Citizen Ram: In The Family Way

Is The Hindu really breaking from tradition by bringing control of the paper back into the family fold?

ByAnand Ranganathan
Citizen Ram: In The Family Way
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“With The Hindu’s owners deciding to revert to being a family run and edited newspaper, I am resigning from The Hindu with immediate effect.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                               – @svaradarajan, Oct 21, 2013

The recent Twitter resignation of Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of The Hindu, elicited passionate responses of more than 140 characters, most of them loose and many of them belonging to the extended Hindu family. As Siddharth retreated to the sidelines, his brother – Tunku – entered the ring and promptly stationed himself in the left corner. In the other left corner was N Ram, someone who has made The Hindu what it is today. Allegations flew thick and fast, and with brothers and sisters and cousins twice or thrice removed joining in happy to re-tweet sordid tales and incriminating hyperlinks the war of words turned quickly into a Family versus the Outsider debate. The reason provided by N Ram for Varadarajan’s sacking was his refusal to print any Modi-related news on the front page, a charge that was later reinforced through this tweet:

 Those journalists who were appalled by Ram’s Twitter etiquette – and there were many – in turn, propagated the real cause to be the refusal by the geriatrics to inject in their veins some professionalism, implying that a family-run enterprise is not run professionally. Now at last they could criticise dynasty.

Truth be told, if what N Ram had tweeted was indeed true, it is surprising that Varadarajan was allowed to continue for as long as he was. News of events should never be edited. They are facts; they happened; they cannot be reversed, only reported. It is the purpose of every newspaper and every news channel to, first and foremost, deliver facts. Opinions bring eyeballs, yes, but reportage brings something more precious: respect and admiration that the newspaper is fair and objective. Honest reporters aren’t communists or capitalists or nationalists – they are honest reporters, plain and simple – all they have in their armoury is a keen eye and a good laptop. Ideologies are what are worn by Op-ed writers. Opinions can be edited, not facts. And that is what makes for a great newspaper, a gold standard.

“But in India”, says Madhu Trehan, Editor-in-Chief of Newslaundry “there has been a tradition of self aggrandizement in that every newspaper believes it is the gold standard. The Hindu has always had some great writers but there seems to be an overreaching belief in itself that borders on pomposity. It is not neutral or without bias – on its coverage of China, for example. Oddly, The Hindu’s Left leanings do not stretch to itself that the family would turn over the ownership to the workers and journalists there.”

Gold standard or not, if N Ram wasn’t – as one tweeter suggested – hacked or high that night, then what he alleged is serious.

Varadarajan, however, has refuted Ram’s contention that Modi was considered a persona non grata until recently. In an interview to Tehelka, he said: “Unless something fresh or unusual was said, I felt there was no need for these rally stories to be taken nationally. My note was crystal clear and presented, in my view, a very sensible guideline to ensure that the front page didn’t become boring and repetitive”. He also added that under his command “The Hindu became a much more open, dynamic and inclusive workplace for its 700-odd journalists, where the editor’s door was always open and talent and merit were given their due and the earlier sycophantic institutional culture was ended”.

Make no mistake, the barbs and the jousting, not to mention the tweet that started it all, are trying to convey a message: I was an outsider who dared to change archaic family ways. Family didn’t like it. Family fired me.

But is it really that cut and dry? Are family-run enterprises nothing but soot-covered warehouses full of superannuated fossils who give a toss for professionalism? To find an answer one needs to go beyond the current Hindu imbroglio – and enter a darkened hall with a large screen. One needs to go to the movies.

That Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made is debatable. What is not is that it is the greatest film ever made on the descent of journalism. The cuts, the grand sweeps, the sparkling screenplay – where almost every sentence is a loaded one – aside, it is ultimately the story and the pathos ingrained in it that tugs at the heart. “You know Mr Bernstein”, says Charles Foster Kane, the owner of The New York Inquirer, midway. “If I hadn’t been very rich, I would’ve been a great man.” But Kane becomes impossibly rich – impossibly – and one by one, he compromises on his principles, tearing to bits finally the moral charter that he had scribbled the day he took over the newspaper.

The film was made 70 years ago, but each dialogue, each frame, reminds one of the present times. One cannot escape the brutal truth: Charles Foster Kanes abound, they are no longer fictional, they are no longer historical caricatures.

To explore a forest, must one own it? In this battle to shape people’s minds, facts and reportage have retreated, sometimes glaringly (missing altogether), sometimes subtly (found on page 16), and the proprietor has seen this and turned a blind eye. And now, it is journalism that lies crushed under the weight of one’s hubris.

Amid this conflagration, it is easy to forget that Charles Foster Kane ran the paper on his own, that his professionalism or lack of it had nothing to do with a family. Nothing!

