Nothing throws light on the state of Indian journalism better than the plight of The Indian Express. Once India’s largest selling English newspaper chain that put the fear of god in governments, the paper has been reduced to a pale shadow of its former self. The stories are still there, the spirit is still there. But Ramnath Goenka‘s baby has been left far behind by the marketing, advertising and technological prowess of its competitors.
Little wonder the newspaper played host to the debate “Does excellent journalism make good business?” last week. But just days prior, the paper’s editor-in-chief and chief executive officer Shekar Gupta wrote a straight-from-the-heart letter to all employees, which not surprisingly has made its way to recipients outside the group.
Below is the full text of a long and fine letter that lays the issues confronting the group—and indeed good journalism in AnyTownIndia—threadbare.
I should have written this note much earlier but I have been preoccupied. I have said some of the things I’m going to put down in this note to many of you in various meetings but I think it’s more useful if I put down these thoughts in writing for a much wider audience. As you will see from this note, the idea is not only to build on our strengths but to prepare
ourselves for a big leap forward.
But before we do that, before we can do that, we need to be honest with ourselves. We need to own up to our failures and, what’s more important, acknowledge our weaknesses. This thought crystallised over the last few months—maybe it was because we got locked out of our office in Delhi, or maybe I decided to work in a more informal manner—when I was able to talk with many of you, get to know you, put faces to many names. Names to success stories, names to failures, too. All this, along with the ideas that poured in as part of our Ideas Express initiative, helped give me a clearer idea of where we have gone wrong, our mis-steps along the way and what we need to do now that we will have to take that leap. It will need everything that we have. For, the news is grim.
In a year when the media industry has grown by nearly 25 per cent, our revenues have declined by three per cent. While no year is ideally suitable for letting ourselves down, this one was a particularly bad one as it coincided with, newsprint prices rising to historic highs. Then, we had to absorb a completely unexpected blow of the Fringe Benefit Tax, and the loss of our Delhi office. But howsoever distracted we may have been in Delhi, the company had no business to perform this poorly. It does look to me as if all of us took our eye off the ball. Even as our revenues fell, we let our costs hit an all-time peak, our new machines took forever to become functional—they still haven’t, entirely, although we have seen some progress lately. Our newsprint consumption went out of whack, as some circulations, particularly Loksatta in Mumbai, went up but rising circulation obviously cannot be my cause for complaint. At
some point, we lost control over rising newsprint waste levels in our presses, our inventory control weakened a great deal. All this in a market becoming more competitive by the day, with two more mainstream dailies, DNA and HT launched in Bombay, along with Mumbai Mirror and Metro in New Delhi, now Mint in both cities. Some new ones are just months away.
Why am I sharing all this with you? Normally, news like this would be kept in the confines of board-rooms and top management circles. I am doing so because I do not believe in old, 19 th century notions of fake, self-serving hierarchy. I am also sharing this with you because I, and our chairman, believe that each one of us, including the youngest trainee, is an important stake-holder in shaping the future and fortunes of this institution. I am also sharing this with you, more explicitly than is the norm in the corporate world, because I am essentially a journalist and despite the corporate hat that I sometimes, awkwardly, wear, I believe in the line we print in the masthead on our edit page each day: Because the truth involves us all.
And the truth is that we have been much too forgiving with ourselves in a market-place getting less forgiving by the day. So we are now going to change. We have to change. You will see this new approach, and through this, a strong commitment to the principle of accountability, beginning
with this year’s appraisals.
It’s unfair for us to continue rewarding ourselves even as our performance slips in the marketplace. I do acknowledge, however, that that does not apply to the same extent to most of you, especially at the cutting-edge, middle-management, junior levels. Many of you have indeed tried to do your best and deserve applause, encouragement and patience.
In any case, I remember the words of my strategic studies guru, Prof.Stephen Cohen, who wrote landmark books on Indian and Pakistani armies, and always says, “There are no good armies or bad armies.There are only good generals or bad generals.” Rather than blame our troops, therefore, I have to admit that we have been lousy generals this year. Since the buck must stop somewhere, I have requested the members of the top management team to take a wage freeze for this year. In addition, I have also decided to defer a significant part of my compensation till we see some real improvement. The action with some others amongst us, in the senior team, I am afraid, has had to be harsher.
