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BW Businessworld

More Difficult But Easier As Well

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Has business journalism kept pace with the development of the economy? How much better are we in 2011 than in 1981? There is no simple answer.

If one looks at the structure of the business information market, the number of players has proliferated — which is what you would expect in an industry at a certain stage of development. India now has eight or nine magazines that operate in the business/investor space, half a dozen business newspapers in English and another three in Hindi, four business television channels in English and two or three more in Hindi, and of course multiple websites.

These numbers are very much greater than what prevailed in the 1990s (let alone 1980s), when I was at BusinessWorld, and certainly greater than exist in any other market in the world. So it should not surprise that most business media are probably not making money, or very little of it, and at least half of them may not be viable in any plausible long-term scenario.

But if you thought that this would lead to market consolidation, think again. There seems to be new money entering the business, and there are next to no exits.

Editor, 1993-96
Ninan came to BusinessWorld after revamping The Economic Times as its editor. He took charge at a time when the Indian economic reforms had just started. It was also the time when big changes were taking place among India's biggest business houses. The legendary J.R.D. Tata was handing over charge to a young Ratan Tata. Dhirubhai Ambani and Nusli Wadia were engaged in a protracted battle. ITC was facing great internal churn. In this article, Ninan has focused on how business journalism itself has changed over the years.

The proliferation has meant many things. On the one hand, it is much harder now to make impact in a crowded and therefore fragmented market. You could do a great story, but most of the readers of business publications may never get to see it. Grabbing attention becomes difficult too; people are struggling to cope with information overload, they are distracted much of the time, and have shorter attention spans.

On the other hand, there has been a rapid increase in the number of journalist jobs, and rapid pay hikes as demand has exceeded the supply of capable writers. Young people have reached positions of responsibility at fairly early stages in their career. So business magazine offices tend to be young places, and that has been part of the fun, because of the energy and enthusiasm and optimism that young people bring to what they do. The flip side is that too many journalists have no perspective on events and issues, and therefore a lack of context — simply because they haven't been around long enough. Meanwhile, an old problem remains: the scarcest commodities then and now are people with command of grammatical and idiomatic English, and people who understand and have a feel for numbers.

Being a business journalist in the 1980s and 1990s was both easier and more difficult. Easier, because businessmen and CEOs were accessible, not protected by armies of PR people. I remember ringing J.R.D. Tata at home one morning when I was in Mumbai, and being surprised that he picked up the phone himself (I didn't get the interview I wanted). Ratan Tata would phone you directly, without intermediaries, if he wanted to tell you something. And Dhirubhai Ambani gave his direct unlisted number to friendly journalists (I wasn't one of the favoured ones).

The Tata succession was a big story in the 1990s. As far as the economy was concerned, there were questions on whether reforms would continue (Cover Design: Malay Karmakar)

But it was also more difficult then, because the supportive information flows of today did not exist. The websites that give you corporate performance history, the key ratios and industry benchmarks, all at the click of a mouse, did not exist. There were few if any equity analysts crunching numbers and giving you their take, and brokerages did not put out reams of reports on every notable company that was listed, and on every industry of any worthwhile size. Data banks were few, expensive and inadequate those days. And of course, there was no Google.

The changes in the market for information have brought about a shift in emphasis, from "scoops" (more appropriately called news breaks these days) to writing that helps improve the reader's understanding of trends and issues. The old emphasis on "contacts" has given way to knowing the industry and its key players. In short, business journalism has matured, though we cannot claim that the standards are comparable with those in the capitals of western journalism; most reporters who can do a 400-word news report still cannot write an analytical piece of 1,000 words. Still, television reporters give you the news instantly, and you do see the odd example of the challenging art of long-form journalism that compares well with anything anywhere.

Both J.R.D. Tata and Dhirubhai Ambani were more accessible than corporate chieftains of today. They were not protected by armies of PR people (ABP & BW Archive)

There are still far too few "negative" stories on companies, and business scandals continue to break mostly in the non-business press — the Tehelkas of the world. One also suspects that a good deal of what gets printed is quite heavily PR-influenced. In a business environment that has become as murky as it has in recent years, telling the complete truth about what goes on in the world of business has become more difficult than ever. Serious investigation needs time, resources and above-average competence, and most business media organisations don't find it either possible or worthwhile to provide these in sufficient measure. All too often, business publications don't even consider this to be a part of their core mission.

Looking back, my time at BusinessWorld (1993-96) was a productive and satisfying period when we ran some really good stories and profiles, introduced prize columnists like P. Chidambaram and Ashok Desai, and saw the over-all development of the magazine and (if memory is not playing tricks) a trebling of circulation in those four years. Two other points are sources of satisfaction today: how well some colleagues of the time have done in their subsequent careers, in India and overseas — leading publications and TV channels, and winning awards — here and internationally; and the warmth and mutual regard that members of the team still have and share.

On the policy and economic front, Businessworld managed to introduce prize columnists like P. Chidambaram and Ashok Desai (Bloomberg)

Unfortunately, there are no photographs of the Sarkar brothers doing a gentle jig, along with everyone else including Shobha Subrahmanyan who was the chief executive, around an evening campfire above a Goa beach, where we had gone for an editorial conference but played water-polo. Those pictures might have undermined the staid image of Aveek, Arup and Shobha, back home in Calcutta (as it was then), and were confiscated!

Ninan is the chairman of Business Standard 

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 12-12-2011)