Times are a changing!
Times of India goes to The Hindu's lair, Indian Express goes to Kolkata, Hindustan Times aims for Bombay, Zee plans a daily, Reuters teams up with Times of India, Deccan Chronicle enters Chennai... For news junkies and media watchers, this is the most happening year since the dotcom days. Dancewithshadows.com gives the lowdown
When the history of India's newspaper wars is written, this one is going to take the cake. Both The Hindu and The Times of India know it well too. When the Bombay goliath takes on the Southern satrap in Chennai in April 2005, one can stand back in the shade and relish the battle with some coconut water I guess.
The battle will be bloodier than the legendary Hindustan Times-Times of India battle for the Delhi market when the old lady of Boribunder lifted her veil a decade back and brought battle to the Delhi market. The Times of India prised open the Hindustan Times territory in Delhi and planted its flag there in a span of 10 years. It's still a matter of argument as to who is the real leader in the Delhi newspaper market. Both Hindustan Times and Times of India stake their own claims, and the battle has often led to the corridors of courts. The readers, all along have been the winners.
This time around, the battle will be bloodier. The Times of India is fresh from its battle in Delhi, richer by all the experiences it brought. Meanwhile, expect The Hindu to take notes of the HT-TOI battle in Delhi as fastens its lungi tight, waiting to take on the Times of India titans. The Times of India has traditionally pierced other newspapers' turfs in unchartered territories with aggressive pricing and marketing strategies. TOI did this in Hyderabad, Bangalore and Delhi. This strategy easily worked in smaller metros like Bangalore and Hyderabad, where the competition (Deccan Chronicle in Hyderabad, New Indian Express in Bangalore) took the hit. The weaker competitors of the Times of India retaliated with their own price cuts. But this ultimately took toll on their own bottomline. The ultimate trick behind a newspaper price cut is to make up for the lower revenues with increased circulation and ad revenues. But the strategy always worked in Times of India's favour - It has the deepest pockets in the country, and hence could afford to continue the price war till the enemy bled to death.
In Chennai, expect Battle Royale. The Hindu has towered over the Chennai skyline like a colossus for over 125 years as the guardian of the Chennai reader. Its name commands more respect than probably any other newspaper in the country. The Hindu has by and large restricted itself to editions in the South, besides one in Delhi. It also publishes Sportstar and the Hindu Business Line. Last year, Hindu launched a fax edition of Business Line from in Mumbai. The pages are made at Hindu's Chennai offices and transmitted to Mumbai were they are downloaded and printed. Essentially, this is a Chennai edition printed in Mumbai.
The Hindu has a huge circulation in Tamil Nadu alone, over 13 lakh. In Chennai it is supposed to be around 2.5 lakh. It is the largest selling English Daily in Tamil Nadu, and the No.2 is far behind, The New Indian Express. The Times of India will be targetting the market leader, not the No.2 or No.3.
A price war will not be surprising if it comes from the Times of India group. It has been their stock-in-trade to open new markets. The Hindu is not expected to follow Times of India with this strategy. The Hindu has very deep pockets too, but one wonders how far The Hindu, if it obliges, will take this game. Besides, a Hindu price cut will be playing into the Times game. For all we know, Times may bundle TOI with Economic Times (which already has a Chennai edition) and sell for Rs 2. That is not one path the Kasturis will like to take.
The Hindu's advertisers and readers are loyal customers built up over decades, and it is seen as the national newspaper of Tamil Nadu. Besides, despite always being in a position where it could take its readers for granted, The Hindu has groomed itself as the guardian of quality journalism. This is in direct contract to the Times of India, which pushes its product for the youth and the yuppie. The success of Bombay Times Page 3 has prompted it to repeat the formula in all the markets it entered, to resounding success. The same formula has been tried out in Times' Zoom TV also. This is where the difference with the HT-TOI battle lies. Hindustan Times and the Times of India basically battled for the same chunk of readership in Delhi. In Chennai, it could be different, because both compete for different markets. Given the age-old cultures of both, one does not expect or welcome Page 3 stuff from The Hindu or stiff-upper-lip, conservative journalism from the Times of India. The Times of India's success in the Chennai market will depend to a large extent on the new yuppie segment it can carve out of the existing/potential readers. This won't be a repeat of the Delhi scene, one can promise. Expect Hindu to devise more steps to guard its turf, of which a price cut could be the last. Expect the old lady of Boribunder in bikini and suntan in the hot Chennai sun. Do not expect a battle for minds, expect a battle to sustain entrenched mindsets and create new ones.
