TOI vs HT: The Numbers Game Face-Off

A blow-by-blow account of two leading dailies slugging it out over sales figures.

ByArunabh Saikia
TOI vs HT: The Numbers Game Face-Off
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Quite a few people on the Internet, as seen here and also here, want to know which is the better newspaper – The Hindustan Times (HT) or The Times of India (TOI). It’s unlikely though, that either of them really care.  Because quality doesn’t pay your bills. Quantity (circulation and readership in this context) does, and the two are about as interconnected as ice and Iceland – precisely the reason why both dailies, over the last few days, have gone all out to prove supremacy over each other in terms of numbers.

Now, this battle played out through advertisements and front-page anchor stories, and has been amusing to say the least. In fact, this is hardly the first time these two have clashed: things heated up ever since the contentious Indian Readership Survey (IRS) – some of its numbers were, in fact, hard to believe – was released in January. The numbers that the new IRS threw up weren’t flattering for TOI and, ever since, the newspaper and its sister publications have consistently been at this huge sulk-fest, a state that entails taking periodic potshots at HT.

The first jibe at HT was taken by Economic Times (ET) way back in June 2014. The copy, titled “Indian Readership Survey foxes media industry”, suggests that HT’s numbers, which have “managed to buck national readership trends”, are a trifle odd. But what was stranger was the timing of the story. The IRS had been out for more than six months, and a story on it without any apparent hook was rather arbitrary. Clearly, the motive of the story wasn’t just to inform readers about the IRS’ anomalies, and it didn’t take Einstein to figure that out. Hindustan Times, to no one’s surprise, responded with a story titled “TOI cannot digest readership survey findings” the very next day, in which it claimed that TOI’s story was “riddled with inaccuracies”.

However, what really set the stage – or last Sunday morning at least – on fire, was this ad by The Times of India.

The folks at Hindustan Times, to state the obvious, weren’t pleased.  Media news website exchange4media.com quoted Shantanu Bhanja, VP (Marketing), HT Media, calling TOI’s quarter-page ad an “expression of utter frustration at the last round of IRS so conclusively establishing HT‘s lead in Delhi NCR”.

The Times of India, however, was not to be deterred, and to ensure that truth prevailed, it followed up the ad with a page-1 anchor titled “TOI Challenge: Making sense of HT’s amazing circulation numbers” on Monday.  This is how a part of the story reads:

However, a closer examination of ABC figures reveals that as much as 26% of HT’s claimed circulation (10.6 lakh copies compared to TOI’s 10.4 lakh) comes from a rehashed, mini version called ‘HT 2 Minutes’. HT 2 Minutes, which rarely exceeds 12 pages and is priced at just Rs 1.25 against Rs 4.50 for the regular HT, is inserted into Hindi Hindustan from Monday to Friday and carries only a small proportion of the ads that appear in the main newspaper. For instance, between September 1 and 6 this year, it carried less than 30% of these ads. From an advertiser’s viewpoint, this means that as much as 26% of HT’s circulation in Delhi NCR, in all likelihood, does not carry its ads. Moreover, the ones that do get carried might not even reach the English-speaking reader that they were originally intended for.

No attempt at subtlety here. The message is loud and clear: There’s no better place to advertise than The Times of India. That’s what we do the best. We can even pass off ads as front-page news stories.  And that’s exactly what we did just now.

And if anyone missed that, TOI also sneaked in another ad in the same edition. “Seeing Is Believing”, evidently.

Hindustan Times, the next day, carried a story headlined “Whodunit: Removing HT market copies to win ‘morning challenge’?”, where it claimed that copies of the newspaper were going missing in the capital. The story alleged that it is “strange” that copies went missing on the same weekend that “a competition newspaper” had “launched a so-called ‘Morning Challenge’”.

In response, The Times of India’s Arunabh Das Sharma, Executive Director and President, BCCL, told exchange4media.com that “it is a silly attempt [by HT] at diverting attention”.

However, Bhanja told Newslaundry that he “understood” that the consignee, from whom copies of HT were apprehended in Mumbai, conceded to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) that he actually was an agent of TOI, and that he had been asked by them to buy copies from the market and transport to Mumbai. “We are in the process of getting a copy of such a confession statement so that our understanding can be validated”, he said.

To our query of whether HT has filed any formal complaint, Bhanja said, “We did of course file a complaint – and an FIR was lodged on no names basis – as soon as we found copies missing, but that was before the copies had been discovered in Mumbai.”

Curiously though, taking TOI’s “morning challenge” is not as easy as it would seem. We sent a request to the email address mentioned in the ad on Monday. There has been no response till the time of this story going online.

Perhaps the challenge is meant only for potential advertisers – as pretty much everything in the entire discourse on the subject. It is hard to believe that The Times of India would have raised such a stink about the IRS had the numbers been flattering for it. In all probability, they would have used them to leverage more advertisements (if that’s even possible). Just like they did last year, when they cited the IRS statistics to substantiate this headline: “TOI bigger than next 3 together”.

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