Stopped from entering studio, how Arnab Goswami built his own in 100 daysBinjal Shah
A typical Wednesday in Lower Parel has a few permanent fixtures – amidst the traffic-ridden delays that Google Maps tries to sound the alarms about even as your own alarm is still cajoling you out of bed -- the newsrooms on Senapati Bapat Marg, Mumbai's media bazaar, are already vanquishing the odds and racing against time to broadcast the news that accompanies your daily breakfast.
While its newest media boutique may still be finding its feet on the street, when it comes to acclimatising to the pace, one could say that they are already part of the suburb's quintessence, and may even be raising the bar. The fledgling epitomises the suburb's core values too – it has been rebutted, but has pushed on and risen like a phoenix; it is reminiscent of the golden days, but also emulates the future; and finally, it is diverse in industry and expertise, yet unifying in spirit.
The man of the (News)hour, who was shown out of his studio no more than five months ago, erected his own at an unbelievable pace – and yet, ironically, fell prey to the city's myriad antics to distract one from their script, the morning I was to meet him. In the half hour I spent waiting for Arnab Goswami, his "band of Davids", absolutely unprompted, very fervently evangelised what they were trying to create – indicative of the unequivocally passionate resolve of the crusade. When Arnab walked in, he simply blended into the conversation and, slowly gauging how ready I was to palette something more highbrow, let me in on his grand scheme – and his new news channel, I gather, also plans to follow the same trajectory with its viewers.
Coming, seeing, and conquering
The Army officer's lad was always on the move, and has thus grown up feeling that he belonged to all of the Indian heartland. Changing almost seven schools and having studied all over India, he finally wrapped up at Kendriya Vidyalaya at Jabalpur, and went on to study sociology at Hindu College in Delhi and social anthropology at Oxford.
Upon returning to Delhi, it was slim pickings in the job market, and his search took him to Calcutta, to get his break in The Telegraph, where he indited the edit page for about nine months. "I always wanted to get into the humdrum of news. I was looking for a job in TV. NDTV was just beginning to grow, they had got a daily news show on Doordarshan, and were looking for reporters. I almost got through TV Today, but took up NDTV because I liked Appan Menon, the news editor then. He made us reporters. The next nine-and-a-half years went by like a breeze – I anchored, reported, edited, became the backroom guy, the desk guy... handling production, research, and logistics of the shows. I was only interested in politics – everything circled around that,” he recounts.
He became a hardened politics man. In between notching the first ever interview of Sonia Gandhi and a few other good breaks, Arnab had already begun dreaming up the possibilities of a realm where the people, in turn, catechised the nabobs, and the media became an impartial nexus. “I really got into the backend of things, understood how good TV was made. I wanted to get into it completely, so I was looking for opportunities to launch a channel on my own. It was always Plan A – in 1999, I knew I wanted to head a channel as editor, but by 2002, I knew I wanted my own,” he reveals.
Opportunities were as incessant as his will to be an independent was strong, but he couldn't honour some because they were Hindi channels and he wasn't fluent in the language at the time, and others because they didn't seem to be the right ideological fit.
In 2005, however, the Times Group came knocking, as they were mulling over the possibility of starting a business channel. “I went onboard, and we tabled that and started concocting a news channel instead. We got PE investment from Reuters, so I went through the motions, moved to Mumbai, and familiarised myself with the process of raising equity for them, which was a learning curve. I understood how a B-plan was made. That exposure was good, and I got funding successfully,” he states.
Loggerheads and crossroads
The run-up to the launch happened by the book, with even a few strokes of fantastic luck – but the launch itself, Arnab notes, was a downer. “2006 was a really bad year, nothing was working for me. But by 2007, we completely turned it around. I have never looked back. Great stories, great interviews under my belt, I met and worked with great teams and personalities. I think I interviewed at least 50,000-60,000 people during that time, and worked with at least 3,000 people at various stages, and a lot of international media as well. Around 2014, though, the bug bit me again – I thought if I could do all this for them, why shouldn't I be able to do all this for myself?” he recounts.
