Thursday, November 24, 2005
By Chandan Mitra
There's a very thin line dividing bravado from foolhardiness. Even five full years after I started treading it, I still don't know whether taking over The Pioneer was a courageous act or a demented one. But at least now the story can be told and judgment left to the reader. Yes, it is exactly five years ago that I actually began running this newspaper on my own, although our official anniversary is on May 15.
On May 13, 1998, an interim agreement was reached with the then owners, the ever-magnanimous LM Thapar and his nephew Gautam, according to which if a final deal was struck before May 30, I would bear the costs incurred for keeping the paper running after May 15. If negotiations failed, the Thapars would pay the expenses incurred for a maximum of 15 days after that deadline and then perform euthanasia. In the event, a satisfactory agreement was concluded before the last and final deadline and I signed the papers on the evening of May 25 in the office of Ballarpur Industries' Vice-President SK Khandelwal. However, in accordance with the earlier accord, technically The Pioneer came under my management with effect from May 15, at least as far as paying for it was concerned. It was a hot, mid-summer evening of May 25 that I returned to our office from Thapar House on Janpath Lane, more tired and apprehensive than excited. I remember being greeted at the reception by Lakshmi Iyer (now with India Today) with the unexpected news of my favourite music director Laxmikant's death. That took away whatever little sense of elation I might have felt, although the entire staff assembled to cheer and promptly announce a celebratory party. For me, it was business as usual. After holding the evening news meeting, I set out to write Laxmikant's obituary and reached the Patparganj apartment of present Executive Vice-President Durbar Ganguly for the party well after 10 pm.It took a few days before the enormity of Mission Impossible dawned on me. We had no money in the kitty although the Thapars had been generous to a fault, diverting all advertising dues outstanding to The Pioneer as a loan to its new management. But ad revenue comes in a dribble, expenses happen in a flood. Newsprint had to be purchased, suppliers had to be paid, electric and other routine bills stared us in the face. I had already made it clear to the entire staff in a series of general body meetings held before the transition that salaries would be delayed by a few months. But, still, we had to figure out where this money would come from. The paper had lost over Rs 1 crore every month during 1997-98; monthly revenues never exceeded Rs 30 lakh. From all accounts, it was a hopeless case. But there was grim determination. My senior colleagues Sanjeev Bikhchandani, Bindu and Durbar Ganguly in Delhi and Dipak Mukerji and Uday Sinha in Lucknow shared the dream. We had to succeed; there was no scope for failure. How bad our own resource position was can be gauged by just one instance. It had been agreed that CMYK Printech Ltd. (a non-operational company I bought through the good offices of a friend) would purchase The Pioneer brand for a relatively nominal consideration. When I examined my bank balance, I discovered I was short of this amount. Sanjeev kindly offered to loan me Rs 25,000 so that I could write out a cheque to the Thapars. That left me with just about Rs 10,000 in the bank. For months thereafter, personal friends lent me money to pay house rent and run the kitchen. I still ventured into the Great Unknown.Honestly, though, I never intended to run The Pioneer myself. The buy-out was supposed to be a holding operation till we found a suitable proprietor. The story began on January 17, 1998 when I was called to Mr LM Thapar's Amrita Shergill Marg house for an "important discussion." LMT and Gautam grimly informed me that given the group's financial position and spiralling losses of the paper, it had been decided to close it down. I had an inkling of what was coming in view of the ever-tightening budgets since November 1997. Saddened but not entirely shocked, I asked for the proposed date of closure. The answer left me stunned: It was to be the day after Republic Day, just 10 days away. General elections were due in March with the IK Gujral Government having recently fallen. I pleaded that we be allowed time till after the polls so that I could scout for a buyer. I pointed out that it would be difficult to get any industrialist to bite the bait till the polls were out of the way and some degree of political stability restored. Gautam expressed scepticism, arguing that they had tried hard but the paper's financial track record was too intimidating for anybody to risk buying it. I still persisted, seeking a three-month breather and LMT finally relented sternly telling me he would not wait beyond one month of the results being declared. I agreed gratefully. For more than a week after that I spoke about this to nobody, fearing staff would jump ship in droves and I wouldn't be able to bring out the paper even before it officially closed. The then management led by one Neeran Chibber was, however, overjoyed at the prospect of this historic publication closing down. He was never committed to The Pioneer anyway and eagerly awaited its closure to migrate to a cushy job that had been promised to him. What he did subsequently to his benefactors is another story.So, the news of the paper's impending closure was out in no time, triumphantly broadcast by soulless apparatchiks of the "management". We began hunting for buyers in real earnest with Sanjeev helping me with elaborate project reports, revenue projections and other forms of financial wizardry, none of which I comprehended those days. We met all kinds of prospective buyers ranging from NRI barons to Okhla printing press owners, real estate dealers and self-styled confidants of corporate bigwigs. We were too naĂŻve to realise that all the effort at documentation and presentation of our case was a complete waste of time and energy. Barring one NRI industrialist who later proved to be very helpful, none called us a second time although later they used our acquaintance to seek favours that I indignantly refused. Around April 15, 1998, the Thapars asked me for a progress report and I had to admit drawing a blank. But I continued to plead and got an extension till April 30. Nothing transpired. Two days before that date, senior staff members sought my permission to directly approach LMT. I said I had no face to accompany them, so they were welcome to give it a shot. LMT was moved to grant a further 15 days and that's how May 15 became D-Day.The initial months were so problematic that I don't even recall how they passed. By August, the staff too got restive: Everybody, after all, had families to run and couldn't be expected to live on love, thin air and a sense