public if it helped puncture the pomposity of influential people.
For example, the paper carried on its front page pictures of the four sartorial changes the then Home Minister made in one single day to show that he was more preoccupied with his image at a time when he should have been hand holding the country through one of its worst crises since Independence. This was the day that terrorists had occupied Mumbai and were holding large numbers of citizens at their mercy.
Take another example -- the case of Shashi Tharoor. From the day Lalit Modi’s tweet about Sunanda Pushkar appeared, we came to the conclusion that even if the Prime Minister thinks Tharoor was God’s gift to mankind, he was headed for the exit. I remember after the first day when we published a picture of a lovely Sunanda Pushkar holding on to Shashi Tharoor’s arm, I asked my colleagues in the morning news meeting: “How many of you smell blood and where does the scent lead you?” A majority of the journalists present had only one answer: “First Shashi Tharoor will have to go and then it would be the turn of Lalit Modi to be turfed out.”
We kept this focus throughout our coverage – Sunanda Pushkar and Shashi Tharoor – till Shashi Tharoor resigned. And then we moved on to Modi.
The other newspapers kept going in all kinds of directions but our priorities for news coverage were clear. So, we had the best pictures of Sunanda, some exclusive ones and others which we purchased from Dubai. We catered to the voyeuristic interest of our readers while not forgetting the obvious fact that Tharoor was in violation of his oath of office. We were convinced that neither his acting skills – he used to be good actor when he was at St Stephen’s College – nor his felicity with language could save him. We were there in the frontline to report his inglorious exit.
Although the shenanigans of the rich and the powerful are the staple of any good newspaper, we were not a scandal sheet. We saw our primary job as holding the state and its representatives accountable because that was what our readership wanted. Indeed, that, we thought was the primary role of newspapers in a democracy.
We also came to be known for our in-depth reporting. We were the first to talk in our newspaper of Bajrang Dal bombers of Malegaon and Kanpur and their obsession with ammonium nitrate bombs. We published the first pictures of armed CPI(M) cadres joining the West Bengal police in shooting at protesting villagers of Singur – thus establishing how the party and the State had dangerously fused into one in Bengal.
We had the pictures and stories about the Reddy brothers of Bellary, their life style, their helicopters, their speedboats and their illegal mining activities much before anyone else. We were also the first to report how after Y.S. Rajashekhar Reddy’s death, his son and his goons were allegedly buying up dead bodies to claim that they had committed suicide or died of shock on hearing of YSR’s unfortunate accident. Our reporter visited several families of the dead in Andhra to establish this.
We were also the first to publish a list of all the Andhra Congress MPs and MLAs who are essentially contractors created by YSR by favouring them with government contracts.
We also learnt pretty quickly, that contrary to marketing wisdom, younger readers did not want too much fluff in their newspaper. Within the first month of publication itself, the newspaper reoriented its heavy tilt in favour of celebrity news although these were the staple of Daily Mail.
In its initial years at least, Mail Today broke all the conventional norms of reporting. Ministers of the Government of India complained to the owner that his newspaper was running campaigns against them. The owner may have lost some friends but the newspaper did well and the readers were happy. As the newspaper gained in circulation, readership, and a little bit of influence, this task predictably became increasingly difficult.
Within a short span of time, to our pleasant surprise Mail Today became the training ground for good journalism. The downside was that our journalists were suddenly in demand. The rival newspapers poached them giving them hefty salary hikes. While some left for higher salaries; most stayed back for the collegial working environment the newspaper offered and the relatively transparent news organization. In keeping with the target audience of women readers, Mail Today tried to have nearly 50 per cent women staff – this proportion unfortunately went down over time. However, a large number of Mail Today’s senior editors and chiefs of bureaux were women and the “Femail”, Lifestyle, Good Health, Entertainment, and It’s Friday sections of the paper were largely meant for the women readers.
I deliberately tried to keep the editorial organisational structure flat, with frequent consultative and deliberative meetings through the day, avoiding the steep pyramidical decision-making followed by most newspapers. This permitted more points of view to get into the discussion, protected the editor from his own follies, and the newspaper gained from the collective wisdom of its senior staff, women as frequently as men.
Of course, a flat structure does not by itself guarantee that people will always speak up or disagree with the editor in the newsroom. I was still referred to as a “dictator” by some of my colleagues but at least it was said to my face in editorial meetings. I’d like to think that this was because at the end of the day, daily newspapers are somewhat like a military operation and somebody has to take the command responsibility.
(The writer was the founding Editor of Mail Today, a daily newspaper published from Delhi, India).