Reportage

Supreme Being

By SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN | 1 December 2012
PRAMOD PUSHKARNA / THE INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETTY IMAGES
Samir Jain in 1988, soon after becoming vice-chairman of Bennett, Coleman & Co.

ONE

 

IN THE COLLECTIVE MEMORY of Times of India journalists, the notebooks loom large; no conversation about Samir Jain can be complete without mentioning them. If Jain, the vice-chairman of Bennett, Coleman & Company Limited and publisher of the Times of India, invites you into his office for a chat, you’re expected to carry a notebook, and you’re expected to take notes. “We all had our Samir Jain notebooks, and anxious managers outside his cabin would hand us new ones in case we’d forgotten ours,” said an editor who worked at the newspaper during the 1990s. “I even remember the type: Ajanta No. 3 notebooks, spiral-bound, in different colours.”

New initiates into Jain’s meetings have made the mistake of decorating the pages of their notebooks with aimless doodles; old hands learn at least to scrawl down key words, lest they be quizzed the next day or the week after. It can be a chore; it can also be downright galling. After a cordial conversation in 1986, when Jain was still finding his feet around the paper, he pointedly told one editor, decades his senior: “It’s so nice discussing these matters with you. But when others come to see me, they bring a notebook. Maybe you should too.” In response, the editor told me, his voice still bearing embers of anger, “I said: ‘You may own the paper, but this is not tolerable.’ Then I came downstairs and wrote out my resignation letter.”

Really diligent scribes can leave Jain’s office with aching wrists. In large gatherings elsewhere, Jain prefers to remain a passive observer, but in these little conclaves, he can talk, in mixed English and Hindi, for an hour or more at a time. He is nothing if not discursive; his homilies have ranged over editorial matters, brand-building and marketing, the nature of art, the psychology of his readers, sex, literature, and—most commonly—religion and spirituality.

Over the last two-and-a-half decades, Jain has imprinted himself indelibly onto the Times of India, and thereby onto Indian journalism. In his newsroom, Jain is sometimes referred to, discreetly, as “Supreme Being”, and his will can be difficult to fathom. He preserves an Olympian detachment from his newspaper’s coverage of politics, and editors attested to me that he never once calls to inquire about the next day’s headlines, let alone to push a line in favour of one party or another. Simultaneously, though, Jain has been exacting and forceful in his mission to shape the Times of India—its editorial philosophy; its news priorities; its gimlet-eyed focus on the bottom line—in his image. His demands can sound abstract or whimsical, and he is frequently elliptical about spelling them out, but he is insistent that they be met.

Jain, who will be 59 in March, has a capacious memory, and he recollects, nearly verbatim, much of what he has read. “The active Samir is a treat. He likes debate. If he argues with you on some point, it means he’s willing to be convinced,” said MD Nalapat, once the coordinating editor of the Times of India. Nalapat left the newspaper in the late 1990s, although he remains close to Jain. “But total silence means deep disagreement, and there’s no convincing him. If you’re smart, you’ll shut it down and not go any further.” Jain is always polite and soft-spoken, but he watches his audience keenly, a former Economic Times editor told me; his eyes constantly flit around the room, “and just when you think he isn’t looking at you, you’ll find that he is, to see if you’re listening. It’s very unsettling.”

Strict rules of engagement govern Jain’s meetings, some of them even written out explicitly as instructions from Bennett, Coleman’s management and distributed to new editors. “You aren’t supposed to look at your watch, for instance,” said Vidya Subrahmaniam, a former staffer on the editorial page and now an associate editor at The Hindu. “Even if you have an appointment with the prime minister, that is secondary.” No cross-talk is allowed. You don’t scrape your chair along the ground, and you accord Jain rapt attention. In Behind the Times, a frothy, cinnamon-dusted history of the newspaper, Bachi Karkaria, one of its columnists, describes a discussion in Jain’s Mumbai office, during which an editor had slumped a few degrees too many in her chair. Jain slid “a folded slip [of paper] to her across the desk. In his spidery handwriting, it read, ‘Very discreetly, and without seeming to be reacting to this note, please do not sit with your knees pressed against the edge of the table.’”

These assemblies have been pleasant for some; one former editor said that Jain was “one of the best teachers I have ever had. Talking to him focused your mind. It made you think through your position on something.” For most participants, they were harrowing, like a subtle but perpetual test of obedience. “He never directly dictated the edit line. He engaged you in long conversations, and you had to read between the lines, absorb the message, come back down, and write your edit,” Subrahmaniam said. One editor quit the paper because the constant effort to glean Jain’s meaning grew too wearying. “I’d come out of some of these sessions just ashen-faced,” he said. “I was rattled. I couldn’t handle that intensity.”

A coded lexicon evolved to describe these councils and their cast. In a “darbar”, Jain met his full court of editors; in a “darshan”, a pilgrim walked into Jain’s sanctum alone. K Subrahmanyam, the late strategic affairs analyst who worked on the opinion page, called Jain’s business managers “pakkavadyams”, referring to the cluster of accompanists around the main performer in a Carnatic music concert. Less charitably, Subrahmanyam, who survived one bout with cancer, labelled these sessions with Jain—supposedly beneficial, always sapping—as “chemotherapy”.

Sometimes these meetings are conducted at Sujagi, Jain’s residence opposite the Taj Mahal Hotel in central Delhi, a tasteful but austere house with few idiosyncrasies. (One of them, though, is piped music; a visitor in the early 2000s swears that he heard, to his surprise, Buddha Bar trickling out of the speakers.) More often, the meetings will happen in Jain’s office on the fourth floor of the Times Group building in New Delhi, or in its equivalent in the handsome Mumbai premises near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.

From these offices, Jain administers the Bennett, Coleman empire, India’s largest media house. In the year ending March 2011, Bennett, Coleman earned revenues of Rs 47.49 billion and an after-tax profit of Rs 9.75 billion. (By comparison, HT Media, which owns the Hindustan Times, registered revenues of Rs 18.15 billion, and Network18 Media & Investments, which owns CNN-IBN and CNBC-TV18, earned Rs 14.84 billion.) Bennett, Coleman, a private limited company, owns some stray real-estate firms and brokerage houses, produces movies and music, dabbles in web commerce via Indiatimes, and runs a mysterious subsidiary, Times Yoga Ltd., whose purpose and nature I was never entirely able to establish.

 Almost all of Bennett, Coleman’s money is earned by its newspapers—the Times of India, the Economic Times, Navbharat Times, sundry city tabloids—and, to a lesser extent, by its television channels such as Times Now and ET Now, a sheaf of magazines, and FM radio stations. In 2010-11, Bennett, Coleman’s dailies commanded 54 percent of the English-language market in India’s eight biggest cities. The Economic Times, with a daily readership of more than 800,000, is India’s biggest business newspaper. The Times of India is the country’s highest-circulated English-language newspaper and also the highest-circulated English-language newspaper in the world, with a daily run of over 3 million copies. Its readership is nearly double that of its nearest rival, the Hindustan Times, and its sheer dominance in India, a country with more than 11,000 English newspapers and periodicals, is something of a marvel.

These are not laurels upon which Jain is content to rest; having conquered the metropolises, the Times of India is opening editions in towns like Visakhapatnam, Aurangabad and Nashik. There are now 50 editions across 40 cities; the Times of India has localised itself across a country in a way no newspaper has ever done before. Jain is also throwing himself afresh into the vernacular space, having long neglected his Hindi and Marathi dailies; a few weeks ago, Bennett, Coleman launched Ei Samay, a Bengali daily, to compete with the venerable Anandabazar Patrika. “I think Samir regrets not having spotted the growth of vernacular newspapers,” the head of a competing media house told me. “We saw it eight years ago, and we were surprised, frankly, that he didn’t. We were always waiting for him to catch up.”

PLAYING CATCH-UP IS NOT JAIN’S STYLE; there is little in the Indian newspaper business over the last 20 years that he has not pioneered. He has touched off explosions in circulation by pushing into new towns and into new reader segments, helping India become the world’s largest English-language newspaper market. He spotted, before any of his peers, the necessity of burnishing a brand, and his single greatest accomplishment lies in making the Times of India the country’s foremost media brand. He has, with his cash reserves, kept newspaper prices ruinously low; a weekday issue of the Times of India costs Rs 4.50, or 8.3 cents, in New Delhi. This forces publishers to wring every possible rupee out of advertisers, and at this blood sport, Bennett, Coleman has proven the most proficient. Separately, and well before other newspapers, the Times of India became adept at celebrity journalism, filling its supplements with movie-star gossip and cocktail-party photos and other exalted banalities.

Jain was also the first newspaper baron in India to tinker with the interstitial spaces between editorial and advertising, smudging the line between the two departments. A junior editor in the mid-1990s recalls one of Jain’s corporate managers, “articulating the wisdom of the palace, saying unapologetically: ‘The job of the newspaper is to deliver the reader to the advertiser’.” Such a mission can be a slippery slope, and its critics claim that the Times of India has tumbled joyfully down it—that its editorial coverage can be bought, and that, in its pages, advertising can be paraded as news. Ravi Dhariwal, Bennett, Coleman’s CEO, has had to respond to these charges so often that he has developed a flat but exasperated tone in which to deliver his denial. No editorial space in the main Times of India paper can be purchased, he told me. He hinted further that this was not necessarily the case with other Indian dailies: “I think we’re the cleanest media house there is.”

In running his newspapers, Jain anticipated, by many years, the questions that nip at the ankles of the print media today: about the sort of news a newspaper needs to cover, about the readers it should aim to please, and about its very purpose in our lives. Jain has discovered unequivocal answers to these questions for himself, but he continues to be excoriated, Dhariwal believes, only because these answers—brutally commercial in nature—have been so disruptive. “It’s a complex psychological reaction to our strength,” he said. “But they all follow us. Every single media company wants to emulate what we do.”

Dhariwal isn’t wrong. Success as lavish as Jain’s has given other publishers no option but to replicate parts, or all, of his model. “I don’t think any paper wholeheartedly followed down his path,” said the head of a competing media house, “but now we do have to think of the newspaper as a consumer product, as Samir did. Samir made papers look at their readers and say: ‘If you want me to dumb it down, I’ll dumb it down. Film, sex, fashion—whatever it takes’.” When, in 2005, Jain started Private Treaties—by which Bennett, Coleman swaps advertising space for small stakes in companies—other media houses fulminated, but they “waited and watched” before following suit, this competitor of Jain’s said. Since then, the Network18 group, HT Media, New Delhi Television (NDTV) and the Dainik Bhaskar group have all practiced variants of Private Treaties. The pressure to mimic the Times of India can be as intense in newsrooms as in boardrooms. “Whatever the Times of India did, we had to do two days later,” said a former Hindustan Times editor. “Every single morning in my edit meetings, it was: ‘What did TOI do? What did TOI do? What did TOI do?’”

I never got a chance to ask Jain about his thoughts on any of this; my requests to interview him proved futile. Jain is fanatically reclusive, and he makes himself particularly unavailable to reporters. The last major interview he gave was a quarter-century ago, to the British journalist Nicholas Coleridge, who devoted a chapter in his book Paper Tigers to the Indian newspaper industry. Even then, Jain was souring on the idea of being covered by the media. Raju Narisetti, who attended the Times School of Journalism in 1988 and is now managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Digital Network, recalls Jain telling his class: “The one thing I have learned from Girilal Jain [then the Times of India editor-in-chief] is to never give interviews. That’s why they keep publishing the same old photograph of me.” Images of Jain continue to be rare today. The few that exist show a trim, dapper man, his salt-and-pepper hair neatly battened into place, his eyes masked by his spectacles’ browned-over lenses.

In direct proportion to this bashfulness is Bennett, Coleman’s litigious streak; the company eagerly pursues legal action over any perceived slight, however inconsequential or well-founded. Vineet Jain, Bennett, Coleman’s managing director and younger to his brother Samir by 12 years, once promised to sue Maxim because it had printed—without naming him—a photo from one of his pool parties, showing him and a friend in the water with two models. Pradyuman Maheshwari, a columnist in Mumbai, shut down his small, chatty media blog after Bennett, Coleman threatened to sue him unless he removed 19 posts about the company. “They said, ‘You’ve been running this campaign against us,’” Maheshwari told me. “One executive there had this habit of filing suits from Sikkim. They were going to file across the country!” The company has now announced plans to sue Zee News after a Zee Business editor was caught, in a sting video, telling Jindal Steel officials: “ET mein to front page stories bik rahi hain aaj kal (Even the front page stories in Economic Times are being sold).” Fear of the Jains’ legal reach is endemic. As a result very few of the people I spoke to—numbering roughly 50, including phalanxes of editors, managers and journalists, both bygone and present-day—agreed to be identified by name.

