In an exclusive chat with HELLO, Anant Goenka, executive director, The Indian Express Group and winner of HELLO! HALL of FAME’s Media Entrepreneur of the Year award traces his journey and talks about inheriting the legacy from his grandfather, Sri Ramnath Goenka
H!: You have brilliantly carried forward the legacy of your grandfather, Shri Ramnath Goenka, who launched the Indian Express Group 90 years back. How does it feel to win the Media Entrepreneur of the year award?
AG: “It is brave for HELLO to recognise The Indian Express. Glamour isn’t exactly up our busy street but, why not. Good journalism isn’t about arc lights but I am not complaining! So, thank you. I am not the prime accused, though. I am grateful for my father’s leadership and statesmanship. He and I get a lot of undue credit for the passionate work of our 2500-plus colleagues, especially our 600-odd journalists who are with us today and the thousands of journalists who have been with us over the past 90 years. We stand on their shoulders, they have shaped our legacy, it is their hard work that is responsible for creating a news brand that the country feels such a strong, enduring emotional connection with.
H!: This was only possible because you gave them to wings to fly.
AG: “I was raised with the clear understanding by my father, our group’s Chairman, that our primary job as promoters is to give freedom to journalists, to give them a safe space for exploring their passion. The best journalists are the ones who have a drive to make the world a better place. As long as journalists don’t feel constrained at our organisation, as promoters, we are doing a good job.”
H!: Given the current sensitive times, do you still feel you can continue with the narrative of empowering people and letting them express themselves freely.
AG: “Absolutely, I am sure. Audiences want independent journalism, it’s not easy, but we manage to run a sustainable business with old fashioned, objective, honest and tough, questioning journalism. We are one of the few newspapers who are selling more newspaper copies post-Covid than pre-Covid. And on digital, we have grown to be one of largest digital news groups in the world reaching over 200 million users a month in 7 languages.”
H!: You are credited with having expanded and transformed your group’s digital business with your strong business acumen. How would you trace this journey?
AG: “We were the first news site in the country in the ’90s. So we had a very good head start, then internet penetration was patchy, when the phone came in, and the smartphone, there were new disruptive challenges and we had to refresh and renew ourselves. Naturally, there were some leaders resistant to change and when I joined I knew that we had to step out of this happy bubble.”
H!: How did you work towards changing this mindset given the fact that you were also new?
AG: “I used my “new” or outsider perspective to my advantage. When I started off, there was a 13-person team, in the first year I grew it to 27 people. Now we are 550 on digital alone. When I started, I didn’t try to integrate with the print side. I wanted to get a few wins first in the first year. As an outsider looking in, I had lot of respect for what the company had done, but I knew we had to urgently start thinking of growth. I remember the first turning point was an award we won for Best Social Media at the World Association of Newspapers’ Digital Media Awards. It was the first recognition outside the field of journalism that the organization had won in over 15 years. So we went from engaging internally with silly questions like “why should Indian Express even have a twitter account?” to being recognised as best social media strategy for a news organization in just over a year. I had traveled lots to foreign newsrooms, made many mentors and learned from their processes. The other trend was that Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal brought political news and policy discourse to the digital medium. The way politics today rides on technology benefits a paper like the Express tremendously because power and politics, after all, are the grist of our mill.
Journalists began seeing their stories reaching more people on the digital medium. They wanted to be part of the growth. One thing I discovered back then, which was counterintuitive, was that it was the older people in the company who were more energetic, curious and eager to experiment with digital. The younger guys, on the other hand, were more traditional. Which again worked to our advantage, because those with experience and perspective – two of the hallmarks of our journalism -- were rapidly embracing change.”
H!: Did you organically gravitate towards the world of news hailing from the background that you do?
AG: “I am grateful both my parents raised me with a sense of purpose. Dadaji’s last years he spent very closely with my mother. For my 16th birthday, my mom wrote the first book on Ramnathji as a gift to me to learn about him, and know of his battles and contribution to India. I grew up in Ramnathji’s house at Express Towers, and the walls tell stories of the role news has played in society, the role Indian Express has played in India. I was always passionate about this industry and this company. As a kid I would come back from school and because my house was in the same building as the office, I would sit in dad or mum’s cabin, and, late at night go for a walk with mom and dad to the press which was in the basement.”
H!: Who are the exciting people you remember meeting back then?
AG: “That’s a tough one, there are many. My understanding of nationalism, of the freedom struggle, were shaped by two regular guests who stayed at the penthouse whenever they visited Mumbai. One was Nanaji Deshmukh, who was a close friend of Dadaji. He shared stories of how Dadaji and him threw home-made bombs on British supply trains. He took me with him to Chitrakoot once, it was my first experience of true social service – and he taught me just how much of India’s spirit was in rural India. Another was Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia of Gwalior. I called her Naniji. I remember days before her arrival, her staff would come with her moving puja ghar and set it up in the guest room. One of her visits to Mumbai, we were all at home and there were series of bomb blasts across Mumbai, including one right next to us at Air India building. We were told to immediately evacuate Express Towers and we went to an old, tiny guest house in Colaba. One that hadn’t been opened or cleaned for many months. I’ll never forget her calming presence. Even though she was royalty, she was very comfortable in the dusty house. I saw first hand, that true blue blood doesn’t need a palace to find comfort in. I remember as we drove outside of Express Towers, right in front of the car there was a bloody ankle in the driveway. It’s a sight I can’t forget. Naniji was in the back seat of our red Maruti esteem. And she said: Can we see if this man is still alive, and if he’s been taken to the hospital?” Once, Enron’s Rebecca Mark came to meet Dad. She had entered our home with a lot of swag but left looking deflated. Express and Loksatta (our Marathi daily) had taken a strong position against some of the methods adopted by Enron, while most of the media had a more pliant approach. I also remember Rupert Murdoch coming over once for dinner. It was only after growing up I realised who he was. There was also a time when Balasaheb Thackeray had come once home with both Rajji and Uddhavji. They had just changed the name of the city from Bombay to Mumbai. I was probably 10 years old and I remember embarrassing my parents by innocently saying ‘how much I prefer Bombay to Mumbai’.”