This success story had many defining moments, but the evolution of The Newshour Debate happened almost alongside that of the channel, and it wouldn't be wrong to infer that the two had a positive correlation. “I first did Newshour the way I was doing it at NDTV – a consensual discussion-based approach. I was not very comfortable with this approach, but went along with it because that was the prevailing format on TV. Then the stories had an influence on me, and I realised that it makes much more sense if you take a clear, strident position on issues that you believe in, and so I started putting in more of my personal belief in stories, and people started responding. I wasn't even doing it for the numbers, it was the impact. As the stories became bigger, I saw the influence of a news show that speaks for the people,” he says.
The journalistic community was quick to lambast this oncoming wave in journalism siphoned in by one individual. Two camps thus emerged – those championing a journalism that merely presents the facts, and the one individual who believed in elucidating the facts and adopting a stance.
“I believe in embellishing facts with opinion. I cannot be a compendium of facts; it's not adding value to our audiences. The journalistic community doesn't agree with my style, but I don't agree with theirs either, so it's mutual. Around 2008-2009, I realised that I don't need their validation for my own journalistic ability, so I broke away from them. With Republic, I am completely breaking away,” he says.
The opinionated primetime slot that oftentimes ruffled the feathers of the loftiest of names, ruffled those of his employers as well, until it got to a point when the two found themselves on either side of the revolution. “I think everybody in the country knows Arnab's style of journalism, and they know the Times Group's style of journalism, and Times Group's style is not Arnab's style. Why prolong the agony for both sides? You know all the scams we have broken, all the stands taken – they were done by the channel, not the paper. I don't agree with flowerpot diplomacy with Pakistan, but they do believe in Aman Ki Asha. I think it was time for each to do their own thing. I didn't need the legacy of a large corporate group to pursue my brand, so I decided that, now, it needs to be followed by people who believe in me,” he states.
A Republic's renaissance
Come November, he spoke to his family, his wife and son, and more importantly, had a soul-searching talk with himself. “With a decision like this, you are made to go back to your very essence and you question – are you doing it for the right reasons? Are you doing it to indulge your personal sense of aggrandisement, or is there a higher impulse – like what legacy can you leave for journalism, what team of people can you bring together? For me, it was very clear – the latter. We are like a band of Davids, taking on an aging Goliath. We will outthink the Goliaths. And they will respond. It is likely to be clumsy and foolhardy, but I am convinced that we will win,” he says.
Arnab says that he has usually had very civil exits – but adds, with deliciously contextual emphasis, from 'his' side. “I was, however, told that I could not do my programme. I did my programme on the day of demonetisation, and I did one or two after that, which were widely received. Because my views on demonetisation were crystal clear. I was then suddenly told that I could not enter my studio or do my show, which I complied with,” he says.
Why, though, are the legacy media the Goliaths in this analogy, and why does the band of Davids wish to form a Republic – with a loud and resonating voice of the people? Arnab attributes it to the large part of the media that, he feels, is compromised. “The lifestyles of some of the editors in Lutyen's Delhi are embarrassing. The farmhouses they live in; I don't grudge them that, but one must live by one's means and one's known sources of income,” he says. Arnab states that a certain distance from those one reports on must be maintained.
“Some organisations have openly started taking favours, brazenly and embarrassingly, from political parties. One organisation has taken 50-100 acres of land from a state government. And when they take it ‘almost free’ and then claim to do straight journalism, I don't believe them. This is disappointing for young reporters, who hear stories about compromised media and get so discouraged that it burns their idealism,” he says.
As incumbent MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar doubled up as one of Arnab's most fervent financial backers when Republic was announced, Arnab found himself on the hot seat, answering questions about the potential conflict of interests. “I see absolutely no reason for my investors being questioned – I don't enter into any ’arrangements’ with my investors. For me, each investor is also my viewer – and they all believe in my journalism. Moreover, it is a publically available document – unlike all other companies, who maintain their P&Ls after years of making losses. I do believe, today, that there needs to be a declaration by channels about where the miracle money is coming from,” he clarifies.