Samir Jain evokes, from those who have known him, a bewildering assortment of reactions. Some cannot be critical enough, either of him as or of his stewardship of his newspapers. One former editor started out talking about Jain civilly enough, but he rediscovered so many buried grievances over the next 90 minutes that he became, by the end of our conversation, a spluttering Roman candle of invective. (Not surprisingly, he too asked to remain anonymous: “I don’t want all the legal weight of the fucking Times of India jumping on me.”) Others swear affection to him, saying that Jain is unfairly maligned; they recount stories of his generosity and his razor-keen intelligence. Still others stud their narratives with caveats and assertions and counter-assertions and sentences that begin: “He’s a very difficult man to know, but…” The complexity of these responses is to be expected, because it matches the complexity of the turmoil he has sown, single-handed, in Indian journalism. “The entire newspaper industry in this country since the 1990s,” Chandan Mitra, editor of The Pioneer, told me, “is essentially the creation of Samir Jain.”

 

TWO

 

ONE DAY IN THE LATE 1990s, an assistant editor on the Times of India’s opinion page dredged up the courage to complain to Samir Jain that his paper was being dumbed down, crammed to its brim with irrelevant articles. “Samir sent a minion off to fetch a Times of India from 20 years ago, and we sat down and compared the first page of the day’s paper with the first page of the paper from 20 years ago,” the assistant editor said. “And the 20-year-old one was full of rubbish! It was all, ‘The prime minister said this, the president said that.’ It was very government-driven, very sarkari.”

The most popular way to talk about the Times of India is to wail about its decline under Jain, but this trope relies on an erstwhile excellence from which the newspaper supposedly fell—an excellence that, to 21st-century eyes, appears partly mythical. In the early 1980s, the Times of India reported faithfully—too faithfully—upon government policies and the state-run economy, but on little else. Journalists never ventured out of the cities, and their copy was smug and lifeless. Pritish Nandy, now a film producer, joined Times Group in December 1982 and went on to edit its Illustrated Weekly, and he remembers that “conversation in the office was all about who went and met Indira Gandhi for a cup of tea. They were all bloated frauds. And the paper reflected that. It was pompous and questionable.”

 Nobody reading the Times of India today can deem it guilty of pomposity. Instead, the paper feels slight, its vast breadth of subject matter diminished by its frustrating lack of depth and its higgledy-piggledy approach of delivering even the most complex news. Stories carry slugs that might have been gleaned from pulp magazine covers: “Beed Shocker,” shrieked a recent front-page example, about a female foeticide case in the district of Beed in Maharashtra. Pages are overwhelmed by advertising. There is always distraction and entertainment to be found in the Times of India, but rarely does it leave a reader replete or satisfied.

The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce was founded in November 1838, and published twice a week, by a syndicate of small companies and British barristers. It was renamed the Times of India in 1861 by its editor Robert Knight, an Englishman who was an acid critic of British imperialism and who, according to his biographer, built “a vigorous, thoughtful and conscientious newspaper.” (Knight went on to start The Statesman in Calcutta.) The Times of India changed hands several times until, in 1892, Thomas Bennett and FM Coleman formed a company that owned the newspaper as well as jute concessions and other assets. In 1946, as British owners of Indian businesses drained hastily out of the country, Bennett, Coleman was sold for Rs 20 million to its first Indian owner, the sugar magnate Ramkrishna Dalmia.

Within the expanse of Dalmia’s realm, the Times of India sat like a gleaming vanity purchase. “He never expected any profit from it,” Subhash Chakraborty, an old Times of India hand, said. “His attitude was: ‘There’s no dearth of capital. What do you want to do?’ They had correspondents in Washington, London and China.” But Dalmia couldn’t enjoy his newspaper for long; he owed money to an insurance company, and he paid off that debt by selling Bennett, Coleman to his son-in-law Shanti Prasad Jain in 1948. The Dalmia-Jain group had been one of India’s largest business houses; when the Monopolies Inquiry Commission examined the country’s conglomerates in 1965, the Calcutta-based Sahu Jain family—of which Shanti Prasad Jain was the scion—owned 26 companies, with assets of Rs 678 million and interests in cement, jute, paper, chemicals and mining.

Like Dalmia, who was later imprisoned for embezzlement, Jain was tripped up by the law. In the early 1960s, after Times of India editors confided to the government that Jain was selling newsprint on the black market, he was briefly sent to jail. The government took over the newspaper: Half the directors on the board were appointed by the state, and its chairman was a Bombay High Court judge. In a 2009 essay, TN Ninan, a former editor of the Economic Times and now chairman of the Business Standard, wrote that the tattling of Jain’s editors “was something that the proprietor’s descendants were not going to forget, a quarter-century later.” Ninan quoted Rupert Murdoch, who once said, when his editor was revamping the London Times: “He thinks it is his paper, it is mine.” A similar sentiment, Ninan wrote, was “now burned deep in Indian proprietorial hearts.”

The newspaper remained in its peculiar receivership until 1976, the thick of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, when it was released back into the hands of Ashok Jain, Shanti Prasad’s son and Samir’s father. The timing was not incidental. “A lot of people had taken to calling us the Times of Indira,” a former resident editor said, “and one or two editorials in praise of Sanjay Gandhi had been smuggled in.”

Newsprint profiteering aside, Shanti Prasad Jain hewed to the editor’s ideal of an owner: remote, preoccupied with his ancillary businesses, disinterested in his paper’s contents. The journalist Kuldip Nayar, in his memoir Beyond the Lines, wrote that Sham Lal, the Times of India’s editor in the 1970s, had said he was “never rung up by Shanti Prasad Jain...and that the latter did not even remotely suggest to him which line he should adopt on any particular subject”. Ashok Jain, Nayar wrote, was somewhat different: “He was committed to commercial success and would ensure that the newspaper did not come into conflict with his business interests or those he promoted.” But editors from the 1980s recall an earnest ham-handedness in Ashok Jain’s attempts to bend editorial to his bidding, and an amiability that made him easy to turn down without fear of reprisal.

Primarily, the newspaper offered Ashok Jain an addictive proximity to power. “Being able to walk into any minister’s house was a sort of validation for him,” a former editor said. “There’s a directors’ lunch table on the fourth floor of the Times building in Delhi. You can only get in if you’re invited by the Jains. So the smart journalists in Ashok’s time would bring in some minister, or some official, and get an invitation to lunch. If you managed a Supreme Court judge, your career was assured.”

But Jain was also an awful businessman who, as this editor said, “drove his industries into the ground.” In 1983, around the time Samir began to involve himself more deeply in the Times of India, Bennett, Coleman’s turnover was Rs 680 million—not inconsiderable but, as another senior editor who knew Samir well pointed out, also not sufficient to maintain the Jains’ status among the country’s wealthy Marwari families. The Jains’ jute mills were ailing, and their cement and chemical factories in Bihar had started to shut down in the mid-1980s. “The reference point for Samir was the set of Marwari kids he grew up with in Calcutta,” the editor said. “The family had become sort of a laughing stock among the Marwaris. That’s what drove him. He once told me: ‘The family doesn’t need to make money. But it needs to show that it can make money.’”

THE JAINS’ ANCESTRAL HOUSE on Alipore Road in Calcutta, where Samir Jain grew up, was a vast edifice of marble and lawn, rumoured to be, after the governor’s residence, the city’s second-largest home. A frequent visitor in the 1960s remembers the family as energetic hosts of parties and get-togethers, their house forever bright with social activity. Jain was a slight boy, prone to catching colds, but he was more convivial than he is now, this visitor said. “He’d organise these group events for us when we were children,” she recalled. “So to help some cause, we’d all sit down and make these craft projects and sell them for charity—and Samir would be the one organising all this.” In Paper Tigers, a friend of Samir’s grandfather remembers him as “rather a pert boy, a chatterbox, a know-it-all. People were always ticking him off for talking too much.”

After school, Jain attended St Stephen’s College in New Delhi, but he led such a retiring life there that several of his peers don’t remember him at all. He was bright but a mediocre student, said a member of the Delhi University faculty at the time. “Three of my friends needed to coach him privately to help him get his BA degree,” he said. “One of these was somebody named Rao, and Samir didn’t like his strong Telugu accent. So he told his mother, ‘I won’t learn from him. I don’t like his accent,’ and Rao was fired. Even then, Samir had very strong likes and dislikes.”

Details from the period of Jain’s life between his graduation from St Stephen’s and his formal entry into the newspaper in the early 1980s are sparse. He worked in Bennett, Coleman’s outposts, in its jute division and in its paper and cement factories in Bihar. It must have struck him early that these limbs of the company had atrophied beyond measure, said one person who knew Jain well, because he lost interest in them rapidly. “Then he looked around for a business that he thought would do well, and he saw the Times of India.”

In 1975 or 1976, Jain began visiting the newsroom, dropping in for conversations or to familiarise himself with the paper. An editor from the time recalled occasional “pleasant chats” and added: “At least he didn’t cross anybody’s path back then.” In fact, he said, Jain found himself condescended to; the attitude “among the editors was ‘Yaar train karenge, akhbaar chalane ka’ (‘We’ll train him how to run a newspaper’).” When Jain tried to learn about the newspaper’s corporate affairs, for instance, he was handed thick volumes of company and income tax law and asked to satisfy himself with that.

Unsurprisingly, Jain didn’t take kindly to this. He left New Delhi in 1982, putting himself through a rotation of newsrooms in the West—notably the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and then the Times in London—to understand journalism. “Whenever he visited, he’d come with bundles of foreign newspapers,” said the then-editor of a smaller Times Group publication. “At the New York Times, he realised that the publishers were just as strong as the editors, which influenced him deeply. When he came back to the Times of India around 1984 or 1985, he came back with a vengeance.”

DISILLUSIONED JOURNALISTS OF THE ERA will recount, as if narrating the onset of some great blight, the first signs of Jain’s increasing influence. He started to call extended meetings, where he told his editors, “We can hire anybody to write. My editors shouldn’t waste time writing,” or “Newspapers are being run to impress the prime minister. I have no interest in impressing the prime minister. My interest is the man who has a used car to sell or a daughter to marry off or a business in Chawri Bazaar to promote. That man should advertise with us.” Chandan Mitra, an energetic new hire in the Times of India newsroom in the late 1980s, said that Jain wanted editorial staff to get more involved in marketing the newspaper. “He’d circulate photocopies of articles in some American marketing journal, related to brand-building or the future of newspapers or something like that,” Mitra said. “And he’d quiz us on them the next day. ‘Have you read it? What did you think of this point? Internalise these ideas.’”

Already, Jain had become fond of repeating the analogy he is most well-known for, which even today is the guide rail of the Times of India: A newspaper is a product just like a cake of soap, and it should be marketed as such. Raju Narisetti recalled Jain saying as much to his class at the Times School of Journalism in 1988. In Paper Tigers, Coleridge wrote: “Of all the newspaper owners in the world, I met no one so single-mindedly wedded to marketing as Samir Jain.” Coleridge described a 150-minute soliloquy, during a meeting of Jain’s board, in which he covered a whiteboard with algebraic notation and Venn diagrams, talked about “synergy of innovation,” and explained that the ancient Egyptians took “2,000 years to develop the water clock into the sand clock” because “they had no marketing department”. Jain’s directors, seemingly nonplussed, did little but take silent notes.

To journalists of the time, who viewed branding and marketing as the murkiest of the dark arts, the bleed of Jain’s ideas into the editorial department proved distressing. Nobody was angered more than Girilal Jain, the editor of the Times of India and no direct relation to the Sahu Jain family. A pipe-smoking bull of a man, Girilal Jain would be described, in his Guardian obituary in 1993, as an editor with a weakness for Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, but also one with an avowed belief in editorial independence. In September 1987, he wrote an op-ed arguing that, in the media, “editorial and management can be separated if the proprietor so desires, as has been the practice in this newspaper”.

