Who owns your media: The Hindu ‘divided’ family is losing revenue and readership

A Newslaundry series that deciphers the ownership of India's major news organisations.

ByAnto T Joseph
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Who owns your media: The Hindu ‘divided’ family is losing revenue and readership
Shambhavi Thakur
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“The Stalinists are trying to beat me down. This time they won’t succeed.”

- Malini Parthasarathy on Twitter, March 27, 2010

After a bumpy rollercoaster ride for nearly two decades, Malini Parthasarathy has finally found peace. Or so she would want to believe.

Exactly a year ago, on July 15, 2020, Parthasarathy was “unanimously appointed” as chairperson of the Hindu Group Publishing Pvt Ltd, or THG Publishing, giving her an absolute mandate to steer the company out of its current mess. Her archrival at the time – chairman and former editor N Ram – stepped down from the post of chairman when he turned 75 on May 4, 2020, formally handing over the reins of the 143-year-old Chennai newspaper.

What she inherited is a loss-making publishing company. A year on, the pandemic has created a bigger mess for the print media industry, leaving it gasping for breath. The “deluge” she sardonically called out in 2011 is now threatening to drown the industry as a whole in the wake of a second wave of Covid and a potential third wave.

In November 2015, when the Hindu stepped out of its den to say “Vanakkam Mumbai” with an exclusive city edition, it put to rest years of speculation since the launch of Times of India’s Chennai edition in April 2008. It was more like a tit-for-tat response.

But the pomp and pageantry that usually accompanied newspaper launches in the financial capital was missing. They didn't paint the town red, in the way that DNA and Hindustan Times did during their launch in previous years. “It was kind of a soft launch,” said a former employee.

The group spent heavily on talent acquisition. Rightly so, given the image of a newspaper that is proud of upholding conservatism, good content, and high standards of language at any cost.

At the launch party held one evening at Mumbai’s Kasturi Building in the upmarket Churchgate area, the then chairman N Ram appeared cheerful. He gave five years for the edition to break even. Rajiv Lochan, the managing director and CEO at the time, was much more sanguine: he gave it three to four years.

“The Mumbai edition was Parthasarathy's baby,” said a senior journalist formerly with the Hindu. “Being the editor, she stayed in the city during the launch to ensure that we come up with a premium product.” The edition launched at a price tag of Rs 8, making it one of the most expensive newspapers in Mumbai at the time.

In an autographed editor’s note, Parthasarathy called the Mumbai edition a fulfilment of the Hindu’s "historical destiny" as India’s national newspaper. Everyone thought the reins were firmly in her grip.

But a month later, she stepped down. The Hindu’s first woman editor had barely completed 11 months at the helm. There were no official reasons cited for her exit but the murmurs were loud: some directors on the board of the parent company, Kasturi & Sons, were miffed with her splurge, especially pertaining to the Mumbai edition, and her performance.

In an email to employees, Parthasarathy said she was forced to resign following the feedback she received on her performance as editor.

An internal source said the board was concerned about her general attitude, which had prompted several editors to leave the newspaper. This included Rahul Pandita, opinions and special stories editor; P Sainath, senior editor; and Praveen Swami, a national security expert. In his resignation letter, Pandita blamed Parthasarathy for her arbitrary decision-making, adding that he was tired of changing goalposts.

“...I am bogged down with this hourly need to consult you, and with the practice of selecting articles on the basis of whether you've been addressed as 'Malini' or 'Ma'am' in the covering letters,” he wrote. “...The Sunday Anchor has to be reportage-driven, and then suddenly it becomes policy-driven, and then suddenly, depending on what you hear or get impressed with, it has to be made reportage-driven again.”

When she resigned, Parthasarathy was also a full-time director on the board and acted as co-chairperson. Four years later, in July 2020, her elevation to chairperson was part of a simple exercise in succession planning.

The move was preceded by a clean-up action by the board. On April 25, 2020, a handwritten note from chief executive officer LV Navaneeth explained how every employee would see a salary cut in the range of 8-25 percent, with the seniors earning more than Rs 35 lakh per annum taking the biggest cut. That was the new normal in India as the country imposed a total lockdown to thwart the pandemic. It inevitably crippled businesses. Navaneeth said the situation placed a huge burden on the Hindu’s finances.

What followed was a massive layoff. People were laid off across bureaus, slashing as many as 79 critical jobs.

But the biggest shock came from Mumbai: the four and a half year old edition from India’s commercial capital was shuttered without prior notice, rendering jobless over two dozen journalists as well as additional support staff. The abrupt decision saved the company from making massive gratuity payments as several of them fell short, by a few days, of the mandatory four years and 240 days to be entitled to the lump sum payment. One journalist fell short by a single day.

Soon after, on July 15, THG Publishing’s board of directors “unanimously appointed” Parthasarathy as its chairperson.

With the Mumbai shutdown, the group’s dream of penetrating into the country’s biggest English newspaper market and making itself a pan-India newspaper lay shattered. Its grand plans of raising advertisement tariffs and luring more advertisers with a wider footprint, apart from building on its traditional reader base in Mumbai, fell by the wayside.

