Review: Indian Media Giants; Unveiling the Business Dynamics of Print Legacies by Surbhi Dahiya
A book on India’s biggest media conglomerates draws on interviews with owners, key editors and executives and tracks how aims and strategies have evolved
How did some of the biggest media conglomerates in India script their success stories? Why were they set up in the first place, and to what extent have their priorities changed? What kind of managerial, editorial and technological decisions have helped them stay alive in difficult times? Surbhi Dahiya’s book Indian Media Giants: Unveiling the Business Dynamics of Print Legacies explores these questions in depth.
A professor at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in Delhi, the author focuses on six media conglomerates – Bennett Coleman and Co Ltd (The Times Group), Kasturi and Sons Ltd (The Hindu Group), HT Media Limited (which publishes Hindustan Times), Indian Express Group, Jagran Prakashan Limited and DB Corp Limited. Her writing is more descriptive than critical. She comes to this study wanting to show how things are. The book is not invested in a comparative approach that pits media conglomerates against each other to judge which ones are doing a better job in terms of making a difference to society. She highlights what they are good at, how they have achieved this, and who is responsible for it.
While some of these media conglomerates have their origins in nationalistic fervour and anticolonial sentiment against the British Raj, they operate in a completely different scenario today. The Indian media landscape has altered considerably after liberalization and globalization. The author writes, “…mass media organizations are quintessentially economic organizations whose primary purpose remains wealth generation and profit-making, with the agenda-setting function of mass media being only a fall out of the content management strategy.” She is not being cynical or ironic here. She is merely providing a reality check.
The book draws on Dahiya’s interviews with owners, key editors and executives and cites company documents and published case studies. It tracks how aims and strategies have evolved over time in keeping with the changing leadership at the managerial and editorial levels. It also examines business models and financial statements and uses timelines, graphs and tables.
The chapters pertaining to each of the media conglomerates have been vetted by those organizations. The author discusses media censorship but mainly in relation to the National Emergency imposed by India’s former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi but is silent about more recent curbs on press freedom. The book does mention feuds between business families but merely to place them on record and not in order to circulate gossip.
It is hard to read this book and not be struck by the dearth of women in senior roles, especially when one goes through the names of legendary editors and owners who shaped these publications. Unfortunately, the author does not employ a feminist lens, or even a gender lens, to ponder over this question. Similarly, she does not engage with questions of caste or class privilege when she writes about generational wealth and media ownership. What seem like gaps might be outside the scope of her research since she is not looking to paint a picture of what diversity, equity and inclusion would look like in Indian media.
The book’s strength lies in showcasing how media empires have been built by starting with one flagship newspaper and then branching out further through city editions, regional language publications, magazines, lifestyle supplements, digital properties, and radio stations. These conglomerates also earn money from event management, matrimonial services, film production, outdoor advertising, beauty pageants, and other businesses. The broader framework here is of capitalism and consumption, which took off in a major way after the New Economic Policy of 1991 and the demise of India’s Permit-License Raj.
We have come a long way since then, especially with the Internet revolution that makes it possible for readers to access digital editions of newspapers on browsers and apps. Social media platforms further increase the reach of news stories, features and op-ed pieces.
Dahiya writes: “In the attention economy of today, no paper can overlook the primacy of its financial health which is premised on its ability to generate revenue through its readership. Where an organization decides to forgo emphasis on the advertising revenue, its cost per unit product will go up and the price becomes forbiddingly high.” This lesson in economics would serve young media entrepreneurs who want to develop niche media products for paying subscribers but do not have a sound business plan in place. They can use this book to learn from those who have broken into new markets, built a supply chain, and earned handsomely.
Unfortunately, the size of this book - it runs into more than a thousand pages - is likely to scare away a number of readers. A good editor would have cut it down to half its size and kept it informative but concise . But Indian Media Giants does have a lot to offer.
Chintan Girish Modi is an independent writer, journalist and book reviewer.