Even as that piece was published, Samir Jain was turning into rubble the dividing wall between editorial and management. There were squabbles over appointments: Darryl D’Monte, named resident editor of the Bombay edition in 1988, said that he was hired only to stymie Girilal Jain, who did not quite get along with D’Monte and had wanted somebody else. At the time, “Samir was smarting under Giri’s condescension. I became a pawn in a bigger game,” D’Monte said. There were daily frictions, and there were unsubtle exercises of power: One day, Chandan Mitra said, “in smaller font on either side of the lettering of the Times of India masthead, the words ‘Let’ and ‘Wait’ were added, with a message saying ‘See Page 16.’ It was a back-page advertisement for Cadbury’s. ‘Let the Times of India Wait, Eat Cadburys First’—that was the message. Giri was livid, because for him, it was the masthead! It was the most sacrosanct thing!”

There are also accounts of the editors’ peremptory handling of Samir Jain, and they can be read as origin myths for his deep resentment of editorial power. The story most commonly told, but also the most difficult to verify, involves a standoff in an editorial meeting, from which Girilal Jain ejected Samir Jain, telling him brusquely that management had no place in these conferences. On another occasion, when Samir Jain asked his editors what he could do to improve the newspaper, he was told that the toilets needed cleaning. Jain also bristled when the newspaper’s longest-serving journalists, who had known him since he was a boy, continued to call him “Samir,” rather than anything more formal. “So he started this rule that people in the office should be called by an abbreviation of their title,” an editor said. “Samir became JMD—joint managing director.” The rule has hardened into a tradition; Jain is still called VC, for vice-chairman, and his brother Vineet is called MD, for managing director.

“I think all this burned deep,” said a former Times Group editor who remained on good terms with Jain until recently. “And this came on top of the editors who had complained about his grandfather and sent him to jail. He also didn’t like the fact that journalists still looked to the government’s wage board to fix their wages, rather than negotiating directly with their management. So with all this in mind, Samir believed: ‘My editors aren’t loyal to me.’”

In a dynastic company, a face-off between the editor and the owner’s son could only end in one way. Kuldip Nayar recalled, in Beyond the Lines, that Girilal Jain had asked him to intervene with Ashok Jain, “to get Samir Jain, his son, off his back… I flew to Bombay and spoke to Ashok, who frankly said he would have no hesitation in supporting his son because the latter had increased the revenue tenfold, from Rs 8 lakhs to 80 lakhs. ‘I can hire many Girilal Jains if I pay more, but not a Samir,’ said Ashok.”

When the dismissal came, it was swift. In the most dramatic rendition of the tale, which I heard from several people, Girilal Jain, pushing 65, was first forced to go on “leave preparatory to retirement”. Then, in the midst of this leave, he was telephoned at home one night, by a desk hand, and told: “Your name isn’t being carried as editor in tomorrow’s edition.” To the newsroom, the move felt “decisive and surgical”, Mitra recalled. “Everybody was stunned into silence. Nobody was talking, and there was a sullen atmosphere in the newsroom. People were standing around in little groups and whispering.” It was 1988; the previous year, Samir Jain had become vice-chairman of Bennett, Coleman, but only with this flexion of muscle did he establish his control over the Times of India.

Once upon a time, “Samir Jain may have been as passionately in love with newspapers as Rupert Murdoch was said to be,” said one editor who was close to Jain. “But in those early years, when he wasn’t accepted by the newsroom, that love really withered away.” Much later, Jain would confide in this editor that he had genuinely tried to persuade his journalists about the soundness of his ideas, and to participate in his fresh vision for the newspaper. In return for his efforts, Jain felt that he received only lip and disdain. “So Samir decided then: ‘I’m no longer going to try to convince people to see my point of view. I’m just going to tell them what to do.’”

 

THREE

 

ON A MICROFICHE, browsing chronologically through the Times of India archives of the 1980s and the 1990s is instructive; do it fast enough, and it can feel like unfurling a Samir Jain flip-book, his influence blossoming before your eyes. In the opening leaves, the Times of India is dour and statist: It carries the full, plodding text of speeches made by the prime minister or other high-ranking ministers, organises its content sloppily, and shuns any colour in its reportage. There is no mistaking its advertisements for editorial content, though: In the issue dated February 13, 1981, an article by R S Mathur, the registrar for co-operative societies, about the high glories of the co-operative movement in Uttar Pradesh, carries an underlined header: “A SPONSORED FEATURE.”

Six years down the line, the newspaper has livened up considerably. Reporters bring more diverse stories from the Indian hinterland, and the tone of the editorials is punchier, although they are still written in filigreed English. (Jain hated this. The writer Naresh Fernandes, who worked two stints in the Times of India, recalled Jain stressing: “Our articles should be in Indian English. The problem with journalists is that you think readers want good writing. Readers want lazy writing.”) Days such as October 24, 1987, with death and destruction flooding the front page, have become rare, because Jain believes that bad news doesn’t sell. (On that black day, the front-page headlines read: “13 IPKF men die in blast”; “13 more killed in Punjab”; “Man shot dead in Faizabad”; “7 hurt in factory fire dead”; “Santipur civic chief beaten to death.”) “Nobody wants to wake up in the morning to see blood and gore on the front page,” a former Economic Times editor remembered Jain saying. Fernandes told me that Jain even briefly appointed a “good-news editor”.

 Around this time, the paper has also become heavily freighted with advertisements, and they have been sold more strategically; in one issue of Saturday Times, a lifestyle supplement, an article on dupattas runs above spots for two clothing stores. The supplements themselves are new: Career and Competition Times, for students preparing for the professional world; Saturday Times; The TOI Offspring, each issue produced by the pupils of a different school. The most prized of Jain’s supplements during this time is Section 2, which functions almost as a stand-alone newspaper, and which is more extravagantly produced than its parent. Chandan Mitra, who was Section 2’s opinions editor, recalled Jain saying: “If these supplements are read, well and good. But they should be like Persian cats. They should be stroked and displayed. Somebody should feel good that something so beautiful has come out.” But Section 2 was “never fully formed”, recalled Mitra. “That’s why it flopped. After a year, when it was struggling, Samir said: ‘Doesn’t matter, shut it down.’ But he told me: ‘Chandan, it won’t be long before every paper starts doing this.’ And he was right. Now we all have supplements.”

 By 1992, advertorials have begun to be tagged “Response Features”, “Response” being the name that Jain gave to his marketing department. It is not immediately clear that these are paid articles; on 6 May 1992, nothing distinguishes the Response Feature on the benefits of computer education from the paper’s other editorial content, even though it sits above three advertisements for computer courses. The news covers a wider range of topics than before, echoing Jain’s belief that a newspaper ought to be like a thali, with something in it for everyone. By 1996, part of the editorial page is ceded to a column called Speaking Tree (sample headlines: “The scriptures through women’s eyes”; “Wrestling with the dark mystery of death”) and to Sacred Space, which carries pieces discussing spiritualism in delicate secular tones. Reporters cover their city more strenuously, and some of that news makes it into supplements called Bombay Times and Delhi Times. It isn’t until 1998, however, that these supplements create India’s Page 3 culture, featuring private parties next to their reams of film-world gossip. When that happens, it is as if the final tumbler has fallen into place. To anyone who has paged through two decades of back issues, the Times of India from 1998 thrums with sudden familiarity, having become the most complete template for the Times of India we know and read today.

WHENEVER I MET SOMEBODY who had worked closely with Samir Jain, I would ask them: “What drives his vision for the Times of India?” This was like flashing them a white card with an inkblot on it; people would mull over the question’s nebulous outlines and furnish me with wildly conflicting responses. One former editor at the Economic Times told me that Jain sees his newspapers as an establishment parallel to the state, protecting the rights of the individual: “He believes the Indian state is a predator, that it has too much power.” MD Nalapat said that Jain once wanted the Times of India “to be so powerful that it could choose the next prime minister, or the next cabinet, like the Times of London in the late 1920s”.

Others scoffed at the suggestion that Jain craves such momentous political influence. Ravi Dhariwal said he decided to join Bennett, Coleman, in 2001, only because Jain had “no political agenda, no industrial agenda…  He just wanted it to be a good business.” This was not even the business of news, necessarily. “Samir would say: ‘See, my business is selling space. I can bring out a paper even without any journalists’,” the former Economic Times editor told me. Simultaneously, he also remembered Jain saying: “The Times of India is aspirational. Our readers should display it. They don’t even have to read it.” Sanjaya Baru, once associate editor of the Times of India and the Economic Times and a former media advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, believes that Jain has wanted “different things at different times, for his newspaper. But basically, he wants his paper to entertain his audience.”

Still others maintained that Jain cares only about how much money the paper makes—a view that syncs perfectly with the stereotype of the hard-nosed Marwari businessman, and that is nourished by anecdotes about his thrift. Dhariwal cannot understand this perception either. “From time to time, I go and tell him: ‘This is what’s happening. We’re having a good year, or we’re having a bad year. This is what we’re going to end up with’,” Dhariwal said. “And he just says: ‘Okay.’ He’s not fussed about it at all. It may have been like this 20 years ago, when he was very keen on how much money… But the company makes a lot of money. The two brothers are very frugal, very austere. They don’t have private planes or yachts. They don’t need the money.”

Instead, it is money not so much as crackly mattress stuffing but as a marker of relative success that seems to spur Jain. Dhariwal acknowledged that Jain is “very competitive,” and one of Jain’s rival proprietors told me that he always “wanted to be the sole media mogul. It has always been: ‘I won’t let you survive.’” An editor who works at the Times of India recalled a recent brand valuation exercise that the company conducted. “Samir said: ‘Do it. But the truth is: It doesn’t matter if the brand value is 200 or 300 or 400 crore rupees. What matters to me is if it’s going up or down.’ It’s like a basketball game for him. Either you win or you lose.”

Jain has never been reluctant to extend his proprietorial reach into the editorial department; even in 1988, Narisetti told me, “the idea of separating church and state was never part of the ethos of how he saw his media.” But where other owners intervene to promote a politician or a party, Jain has steadfastly refused to do so. One former editor, who joined the Times of India in the early 2000s, recalled being told in his very first meeting with Jain that “he liked his paper to be soft. He told me specifically that he didn’t want the Times of India to be an auditor to the nation.” Unlike Ashok Jain, Nalapat said, Samir isn’t eager to mix with ministers or cozy up to government. “In that sense, he was the ideal boss for an editor to have,” he said. Only in the gory thick of Gujarat’s communal riots in 2002, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaned heavily upon the Jains to be less critical of Narendra Modi, did journalists receive veiled messages to, as Vidya Subrahmaniam put it, “pipe down”.

That seems to have been an aberration; a senior editor who has worked for the Times Group for over a decade said that, in all his time there, “Samir has never once asked what’s going on the front page the next day.” Another editor recounted that, during his time, “there was so much work that we did which no one ever interfered with. All the Coke and Pepsi stories [about pesticide levels in their colas] were broken on the front page. There was an air reporter and a water reporter. By and large, if you wanted to do a good day’s work, you were allowed to do it.”

Reporters still break stories consistently: the abuses of power surrounding the Commonwealth Games and the Adarsh Housing Society allotments, the Maharashtra irrigation scam that forced the state’s deputy chief minister to resign, and the ongoing travails of the BJP president Nitin Gadkari have all been doggedly investigated in Times of India articles. Even some of its fiercest critics admit that they read the Times of India to know what is happening in the country. Talking to journalists there, I frequently caught an aggrieved tone that their good work is never acknowledged by the industry at large, and that the liberty to pursue these big political stories is never remarked upon. One editor in New Delhi told me: “We take ourselves damn seriously, man.”

 It might be a canny realisation on Jain’s part that even a thali of a newspaper must be arranged around a core of hard journalism, and that such journalism needs a certain latitude. But he hasn’t shied away from eating into editorial independence in other ways, most egregiously in 1997 and 1998, when the Enforcement Directorate was investigating Ashok Jain for unauthorised foreign-exchange transactions. In retaliation, according to petitions filed with the Press Council of India, the Times of India began a systematic campaign against the Enforcement Directorate in its pages, alleging human-rights abuses by its officers. HK Dua, then an editorial advisor to the Times of India and now a Rajya Sabha member, claimed that he was fired in May 1998 for refusing to assist Ashok Jain, Samir’s father, in his bid to stay out of prison.

In a March 1998 letter to Bennett, Coleman’s executive directors, parts of which were later published in Frontline, Dua wrote that Jain asked him to lobby with political leaders and to “write articles in his favour to create a helpful climate before the Supreme Court takes up his cases.” A few weeks later, Dua fired off another letter, protesting that his editorial responsibilities were being curbed “because I have refused to be of any help to Mr Ashok Jain.”