H!: You have specialised in brand management which is the need of the hour as newspapers have moved from merely offering news to readers, to becoming a proper profit-making industry. How do you perceive journalism, especially print in the years to come?
AG: “We have to think medium agnostic. This award was given to me as a media entrepreneur, I am very grateful that this is the definition HELLO! has used for me. At the end of the day – as idealistic as we want to be -- whatever we do has to make money and be financially independent.
It’s the only way we will continue to attract the best and brightest to journalism. And if I am honest, when I joined, I had doubts about the fact that good journalism is good business, today I have the conviction that good journalism is indeed good business. And I’ll spend my career convincing – or rather reminding, the news industry of this. Print in India right now is not dying. What may look like dying is really overdue consolidation. A lot of the 1 lakh plus registered newspapers in India were surviving on ego and were funded by real estate, businesses or political parties. Their intent wasn’t right, and which is why they couldn’t survive the pandemic. In the long run, it’s healthy for the industry when bad business models fail fast.”
H!: You are also a hard-hitting writer and your pieces on the Indo Pak border parade, Punjab drugs etc have been well-received. How do you strike a balance between being the owner (who has to keep business interests in mind) and the writer (who wants to tell it like it is).
AG: “Firstly, I don’t think the two are contradictory. Secondly, I have reduced my writing a lot as my thinking process has now evolved to that of a businessperson. I enjoy doing the odd interview with interesting people. No, I don’t think it complicates at all.
Everyone is entitled to a view, we should encourage people to think more, everyone should engage with what’s happening around the world and if I do, I will have an opinion. If I feel it is a unique perspective, I should put it down and I am perfectly comfortable if that disagrees with the view of our own editors. We are one of the few organisations where we really value disagreement.
We are very tolerant of all positions. I think one of the most serious problems of our times is the polarization in society. News organizations are – in no small part – to blame for this. Many, all over the world, only give voice to one side of an argument. This tears society up. In the US for instance, you wouldn’t believe that a Fox News viewer is living in the same country as a CNN news viewer. Our challenge is to take a stand on issues, yet be objective enough to give viewers multiple perspectives to any issue. That’s the only way to help our readers and audiences navigate complexity.”
H!: Are you not worried repercussions given the times we live in?
AG: “I am not being diplomatic at all but reality is that people respect us for this, and if we don’t do it then what is the point of being in this field? Just few weeks ago, an Express investigation revealed 77 antiques were smuggled out of India. After our report, New York’s MET museum immediately decided to return 15 sculptures back to India. Our Panama Papers investigations helped authorities identify Rs 20,000 crores in undeclared assets linked to Indian citizens and entitites in offshore bank accounts. Few jobs could provide the joy and fulfilment of being part of such stories.
Truth is, this is my calling, and I hope and pray that my imaginary grandchildren feel just as passionate as I do to grow Ramnath Goenka’s brand of courageous journalism. The only way the Express will be around another 90 years, is if we continue to add value to the national discourse. Anyone can run a newspaper by publishing press releases. But how will you stand out in a market with 420 news channels and 1.5 lakh newspapers, if you don’t take positions based on thought instead of based on your own business considerations? We are one of the only news organizations in India that don’t have any other businesses. All we do is journalism, we are committed to the belief that a strong India is a strong democratic India and good journalism is one of the ways to guarantee that. Our entire group is less about business and more about passion for news, for change, for an India where everyone can realise their full potential, and that is what makes us a good business.”
H!: We understand you are an aviation geek, into jazz and enjoy motor sports. Tell us a little about your personal life.
AG: “I don’t have much of a personal life outside of work, to be honest. I used to fly small aircraft in Los Angeles, which I hope to get back to at some point. I spend most of my non-working hours with my son Aarav Raam who is 3.5 years old who is the third generation petrol-head in the family. I am a very hands-on father (a fact that my wife may contest). My wife and I are big foodies, so we are always experimenting with new restaurants. I am fond of reading spiritual content, recently finished reading “Not in God’s name” by Jonathan Sachs. I am currently reading “Prisoners of Geography” by Tim Marshall. It discusses every major border conflict around the world. I also enjoy travelling around India especially during elections. I spend three to four days with my colleagues on the ground and have enjoyed discovering so many parts of our gorgeous, and fascinating country.”
H!: What are your goals for 2023?
AG: “On a wing and a prayer, we have started our digital subscription journey. For English news, in a cost-conscious market like India, this is not a journey for the faint-hearted. But we have clocked 1 lakh paying subscribers in our first year, which isn’t too bad. It is a long haul, but it is the next frontier in our organization’s evolution.”
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