Deccan Chronicle: the dark horse
The battle for Chennai will turn messier with the entry of Deccan Chronicle. The Hyderabad-based Deccan Chronicle is expected to kick off its Chennai edition in early 2005, possibly even before Times of India rolls out of its Chennai presses. Deccan Chronicle recently raised money with its IPO, and one of the reasons behind the fund-raising was to finance its Chennai venture. Deccan Chronicle has recently faced a lot heat with the Times of India coming to its hometown Hyderabad. Expanding to the geographically-close Tamil Nadu is matter of compulsion for Deccan Chronicle. The company is believed to be setting up its Tamil Nadu edition with a Rs 50 crore kitty. Compare this to the Times of India, which is going to Chennai with a Rs 150-crore budget. Obviously, the Deccan Chronicle story will be a side-story to the Hindu-TOI battle waiting to unfold. Deccan Chronicle may try to eat into the segments currently catered to by The New Indian Express.
Just as the Times of India Chennai launch follows years of speculation, another one is doing the rounds: that The Hindu is going to Bombay to take on the Times of India. However, there are no official confirmations of this, unlike when Times of India confessed to its Chennai ambitions last year. The Times of India is already girding for another battle in Mumbai, with HT finalising its battle plan for Mumbai.
Hindustan Times is expected to arrive in Mumbai by the middle-to-late 2005. With TOI's Chennai edition already rolling by then, it will be a new battlefront opening for the Times of India. The Times of India is confident of taking on the northern challenger, which it took head on in Delhi. The Hindustan Times has already put in place its marketing and management team for its Mumbai foray. Hiring of journalists is yet to start. Currently, Hindustan Times operates with a skeletal bureau in Mumbai.
Meanwhile, there is talk of the Zee TV group launching an English newspaper in Mumbai. The Business Standard recently reported that Zee is keen on launching a Mumbai daily - either a general paper or a financial one. BS said that this is being planned in association with the Dainik Bhaskar group, which is already into print media. If it fructifies, this will be the first successful entry of a TV group into the print media. Till now, it has been the other way round, with print players taking to airwaves.
There are also reports that British financial services provider and media conglomerate Reuters is planning to pick up a stake in the proposed news and business TV channel from the Times of India. Reuters last year started its Bangalore operations. In 2004, Times of India made its second coming to the TV medium with launch of Zoom TV. Two more channels - a spiritual and a business one - are expected to be on cards. The Times group already has a tie-up with BBC for its magazine business, which publishes Filmfare and Femina among others.
Also, 2005 is expected to see the launch of the Wall Street Journal in India in association with the Times of India group. There have been unconfirmed reports recently that the paper is due to roll out next month (March 205) with Suman Dubey as its editor in Mumbai. Currently, Dow Jones Plc which owns WSJ, functions in Mumbai with a small bureau, which feeds the Dow Jones Newswires agency. The new WSJ
Mumbai edition, if it materialises, is expected to be distinct from its Mumbai news wires operations. Meanwhile, the Indian Express is planning to launch its edition from Kolkata. Currently, the Indian Express group in Kolkata is represented by the Financial Express. Indian Express chief editor and group CEO Shekhar Gupta belives that Express can piggyback on the credibility, readership and advertising clientele when it rolls out its edition in Kolkata. In Kolkata, Indian Express will be taking on the might of Telegraph, which is the best-selling English paper in West Bengal. Anand Bazaar Patrika, which publishes the Telegraph, is the largest selling local language newspaper in West Bengal.
The launch is reportedly in a few weeks' time. The Indian Express Kolkata edition will be taking on the 10-lakh plus circulation of Telegraph and the 6 lakh-plus circulation of Times of India and Statesman. In 2004, the Indian Express group launched an edition of The Financial Express in Hyderabad.
As the national media scene hots up, the menu expands for the purveyor of news. One note of caution though: The media scene in India has not always been as stable as one would have liked to be. The lanes of the Fourth Estate are littered with the corpses of the Observer, Independent, Illustrated Weekly, Newstime, Sunday, Bridge News and many others who are mere memories now. Dotcom media raised enormous hopes before it tanked. Many held out hope for a long time before the flame died out. One would advise journalists who will be rubbing their hands with glee at the options opening up and the consequent higher valuations. Leap you may, but take a careful look first!