More consistently, Jain has sought to shape the Times of India according to the eccentric contours of his views on life and journalism. He waged patient wars of attrition, for instance, on two of his journalists who supported MF Husain’s right to paint the goddess Saraswati nude; one resigned, and the other was forced to recant in print. (“It suddenly worried him, during this time, that the Saraswati on the Jnanpith Award [a literary prize established by the Jains in 1961] was also nude,” one of these journalists told me. After hectic consultations, it was decided that the Saraswati was not really nude because “she was draped in pearls, which satisfied all parties.”)

Loath as he is to announce bad news in large headlines, he detests even more the media’s treatment of sudden catastrophes, preferring to adopt a cosmic view of such events. On September 11, 2001, an editor recalled, “Samir said: ‘You know, 180,000 people died yesterday. Today 182,000 people have died. It’s a blip, that’s all.’” Instead, Jain was happy to have his papers “be about the three Fs, as he called them—food, fashion, and fuck. Although he wouldn’t say ‘fuck,’ he’d just say ‘Eff.’” Jain’s directives to his corporate managers emphasised this. A participant at a conference in Mumbai in 2005 remembered Pradeep Guha, then the president of Bennett, Coleman, stating in a speech: “My task has been to move the Times of India from being a real good paper to being a feel-good paper.”

Jain holds fixed views on whom his journalists should write for, and what this imagined body of readers would want in his newspaper. One opinion-page writer who told me that Jain hated to valorise the state added, after a beat, that he was keen instead to “valorise CEOs. ‘Who are your readers?’ he’d ask. ‘Your readers are not the Karol Bagh masses or the rural masses. Your readers are elite urban Indians.’” These readers, Jain believes, have little appetite for the cerebral writing that journalists often wish to practice. They want short sentences, brief articles, and English that “even a fifth-standard boy can understand,” one editor told me.

In that vein, Jain has advised slipping deliberate spelling errors into the copy, to “make the reader feel more comfortable”. Dhariwal said that Jain often recommends “putting in words of Hindi, to reflect the way people speak”. Another editor moaned that Jain pushed for his pages to be a hodge-podge of articles: “‘The Indian mind likes clutter,’ he would say. ‘Just look at our markets.’” Jain even suggested, very recently, a liberal use of emoticons. “He still sends in harebrained ideas like these,” a senior Times of India editor said. “It’s amazing the trivial stuff he’ll get obsessed by. But because he’s had outstanding success in the past, you feel odd in automatically assuming that it’s stupid.”

Jain’s model reader, in other words, is really Jain himself: contemptuous of government, detached from politics, intolerant of intellectualism, fond of gimmicks, hungry for success, and eager to be reassured about the material well-being of his world. His shrewdness lies in having predicted—as early as 1990, even before the economy was liberalised—that the numbers of such readers would multiply. These are the readers who have swollen the ranks of his subscribers.

Along the way, Jain has upended the crucial assumption from which all journalistic enterprise proceeds: that a publication’s editor will, with insight and accumulated experience, know best what reportage will serve a public need. Jain and Dhariwal are both dismissive of this premise. “Then you’re writing for your clan rather than the reader,” Dhariwal said. “That’s where I think we have succeeded to a large extent—and I think we’ve tried very hard, in the Times of India—where our editors today write for the reader.”

This has been the other great guiding principle of Jain’s interventions over the years: to deflate what he perceives as the bloated egos of journalists, to yank them off their self-installed perches of importance. Some of this resentment was seeded in the late 1980s, when Jain found the old guard of the Times of India arrayed against him. Certainly also, braggadocio such as that displayed by Dileep Padgaonkar, the Times of India editor who famously told the BBC that he was “the second-most important man in India”, cannot have helped. One former editor, who has now left the mainstream media entirely, admitted that “the craft of journalism, as practised in India, deserved to be knocked. Journalists needed a Samir Jain to wake them up. There was a lot of complacency, and I think some amount of criticism was good.”

To be sure, Jain can be sincerely solicitous of his employees’ well-being, and he is known for touching acts of care and generosity. An Indiatimes executive remembered that, during a recent meeting, Jain cast a concerned look at his burgeoning waistline and prescribed him a diet. “Around a month later, somebody from his office actually called to check if I was following the diet, and if it was working.” When Jain spotted another unhealthy eater—an editor who frequently worked late—he dispatched dinner every evening, from his house to the editor’s office. In Behind the Times, Pradeep Guha tells Karkaria about the day his father passed away in Mumbai. Jain arrived “the same night from Delhi, and came straight from the airport to my Bandra flat. He had carried a large tiffin carrier with him and handed it to me saying matter-of-factly, ‘You all must not have cooked or eaten anything since morning.’”

But when he wanted to cut journalists down to size, Jain could be both theatrical and petty. He would, I learned from several people, keep telling editors: “You guys are cost centres. It’s the marketing guys who’re bringing in the money.” Editors remember balking at being put to work addressing invitations to Bennett, Coleman functions. In 2003, after an assistant editor in Mumbai inadvertently angered Jain, he redesignated an entire batch of them as feature writers and sent in a crew of carpenters—within the hour—to tear down the cubicles to which these feature writers were now no longer entitled. On the opinion page, Jain ordered that the first-person pronoun “I” be shrunk into lower-case, to symbolically diminish the writer’s ego. Not surprisingly, one editor said, Jain loves the Economist, with its lack of identifying bylines—and thus the ultimate sublimation of the journalist.

Under Jain, titles were reworded, such that the editor of the newspaper’s Delhi edition came to be called “Editor—Delhi market.” Indeed, conflating editorial with marketing was one of Jain’s stratagems of choice—not only because it allowed him to blur the distinctions between the two departments, but also because it forced journalists to examine a side of newspaper production that they considered beneath them. Chandan Mitra recalled the consternation among his fellow journalists when Jain announced, in the late 1980s, a system of having editors and managers exchange roles for a few weeks. Jain repeated the move with Sanjaya Baru when he was the Times of India’s business editor in 1994, swapping his position with that of Vijay Jindal, a corporate director. “Possibly it was a plan to show journalists they were expendable, or it was just a whim,” Baru said. “Samir liked to be whimsical.”

The most dramatic consequence of such a whim came in 1994, when Padgaonkar was going on leave and an interim replacement was needed. Instead of a journalist, Baru and D’Monte told me, a director from the board was put in charge. “He was so profusely embarrassed about it,” Baru said. “He would come down and chair our editorial meetings, but he would just let us make the decisions.” D’Monte told me that bitterness against Jain’s belittling of his editors had been percolating for some time already, and that this anointment of Padgaonkar’s understudy proved to be the breaking point. Padgaonkar, D’Monte, and a handful of other editors and journalists quit, but that didn’t faze Jain. After the walkout, an Economic Times editor recalled, Jain told his staff: “We’re the market leaders. And the market leader doesn’t need a first-class editor. It can do with a second-class, or third-class, or even fourth-class editor. We don’t need editors”.

 

FOUR

 

THE ENERGY THAT JAIN HAS POURED into the consideration of what a newspaper should do has only been surpassed by that devoted to the question of how it should be sold. Since 1990, he has staffed Bennett Coleman with managers from companies that have nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with the blunt art of the hard sell: Pepsi, ITC, Shoppers Stop, Unilever, Trent. When a team from Pepsi visited the Times of India in Delhi, to rebut the Centre for Science and Environment’s accusations about pesticides in their colas, an editor remembered that Jain was smitten by their presentation. “He likes people like that,” the editor told me. “Later, he told a couple of senior management fellows: ‘I don’t think there’s anybody on our staff who can give a presentation like that.’”

One of Jain’s most persistent legacies has been the price we pay for our newspapers. In 1994, Jain slashed the cover price of the Times of India in New Delhi from Rs 2.30 to Rs 1.50 per copy. The move, to better compete with the Hindustan Times, boosted circulation in the city from 30,000 to 170,000, and it proved cut-throat in more ways than one; that July, after newspaper vendors called a boycott of the Times of India because the price drop hurt their commissions, one vendor was knifed and others beaten up for defying the boycott. Similarly, Jain set the price of the relaunched Economic Times, in the early 1990s, at Rs 4, and Chandan Mitra recalled him saying: “We’ll slash the price after some time, after we establish that the Economic Times isn’t just for Press Information Bureau handouts.” When other business dailies began to dust themselves off and gear themselves to cover a new Indian economy, Jain halved his price. “He was so sure nobody would have an answer for it,” a former editor said. “It was like going for the jugular.”

Jain replayed this gambit of predatory pricing every time the Times of India rode in to conquer a new town, its saddlebags sloshing with cash. He made the case, one editor told me, that he was only helping to grow the base of English newspaper readers. “But clearly, it’s not like that was his larger belief,” the head of another daily said. “If that was so, why didn’t he also drop the price in Mumbai, where the Times of India had a monopoly?” Narisetti reckons that Jain’s wilful devaluation of his product pressured “the rest of the industry to be beholden to advertisers. The history of how the newsroom has become subservient to advertisers starts with this pricing model, when a newspaper is cheaper than a cup of tea.”

Undercutting his rivals on price is part of Jain’s conviction that they should be given no quarter. In Paper Tigers, Coleridge describes Jain asking his board what they should do with a surplus gravure press and then supplying the correct answer himself: “We will destroy it. We will hammer the machine. And why will we hammer it? Can no one tell me? The reason we will hammer it is to prevent some other publishing house from laying their hands on it.” Jain even started a whole new daily in Mumbai—the short-lived Independent, in 1989—just to shut down a rival, the Indian Post, whose senior staff he had hired away nearly in toto. “It was an ego thing,” Mitra, who briefly edited the Independent, told me. But there was also a practical aspect to Jain’s move. “It was started to mop up the Mumbai ad market. For a hundred bucks, if you were buying an ad in TOI, you could spend an extra ten bucks and the same ad would appear in the Independent also.”

 Jain so deeply believes the business to be a zero-sum game that he virtually considers it a war—a metaphor he once animated by setting up, next to his cabin in Delhi, a full-fledged war room in which to discuss strategy. One former Economic Times editor recalled that, during his stint at the paper, this room used to contain a table, “slightly bigger than a billiards table”, on which was set out the apparatus of a naval war game. “There were several fleets,” he said. “In the middle was this white fleet, with an aircraft carrier right in the middle, a flag on it saying ‘TOI Bombay.’ This was the mother ship, and to protect the mother ship, there would be other boats, submarines and gunboats. One would be ‘ET Chennai,’ one would be ‘Illustrated Weekly’, that kind of thing. In the corners of the table, there’d be a black fleet for the Hindustan Times, a yellow fleet for the Indian Express, and so on. The thing is: Nobody reacted to the ludicrousness of the game.”

Once every week—“Fridays, if I remember rightly”, this editor said—Jain invited into the war room representatives from each of his newspapers and from various departments. Then he grilled them on strategy. On one occasion in 1993, the Reliance group, which then owned a daily called Business & Political Observer, was poised to eat into the Times of India’s market share. “So Samir was standing there, with one of those little sticks in his hand, and there was a new set of ships called Reliance,” the editor told me. “He pushed them towards the white fleet and said: ‘This fleet is advancing towards us. What should we do?’” Jain didn’t get the answer he was looking for, “because he said: ‘No, I think none of this is going to work. So we’ll do something else.’ One of the bigger ships next to the mother ship was labeled the Illustrated Weekly of India. He took his pointer and pushed that ship down. That very day, the Illustrated Weekly was closed. It was killed on the table.”

 Jain had, of course, decided the loss-making Illustrated Weekly’s fate well before this meeting. But his rationale for scuttling the magazine at that moment in time was an intricate one. The Illustrated Weekly was such a prestigious brand within the Times Group stable, the editor remembered Jain explaining, that its sudden demise would unsettle his rivals. “Any competitor would think: ‘Saala, what is his strategy here? He has something up his sleeve. So let’s wait. Let me not launch an attack’. So when this happened, Reliance stopped in their tracks.” Out of wariness, this editor said, the Ambanis did not market the Observer as strongly as they might have. “They retreated. That was the impact it had.”

 

FIVE

 

IN THE MID-1990S, Times Group editors started to spot Vineet Jain in the newsroom with increasing frequency. The younger Jain had studied marketing at the small and obscure American College of Switzerland—a liberal arts college attended by the children of genealogical and financial blue-bloods, where a young Sylvester Stallone once coached women’s athletics. He had also earned a reputation for being more accessible, sociable and glamorous than his brother—a prime specimen of the very Page 3 culture he helped to create. “With Vineet, what you see is what you get,” an editor who works at the Times of India told me. But another editor from the late 1990s, after admitting that he had several run-ins with Vineet, said that he was a shallow man, and that Samir Jain’s tendency to leave day-to-day decisions to his younger brother meant that “show started to come at the expense of substance. Samir at least reads books, discusses philosophy, that kind of thing. Not Vineet. If you have a conversation with Vineet about India and China, his eyes will glaze over. But if you want to talk about whether a heterosexual can ever become a homosexual, he’ll engage you for hours.” I thought this was an exaggeration until I found a 1700-word blog post Vineet Jain wrote for the Indiatimes portal in 2009, titled: “Being gay—is it free choice or a natural inborn preference?”

