Digital space is where you should be, if you peddle news, and want to survive. Why do we want to know the news? Is it just an extension of the peeping Tom syndrome? Is it to widen our horizons by learning about people and places we know nothing about? Is it to keep abreast of whatever is happening around the globe? Is it a mistaken notion that all information is knowledge? After all, knowledge is power. The dissemination of news has come a long way from being broadcast through drums, to sending missives through the homing pigeons, to publishing newspapers and periodicals.
History of the Print News Media at a Glance
Popular belief pitches Acta Diurna as the world’s first newspaper published in Rome, around 59 BC. In 1605, Johann Carolus published Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien (Account of all distinguished and commemorable news) — the first printed weekly newspaper — in Antwerp. The oldest private newspaper still published in the world, being continuously published in print from 1666, is the London Gazette. The first major newspaper in India — Hickey’s Bengal Gazette — was an English newspaper published from Calcutta, which started in 1780. By the 80s of the 20th century, there were more than 20,000 daily newspapers, and more than 40,000 periodicals published in various languages in India.
News magazines acquired iconic status in the 70s: The decline, and eventual disappearance of the iconic The Illustrated Weekly in the 70s of the 20th century coincided with the rise and dominance of the news weekly Sunday, and the fortnightly India Today. Published by Living Media India — the publishing arm of Thompson Press — India Today’s meteoric rise, and sustained popularity has been fueled by Aroon Purie and his sister Madhu who have been the brains and business acumen behind its success story. Madhu Trehan nee Purie is its founding editor.
Growth of Alternate News Sources
The need to adapt to the changing external environment is vital, especially in as dynamic a world as communications. The Puries have always been thought leaders, and we’re ahead of the curve thanks to their news and presentation acumen. They captured the pulse of the people during the 80s, and had several prominent journalists/editors working for them. (The author had the privilege of observing the meteoric rise of India Today magazine as he had several friends and family members employed by the conglomerate.)
Radio — The poor country cousin of news: Since radio was still a government enterprise, the news covered by it was based more on governmental handouts than any serious investigative journalism which was the hallmark of Sunday helmed by M. J. Akbar, and the Indian Express helmed by Arun Shourie. Radio, despite the proliferation of channels now, still remains more a source of musical entertainment than of news dissemination and analysis. However, many families had a ritual of tuning into the nine o’clock English news at night as much for the information they got, as to teach the youngsters in the family correct English pronunciation and enunciation.
Turning Point in TV
Strangely enough, in the previous century, television was not the powerful medium it is today. The first Doordarshan Kendra (TV station) to open in India was in New Delhi in 1959. It took more than a decade to reach Mumbai (1971) and Kolkata (1975). It was Rajiv Gandhi’s insistence which brought color television to India for the coverage of the New Delhi Asian Games in 1982. The late 80s saw the introduction of the Metro channels in the four metropolises. Initially, TV was not perceived as a medium of entertainment. The news casts were tepid affairs with the announcements like winning the limited overs cricket World Cup being announced in the same tone as the deaths of prominent public figures.
First to Realize the Importance of Video Journalism
The Puries were the first one to realize the power of TV news, and the importance of video journalism. They caused a furor with their VHS based news series called Newstrack, especially during the Mandal commission stir. Newstrack remains an excellent news source. Post ’91 liberalization, the Puries were the first to jump to presenting TV news with Aajtak, which began as a half-hour capsule aired on DD Metro, and anchored by the legendary S. P. Singh, who had built an awe-inspiring reputation as editor of Ravivar and the Nav Bharat Times. Eventually, Aajtak was launched as a TV Hindi news channel telecasting for only a few hours daily, later becoming a 24-hour channel. Be it the India Today Conclave, or coming up with various magazines; the group has always been way ahead of its competition. Since the start of the group, the brother and sister combo of Madhu and Aroon have been an enviable team. Madhu helmed the content/journalism, while Aroon, being a Chartered Accountant, looked after the business.
Moving into the Digital Space
After a few years of sabbatical, Madhu came back with another winner — a digital news asset called News Laundry — which is primarily targeted towards the English-speaking elite. It came with quite a few interesting content experiments, and was accessible via a Pay to Watch model (SVOD). I was one of the earliest subscribers to their channel. They are still considered an unbiased source; but the other channel — Lallantop — which came from Living Media has taken the Hindi speaking world by storm.
The Latest Winner
Come 2017, the Arun Purie led group came up with their latest winner — a YouTube Hindi news channel, Lallantop — which is the focus of the current case study. They roped in a great editor in Saurabh Dwivedi. This sharp internet journalist has a great command over the language. In this age of TV media which is marred by noise and biases, it comes as welcome change. Initially, Lallantop was not revealed as a brainchild of Living Media, which itself is a great move to avoid any preconceived bias from viewers. Though the ownership was guarded, you can clearly see the production values. The big stars (Varun Grover and Anurag Kashyap in initial days) which got my attention. I always thought there has to be a big group behind this channel. Every election coverage, every interview, I was glued. The content and commentary are crisp, and it proves that in the world full of viral/influencers and keywords, it’s the basics that count. Lallantop is a clear winner which has the following five things going for it.
1. Content, Not Media Frenzy: The stand out qualities of crisp use of language; no noise, just information makes it a credible source of information. Several quick videos around trending topics, and questions that might have been troubling you. Case in point being all the media frenzy around the pilot Abhinandan. When the media circus was going bananas, and came the moment when the pilot crossed the Wagah border, there was this lady escorting him to the border. Come next day, Lallantop came out with the video “Abhinandan ko chhorne aai yeh mahila kaun hai?” (Who is this lady who came to drop Abhinandan?) This happens every day. They come up with these quirky pieces regularly.
2. Saurabh Dwivedi: He has to be the find of the decade. The confidence, the command over language, and the poise — also the colorful scarfs — make him stand apart. This guy is like drugs, I am addicted. I introduced my brother who is a Trump loving, burger eating cop from Toronto to Lallantop, and guess what? He loves Dwivedi too.
3. Choice of Language: While News Laundry had it all going for them, they can’t match Lallantop with the massive Hindi speaking audience they have — the Indian diaspora which desires to know what’s going on at home, in the language they are familiar with. The numbers are here to be seen. Within a matter of three years, they have over 6.5 million subscribers, and are growing steadily. The naming of the channel is in itself savvy, not just street smart. It is the language of the youngsters, and means excellent. Now, that’s what I call Lallantop with a vengeance! Why would you want a news laundry? Gives the impression of giving laundered information, rather than hard facts.
4. Information and Unbiased Approach: It’s really hard to be unbiased in a Modi Trump world where the lines have been re-drawn. When the influence of traditional media is suffering due to changing landscape (read the failing New York Times), and TV news is clearly biased; Lallantop in this day and age manages to walk the middle path. They are quick to criticize the Hindu hardliners, and are equally vocal about the stupidity of the left. This is making them a perfect choice for people with no strong political affiliation; i.e. the majority of the population.
5. Presentation style: They have a unique presentation style which is woven mostly around their USP which is content. No graphic animations, no clips, no nonsense news bytes. Their interviews are absorbing, and their news presentation is addictive.
Conclusion: The news scape is changing. Having worked as a consultant with a major media production company, I can clearly tell you that TV ad volumes are shrinking, and they are next in line after print media to bite the dust. Digital news media is the next opinion maker. The case of Lallantop proves that whatever be the medium, content is still the king.