Times of India Succeeds with Readers by Getting Out of the News Business and Into the Advertsing Business

On a trip to India 3 years ago, I was shocked to see how far The Times of India was willing to go to earn a buck from its advertisers. The front page of the paper on day in late December 2009 was an ad for Yahoo. I don’t mean they sold Yahoo an ad on the front page, like the NY Times and other American papers started doing a few years ago; I mean an ad for Yahoo displaced all the news articles that normally comprise the front page of a newspaper.

It’s no surprise that the company that owns the Times is killing it on the revenue front. Bennett, Coleman & Company (BCCL) operates 13 newspapers in India, which capture half of all English-language print ad revenues and profits between 25 and 30%. US newspaper publishers, by comparison, are fighting to hold onto 5% profits.

It’s a little more surprising that circulation and readership are up too. Granted publishers in India have some tailwinds. Each year an additional 20 million citizens enter the ranks of the literate, and only 10% of the country’s population has access to the Internet. Like Rupert Murdock’s tabloids, BCCL discounts the newsstand price (and, in the case of BCCL, offers free home delivery). But still. The SF Examiner lands on my stoop a few times each week, free of charge, and you couldn’t pay me to read it.

Meanwhile there are 80,000 newspapers published in India, so this fast-growing army of readers isn’t suffering a lack of choice. And, according to Ken Auletta’s essay in the New Yorker, the papers that compete with The Times aren’t quite as adventurous with their ad products, or as amphibious between their editorial and advertising habitats. Yet despite an approach that puts advertisers ahead of journalism, The Times remains the largest English-language newspaper in the world.

Vineet Jain, the #2 and the younger brother of the company’s owner, says they made a decision back in the 1980s to get out of the news business and into the advertising business. That, says the executive in charge of ad sales, Bhaskar Das, has forced the paper to focus more intently, not less, on pleasing their readers. “When the advertiser becomes successful, we are successful. The advertiser wants us to facilitate consumption.” In other words, the advertisers demand that The Times keeps its readers happy.

There’s a downside, of course. The Times of India, unlike say the New York Times or Washington Post, doesn’t feel the need to feed its readers a well-balanced meal. They go light on the leafy greens of investigative journalism, and heavy on sweets like celebrity news, sports coverage and political scandals. This crass approach to news spits in the eye of my own (American) view on the role of journalism as the Fourth Estate that preserves and ensures an honest(ish) democracy, the parental voice tells me what I’m supposed to care about (credit default swaps), not what I want to care about (the Kardashians). Let’s be honest: if American papers did that, Nixon would still be president.

But if you stop thinking about The Times as a newspaper for second, and instead view it as an “ad-supported media product,” it becomes a more interesting case study. In conference rooms across Silicon Valley, every day of the week, there’s an argument in which one person says, “we need more ads in order to keep the lights on” and another fights back with, “advertising will corrupt the product and destroy the user experience.” Among the newspapers of India, however, snuggling up with advertisers is forcing publishers to work harder at use satisfaction.

Leave a Reply