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Oct. 16, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

One of India’s most famous newspapermen is turning to digital with a political journalism platform

Shekhar Gupta said he named his new venture The Print to signal to readers that its standards would be high: “We feel there is a belief that once you go digital, the bar is lowered.”

In 2014, when Shekhar Gupta stepped down as CEO and editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, speculation swirled around his next move. Gupta is one of India’s most famous journalists, arguably the last of a tribe of celebrity editors almost as famous as their publications.

During his 19-year reign at the English-language publication, Gupta transformed the newspaper into one of the most influential publications in New Delhi. He writes a regular column called National Interest and hosts Walk the Talk, a popular weekly interview show on television channel NDTV. The parties held at his house in an upscale Delhi neighborhood are attended by India’s elite and powerful.

Soon after his exit from the Express, Gupta returned to India Today, the magazine he left in 1995, but that stint lasted for only two months. The rumor mill went into overdrive.

But nothing came to pass — until last year, when Gupta created a company called Printline Media and launched a digital platform called The Print.

In many ways, it is clear why even a lifelong newspaperman like Gupta would turn to digital. Since 2010, internet use in India has grown at a frantic pace, driven by the rapid spread of mobile. Print readership is still growing in India, but English-language newspaper advertising grew just 4 percent in 2015, compared with a 38 percent spike in digital advertising, according to consultancy firm KPMG.

In an interview at his company’s sprawling, new office, in an area of central Delhi often referred to as India’s Fleet Street — home to The Times of India, Business Standard, The Hindu, and more — Gupta told me The Print offers premium, focused coverage of politics in India.

“Depending on which brand you prefer, you can call it the Bentley of political journalism or the Bloomberg of political journalism in India,” he said.

Gupta said he christened his venture The Print to signal to readers that its standards would be high: “We feel there is a belief that once you go digital, the bar is lowered.”

The Print’s target readership, according to Gupta, is centered on the influential politicians, industrialists, and bureaucrats who have a stake in policymaking decisions across the country. “We will build several products…all will dovetail into the prime offering — in-depth power journalism addressing the influencer community and the community of youngsters who are aspiring to become part of the influencer community,” he said. Gupta followed the same rulebook at The Indian Express, which does not chase large circulation numbers in the way its competitor papers did in India.

In May, The Print raised an undisclosed sum from a a group of Indian billionaires such as Ratan Tata, Nandan Nilekani, and Uday Kotak, who together own 20 percent of the newspaper. Gupta himself owns the rest.

The Print began with a series of events called Off The Cuff in which Gupta and a senior colleague interview a mix of politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, actors, and industrialists. The website launched in January and recently underwent a significant design overhaul.

A team of about 35 journalists is in place and hiring for a sales and marketing team is underway. But The Print still faces major challenges.

It has entered a teeming digital news market in which a scrum of independent news sites such as Scroll, The Quint and The Wire are all jostling for the attention of audiences, not to mention the popular websites of established newspapers such as The Times of India, Hindustan Times, and the Express. Most of The Print’s team, including Gupta, have a newspaper background with little experience in the digital news market.

“Our focus so far has been to get people who can deliver the right content,” Gupta said. “Now the challenge is in the delivery of content. We will look to hire people from the delivery side.”

Gupta said The Print will abstain from breaking news stories for now: “We will try and tell our audience what the news means because we presume readers [already] know the basic breaking news.”

The website is clean and reader-friendly by virtue of the absence of display ads. But how will The Print sustain its journalism in the future?

“I wish I had greater clarity to speak about that,” Gupta told me, when I asked about the revenue model. He said that once his team gets the content right, the focus will shift to monetizing it. “We will not have the normal kind of ads. We will be different because we want to retain the premium character. If we do high-intensity and greater in-depth coverage of the government and politics, the quality of audience will bring the right kind of advertising to us.”

The focus and challenge before the publication, Gupta said, is to be the best at what it does. “We will stand out if we do that. It is simple.”

A version of this story was first published in Splice Newsroom.

Image provided by Printline Media.

POSTED     Oct. 16, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
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