Even more than Samir Jain had done in the late 1980s, Vineet Jain has discomfited his editors. Sanjaya Baru left the Times Group in 1997, he said, “partly because of the seven-year itch, but also because Vineet started interfering a lot in an insistent manner. Samir would only ever hint or advise, never insist.” In keeping with his image as a man about town, another editor told me, Vineet Jain pressed the Times of India’s supplements to cover parties and “tits and babes” and demanded that the main paper chase sensational stories. In Behind the Times, Bachi Karkaria writes, it was at the insistence of Vineet Jain that the television channel Times Now executed “its carpet bombing coverage of the rescue of Prince, the little boy trapped in a Kurukshetra borewell for 48 hours”. Through those two days, Jain delivered his instructions right into “the ear-piece of the anchor, Arnab Goswami, upping the ante by telling him to flood the screen with viewer reactions.”

The Times Group’s television channels, as well as its Internet enterprises, have been Vineet Jain’s babies. “Samir never liked television very much,” one former Economic Times editor said. “He blocked it, in my view, for at least five or six years. He wanted to stick to the group’s core competence. And in some ways, he was right, because they’re not yet making money on their news channels or on Internet.” But they will, Vineet Jain believes. “I keep telling my people that you may be earning your revenues from print, but it is actually the digital space that you are here for,” he told Business Today in a rare interview in 2008. “It will be your salvation.”

Vineet Jain also conceptualised Medianet, the scheme by which advertisers and public relations agencies can, in certain supplements, buy coverage disguised as news. By many accounts, Medianet is the most miasmic development in Indian journalism in decades. In the varicose veins of the industry, anecdotes clump up, like bad blood, about how Medianet has even infiltrated the main paper, such that the generosity of an advertiser can be rewarded with positive coverage—implicit bargains that are impossible to prove or to track. Dhariwal and two Times of India editors categorically denied this, insisting that Medianet operates only in the paper’s supplements. Medianet’s practices have also spread outside the Times Group to rival newspapers and television channels. “The difference is that they do it tucked away behind bushes,” Karkaria writes in Behind the Times, while Bennett, Coleman “does it as ‘khullam khulla’ [openly] as reckless lovers.”

Medianet played upon two of Samir Jain’s most constant apprehensions about his newspapers: that they were, in just the regular process of reporting upon people or companies, providing them free and quantifiable publicity; and that his journalists were making a side income by writing pieces in exchange for money or other benefits. (On the latter count, he has not been wrong; in 2003, an Economic Times journalist was arrested in Mumbai while collecting the second instalment of a Rs 2.5 million payoff to spike stories about a financial services firm.) A repeated and unfortunate victim of Samir Jain’s fears has been the Times of India’s book-review page over the years. An editor recalled Jain grumbling, in the mid-1990s, that these pages had degenerated into parlours for the mutual scratching of backs by reviewers and authors. “He’d complain: ‘You always review books that sell in the thousands, never in the lakhs.’” In early September, the book-review page of Crest, the Times of India’s weekend magazine, was axed because, according to people in the newspaper, reviews often discussed books available on Flipkart but not Indiatimes—the equivalent, in Jain’s eyes, of giving comfort and succour to the enemy.

For similar reasons, the Times of India adheres to a strict policy of not mentioning brands of any sort in its journalism unless they are crucial to the story. A book launch occurs at “a Vasant Kunj book shop” and not at Landmark; a charity event raises money at “a south Mumbai hotel” and not at the Oberoi. “I want my story to be as pure and newsworthy as can be,” Dhariwal told me. “The moment I write ‘Taj Hotel,’ I may get a free meal, I may make them feel obliged. I don’t want any of that. We don’t want even potential quid-pro-quos.”

The same philosophy applied, Dhariwal said, in perhaps the Times of India’s most extreme—and most farcical—fulfilment of this policy: its refusal, earlier this year, to refer to Indian Premier League (IPL) teams by their full names. A senior team official told me that Bennett, Coleman had tried—and failed—to browbeat the IPL management, threatening to elide the team names unless the IPL bought more advertising. Until the very final stages of the tournament, therefore, the Deccan Chargers were called Team Hyderabad, the Kolkata Knight Riders were called Team Kolkata, and so on. Joy Bhattacharya, the Kolkata Knight Riders team director, tweeted after the English Premier League final between Manchester United and Manchester City: “Today, TOI’s sports page headline should read ‘In a thrilling finish, Team Manchester pip Team Manchester to the EPL title!’”

Dhariwal denied that there had been any attempt to gouge advertising out of the IPL: “In the main Times of India, there will never be a connection between what we write and advertising.” He then mounted an impassioned but somewhat muddled defence of the newspaper’s policy on IPL team names. “Look, you want publicity, you want your name in the paper, then you can get publicity in our supplements, and you’ll get it by paying for it,” he told me. “Why should we give a free ride to anybody? We’re a commercial company.” The term “Kolkata Knight Riders” was in essence a brand, Dhariwal argued, and brands would receive no free publicity in the Times of India’s pages.

But wasn’t “Manchester United,” I asked Dhariwal, as much of a brand as “Kolkata Knight Riders?”

“No,” he said. “Manchester United is the name of a local team. Why isn’t the sponsor mentioned there? Why isn’t it Barclays Manchester United?”

In similar fashion then, I wondered, shouldn’t the Times of India have only refrained from calling the team “Nokia Kolkata Knight Riders”?

“Yes, but in other team names, the sponsor is right there in the name,” Dhariwal said. “Deccan Chronicle is the sponsor of Deccan Chargers, Vijay Mallya’s brand is right there in the Royal Challengers Bangalore. So we had to follow a consistent policy.”

Medianet’s immodest beginnings lay in a scheme introduced in 1995, under which companies could buy discounted advertising space to rebut articles that had been unfavourable to them. (One editor labelled it, for his own amusement, the supari ad, after Mumbai slang for an underworld hit, “because effectively the newspaper was taking money to kill its own reports.”) Sucheta Dalal, then the financial editor of the Times of India, recalled being aghast at the policy. “I sent a long note to Pradeep Guha, asking: ‘Is Response going to go running to people even as I’m doing a story on them?’” she told me. “Why couldn’t companies have just written a letter to the editor or gone to the ombudsman?” The supari ad was discontinued, but its basic premise continued to swirl around the mind of Vineet Jain. In the early 2000s, an editor remembered him saying: “All these little press releases coming in for Delhi Times, for restaurants and so on. Why should we give them space? We can charge them for it.”

In September, I was sent, through a chain of sources, an email from a Bennett, Coleman executive that laid out the rates for Medianet in Delhi Times. To feature one of its events over a quarter-page spread, a hotel would need to pay approximately Rs 750,000, or Rs 1,495 per square centimetre. On the front page of Delhi Times, a square centimetre of coverage cost Rs 2,530; the lowest rate in the supplement, on the Lifestyle page, was Rs 1,035 per square centimetre.

For a long time after Medianet began operations, its content bore no clear indicators that it had been paid for; even if an article carried a footnote reading “Medianet,” it was not apparent, to the average reader, what that meant. At the beginning of 2011, a strapline below the masthead started to introduce Bombay Times, Delhi Times and allied Medianet products as an “Entertainment and Advertising Feature”; the disclaimer was further tweaked a couple of months later to read, as it does now, “Advertorial, Entertainment Promotional Feature.” There’s no doubt that the strapline fulfils Bombay Times’ obligation to announce that it is stuffed with paid content; equally, there’s no doubt that thousands of readers every day must read Bombay Times believing it to be the product of genuine, if silly, reporting. I asked Dhariwal if the strapline was a concession to the criticisms that the Times of India was misleading its readers. “I think that would be a defensive way of putting it,” he said drily. “We wanted it to be clear. We wanted everybody to know that these are advertising supplements, and that they are different from the Times of India.”

 But talk still circulates, like stale and dangerous air, that advertising and editorial are more tightly linked than they should be. In one example, two former Economic Times editors told me that, just before Tata Consultancy Services’ public offering in August 2004, instructions filtered down from management to give the event only the most grudging coverage. When I went back into the archives, I found only scanty news briefs, hardly commensurate with the listing of India’s biggest IT company. The reason, these editors said, was that the Tatas had blacklisted Bennett, Coleman’s publications at the time, buying no advertising in either the Economic Times or the Times of India. Dhariwal emphatically told me that such withholding of coverage never happened.

 In the Times of India, two editors told me, in separate conversations, that the journalism under their purview was absolutely blameless, but they were less convinced about the newsroom at large. One of these editors, observing that the newspaper’s Response team was carved up into beats just as its pool of reporters was, thought that some journalists might be working a little too closely with their counterparts in Response. The uncertainty that these editors felt seemed to reflect a truth about journalism: that if the line between advertising and editorial is muddied, even if only in a supplement like Bombay Times, confidence in the newspaper as a whole can falter. Doubt can worm its way in—even if, as Dhariwal attests, it is entirely misplaced.

BENNETT, COLEMAN’S other controversial initiative, Private Treaties, is a more complex animal than Medianet. Starting in 2006, Bennett, Coleman has taken stakes in companies—mostly small and unlisted—in exchange for advertising in its pages. The Bennett, Coleman subsidiary that runs Private Treaties, Brand Capital, has owned equity in nearly 400 companies; among the more well-known ones in its present portfolio are Kingfisher Airlines, Indian Terrain, Emaar MGF Land Limited and Birla Lifesciences. In an interview with the web site Medianama in 2008, S Sivakumar, Brand Capital’s CEO, contended that advertising was only being used as a currency, just as cash would be by venture capital firms.

Private Treaties is, according to Bennett, Coleman and other media houses, a win-win situation. Advertising space in newspapers is today an “unlimited commodity,” Dhariwal told me, because “we can always add more pages.” For a newspaper, the prospect of unsold ad inventory is frightening; in Paper Tigers, Jain tells his board: “An unsold offering is like an unsold airline seat or hotel bed. Neither can be sold the next day. The opportunity is missed forever.” But Private Treaties can also help grow the market, giving small companies with slender budgets a chance to advertise themselves in newspapers. “So take somebody like Dr Sachdev’s Eye Clinic, with no cash flow to advertise,” the head of a rival media house told me. “They can give us shares, or if it’s a real estate firm, they can give us property.” The equity stakes are typically small; Sivakumar, in his Medianama interview, said that each client, on average, swaps equity worth Rs 50-100 million of advertising over three years.

The wonder-drug of Private Treaties has been accompanied, however, by a throbbing migraine of a side-effect: the conflict of interest involved when a media house owns stakes in companies it routinely writes about. Suspicions that favourable editorial coverage would be built into the ad-for-equity transaction sharpened when a leaked email dated November 29, 2007, from the Economic Times executive editor Rahul Joshi, was published in several places, including the media blog Sans Serif:

“At ET, we are carving out a separate team to look into the needs of Private Treaty clients. Every large centre will have a senior editorial person to interface with Treaty clients. In turn, the senior edit person will be responsible, along with the existing team, for edit delivery. This team will have regional champions along with one or two reporters for help—but more importantly, they will liaise with REs (Resident Editors) and help in integrating the content into the different sections of the paper. In this way, we will be able to incorporate PT into the editorial mainstream, rather than it looking like a series of press releases appearing in vanilla form in the paper.”

When I asked Dhariwal about this email, he told me, “I’m sure it was authentic,” but that it dated from the early days of Private Treaties, when Times Group was feeling its way through the process. “We didn’t know the nature of the beast. It was like trying to build a bloody airplane,” Dhariwal said. The editorial staff described in Joshi’s email was tasked with liaising with Private Treaty clients because they would complain, as Dhariwal said, “Koi hamari baat nahin sunta hai (Nobody listens to us).”

