In the manner in which the mythology of contemporary Indian media is constructed, it would appear that concepts like “reader-friendly” and “marketing” and “brand innovation” were alien in our journalism till Samir Jain of The Times of India arrived on the scene in the mid-1980s.
It is only then, we are told, that Indian media houses began to keep the reader at the front and centre of their universe.
Only then that newspapers began to lower their cover price so that they would more attractive to readers.
Only then that newspapers began to be sold cheaply and aggressively, like soap and toothpaste.
And only then that attractive schemes were evolved by managers plucked straight out of FMCG companies to entice readers and advertisers.
Somewhere in all this is the suggestion that only a man born in great privilege, who could unsentimentally look at media as a business, would have the audacity to think out of the box like this.
These are claims that would be true only if you have not heard of a man called Subramaniam Srinivasan.
Also known as S.S. Vasan.
Vasan was the ambitious young man in his early 20s who bravely ventured to buy out a monthly magazine from its owner who had grown tired of the pressure of running it.
The year was 1928.
Vasan paid Rs 200 for the magazine.
Vasan turned the struggling monthly into a weekly.
He cut the cover price from 16 annas to 8 annas to attract more readers, the earliest use of an “invitation price” in Indian journalism.
Vasan introduced a referral scheme for readers, to spread the word about the magazine and to expand the circle, an early sign of the use of a social network.
Vasan started a short story competition to get reader contributions: “user-generated content”. He introduced a crossword competition, with 250 prizes to be given away each week: “reader engagement”.
Only the name of the winner was printed in the magazine. The other 249 names were published in a new magazine he launched. Today’s managers would call the spinoff a “vertical”.
And Vasan was the man who introduced advertising on credit, so that advertisers could pay after their advertisement had evoked what is now called “response”.
In other words, S.S. Vasan preceded the Samir Jains of the world by a good 60 years.
And the magazine which pioneered all these tactics and techniques is the Tamil magazine ‘Ananda Vikatan’.
‘Ananda Vikatan’ is now 94 years old.
Vasan’s son S. Balasubramaniam launched Junior Vikatan to cover news and current affairs.
And Balasubramaniam’s son—Vasan’s grandson—B. Srinivasan (in picture, above) launched slew of offerings, from automotive to personal finance to agriculture and branched out into other verticals.
Anand Vikatan is the No.1 Tamil magazine in circulation and readership.
Its entertainment shows on TV reach over a million homes.
It has a number of YouTube channels.
Today as Coronavirus provides a brutal reality check to media houses which provided digital content for free, here’s the news: Ananda Vikatan was among the earliest Indian publishing houses to charge for its online offerings.
In this episode of J-POD, Ananda Vikatan’s third-generation owner and managing director B. Srinivasan throws light on how the group is coping with the challenges thrown up by #Coronavirus, both to the business and to journalism.
7.35: A life-changing event like this can actually make you introspect and look towards true transformation.
9.45: “How much effort is the journalist putting in to become future-friendly and how much is a journalist trying to the customer in the heart of the equation? Today the Editor is no longer the edifice of the equation.”
12.36: “I don’t think anybody is spared. Everybody has a problem from a different perspective. For some it is about growth, for some it is about profitability, for some it is stock markets, for some it is survival.”
14.20: Three weeks we had to go off. Will my readers continue to buy and continue to patronise me, was the question in my mind. Have I kept pace with the readers’s aspirations, is the question which I am asking myself.
18.35: Fake news got the better of us on contamination through magazines.
21.00: “We have had a paywall for 15 years. If industry moves in this direction, we would have learnt a lesson. If we still look at advertising as the key revenue driver we will have missed the bus.”
23.20: Reader revenue has never been considered a substantial part of revenues by most publications all over the world till about five years back. Newspapers and magazines here have been wrong in not going pay even with their exclusive content.
25.35: “I do not see advertising hitting the roof anytime soon. Advertising spends are going to see a dip. When it returns to normal, advertisers will want more bang for their buck, and they will want value proposition.”
28.15: “If you truly cannot afford the people that you have, however good they are, do not think twice before rightsizing. Even without COVID, we should have rightsized about a year and a half ago.”
29.00: “I have never felt so strongly about print than I have in the last month. We have understood the significance of print. Whether or not ad revenue comes back with a bang, we need to be able to double down on print, big time, to make the journey into the digital future.”
32.44: “Nothing has changed in journalism. Only the output formats and the process. If you have a willingness to listen, to do your homework, to dig deep and get information out to write a great story, to passionately follow a lead and investigate, and make sure you are not just in the rhetoric space, you will still be valued.”