No lull beyond Lutyen's
Lutyen's media is as much a metaphorical concept as it is a geographical reality. There is an excessive focus on Delhi, even as other cities like Bengaluru and Chennai are burgeoning ecosystems with an increasing scope for nuanced journalism. “I was once anchoring out of our small Bengaluru newsroom, and the people all had the same question – why is it that all the journalism is only focused on what happens in Delhi? Why are we so ignored? I have seen these biases – when the incidents on M.G. Road happened, everyone was reporting on Mulayam Singh. There is more to Chennai than Jallikattu, than Amma's passing – we need to federalise the media,” he says.
Arnab insists that he does not intend to fight anyone, but wants to simply herald in a newer form of journalism that has no hidden corridors – but this reads like an ultimatum for many rival publications. “We have been amazed at the way people have been reacting. One media group has been making noise in the market saying 'they will not be crushed'. You say that you are a hundred-year-old media group, then why would you fear being crushed by us? And you cannot crush us but paying your way through distribution – one media group has gone and blatantly told a distributor that they will pay the distributor six months of money upfront, extra, if we are kept out of the market for one month. I don't know if this is a collective decision of the media group or that of an individual, but it destroys my faith in ethical media,” he muses.
Worried that Republic will hit the screens in April, Arnab suspects that a certain media house renamed a channel, which had flopped and been renamed twice before. “That channel has now flopped for a third time. These moves are self-destructive. You should focus on what you can do, rather than trodding on a dynamic competitor. They are not thinking sustainably – this is legacy print thinking. Our jaws drop when we see this – we don't know whether to laugh or cry,” he says.
Chasing the dragon
Rome couldn't be built in a day, but Republic will be erected in all of 120, and they are just a month away from launching. “We could have taken over a failing channel, and cannibalised and rebranded it, but we wanted to build something ourselves. Moreover, we already have world class distributors, and are a free-to-air channel, which gives us a far wider reach compared to most other English channels, which are paid. We will be the fastest launch ever,” Arnab affirms.
Even though Republic is building a strong digital arm, they will be a TV-first model, because Arnab says that TV has at least a few good decades left in it. “Even in the developed markets like those in the West, where digital penetration is high, TV is the predominant medium – in terms of impact, reach, and revenue. The plan is to lead the conversation on TV and amplify it on digital,” he reveals.
And Republic, he explains, will have one beat – people. “The days are gone when somebody says, 'I cover the Ministry of Railways,' or Commerce etc. Because then, a diplomatic reporter wants to be a diplomat, a political reporter wants to be a politician, and a business reporter wants to work at a corporate. We don't want that trajectory,” he says. In line with that, on the editorial side, they are rounding up an army that is young, coming without baggage, and digitally savvy, who can do something that is different for the next five to 10 years.
Arnab states that his motive is not profit-mongering, but they do want to break-even. However, political advertising is something they will steer clear of. “We would like to be independent, but that also needs financial independence. Most of the other media is influenced because they are not financially viable. We want to scale on the basis of offering a great product. Advertisers are also viewers, and we want to invite them by swaying them with our content,” he states.
Keeping it reel
So, has he missed being away from the news cycle while significant happenings in the Indian narrative transpired – like the aftermath of demonetisation, the Assembly elections in five states with somewhat stunning results, and Gurmehar Kaur's viral declaration? Arnab was in Ahmedabad wrapping up a distribution deal when UP was unfolding. “I was feeling very strange, because I was asking others what was happening! But it's good to be away for a while, to get some perspective. You can do a SWOT analysis on yourself – and look at the screen and say, oh, that's slightly more cluttered than one would like,” he laughs.
He also adds that he is pro-Army and pro-India. “I believe the Army must be given a free run to exercise law and order in insurgent areas, I am not for the removal of AFSPA, I am for strengthening the Army in Kashmir, and I believe in doing more for the families of martyrs. I am an Army officer's son, so this is where I come from,” he says.
Having said this, he also claims that he has no political leanings at all. “A lot of the Hindi media at one point started getting obsessed with the AAP, perhaps because a lot of the members of the AAP were ex-journalists themselves. But you cannot ‘like’ a political party, because then you get let down by them. I can proudly say that I am probably the only editor that has been boycotted by all three major parties in the last two years,” he says, in conclusion.