But rapidly, Dhariwal said, clients started to expect favourable editorial coverage. “Once we realised this—oh my god, we immediately corrected it. We modified all the contracts, to say: There cannot be any such expectation, and you will not get any priority coverage.” On Brand Capital’s web site, a Code of Conduct reads: “Members shall in no manner attempt to influence editorial teams in respect of reporting relating to investee companies of Brand Capital.” Dhariwal claimed, in fact, that the situation had since reversed entirely—that Brand Capital’s clients, such as the real-estate firm Lavasa, grumble that the newspaper accords them disproportionately negative coverage. In the Times of India archives, I found plenty of fluffy writing about the sylvan charms of Lavasa’s township in Maharashtra, but I did also find articles about the project’s legal and environmental problems. 

Neither the Times of India nor the Economic Times appends a disclosure every time it publishes an article about a company in which Bennett, Coleman holds a stake. Dhariwal told me it was simply impractical to do so. “Tell me, in the half-hour or one hour that journalists are finishing an article, is it realistic to search to see if Bennett, Coleman owns a part of the company?” he said. The average reader, he argued, doesn’t care. “It’s only people in your profession who think it’s a big deal.” Sivakumar told Medianama that disclosures are carried only “when there’s an [investment] action possible”—during a public offering, for example. He went on to grouse: “It has almost become like a crime to carry any news of a Treaties client just because you are invested, which is not fair on our reader.”

It is certainly debatable if newspapers are any more beholden to startups in which they hold small stakes than to conglomerates that rain billions of rupees in advertising upon them ever year. But the perception is that the nexus is more worrying in the case of Private Treaties and similar ventures. In mid-2010, the knotted interests trailing ad-for-equity deals in newspapers and news channels drew the gaze of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), which prescribed disclosures upon the Press Council of India. These are routinely flouted by Indian media houses. Most newspapers and television channels do not make disclosures in their reports about companies in which they hold stakes, as they’re required to do by SEBI. The web sites of these media groups—or of the relevant subsidiaries, such as Brand Capital—also do not disclose the size of the stakes they hold in various companies.

The devastation of the financial markets over the last four years has hurt Brand Capital. Its 2011 annual report reveals a post-tax loss of Rs 266 million and a diminution of the value of its investments of Rs 380 million. Dhariwal admitted that Bennett, Coleman “has written down a chunk of our Brand Capital investment. But so what? This is money we wouldn’t have gotten in the first place. We’re very, very happy with Brand Capital. This is the way we will fuel the advertising market in India and protect the print business in India for a long time to come.”

The cocktail of Medianet and Private Treaties has created what Pradyuman Maheshwari, the media analyst, calls “a crisis of confidence… Even if the Times of India now does something for legitimate reasons, we as readers will suspect that it’s being done for payment.” The stain of “paid news” has become Bennett, Coleman’s damn’d spot; the company and its newspapers bore the brunt of the Press Council of India’s criticism in its April 2010 report on media corruption. The journalist P Sainath, deposing before a Press Council sub-committee, pointed to how three competing Marathi newspapers, including Bennett, Coleman’s Maharashtra Times, praised the former chief minister Ashok Chavan in “exactly similar words” and suggested that the articles had been placed verbatim for a fee. Sainath also alleged that another Bennett, Coleman daily, Vidarbha Plus, “carried an advertisement disguised as news” on a Congress candidate in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

The Press Council report didn’t include a rebuttal from Bennett, Coleman, and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a member of the sub-committee, told me that the company sent no response at all. Dhariwal, however, insisted that Bennett, Coleman had sent a rebuttal and that the Press Council “has chosen not to highlight it”. He pointed out that the report indicted several other publications, and that the Press Council could only find “in one obscure location, charges against Maharashtra Times and Vidarbha Plus. Look, it was unfortunate that some of our journalists fell for press release copies. It was press release copy that unfortunately got carried by us, like it was carried by others. But then we were charged with paid news, which is absolute rubbish. We didn’t get paid for it.”

The ugly rash of “paid news” is a symptom that the crisis of confidence diagnosed by Maheshwari infects the Indian media at large. Newspaper and magazine publishers are dependent, to unprecedented levels, upon their advertisers. Most media houses run versions of Private Treaties, and the tangled interests therein are rarely warmed by sunlight. Three of Indian television’s four biggest business channels have been colonised by the Ambani brothers: Mukesh Ambani has invested in NDTV and Network18, which air NDTV Profit and CNBC-TV18 respectively, while companies promoted by Anil Ambani own a slice of Bloomberg UTV. (Ironically, for all Bennett, Coleman’s detractors, ET Now is the only major business channel that is, on paper, free of the Ambanis’ influence.) The Niira Radia tapes, leaked a couple of years ago, showed further evidence of cloyingly close relationships between journalists and corporations.

 In such a world, where news can be doctored “so as to please the piper who is paying”, TN Ninan wrote in a 2006 essay in Seminar, “bad journalism begins to drive out good.” Editors and managers at the Times of India are perfectly justified when they point out that this world—of worrying advertising practices, of commoditised news—is populated by many media houses and not just Bennett, Coleman. But this world is still, very inarguably, the creation of Samir Jain.

 

SIX

 

IN THE EARLY 2000s, when an editor left the Indian Express to join the Times of India, he was asked if he could join Samir Jain in Haridwar for an orientation. He took an early morning train out of Delhi and alighted at Haridwar, where a car ferried him to Jain’s home. “It’s like a guest house—really very basic, almost like a hostel, but with marble floors,” the editor told me. “On the ground floor, it was flush with the river, so you could put your feet into the water. There wasn’t a thing on the walls. Samir would personally bring you pomegranate seeds in a katori. Lunch would be really basic—boiled food, rotis, maybe a glass of Coke if somebody wanted it.”

Even as Jain has delved ever deeper into Indian journalism to rearrange its innards, Haridwar has become a sanctuary, where he repairs for weeks at a time to read and discuss scripture, to sequester himself from the world, to meditate and think. He telephones his newsrooms only rarely from there, “and even then it won’t be about what to do with the paper, but more to bowl some sort of philosophical journalistic googly,” the editor said. “But then, every time he comes back from one of these spiritual retreats,” another former Times journalist said, “he comes back with a new killer scheme for the market, to sell the paper better or to raise circulation by another 100,000.” 

The apparent contradiction between Jain’s deep spiritualism and his unabashed commercialism, I was assured by many of his colleagues, is really no contradiction at all. Jain simply sees it as his dharma to grow the business he inherited, one former Times of India editor told me. “The money won’t affect him in any way, because he is very austere, not at all flashy,” she said. Another editor remembered Jain counselling him: “Don’t confuse being spiritual with being a do-gooder, because the two are fundamentally different things.” It doesn’t clash with Jain’s view of the world, for instance, “to sell newspapers with half-naked women on the front page”, said the editor who was initiated into the company at Haridwar. “He may never open Delhi Times himself, but he has no problem with its contents. He has partitioned his life quite nicely.”

Jain’s turn towards a more sedulous spiritualism may have come at the instance of his mother, Indu, who became, after her husband’s death, Bennett, Coleman’s chairman, a title she uses in its masculine form. In the late 1980s, she had become a follower of Osho Rajneesh, the Pune-based mystic, and Times of India staffers were, along with Samir and his sister Nandita, regular visitors to Rajneesh’s ashram. (In one of his books, Rajneesh worked himself up into a fit of pique about these visiting journalists, declaiming that “to speak to such people is almost worse than speaking to a wall”. He wrote, though: “But I really agreed for Samir Jain. He is a young man, he has been to the ashram before, he has meditated. He wanted to become a sannyasin [ascetic] but his father was absolutely against it, so much against it that if he became a sannyasin, his father would disown him… He has not the guts to say to the father, ‘It is perfectly okay, you can disown me,’ but he has a sympathetic heart.”) Indu Jain later moved into the orbit of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a path her son too traced; he has also sought the guidance of Jaggi Vasudev, whose Isha Yoga Center sprawls over 150 acres of land just outside Coimbatore.

Towards the end of the 1990s, when he suffered a series of bereavements, Jain’s spiritual convictions intensified. In February 1999, Ashok Jain died at the Cleveland Clinic, barely a month after he underwent a heart transplant. Not long after, Samir’s son Vardhaman passed away, also in the United States, after choking on a piece of food; he was barely out of his teens. (His daughter, Trishla, who studied English at Stanford, is now a New Delhi-based artist and a director in charge of business development at Bennett, Coleman; her husband, Satyan Gajwani, was recently named the chief executive of Times Internet Limited.) In May 2001, Jain’s sister Nandita, then the group’s deputy managing director, died in a helicopter crash over Arunachal Pradesh.

It is perhaps Vardhaman’s death that most lends a tragic cast to Samir Jain’s life. Very soon after he was born, Vardhaman suffered an illness that left him permanently blind. “There would be no fluid in his eyes,” MD Nalapat, the coordinating editor of the Times of India in the mid-1990s, told me. “It was horribly painful.” Nalapat recalled Vardhaman as a boy with a keen mind and a warm way of dealing with people, although another editor spotted signs of the father’s imperiousness in the son. “I remember one meeting in the boardroom in Bombay when Vardhaman got up and started saying: ‘We need to turn this newspaper into a lean, mean machine. We need to retrench. There’s far too much flab here,’” this editor told me. “And Samir was trying to hush him up.”

At the time, Vardhaman was, as Nalapat said, “just a kid”, but Jain had already begun to groom him. “Samir doted on his son. He clearly saw Vardhaman as the future, to help build the Times of India into a huge global empire,” Nalapat said. “So he would ask me to take Vardhaman on my meetings, to expose him to the kinds of people an editor would meet. We went to Nepal once together, and he would come along as a non-combatant observer if I had meetings with ministry officials.” Jain had bought, for his son, the best available computer aids for the sightless, and Nalapat recalled that Vardhaman was fascinated by computers and the Internet. “As far as I could see, he was looking forward to joining the Times of India,” Nalapat said. “I remember how delighted he was when the Times became the number one English newspaper in the world.”

Jain coped with these losses, his colleagues told me, with a frozen calm that was unsettling to witness. On his instructions, the final sentence of his father’s obituary in the Times of India was: “He would want us to be a-shok—one who is without grief—in the full sense of the Sanskrit word.” When the news of Vardhaman’s demise reached the offices in Delhi, a former staffer recalled, Jain “philosophised the whole thing away. He never showed any emotion. That evening, he even attended a meeting and had a normal discussion. We knew, somehow, that we weren’t supposed to go condole with him.” Two people who attended Nandita’s memorial service told me that, while Vineet Jain wept for his sister, Samir appeared to be in a trance-like ecstasy. “In a way, that’s what makes him more chilling,” one of these people told me. “That’s why he will never think twice about shutting down a unit, say, or even a newspaper.”

Jain believes strongly, I gathered, in what a spiritual advisor might call the impermanence of the terrestrial realm. “Life is a game, Samir once said to me, but it is a game you must play in all seriousness, without losing sight of the fact that it is only a game,” recalled a Times of India editor who knows Jain well. He directed me to the Ashtavakra Gita, a philosophical dialogue that Jain reads avidly, and that posits an unsettling disconnect between a man’s thought and his actions. “Righteousness and unrighteousness, pleasure and pain are purely of the mind and are no concern of yours,” the sage Ashtavakra advises Janaka, king of Mithila. “You are neither the doer nor the reaper of the consequences, so you are always free.” The body is imagination, only pure consciousness is real, and death, when it arrives, is not to be mourned.

Inevitably, the blaze of Jain’s faith has singed Bennett, Coleman’s newsrooms. On the third floor of the Times of India building in New Delhi, images of seated Jain tirthankaras are emblazoned into the frosted panels on the doors of cabins; in between the thick glass that wrap around other work spaces, mock-ups of pages from old Sanskrit manuscripts are sandwiched into the panes. “He’d want us to write whole editorials based on the Bhagavad Gita, and if you made one mistake, you had it. On many days, some baba or the other would come to the fourth floor, and we’d all have to go to listen to them,” one former Times of India journalist told me. More such lectures were held at Jain’s residence, and editors were expected to attend. One editor, during a sermon by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar at Sujagi, found that he had forgotten his spectacles in his car. “Sri Sri was talking about how a paper shouldn’t have bad news, and how it should have only good news or spiritual news, and I got a headache because I didn’t have my glasses on. So I was sitting there rubbing my eyes and my head,” the editor told me. “The next day, I got a call from Dileep Padgaonkar, who was in China at the time, saying: ‘Boss, what did you do? Sri Sri is really mad at you, that you weren’t paying attention to what he was saying.’”

