A news industry veteran, Pradeep Gairola (VP, Head of Digital, The Hindu Group) is a key member of this year’s Subscriptions Academy India cohort, known for speaking up and sharing ideas. On a recent trip to Chennai, FT Strategies had the chance to interview Pradeep in the storied offices of The Hindu - a paper which predates India’s independence.
How did you begin your journey in digital news?
PG: My newspaper journey started in 1993 in the Bhopal office of The Times of India (TOI). That was a small office so I got a very wide exposure. I moved to Mumbai in 1997 and I became Executive Assistant to Mr. Sunil Rajshekhar, the person who had set up TOI’s internet division. That gave me one of the best experiences of my career. Back then, digital was not a priority for anybody. What I learned was,
Everyone thinks the future is important, but almost nobody wants to do something about it today.
It’s like we all understand our health is important but only some people exercise daily. The irony is that newspapers back in the 1990s were telling the world that digital was the future, and yet, almost nobody in the newspaper industry did anything about safeguarding themselves. Luckily for me, as I was working closely with some visionaries, I realized early in my career that if I didn’t move into digital, I would eventually become professionally irrelevant.
What makes India a uniquely attractive market for digital?
1. Scale - If you can make sense to even 1-2% of Indians you can build a dramatically sustainable business. Every niche in this country is a mass market. Even 1% of our population is 13 million. We have about 145,000 registered newspapers in India as per the Registrar of Newspapers. In 1947, at Independence, we had about 400 titles which means every day we have added 5 titles since Independence. We have a thriving democracy. Every day, 240 million copies of newspapers are sold across India.
2. Time - Our biggest advantage is that we still have time in our hands as far as digital transformation is concerned.
We are in a great position because we are seeing what happened in the US and other markets and have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
As late as Covid, newspapers were a growing industry in this country. So, when people look at us and say, unlike Europeans, you haven’t developed digital that much, that’s because we still have a thriving newspaper market. It’s still 90% of our revenue here at The Hindu. Discussions about ad revenues disappearing are not happening anytime soon. Equally, legacy publishers understand that the newspaper business is in the long term decline. We can invest in transformation now and so we may not face a situation wherein a large number of journalists lose their jobs and democracy is weakened.
4. Demand for news - Digital penetration of news is higher than social media. According to Comscore, in 2021, News/Information had 458 million monthly consumers which was 1 million more users than social media. You won’t find that in any other country. 98% of people online also end up consuming news.
5. Young population - unlike Europe we are a young nation. We have a young population, perhaps the youngest in the world, and they are increasingly educated and English-speaking.
6. Languages - English-language internet penetration is somewhat saturated but other languages are coming into the picture. Future growth is going to come from a lot more Indian languages. Video and audio will also become more important as this cuts down the requirement of literacy.
Can you tell us about the culture you are building at The Hindu?
1. Leadership mandate - The message for change has to come from the top. When I joined The Hindu in 2018, the relationship with print was so deep that digital was not a focus area. In 2019, we took thehindu.com behind the paywall. Since then, we’ve been trying to make reader-revenue our primary source of digital revenue. Our moment of truth was during Covid. That was the first time the paper couldn’t get distributed and everybody was suddenly shaken. Digital became the only way to keep up with world news. At The Hindu, digital is now a board priority. The board reviews its progress on an ongoing basis. There is a deep commitment of Editors and top management towards the transformation.
2. Culture of experimentation - We are building a young team. I’m the oldest in the team! We are empowering them. What we’ve done is created a culture where we don’t use the word ‘failure.’ Instead, we talk about the ‘cost of learning’ and we reward experimentation. We started a scheme where anyone who started an experiment was awarded an Amazon voucher. It wasn’t about money, it was about recognising that only experimentation can help us build a sustainable future.
One of the big differences between FT Strategies and other consulting programmes we’ve done in the past is this emphasis on experimentation. There’s a practical hands-on approach...
...like your North Star metrics. Other consultants we’ve worked with said ‘you need to get healthy’, but you are taking the next step, coaching us and you’re ready to track our results.
3. Transparency & collaboration - Our CEO operates from an open workstation on the digital floor on Thursdays, so that he is accessible to everyone in the newsroom, product, business, technology etc. The thought process is that ideas can come from everywhere. All departments take part in our monthly reviews. We feel digital is the central nervous system of this company. It cannot be boxed into a department. In fact, we have made a commitment to kill the name ‘digital’ department by next year.
4. Editorial integrity - I’m very proud that we have zero control over the content that is published on our platforms. Unlike many Indian news companies, our Editors do not report to the CEO. Instead, they, along with him, report to the board. At the same time, our Editors are collaborative. They recognize that good journalism cannot survive and flourish unless it is viable and commercially successful. We operate with a clear line between business and editorial on the basis of mutual respect and cooperation
5. Industry empowerment - We are committed to the democracy of this country. We are committed to the news industry of this country. We, as an organisation, have always believed that growth has to be inclusive. We have to succeed along with the industry. In fact, unless a bunch of publishers succeed, Indian democracy will be served suboptimally. To do justice to a democracy that is as big as India, we need a few million sources of news. We all - legacy publishers and digital natives - have to work towards a stronger democracy together. That’s why we try to share whatever we know with other publishers. When we speak to other publishers we tell them, “The market will never be ready. You have to push the market.”
Finally, what are your thoughts about the future of news?
PG:I am extremely optimistic about the future of news. The silver lining in the death of thousands of newspapers was that the world now understands that journalism is a public good. Today, all the forces of the universe are coming together for the sustainable future of news. Publishers are sharing information, experiences and collaborating to ensure the success of the news industry. Companies like The Financial Times have gone a step ahead and created set-ups like FT Strategies to help fast-track the transformation of the news industry. In my career of over 30 years, I have never seen so much cooperation, sharing and a shared vision for success of our industry.
About the author
Aliya Itzkowitz is a Senior Consultant at FT Strategies. She has over five years of experience across Media, Finance and Technology. Previously, she worked at Dataminr, bringing A.I. technology to newsrooms across EMEA. Prior to that, she worked as a journalist at Bloomberg and was a member of the British National Fencing Team. She has a BA from Harvard University and an MBA from Said Business School, University of Oxford.
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