All it managed was a Rs 100 crore hole in its kitty.

When the bruised southern tiger returned to its den, badly bruised, it realised its bigger folies from the Mumbai adventure.

The Hindu 'divided' family

Kasturi Building on Chennai’s Mount Road, the group headquarters, resembled an old dynasty in the pre-British era, with factions within the family constantly feuding with each other. The feuds were epic and ruthless. Boardroom bickering, bullying and mud-slinging were routine. One camp accused the rival of running the Hindu "like a banana republic". In return, they were called "power-hungry". As a former editor said, you could find a wide range of people at the helm: intellectual, pompous, browbeating, fickle-minded, left-leaning or inconsistent.

The families fought regularly in the boardroom, their outbursts frequently spilling into the public space. They often washed their dirty linen in public.

“It is one hell of a battlefield, the patriarchs running their own coteries for years,” said a senior editor who couldn’t survive at the newspaper’s headquarters beyond a few months.

A former top executive called it a “dormant volcano” that “can erupt any time.” What is driving the company is “a sense of appeasement”.

The Hindu’s ownership is scattered across the extended family of Kasturi Ranga Iyengar, the man credited with purchasing a struggling newspaper in April 1905 and turning it around. His descendants hold the entire stake in the publishing company. His four grandsons – G Narasimhan, G Kasturi, S Parthasarathy and S Rangarajan – had four offspring each, making it a family of 16.

The ownership structure doesn't look as complex as many other unlisted media companies in India. The newspaper is published by THG Publishing, of which half (52.04 percent) is owned by Kasturi & Sons Limited (KSL), the holding company. The remaining 47.96 percent is split among four dozen shareholders from the extended family. Similarly, the ownership of the parent company, KSL, is split among these families with each one holding nearly equal stake in a 22-26 percent range, making it wholly owned by them.

THG Publishing came into existence in September 2017, after the group went for a demerger of the publishing business of KSL into a separate entity. All newspapers, magazines, and digital news media publications were made a part of THG Publishing, while all other businesses, especially the real estate, went to KSL. It owned real estate in prime localities in cities across the country.

Post demerger, KSL continued to be a holding company with four subsidiaries: THG Publishing (which publishes the Hindu, Business Line, Frontline and Sportstar), KSL Media (which runs the Tamil daily Hindu Tamil Thisai), KSL Digital Ventures (which hosts a real estate portal roofandfloor.com) and Sporting Pastime India, a subsidiary promoted to take up the resorts business and develop a golf course in Chennai.

Many in the group believe the demerger in 2017 created additional power centres within the family. While N Murali was appointed chairman and Nalini Krishan co-chairperson of KSL, N Ram was appointed chairman and Malini Parthasarathy co-chairperson of THG Publishing. N Ravi was appointed publisher of the Hindu and other publications of the group.

The rejig in 2017 gave the impression that the warring factions had finally come to a truce.

But the past returns at frequent intervals to haunt the group.

An email sent to employees by one of the promoters, N Ravi, nearly a decade ago, in April 2011, still sprouts up in discussions at the Hindu. Ravi had questioned his brother Ram’s role as an editor after linking a front-page interview of the then sacked telecom minister A Raja to a full-page advertisement from the telecom ministry. He accused Ram of political favouritism and having a distinctive pro-left and pro-China bias. He also alleged that the newspaper shied away from taking a stance on the politically-sensitive Sri Lankan Tamil issue.

Another big development that rocked the Hindu was the exit of Siddharth Varadarajan in October 2013. Varadarajan, the first editor of the newspaper in several decades who didn’t belong to the Kasturi family, was pushed out as the promoters decided to revert it to a family-owned business just two years after it had decided to bring in outside professionals.

“Over the last few years, Ram seems to have made peace with his two brothers, Ravi and Murali,” said a former employee. “Given the fact that KSL has so many family members on the board representing warring groups, peace is an illusion.”

Some insiders claim that the new generation in the Kasturi family may not be keen to run the loss-making and politically-sensitive publishing business.

Parthasarathy versus Ram

When elevated to chairperson, Parthasarathy reminded everyone of Ram's redrawing of an old idea. She said in a statement: “His (Ram’s) updating of the earlier idea of a ‘wall’ between editorial and business to ‘a line, not a wall’, an idea that has been successful in integrating aspirations on both sides; and his constant holding both the company and the paper to the obligation of maintaining the highest standards.”

The statement reeked of two eminent ideas – editorial freedom and business interests – that are mutually insoluble, something that every media company in India has struggled to cope with. On her part, Parthasarathy tried to befriend the government, even when Ram steered clear of any move that undermined the newspaper’s freedom and attempted to fill the space of an anti-establishment newspaper.

Many believed they were playing good cop, bad cop. Everyone in the industry knew that opposing the political establishment had serious repercussions on revenue from government-sponsored ads.

On July 17, 2019, Parthasarathy met the prime minister. She tweeted: "Grateful that he [Modi] shared insights about his vision for the country going forward."

Insiders suggest there had been some serious editorial efforts to “please the powerful” in order to win back government support after “running several stories that riled the establishment”.

