The newspaper world’s morbid fascination with death, destruction and decay does not necessarily translate to higher sales. Instead, it is bad for business.
This is according to the man who has helped turn the “bad news sells” concept on its head. Ravi Dhariwal, CEO of the Times of India (TOI) slipped quietly into the country a fortnight ago for strategic consultations with his counterparts in The New Age, where his company holds minority shares, and announced that “bad news is bad for business”.
“Even advertisers don’t want their products associated with bad. They became wary when their advert is placed next to articles depicting death.”
Another factor that makes his newspaper such a runaway success is the way they package and present the news. He believes that news in itself is a big animal, like an elephant, that should be consumed in small chunks.
TOI’s stories rarely exceed 350 words in length. Their front page, for instance, has multiple entry points into the newspaper with between six and eight story bites up front.
It could be easy so to laugh Dhariwal out of town as a happy-go-lucky uncle out of touch with the real world, if his personal achievements from selling toothpaste at Uniliver to selling cool drinks at Pepsico were not so legendary.
Even if you discount all those achievements, just consider the fact that for the past nine years, he has been head of a newspaper that sits on top of the heap as the world’s largest-selling English newspaper for more than two decades and no one, including the Murdoch’s of this world, have dared kick dust in their eyes.
The newspaper’s DNA has always been embedded in that simple philosophy that “uplifting news sells”.
He illustrates the point by using one of their flagship dailies, The Economic Times, as an example of reader bias. “Every time the stock exchange in India collapses, The Economic Times readership takes a dive. When the markets rebound, it reflects in sales going up.”
The Times won the circulation war by wresting market leadership from a publication that had for a long time held sway to the Indian newspaper market. It was a paper that was said to be dripping blood and peddling journalism of fear, hate and despair.
The newspaper, which has since gone belly up made a serious error of judgement. It thrived on criticising a government that was corrupt and loathed. When a new, relatively popular and clean government came to power, it was business as usual. The readers punished it.
But it is exactly the same philosophy that saw TOI’s partner in South Africa being accused by sections of the print media of being a government mouthpiece in a series of scathing articles aimed to scare off both readers and advertisers.
It turns out that The New Age has bought into the Indian media colossus’s DNA as a whole, except for one thing, The Times has little time for politics and politicians.
Dhariwal said reports accusing The New Age of being pro-government have reached India but that it did not bother investors out there one bit. “We knew it was the competition down here that wanted The New Age out of the way. They could not stand the new competition – especially one this good.”
He said that, personally, he had never seen anything at all, in the makeup of The New Age that makes him doubt the integrity and independence of this seven-month-old baby. All he has seen, he says, is a beautifully laid out paper that is colourful with exciting “takeouts” on the front page.
This suave man of the world, who at various times of his life called Delhi, Johannesburg and Auckland his homes, unashamedly says, as CEO of a media giant, his major aim is to get the reader’s money and monopolise his time.
And he believes the competition doesn’t have to be crude or employ low-life tactics to see the competition off. “When the competition set up a new title in Mumbai, we launched a competing tabloid which we distributed freely as part of TOI. In another instance, when another new competition launched with a cover price of two rupees (30c), we upped our cover price from two to four rupees (60c). People thought we were mad.”
But there was method in their madness because the strategy was to take all the loose change out of the pockets of newspaper-reading consumers so they had no coins left to buy the competition. After the competition left the space, the paper was distributed for free.
“There’s no point bad-mouthing the competition,” says Dhariwal, who believes one should employ new tactics, offer an even better product and ingrain one’s product even more to the reader, leaving little room for gutter tactics.
He has cautious advice for the local upstart. “Cut your coverage of politics. Limit the coverage to at least a page a day.
“People don’t care for politics, until they make their lives better. They want to read about the improvement of the inner cities and upgrading urban spaces.
“They need to read about their workplaces getting better. They want to be told their teams are winning games.
“They need to know that the Springboks are doing just great.”
Sunshine journalism then? Not at all.
In fact, he said, The Times of India had broken some of the nation’s biggest corruption stories.
Times of India in numbers
• 30 printing centres
• Around 22 publishing centres
• Over 10 000 employees, including group companies, but BCCL alone (the print business) is around 7 500 people
• One TV channel (Movies Now)
• Turnover more than $1bn (R6.8bn)
• Five daily newspapers, including two of the largest in the country
• Two leading magazines
• 29 niche magazines
• Reaching 2 468 cities and towns
• 32 radio stations
• Two television news channels
• One television lifestyle channel
Photograph: CEO of Times Of India Group Ravi Dhariwal by FATI MOALUSI/The New Age.
This story is published with the kind permission of The New Age.
Follow The New Age on Twitter @The_New_Age