Salil Tripathi has an interesting take on the subject. Writing on the Hindu hullabaloo in Mint, he feels that “by reintroducing family control, The Hindu has become more Indian. Like its political parties, businesses, law firms, medical practices and film studios, The Hindu has reverted to the norm where kinship can trump professionalism”. He then goes on to mention an instance when N Ram’s daughter Vidya Ram, having topped her class at Columbia School of Journalism, found herself on The Hindu’s front page, “as though, it was a matter of national significance”.

What Tripathi highlights is an overreach certainly, but it is by no means extraordinary, given that N Ram was only following in Kane’s footsteps. When Susan Alexander becomes Mrs Kane, Charles tries everything in his power to portray her as the greatest singing sensation there ever was, even building a brand new Opera House for her to shake and rumble the chandeliers. As one discarded arts critic quips: “Charles wanted nothing more for Susan than to take the quotes off the word singer!”

But Tripathi is perhaps too willing to see the Hindu shenanigans as kinship trumping professionalism, implying that both are mutually exclusive. Are they? In an article published recently in the Harvard Business Review, the authors George Stalk and Henry Foley mention a startling fact: 50 of the largest German family firms outperformed the German stock index DAX by 6.8%, on average, from 2003 to 2008.

So it is not that family-run businesses are unprofessional. What it boils down to is something that is true for any business: Perform or perish. A business – if it isn’t India Scooters Limited or Air India – is accountable to the people who have invested in it. Whether it is family-run or not shouldn’t enter the debate. That said, the authors go on to list a few traps family-run businesses need to avoid if they are to succeed. One of them – “There’s Always a Place For You Here” – is only too well known to us. “A job with the company”, warn the authors, “shouldn’t be an entitlement. At one European firm we know of, family members applying for a job must be at least 26 years old, earned a master’s degree in business or engineering, speak three languages, and won two promotions within five years at a non-family firm. And they are given only one opportunity to apply: If they’re turned down, they must go elsewhere”. Would you call this unprofessional? I don’t think so.

According to another study, family-run businesses are better managed than other companies, are more stable, take better credit risks and keep in mind the long-term. “They don’t spend a lot of money when markets turn up, but nor do they immediately cut investment or mothball factories when economies turn down.”

When, recently, The Washington Post was sold to Jeff Bezos of Amazon, rumours were abuzz that The New York Times, owned by the Sulzberger family was next. The owner, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., denied any such plan. “Will our family seek to sell The Times? The answer to that is no. The Times is not for sale.” He went further when asked if his paper could soon become the cherry the media mogul Michael Bloomberg covets so dearly: “Imagine. People talk. What a shock. The Times is Not. For. Sale.”

Stockbrokers are no doubt counting the number of times Sulzberger has had to cry “The Times is not for sale!”, but the fact remains that these are troubled times for newspapers. The New York Times is one of the last remaining family-owned bastions in the US. Strange, then, that while most newspapers and magazines are suffering huge losses and shutting down or changing hands, NYT recently reported a profit – its net income rose to $20.1 million as against a loss of $87.6 million last year. What explains this turnaround? The answer perhaps lies in how the Sulzberger family run their newspaper. The fifth-generation Sulzbergers, it transpires, begin attending meetings before they reach the age of 10. By 15, writes the author of the article, Joe Hagan, “they understand their roles as caretakers of The New York Times. There’s an orientation session after age 18, along with private retreats and an annual meeting at the paper’s headquarters”.

When people criticise The Hindu for “becoming Indian”, they forget that most Indian media is already, well, “Indian”. If, therefore, as some profess, The Hindu is turning its back on professionalism, it is not breaking new ground. The Express Group, The Times Group, The Hindustan Times, The Telegraph, Tehelka, The Caravan are all deeply family entrenched, so much so that it is impossible to define the contours of the Maginot Line anymore. The Express Group, once run by the formidable Ramnath Goenka, now stands fragmented into many parts, scattered along the length and breadth of the country. Limelight is entrenched, too. Indu Jain (owner of Times Group) and Shobhana Bhartia (owner of Mint) have appeared more often on the front pages of their respective newspapers than the Columbia topper in hers.

There is nothing wrong with a family running a business. Hard data from all around the world shows that family businesses are run as professionally as their counterparts. All that matters is meritocracy and a feeling among the family members that come what may, they will not betray the trust of their readers and investors.

Just before he died, Charles Foster Kane uttered a strange word, Rosebud. What or who was Rosebud – was it the name of his wife, or his girlfriend, or a nickname he was given by his college friends? The mystery is revealed in the very last frame of the film. At first glance, Kane’s sled being called Rosebud means little – just a torn fragment of memory the dying man remembered accidentally. But what it is, is a devastating metaphor for the life Kane yearns for when he is about to breathe his last. Rosebud, he whispers, as though mentioning the word would transport him to an age when principles mattered, when he wasn’t impossibly rich, when he wanted to change the world and not rule it. The film critic Roger Ebert put it beautifully: “Rosebud is the green light at the end of Gatsby’s pier; the leopard atop Kilimanjaro; the bone tossed into the air in 2001”.

Death visits all, but some are able to smell the rosebud a little longer.


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