‘If NDTV had stayed the course, channels wouldn’t be shrieking’: Jagran Group’s Apurva Purohit

The head of one of the country’s largest media organisations speaks about dealing with Facebook and Google, and being a woman in a leadership role.

Apurva Purohit is deeply concerned about the future of the media. As president of the Jagran Prakashan group, Purohit looks over some of the biggest brands in the business. Though she doesn’t directly oversee Dainik Jagran, the newspaper with the largest readership in India, Purohit is responsible for its online presence, as well as a number of other media entities in the group, including newspapers such as Mid-Day, iNext and Inquilab as well Radio City, an FM network. In Purohit’s opinion, across the media – and especially in the news – a crucial question has emerged that will have to soon be answered: Are we content creators or distributors?

“Which space are we in? This new animal has come up which is the aggregator, like Facebook and Google. These are increasingly becoming the face. They own the audience. We used to own the content and the audience. Now we are being squeezed, so what do we own?” Purohit said. “We can’t let go of the aggregators, you can’t let go of direct distribution – page views and uniques, because that’s where the money is but you can’t let go of content because the future is content, right? ... The jury is out.”

Opportunity and threat

Over the course of an hour-long conversation, Purohit – who ran Radio City for years and was named the Jagran Group’s president after helming a successful merger – says she think she knows what the answer to that question is, and it doesn’t lie in trying to battle Facebook or Google.

“As of now we see them as both an opportunity and a threat. The short-term view would be to say we see it as a threat and that I will not give my content to Google and Facebook. But the reality is that they’re so large and there is an opportunity to look at them as your marketing partners,” she said. “Again it boils back to this: If we see ourselves as a content creator, Facebook and Google will never be content creators, then it can be a hugely beneficial equation. If we see ourselves as aggregators, then they are a threat. First we have to reconcile in our minds what we are.”

And the answer to that lies in the very selling point of the Jagran Group overall: A nearly unprecedented reach across particularly the Hindi heartland through Dainik Jagran, as well as over many other parts of the country through brands like Mid-Day, a daily tabloid, Inquilab, an Urdu newspaper and Radio City.

“What is my USP in content? I can go to the 300th district of UP and give you news from there. That’s one obvious thing. Similarly for Radio City I am very local. I can tell you what’s happening in Chennai, specifically in Mylapore versus another part of the city and I can give it to you live,” Purohit said.

Newspaper reach

But local alone has not worked as a selling point, especially in an age where other media organisations have been shutting down further-flung bureaus while some have had to be come more partisan in order to be better defined among the audience. Purohit, however, thinks that may be specific to some organisations, and is certainly not true for the Hindi press.

“There are no indicators to support that reach is stagnating. Today if there is a circulation of 30 lakhs or 40 lakhs of Jagran, it is artificially subdued, that number. The more you print the more money you could lose. Which means there is demand, but you are throttling the supply. Is the demand or readership coming down? There are no indicators to suggest that,” she said. “Is the time spent on print going down? ... People are still spending about 27 minutes reading newspapers and that number is not changing dramatically. I started working about 20-30 years ago and at that time it was 29, it has come down to 27 in 20 years.”

While reach doesn’t concern her, the tonality of the media is something she takes very seriously. The emergence of players like TimesNow and Republic, which take a scorched-approach to journalism, worries Purohit, in particular because of the way the rest of the media reacted to them.

“The way it has panned out it has obviously been detrimental to the market... let’s say TimesNow and NDTV were there. TimesNow came and disrupted. If NDTV had just for one year, two years stayed without panicking and after two years if the consumer need was just not there, then it would’ve been different. What happened was, they abdicated that space, everyone abdicated that space, now the consumer has no choice. If I go through four channels, all the four channels are shrieking.”

News vs entertainment

Purohit admits that the belief in doing things a certain way because you believe it is right despite what the ratings show may not always work. As an example, she recounts a story from a time when she worked at Zee Telefilms, which like every other company making television shows, relied heavily on ‘saas-bahu’ serials.

“Everytime I would go for a conversation, people would be like, ‘you, being a woman, are encouraging these regressive saas-bahu serials’. I took it very seriously, saying I’ll come up with this lovely serial which is all about this evolved woman and evolved husband. We did something called Astitva, which won lots of awards, but it got 3 ratings versus 30 rates of Kyunki Saas Bhi,” Purohit said.

Admitting that this was an apparent contradiction, Purohit says the difference is that the news business is fundamentally different from the entertainment one.

“The way I reconciled in my head is that there are certain media vehicles, like entertainment serials, that are not meant to give social messages. It’s entertainment, so you do what the consumer wants to watch. News is something which is a voice of conscience. It is supposed to be balanced. So give that.”

Women CEOs

That need to be a leader beyond the norm extends to some extent into Purohit’s management style as well. In addition to her long career in charge of media brands, Purohit is also an author, having written Lady, You’re Not a Man, a management book that gives advice to women in business on how to deal with offices and boardrooms that are, by and large, dominated by men.

When asked why she wrote what is, ostensibly a management mantra book, in a manner that it would be targeted only at women, Purohit said that was a conscious choice, because of how she sees many senior women acting in the boardroom.

“What women CEOs are doing wrong, they either become CEOs and they say, I’m so special, I’ve descended straight from god, and the talent is such that only I could do it. Younger people feel as if I can’t do it, oh boss is too intelligent,” Purohit said.

The other kind of woman CEO, according to her, doesn’t want to be the diversity head in their office, because they want to be seen as a professional, and not be boxed in by the identity of a being a woman. “In a sense what they’re saying is right also, but they’re also doing a disservice to women down there because they’re not standing up there and saying I can do it you can too. Either they’re saying don’t look at me as a woman, I’m not going to support this initiative. Or they’re saying, I’m so special, that you can’t do it. So what do young women do?”

As a result, Purohit decided that she would target the book directly at young women who have to deal with the difficulty of dealing with issues like staying in the workforce after marriage and pregnancy, and also having to be ‘one of the boys’.

“So I thought let it be a woman’s book. Doesn’t matter if it’s not seen as a management guru book, because then at least women will read and you know it’s been four years since the book came out, it’s still selling,” she said. “I still get once a week or once a month from some woman saying I was going through a hard time, my kid was crying, my mother-in-law was saying something, but then I read the book and decided to stay the course.”

Incremental change

So, have companies changed significantly over her nearly three decades in management?

“On their own, men wouldn’t have changed. But they have increasingly started working with more and more women, that’s one fact. I know from 30 years ago to now, how many more women one sees. The second thing that has happened is that dialogue around this has gone up dramatically. Ten years ago I know there was not a single women in an MNC [Multinational Corporation]. Today all MNCs have international benchmarks that you must have this much diversity,” she said.

Yet, even so, Purohit still says there is a long way to go. She recounts a talk where she asked young women at an Indian Institute of Technology how many wanted to work after their studies.”

“They all said ‘what are you talking?’ – they all put their hands up. I said of a 100 of you, only 5 will be in the workforce 20 years later. They said, we can’t believe, but it’s a fact. Year after year after year, I recruit so many women, they spend 3-4 years and then they leave.”

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