Some others are under close watch. I can say very little on this except to add that nothing would make me happier than being able to report a turnaround to you, and I do hope that, working together, that day will come soon.
Having said that, let me also add that our intention is to ensure that genuine achievers, whether in marketing, editorial or circulation, those who have made a difference to our brand, those who consistently added value to it, are handsomely rewarded even in this difficult year. In any
other company, compensation for all would have been linked to the company’s overall performance. Here, for this year, we have decided that the top management will take the responsibility, and the rap.
Since I am talking to you in detail like this for the first time, let me say a few more things, more in the nature of laying down some new principles, and reiterating some old ones which, lately, I am afraid, seem to have been followed only in breach.
1. There are some people/ sections/ teams/ units in our company that have compartmentalized themselves in their own little domains. Hard to believe but several junior colleagues have written in to me to say that “seniors do not know even our names, they do not know what we do.” One young journalist at one of our centres asked me a telling question: “How many of our editors in Delhi can put faces to the by lines from our edition?” I will come to more of that later. Harder to believe but there are some of us who have even stopped talking to our colleagues, some of us who do not let our staff interact with other departments. This has to end.
2. Departmental heads will always be open to their peers and colleagues, so will their respective teams be. There will be no islands, no individual bubbles, no special purpose vehicles that move on their own. In other words: our office is not our home where each one has his/her own rules of engagement. We do not necessarily have to love people we work with. But no matter what chips we carry on our shoulders, we have to communicate, interact, because we have to get the work done. There is no other way to say this than to say this straight: if somebody says he/she can’t deliver because personal issues stand in the way, the only way out is, well, the way out. We have identified some specifics in this problem area and I have asked the section heads concerned to address it on top priority. One complaint I have heard all the time is, edit does not know circulation which does not know space which does not know brands and all do not know production and so on. These are self-inflicted calamities and nobody is any longer allowed to perpetuate these.
3. Departmental heads can no longer confine themselves to their own little areas, they have to think company, product, performance. A newspaper is a very demanding FMCG (fast moving consumer good) built every night—and even if one link in the chain is weak, the whole thing collapses. Take timings as an example. Each link in the chain, edit, pre-press, production, scheduling and production have to work in perfect symphony. If one doesn’t, or if edit chooses to delay the edition to accommodate a story or space to include a last-minute ad, our copies do not reach many consumers. All this has to stop now. Similarly, space has to think not just revenues but profitability. What is the point of selling ads at 97 per cent discounts and shoring up your targets when in the process the company makes a loss? So everybody has to think of the big picture, of the company’s overall performance, of how my team’s output contributes to furthering that. Let us stop finding scapegoats among our own.
4. The army uses an expression in its training academies that I like very much. OLQs, or Officer Like Qualities. An officer, or a leader has to have many qualities. But the most important is a big heart. A big heart does not mean signing away exaggerated appraisals or silly back-slapping bonding. A big heart means a generosity of spirit and style, where you give space and opportunity to those placed under your charge, never, ever claiming the credit for their achievements. The truth is, you don’t have to do it. If your team does well, it reflects on your OLQs. A big heart, in this context, also means openness, accessibility to people, to ideas, to dissent and disagreement. We are a media company, we pride ourselves on having some of the most imaginative people in a business that is built on principles of free speech and debate. This must reflect in our management style as well. We need to create an environment where people work with us not only for the cheque at the end of the month but for the environment,
for the quality of leadership and the opportunity that we provide them each morning.
