20/20. Perfect vision. An unimpeded view of what is and what lies ahead. Kasturi and Sons, the company that publishes the 140-year-old newspaper The Hindu, seemed to have found this clarity last year. In an email circulated among employees in May 2017, Rajiv C Lochan, the company’s CEO, spoke of a Vision 2020 for the company. It was aimed at revamping the business to keep up with the times.
Print news is a shadow of its former self, and Kasturi and Sons—which publishes Business Line, Frontline, and Sportstar in addition to The Hindu—is no exception. The company’s net profit was Rs 50.8 crore ($7.3 million) in the financial year ending March 2017, almost Rs 10 crore ($1.4 million) less than the previous year. Revenue growth, too, was flat at Rs 1,198.47 crore ($180.1 million), compared to Rs 1,186.75 crore ($178.3 million) last year.
Hence, the revamp.
The plan included a new printing press in Bengaluru, an upgrade of their Hyderabad press, a reimagining of their digital platforms, and a greater emphasis on understanding the pulse of readers.
But this isn’t a happy story about an icon rediscovering its mojo. It’s a darker, more complex tale about an industry-leader coming to terms with a grim reality. A reality that requires cut-throat changes and the reassessment of long-held values and principles. That’s the thing about crystal clear vision. As much as it is a positive, it also means taking off the rose-tinted glasses and looking at a lot of ugly truths as well.
Kasturi and Sons has come to terms with this.
On 2 July, an email went out from Lochan to company staffers. In it, Lochan stated that the first quarter of 2018 had been one of the most challenging in years. Print advertising revenue had “declined at double-digit rates”. This is a worry for The Hindu, whose print advertising earnings makes up a large chunk of its overall revenue.
This wasn’t the first such letter. Over the past year, Lochan has sent four emails to staff, all lamenting the decline in print advertising revenue. The introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, demonetisation, Real Estate Regulation Act (RERA), and even a change in vehicular emission standards were mentioned as causes.
The truth, though, is that this is no new phenomenon. It began in 2008, when the Times of India (TOI) launched its Chennai edition. According to a senior Chennai-based journalist who didn’t want to be named, TOI aggressively undercut The Hindu on both ad rates, as well as newspaper price. Today, it has a circulation comparable to The Hindu’s, while earning more ad revenue.