The most remarkable twinning of Jain’s beliefs and his flair for marketing has been Speaking Tree, a spirituality column so successful that it was spun off, in February 2010, into its own weekly publication. A journalist who worked briefly on the Speaking Tree columns said that Jain had wanted “a civilised way of discussing religion”, and Dhariwal told me that Jain was fed up with the news media’s “obsession with politics, the same old drama that goes on every day, back and forth.” Even Jain’s detractors concede, with reluctant admiration, that “the bloody thing worked”. Vidya Subrahmaniam, who was working on the editorial page when Speaking Tree launched, remembered: “People would rush up to me and gush about the edit page. But it wasn’t about anything I or my colleagues wrote. The praise was for Speaking Tree.” Jain rightly figured, Subrahmaniam said, “that people who love the Times of India are often torn up inside, from just running all the time”. It is the Speaking Tree, and its successful vending of spiritual comfort, that people cite most often as an instance of Jain’s marketing artistry, quite forgetting the more obvious example: the newspaper within which it is encased.

SLOWLY, OVER THE LAST DECADE, Samir Jain has become more withdrawn from the newspaper; consensus has it that he has certainly mellowed since the late 1980s, when he was the scourge of the newsroom. “I do sense that he is letting other people create and innovate, and that he doesn’t want to stamp his authority on everything,” Dhariwal said. “But he’s still the best mind in the company. He’s still very agile, very active.” Jain has grown less acutely interested in Bennett, Coleman’s day-to-day operations and less ravenous in the pursuit of some of his larger goals for his company. He doesn’t seem to be still hankering, for instance, to make the Times of India into the global media brand he once wished it to be. In the mid-2000s, rumours flitted through India’s newsrooms that Bennett, Coleman was considering a bid to buy first the Wall Street Journal and then Newsweek, but those bids never materialised. Jain had also desired, once, to buy Britain’s Financial Times, but now that it might be up for sale again, he is said to be showing little interest.

Jain has also been slow to take Bennett Coleman public, although a listing is now believed to be close at hand. When the financial markets were shimmering hot a few years ago, two former Times Group editors told me, he was seriously deliberating an IPO, his sights set—a little ambitiously—on a valuation of $ 10 billion. Speaking recently to Ken Auletta of the New Yorker, Vineet Jain carefully discussed a public offering “in the long run”, saying: “We don’t need money to grow publishing, but we do to grow television and Internet.” In December 2010, stock options were handed out to more than 200 senior employees—editors as well as managers—with a promise to compensate these options with cash if the shares are not listed by December 31, 2015.

 Although he could not have known it then, Jain entered the Indian newspaper industry just as it was poised on the lip of disruptive change—or, to be reflexive about it, he engineered much of this change himself. Twenty-five years later, the industry finds itself at another crossroads. The business of printing and selling English newspapers in India is at or near its crest; spectacular as the view from the summit remains, growth is slowing, and television and the Internet are leaching away both advertisers and readers. “Print media is expected to face multiple challenges…and some key hurdles,” Bennett, Coleman’s 2010-11 Annual Report says, before identifying some of these hurdles: lack of interactivity, abbreviated attention spans, alternative media options. Newspaper readership is “declining / stagnant”, presenting “an inability to push our advertising tariffs upwards”. The nimbleness that has been demanded of newspaper companies in the United States is beginning to be demanded of their counterparts here.

In Bennett, Coleman’s navigation of these new waters, it may not always be Jain’s hand on the tiller or his eye to the sextant, but by filling her holds with cash, he has kitted out his vessel better than any other in the country. Undoubtedly, he has built a rich and mighty corporation; it is not at all as clear, though, that he has improved, or has even wanted to improve, Indian journalism. Instead, he has prized the quantitative over the qualitative, and although by that metric he has thoroughly swamped his opposition, he continues to have an eye or two cocked on the numbers. “Now, for Samir, it isn’t even so much about making money,” one Times of India editor said. “Now it’s just about keeping score.”

Samanth Subramanian is a contributing editor at The Caravan and the India correspondent for The National. His book Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast won the 2010 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize. He is currently working on a book about the Sri Lankan civil war.

ONE

 

IN THE COLLECTIVE MEMORY of Times of India journalists, the notebooks loom large; no conversation about Samir Jain can be complete without mentioning them. If Jain, the vice-chairman of Bennett, Coleman & Company Limited and publisher of the Times of India, invites you into his office for a chat, you’re expected to carry a notebook, and you’re expected to take notes. “We all had our Samir Jain notebooks, and anxious managers outside his cabin would hand us new ones in case we’d forgotten ours,” said an editor who worked at the newspaper during the 1990s. “I even remember the type: Ajanta No. 3 notebooks, spiral-bound, in different colours.”

New initiates into Jain’s meetings have made the mistake of decorating the pages of their notebooks with aimless doodles; old hands learn at least to scrawl down key words, lest they be quizzed the next day or the week after. It can be a chore; it can also be downright galling. After a cordial conversation in 1986, when Jain was still finding his feet around the paper, he pointedly told one editor, decades his senior: “It’s so nice discussing these matters with you. But when others come to see me, they bring a notebook. Maybe you should too.” In response, the editor told me, his voice still bearing embers of anger, “I said: ‘You may own the paper, but this is not tolerable.’ Then I came downstairs and wrote out my resignation letter.”

Really diligent scribes can leave Jain’s office with aching wrists. In large gatherings elsewhere, Jain prefers to remain a passive observer, but in these little conclaves, he can talk, in mixed English and Hindi, for an hour or more at a time. He is nothing if not discursive; his homilies have ranged over editorial matters, brand-building and marketing, the nature of art, the psychology of his readers, sex, literature, and—most commonly—religion and spirituality.

Over the last two-and-a-half decades, Jain has imprinted himself indelibly onto the Times of India, and thereby onto Indian journalism. In his newsroom, Jain is sometimes referred to, discreetly, as “Supreme Being”, and his will can be difficult to fathom. He preserves an Olympian detachment from his newspaper’s coverage of politics, and editors attested to me that he never once calls to inquire about the next day’s headlines, let alone to push a line in favour of one party or another. Simultaneously, though, Jain has been exacting and forceful in his mission to shape the Times of India—its editorial philosophy; its news priorities; its gimlet-eyed focus on the bottom line—in his image. His demands can sound abstract or whimsical, and he is frequently elliptical about spelling them out, but he is insistent that they be met.

Jain, who will be 59 in March, has a capacious memory, and he recollects, nearly verbatim, much of what he has read. “The active Samir is a treat. He likes debate. If he argues with you on some point, it means he’s willing to be convinced,” said MD Nalapat, once the coordinating editor of the Times of India. Nalapat left the newspaper in the late 1990s, although he remains close to Jain. “But total silence means deep disagreement, and there’s no convincing him. If you’re smart, you’ll shut it down and not go any further.” Jain is always polite and soft-spoken, but he watches his audience keenly, a former Economic Times editor told me; his eyes constantly flit around the room, “and just when you think he isn’t looking at you, you’ll find that he is, to see if you’re listening. It’s very unsettling.”

Strict rules of engagement govern Jain’s meetings, some of them even written out explicitly as instructions from Bennett, Coleman’s management and distributed to new editors. “You aren’t supposed to look at your watch, for instance,” said Vidya Subrahmaniam, a former staffer on the editorial page and now an associate editor at The Hindu. “Even if you have an appointment with the prime minister, that is secondary.” No cross-talk is allowed. You don’t scrape your chair along the ground, and you accord Jain rapt attention. In Behind the Times, a frothy, cinnamon-dusted history of the newspaper, Bachi Karkaria, one of its columnists, describes a discussion in Jain’s Mumbai office, during which an editor had slumped a few degrees too many in her chair. Jain slid “a folded slip [of paper] to her across the desk. In his spidery handwriting, it read, ‘Very discreetly, and without seeming to be reacting to this note, please do not sit with your knees pressed against the edge of the table.’”

These assemblies have been pleasant for some; one former editor said that Jain was “one of the best teachers I have ever had. Talking to him focused your mind. It made you think through your position on something.” For most participants, they were harrowing, like a subtle but perpetual test of obedience. “He never directly dictated the edit line. He engaged you in long conversations, and you had to read between the lines, absorb the message, come back down, and write your edit,” Subrahmaniam said. One editor quit the paper because the constant effort to glean Jain’s meaning grew too wearying. “I’d come out of some of these sessions just ashen-faced,” he said. “I was rattled. I couldn’t handle that intensity.”

A coded lexicon evolved to describe these councils and their cast. In a “darbar”, Jain met his full court of editors; in a “darshan”, a pilgrim walked into Jain’s sanctum alone. K Subrahmanyam, the late strategic affairs analyst who worked on the opinion page, called Jain’s business managers “pakkavadyams”, referring to the cluster of accompanists around the main performer in a Carnatic music concert. Less charitably, Subrahmanyam, who survived one bout with cancer, labelled these sessions with Jain—supposedly beneficial, always sapping—as “chemotherapy”.

Sometimes these meetings are conducted at Sujagi, Jain’s residence opposite the Taj Mahal Hotel in central Delhi, a tasteful but austere house with few idiosyncrasies. (One of them, though, is piped music; a visitor in the early 2000s swears that he heard, to his surprise, Buddha Bar trickling out of the speakers.) More often, the meetings will happen in Jain’s office on the fourth floor of the Times Group building in New Delhi, or in its equivalent in the handsome Mumbai premises near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.

From these offices, Jain administers the Bennett, Coleman empire, India’s largest media house. In the year ending March 2011, Bennett, Coleman earned revenues of Rs 47.49 billion and an after-tax profit of Rs 9.75 billion. (By comparison, HT Media, which owns the Hindustan Times, registered revenues of Rs 18.15 billion, and Network18 Media & Investments, which owns CNN-IBN and CNBC-TV18, earned Rs 14.84 billion.) Bennett, Coleman, a private limited company, owns some stray real-estate firms and brokerage houses, produces movies and music, dabbles in web commerce via Indiatimes, and runs a mysterious subsidiary, Times Yoga Ltd., whose purpose and nature I was never entirely able to establish.

 Almost all of Bennett, Coleman’s money is earned by its newspapers—the Times of India, the Economic Times, Navbharat Times, sundry city tabloids—and, to a lesser extent, by its television channels such as Times Now and ET Now, a sheaf of magazines, and FM radio stations. In 2010-11, Bennett, Coleman’s dailies commanded 54 percent of the English-language market in India’s eight biggest cities. The Economic Times, with a daily readership of more than 800,000, is India’s biggest business newspaper. The Times of India is the country’s highest-circulated English-language newspaper and also the highest-circulated English-language newspaper in the world, with a daily run of over 3 million copies. Its readership is nearly double that of its nearest rival, the Hindustan Times, and its sheer dominance in India, a country with more than 11,000 English newspapers and periodicals, is something of a marvel.

These are not laurels upon which Jain is content to rest; having conquered the metropolises, the Times of India is opening editions in towns like Visakhapatnam, Aurangabad and Nashik. There are now 50 editions across 40 cities; the Times of India has localised itself across a country in a way no newspaper has ever done before. Jain is also throwing himself afresh into the vernacular space, having long neglected his Hindi and Marathi dailies; a few weeks ago, Bennett, Coleman launched Ei Samay, a Bengali daily, to compete with the venerable Anandabazar Patrika. “I think Samir regrets not having spotted the growth of vernacular newspapers,” the head of a competing media house told me. “We saw it eight years ago, and we were surprised, frankly, that he didn’t. We were always waiting for him to catch up.”

PLAYING CATCH-UP IS NOT JAIN’S STYLE; there is little in the Indian newspaper business over the last 20 years that he has not pioneered. He has touched off explosions in circulation by pushing into new towns and into new reader segments, helping India become the world’s largest English-language newspaper market. He spotted, before any of his peers, the necessity of burnishing a brand, and his single greatest accomplishment lies in making the Times of India the country’s foremost media brand. He has, with his cash reserves, kept newspaper prices ruinously low; a weekday issue of the Times of India costs Rs 4.50, or 8.3 cents, in New Delhi. This forces publishers to wring every possible rupee out of advertisers, and at this blood sport, Bennett, Coleman has proven the most proficient. Separately, and well before other newspapers, the Times of India became adept at celebrity journalism, filling its supplements with movie-star gossip and cocktail-party photos and other exalted banalities.