Henceforth, these will be the key factors in appraising the performance of our team leaders. There will be no place for moody arbitrariness, for deploying people and then re-deploying them on a whim. And then blaming them as a cover for our own inefficiencies. In leadership, there is no place for blame or indifference. All section heads will soon receive detailed and clear instructions on how to operationalize these. But to underline this point yet again: nothing makes me more furious than a team leader explaining the team’s poor performance saying, I am trying so hard, but my team members are all useless. Remember what I said earlier: there are no good armies or bad armies…
5. We have to become seriously cost conscious. To be cost-conscious is not just switching off the lights and computers after we finish work or using both sides of the photocopying paper (which, I hope, becomes second-nature to all of us). Cost-consciousness is key to our future because our investment in talent is at least four times higher (as share of the revenue) than the industry average. So cost-consciousness has to be at a constant in the back of our minds. We always have to apply the same test: is this expense really needed? Every expense means robbing Peter to pay Paul, is Paul going to give more value than Peter? This applies to travel, to an outstation phone call, deciding whether a supplement really needs to be printed outside, whether a discounted circulation scheme is really
necessary, whether a hiring is absolutely unavoidable, and so on. In the Idea Express process, several new ideas on these have come in and you will see many being implemented.
6. We serve ourselves very poorly if we continue to benchmark ourselves against our past. Our bane is a mindset that if we are doing even a little bit better than last year, we must be doing fine. That is not good enough. For, we are in a business where the market judges us by what it sees every orning, not by what we produced once upon a time. If we want to remain competitive, as individual professionals, in skills and in wages, and as a company, if we want to compete in a brutally competitive market, we have to set new benchmarks. I am, herefore, abolishing the practice of year-on-year (y-o-y) comparisons. We have to make a break from our own history. So every department is getting targets for this year. And these will be monitored month on month, and more importantly, each quarter. Let’s stop saying we are better than last year. It’s about time we learnt to look at the future and say that tomorrow has to better than today.
7. Many of you have raised questions as to when we will re-launch our products, when will our new designs be on display. The delay in the commissioning of our new machinery has thrown these projects back by at least six months. You cannot launch new products and improved designs if our technology is not in place. But I am pleased to inform you that printing units are getting their act together and you should begin to see changes soon. This week you will see our refurbished heat-set machine take Financial Express‘s India Inc in glazed newsprint. Sunday Express Eye will go glazed too from the last Sunday of this month. Many other quantum improvements of this kind will now follow in quick succession.
8. At this moment we are also involved in a complex process of negotiating with bankers and exploring the market for taking our company public and we expect that process to see fruition in the very near future. You will understand why, at this stage, we cannot disclose any more on this. But our company and our brands have a huge equity in the market place. We enjoy wide respect and goodwill and the market, overwhelmingly, wants us to succeed. This month will see two special events—the Excellence in Journalism awards and the FE Best Banks Awards. President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has tentatively agreed to be there for the EIJ awards, perhaps his last public appearance as President. And Finance Minister P. Chidambaram for the Best Banks Awards. Getting them both within a fortnight of each other was possible only because we enjoy respect, credibility and goodwill.
I am sure many of you saw the Businessworld survey on the most respected media companies where we rank fifth in the country, ahead of HT, CNBC-TV18, Living Media-India Today, Outlook, Deccan Chronicle, Zee, etc. That’s good, in that it shows our latent storehouse of goodwill. But that’s not good enough and it only shows what we could do if we start building from this base.
To achieve our true potential, to make the changes that we need to make so that we carve out a unique space in the crowded media marketplace, a space where the Express mother brand re-energizes itself, we have to set our house in order. We have to set all our rooms in order.
Excellence cannot be something we only strive for, it has to become the hallmark of what we do. The only way to stand out in the current media market is to be outstanding, consistently. So we will need to introduce best modern practices in every aspect of what we do, accounting to pagemaking, the way we service our clients to new ideas in onsolidation of our processes, with new pages, sections, better stories, better design.
As I said earlier, you will see many of these thoughts reflect in developments over the next few days, weeks and months. Please allow me to conclude on that note. Let me also add that we need all the ideas we can get and, as always, you should feel free to share your thoughts, ideas, doubts, questions, criticism with me. That is a part of the process of our running a more open organisation. Everybody, of course, continues to follow their own departments’ respective reporting structures. But I am accessible to all of you. Of course, we will continue the Ideas Express
process as well and I hope you will contribute to it as enthusiastically as you did the last time. And, yes, let’s begin the process of change with this note itself. If you have any questions regarding some of the thoughts I have put down, suggestions, disagreements, please let me know.
Related link: Express CEO delivers grim news to staff