In March 2020, prime minister Modi complimented THG Publications for bringing out a compilation of the life and thoughts of Swami Vivekananda titled The Monk Who Took India to the World.

As Parthasarathy painstakingly built bridges, even at the cost of irking her readers, Ram continued to burn them in his inimitable style. A quick look at Ram’s statements reveals that he’s been extremely critical of the government, undermining Parthasarathy’s efforts at a rapprochement.

In an interview on July 29, 2020, Ram said the Hindu faced a big hit on advertising after it published a series of investigative reports on the Rafale deal. (He himself broke several investigative stories.) He said the previous Congress government was also not kind to them when the newspaper published a series of articles on the Bofors scandal many years ago.

“In the heydays, 75-80 percent of our revenues came from advertising. It’s relentlessly coming down in the pandemic,” he said in the interview. “I remember during Bofors, the then Congress-led government told public sector companies not to advertise in the Hindu and government advertising stopped, or greatly reduced. We used to say we don’t care. But then, it was only 10 percent of the total. It is a huge source of advertising [now]. After Rafale, central government ads have not come our way...with rare exceptions. Even state governments have gotten very intolerant. They want your support in return for their advertising.” He added that he was not going to bend.

Ram also expressed concern at the apparent misuse of India’s constitutional institutions. He said that barring a few notable judgements, developments at the Supreme Court had been extremely disappointing. Similarly, he said, there was fear around the Election Commission’s decisions.

What makes Parthasarathy’s life difficult is Ram’s open battle cry against the government. In February 2021, Ram said what many media barons were loath to say. He accused a large part of the media as functioning as a propaganda arm of the government and the “Hindu Rashtra ideology”.

In August 2020, he had joined hands with Arun Shourie and Prashant Bhushan to jointly move the Supreme Court against a law that allowed criminal contempt action to be initiated on vague grounds. The trio had claimed the contempt law in question was unconstitutional and rooted in colonialism.

TOI's emergence

In 2008, when Times of India's cavalry entered the land of Bharatanatyam, it was literally their final frontier in the country. Of course, their growth wasn't easy in a talismanic city that straddled tradition and modernity with ease. As in other markets, cutthroat marketing and circulation strategies helped TOI slowly but steadily build a base in Tamil Nadu.

By the time the Hindu returned from Mumbai, badly bruised, in 2020, TOI had dethroned it in Chennai. In the pre-Covid days, the Hindu was staring at a double whammy of a dip in circulation and readership numbers as well as ad revenues. In Chennai, TOI's average issue readership had steadily moved up to 2.96 lakh in the December quarter of 2019, from 2.6 lakh in the first quarter, while the Hindu's readership dropped to 2.5 lakh from 2.6 lakh in the first quarter of 2019. All these numbers fell drastically in 2020, thanks to the pandemic and the deepening of the economic slowdown.

What's worse for the Hindu is that the newspaper that commanded the respect of its employees for decades has seen it steadily erode. The legal notice sent by the Mumbai staff demanding fair severance in line with wage board provisions is a classic example.

"We were all asked to sign a fresh contract when the group went in for the demerger in 2017,” an employee told Newslaundry. “Little did we realise that they changed the terms of the exit in favour of the company.”

Parthasarathy's challenges are manifold as the group finds itself stuck between falling revenues and declining readership.

As per the latest regulatory filing, the standalone company, THG Publishing, reported a loss of Rs 43.6 crore in 2019-20, an improvement from the loss of Rs 129 crore reported in the previous year. Its total income slid to Rs 859 crore in 2019-20 from Rs 1,016 crore reported in the previous year. Its return on equity stands at -26.43 percent while return on capital employed is -9.42 percent. The pandemic and the lockdowns have mauled advertising revenues in 2020-21 and insiders suspect the group is hurtling towards a much higher loss in 2020-21, figures for which are yet to be made public.

With fewer options, Parthasarathy is making it a tight ship. Starting April 16, 2021, Krishna Prasad, the former editor-in-chief of Outlook, took charge as group editorial officer. A company statement said Prasad will lead and enable greater synergies across the different print publications and digital offerings, by coordinating content efforts across all publications of the Hindu Group.

A source told Newslaundry that the group has done well in recent months, thanks to the government-sponsored ads. An annual Rs 8 crore deal with Google is believed to have boosted its revenues from the digital vertical.

Can Parthasarathy turn the tide and pull the newspaper from the financial mess it's ensnared in? Can the Mahavishnu of Mount Road – an epithet the newspaper earned for its sanctimonious comments and editorials – rise above the rest?

There are no quick answers, for now.

Graphics by Gobindh VB

Update: The first tweet cited by Malini Parthasarathy is from March 2010, not 2020. This has been corrected.

***

This story is part of the NL Sena project, which over 75 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Gaurav Ketkar, Pradeep Dantuluri, Shipra Mehandru, Yash Sinha, Sonali Singh, Prayash Mohapatra, Naveen Kumar Prabhakar, Abhishek Singh, Sandeep Kelvadi, Aishwarya Mahesh, Tushar Mathew, Satish Pagare, and other NL Sena members.

Contribute to our next NL Sena project, Plunder of the Aravallis, and help to keep news free and independent.

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