Jain was also the first newspaper baron in India to tinker with the interstitial spaces between editorial and advertising, smudging the line between the two departments. A junior editor in the mid-1990s recalls one of Jain’s corporate managers, “articulating the wisdom of the palace, saying unapologetically: ‘The job of the newspaper is to deliver the reader to the advertiser’.” Such a mission can be a slippery slope, and its critics claim that the Times of India has tumbled joyfully down it—that its editorial coverage can be bought, and that, in its pages, advertising can be paraded as news. Ravi Dhariwal, Bennett, Coleman’s CEO, has had to respond to these charges so often that he has developed a flat but exasperated tone in which to deliver his denial. No editorial space in the main Times of India paper can be purchased, he told me. He hinted further that this was not necessarily the case with other Indian dailies: “I think we’re the cleanest media house there is.”

In running his newspapers, Jain anticipated, by many years, the questions that nip at the ankles of the print media today: about the sort of news a newspaper needs to cover, about the readers it should aim to please, and about its very purpose in our lives. Jain has discovered unequivocal answers to these questions for himself, but he continues to be excoriated, Dhariwal believes, only because these answers—brutally commercial in nature—have been so disruptive. “It’s a complex psychological reaction to our strength,” he said. “But they all follow us. Every single media company wants to emulate what we do.”

Dhariwal isn’t wrong. Success as lavish as Jain’s has given other publishers no option but to replicate parts, or all, of his model. “I don’t think any paper wholeheartedly followed down his path,” said the head of a competing media house, “but now we do have to think of the newspaper as a consumer product, as Samir did. Samir made papers look at their readers and say: ‘If you want me to dumb it down, I’ll dumb it down. Film, sex, fashion—whatever it takes’.” When, in 2005, Jain started Private Treaties—by which Bennett, Coleman swaps advertising space for small stakes in companies—other media houses fulminated, but they “waited and watched” before following suit, this competitor of Jain’s said. Since then, the Network18 group, HT Media, New Delhi Television (NDTV) and the Dainik Bhaskar group have all practiced variants of Private Treaties. The pressure to mimic the Times of India can be as intense in newsrooms as in boardrooms. “Whatever the Times of India did, we had to do two days later,” said a former Hindustan Times editor. “Every single morning in my edit meetings, it was: ‘What did TOI do? What did TOI do? What did TOI do?’”

I never got a chance to ask Jain about his thoughts on any of this; my requests to interview him proved futile. Jain is fanatically reclusive, and he makes himself particularly unavailable to reporters. The last major interview he gave was a quarter-century ago, to the British journalist Nicholas Coleridge, who devoted a chapter in his book Paper Tigers to the Indian newspaper industry. Even then, Jain was souring on the idea of being covered by the media. Raju Narisetti, who attended the Times School of Journalism in 1988 and is now managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Digital Network, recalls Jain telling his class: “The one thing I have learned from Girilal Jain [then the Times of India editor-in-chief] is to never give interviews. That’s why they keep publishing the same old photograph of me.” Images of Jain continue to be rare today. The few that exist show a trim, dapper man, his salt-and-pepper hair neatly battened into place, his eyes masked by his spectacles’ browned-over lenses.

In direct proportion to this bashfulness is Bennett, Coleman’s litigious streak; the company eagerly pursues legal action over any perceived slight, however inconsequential or well-founded. Vineet Jain, Bennett, Coleman’s managing director and younger to his brother Samir by 12 years, once promised to sue Maxim because it had printed—without naming him—a photo from one of his pool parties, showing him and a friend in the water with two models. Pradyuman Maheshwari, a columnist in Mumbai, shut down his small, chatty media blog after Bennett, Coleman threatened to sue him unless he removed 19 posts about the company. “They said, ‘You’ve been running this campaign against us,’” Maheshwari told me. “One executive there had this habit of filing suits from Sikkim. They were going to file across the country!” The company has now announced plans to sue Zee News after a Zee Business editor was caught, in a sting video, telling Jindal Steel officials: “ET mein to front page stories bik rahi hain aaj kal (Even the front page stories in Economic Times are being sold).” Fear of the Jains’ legal reach is endemic. As a result very few of the people I spoke to—numbering roughly 50, including phalanxes of editors, managers and journalists, both bygone and present-day—agreed to be identified by name.

Samir Jain evokes, from those who have known him, a bewildering assortment of reactions. Some cannot be critical enough, either of him as or of his stewardship of his newspapers. One former editor started out talking about Jain civilly enough, but he rediscovered so many buried grievances over the next 90 minutes that he became, by the end of our conversation, a spluttering Roman candle of invective. (Not surprisingly, he too asked to remain anonymous: “I don’t want all the legal weight of the fucking Times of India jumping on me.”) Others swear affection to him, saying that Jain is unfairly maligned; they recount stories of his generosity and his razor-keen intelligence. Still others stud their narratives with caveats and assertions and counter-assertions and sentences that begin: “He’s a very difficult man to know, but…” The complexity of these responses is to be expected, because it matches the complexity of the turmoil he has sown, single-handed, in Indian journalism. “The entire newspaper industry in this country since the 1990s,” Chandan Mitra, editor of The Pioneer, told me, “is essentially the creation of Samir Jain.”

 

TWO

 

ONE DAY IN THE LATE 1990s, an assistant editor on the Times of India’s opinion page dredged up the courage to complain to Samir Jain that his paper was being dumbed down, crammed to its brim with irrelevant articles. “Samir sent a minion off to fetch a Times of India from 20 years ago, and we sat down and compared the first page of the day’s paper with the first page of the paper from 20 years ago,” the assistant editor said. “And the 20-year-old one was full of rubbish! It was all, ‘The prime minister said this, the president said that.’ It was very government-driven, very sarkari.”

READER'S COMMENTS [27]

Wonderful insight! It's all about "winning at any cost"! All said and done, ToI still continues to be the paper an average reader would like to lay his hands on! That credit should go to Samir Jain. However, their proof reading department still seems to follow the advice of Samir and is still slipping in a generous dose of silly grammatical and spelling mistakes even today..! As far as paid news is concerned, readers are becoming more discerning and can figure out the the jargons like "Impact", "Featured", "Connect", etc! Well, who's bothered as long as you are winning at the market place?!

The story is similar to all those crusaders who have dared work on a mission with passion.It,s inspiring and thought provoking indeed.

I wonder if a lesser mortal whose point of reference in life is the other aware kids in his family, deserves to be in the news paper business. I'm even more surprised if he deserves such a lengthy and lazily written article.

If working as a reporter or copy editor, you need to decide early that you will remain loyal to the paper. This way you are likely to enjoy a lot of benefits from the owners. I rejected an offer from ToI in 1998 and instead took up a better-paying offer with an English-language newspaper in Bangkok. I got another opportunity to join ToI in 2006 as chief copy editor. I had decided to retire with ToI then. Sadly, the ToI in Mumbai, where i was located was so full with Bengalis that they would run roughshod over anyone. I was one of their victims. There were a few good ones, but there were loads of the uncouth ones too enjoying every freedom to speak loudly in their native language at work, in newsrooms. I only realized the reason behind the influx of so many Bengalis in ToI after reading this article, that is, Samir Jain's upbringing in Kolkata.

Very impressive achievements at this young age. Congrats. Win many more.

Thanks for peeling the layers of two onions called Samir Jain & Vineet Jain. There are wheels within wheels and everybody seems to be in bed with everybody else. Mass media is a predatory business where the winner takes all. Alas, whence that brand of journalism as the pure quest to find truth? If Samir and Vineet and people like them are deciding the content of news I get to read and watch, then I don't see much scope for that argument about the fourth estate which is deemed to be one of the pillars of a vibrant democracy. Jainism teaches Satya (truth), Ahimsa (non-violence), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (celibacy) and Aparigraha (non-possession). The Marwari caste is celebrated for their business acumen and money multiplying skills. Its a volatile heady mix alright. But at the end of the day any good human being must pause to think: 'What if everybody in the world does what I am doing?" That is the beginning of ethics in life, business, society, country and the whole world. The law of karma reminds us of the truth of a relentless spiritual law that every action has its consequences for the soul - that is either positive or negative. No guru whether Osho or Sri Sri would be able to deny the truth of that statement logically. It was interesting to see that the photo of Indu Jain has Swami Agnivesh seated in the background. Its not surprising that the media so criminally underplayed Narendra Modi's complicity in Gujarat riots. And its no wonder that that same media has now decided to puff Modi into a larger-than-life figure by clamoring round the clock for Modi as PM. So much for Saffron underpants. But one still hopes that fresh insights and mid-course corrections will emerge from the Haridwar retreat. Both Samir and Vineet have the power to contribute in making India a truly tolerant and secular country that promotes the greatest good of all.

It isn't Samir Jain who did this- if it wasn't him it would've been someone else, maybe Reliance (and they are making some inroads now, with the Times Group so abysmal at online media- Firstpost is really killing it there). Point is- this is what the janta wants to read, the sooner journalists understand their respective niches in the business of journalism not much will change. I enjoyed reading this piece because it was quite cathartic, helped me channel a lot of anger I have against the Times and its owners towards the market. It is me who wants to read the real news, most others would be happy changing the definition of news to a smoothie of pseudo news with a guide for life inbuilt. As usual, a very interesting read. Caravan never disappoints!

I agree with many of the above comments. I now understand how this once-great newspaper of my childhood has been reduced to toilet paper. Imagine telling the editors to insert deliberate spelling errors!

An enigmatic man - A Powerful, Reclusive Visionary ... Thank you for this well-researched and collated article about a man who is so hard to reach and learn from.

Too late to the party. What was the need to cover Jains when The New Yorker had covered them already? Many, you guys are losing your touch.

Why not carry an iPad into meeting and take notes?

I'd never heard of Samir Jain before...now I know why TOI sucks. But this was a tedious read.There's no flow in the article, just see-sawing around this boring, one-dimensional man. One could describe Samir Jain in five lines and no one would be less wiser.

Well-researched but painstakingly long.

Sidharth,it is mean to be long??????

You just showed me a sort of life-documentary of Samir Jain. Very fluid, Very well written piece. Congrats!

Another reason, why Samanth Subramanian is by far the best feature writing journalist, in the country. Kudos for the excellent researched article.

Two years ago, I remember approaching TOI about publishing an Amnesty International campaign ad about human rights violations by the mining company Vedanta in Orissa. They refused. Their marketing executive in London said, "Can you change the content of the ad.?" I asked him to put this request down in writing and they refused that too. With over 50% of the English newspaper market share, I fear that TOI is killing off any alternative view point - even if you're willing to pay for it. The layers of conflicting interest are the things you don't see, much more than the things you do in the paper.

"He waged patient wars of attrition" Shouldn't it be patent?

This is awesome!

16000 words of utter trash and tripe! The writer is an ignoramus who knows nothing about Samir Jain...

You seem to know Samir Jain, not TOI

Dear Samanth Subramanian, many thanks for the really informative article on a megalomaniac corporation. I stopped reading ToI-let paper from 2006 due to such non-sense. Every month, I dedicate some hours to read your magazine for the awesome articles. Please keep doing such great job in future. sanjay, good job favoring Times of India. Will add this during your annual appraisal. Lekin zyaada expect math karna, economy kharab hain beta.

Great work Samanth! I could relate to the article having been a business associate of Times Group for over two decades . On the "Let The Times Of India Wait". The brand was Nestle KIT KAT. The planting of two ear panels was done by an ex- response employee who had joined the agency side(The original Positive was replaced at the last minute at the page making stage and the page maker did not know english....lol)

So Samir Jain decided the way to sell his paper was dumb the news down. Everyone else quickly followed. Samir Jain decided that instead of PR companies getting free write-ups about vacous parties, he would charge for it. So Samir Jain decided his company could barter advertising space for equity stake. Other hastily followed. Not only is there nothing new in the space, I think in trying to frame Samir Jain as the man responsible for all the ills in Indian media, the writer forgot the larger story of how everyone else thought fit to follow him. Other than The Hindu, which has held on to some modicum of journalistic ethics, all other media houses in the country have quickly gone down the revenue maximisation rabbit hole. Samir Jain's faults then is simply being smarter than the rest. By trying to sensationalise the decrepitude of Indian media as the doing of one man, Caravan also is following the same path of dumbing down it seems to so resent Samir Jain for.

it was not cadburys but nestle...

money in media; money in politics.; everywhere, the common Indian is led[or rather misled] as per the whims of the moneyed class. A very sad situation but as the ancients say- This too, shall pass.

what is wrong with carrying a notebook ? u r expected to carry one if u walk into the office of md , ceo of a company or your boss. It is highly disrespectful if u dont. This is a norm in any professional company. The man resigned for such a stupid reason,. It shows his shallowness. He should have been sacked for it.

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