of Mission Impossible. The Thapars had settled the entire staff's PF, gratuity, closure pay and other allowances. About 29 staffers bid adieu with the generous handshake that left some richer by anything between Rs 5 to 7 lakh. Within a week of taking over, I had to relieve over 100 others in a desperate bid to cut costs. The unionised staff in Lucknow would have nothing of this and I had to succumb to the pressure of employing all of them afresh in CMYK so that The Pioneer could continue to appear without a break. Periodically, I would make rounds of industrialists' offices virtually with a begging bowl, either offering them ownership or shares in the company for a consideration. Some obliged, some politely refused. In August, we barely scraped up enough funds to disburse 15 days' salary. A wave of jubilation swept through the office. Little did they (or even we for that matter) know much worse was to come. In 1999, we failed to pay salaries for five months in a row. The staff still hung on, believing in The Pioneer's destiny. The spirit refused to evaporate. Whenever it threatened to, we replenished it by pooling in for office parties that continued into the wee hours. Friendly MPs and MLAs obliged by allowing us to use their lawns, often joining us in the merriment amid prognostications of doom.What amazed me was some top-notch journalists actually came and joined The Pioneer in full knowledge of the situation. Hiranmay Karlekar and A Surya Prakash were among the notable ones. In 2000, Amit Goel, former corporate bureau chief of The Economic Times, also enrolled in our adventurers' club. Over the years, he helped steady the business with his intimate knowledge of finances and immense goodwill in the corporate world. Meanwhile Durbar Ganguly, who was an investigative reporter with Ananda Bazar Patrika, metamorphosed into one of the city's most successful marketing honchos. Today The Pioneer's advertising revenues, although still insufficient to allow us to increase circulation or visibility, are more than double what they were before 1998.My faith in the old dictum God helps those who help themselves has deepened manifold over these five years. Miraculously, saviours have appeared at the most critical of times. I am acutely aware that canards are frequently spread about the sources of our funding. I wish even half of what I sometimes hear were true, for if it were indeed so, our grind would have been immeasurably lightened. I would never spend sleepless nights wondering how I would repay banks and financial institutions that loaned us money. I can assert with pride that The Pioneer funds itself through revenues generated by advertising and circulation, apart from loans legitimately obtained to tide over cash flow problems. In fact, while the list of defaulters with banks and FIs reads like a Who's Who of Indian industry, despite all the horrific adversities we have faced in the past, The Pioneer has never defaulted, having regularly serviced every loan it has obtained on merit. Some industrialists who have helped The Pioneer have been such thorough gentlemen that to date I have never had to compromise with my conscience as they have not asked for any favours in return. When we ventured into the internet business at the height of the dotcom boom, one businessman invested some money in it which proved to be a turning point for the newspaper. The dotcom bust happened within months. He still laughs over it and remains a close friend. People, I have realised over these gruelling years, are never bad by definition. Be good to them and you bring out their best and vice versa. Decades ago in school we read 'To kill a Mockingbird' as our English Literature text. The moving novel's last line was "Most people are good once you really get to know them." So true! Another turning point came when to our own bewilderment we emerged the highest bidder in the tender for publishing Alliance Air's in-flight magazine last year. Now, Darpan is not just critically acclaimed but has also been placed on board Indian Airlines flights giving it a massive readership, easily crossing 10 million each month.What is it that kept us going through such turbulent times? I don't really know. At least on 10 occasions, I was advised to cut losses, sell out and set myself up as a columnist, TV personality or seek employment with another established group. Several times, I seriously pondered the option, especially when at the end of the first year of our operations we notched up a loss of Rs 2.78 crore without the remotest idea how we would ever cover the deficit. But the loans came just then. Another time, I had virtually made up my mind to sell out only if somebody agreed to just pick up the losses. I even negotiated. But somewhere, it hurt. I felt humiliated at the thought of giving up. When I still go out myself seeking ads for The Pioneer I never feel any sense of shame or dishonour because we are still waging a war to save an institution. Purists may disagree, but I must honestly admit that at times old-fashioned ideas of the strict line between editorial virginity and commercial promiscuity need to be crossed for the greater good. But quitting after an admission of failure? Going back to taking dictations from the management? Letting this historic publication die or fall into avaricious hands? Pleading for somebody to be sacked or employed? The old adage of a hungry, free bird as opposed to its well-fed counterpart in a golden cage keeps us going.Our readers have been The Pioneer's greatest source of strength. We did not reduce our cover price of Rs 2 when both the market leaders cut theirs to Re 1. And we offered just 16 pages against their 32. Still, we did not lose even one subscriber. For a significant number in Delhi and Lucknow, The Pioneer remains the paper of choice for its quality, not raddi value. Arguably, we cannot afford the latest technology; nor can we hire enough journalists or marketing staff at prevailing industry salaries. Each time there is a shake-out in the media with the launch of new TV channels or publications, we lose good people. But we haven't lost the will to rebuild. And I know that as long as we don't give up the battle, nothing can stop The Pioneer from pulling through in yet another miracle. Old-timers in the paper recall folklore about The Pioneer having shifted its headquarters in 1941 from Allahabad to Lucknow without even a day's break of publication. More than 60 years ago, given the state of technology then, it was nothing short of a miracle. I believe we are heirs to that legacy and destiny has bestowed upon us the responsibility of keeping this 139-year-old institution going. As I said quoting Iqbal at the tenth anniversary celebrations of the paper's Delhi edition on December 14, 2002: "Kuchh baat hai ki hasti mit-ti nahin hamari!" With your unstinted patronage, dear reader, it never will!