TOI

Kochi Chronicles – Part 2

….continued from Part 1

Much as Willingdon Island has remained unchanged, Cochin itself has a completely different story to tell. As I’ve mentioned before, each time I visit, I am presented with a new landmark and a demise of an older one which belonged to an earlier era.

For lunch, we decided to go to a trusted old timer – Tandoor. At Chillies (1st Floor) they serve an excellent Andhra meal. It’d been a while since I tried the Chicken Biriyani, so I chose to have that while D and the other M hogged the meals. No meal in Tandoor is complete without their special Kadai Chicken, so we shared a half plate. Amazing as it has always been.

Chillies hasn’t changed a bit though Tandoor downstairs keeps changing the decor. A dimly lit ambiance that somehow manages to freeze time. Helped by the huge photos from a long gone era. (the owner is related to the Travancore Sisters, so you can find many like these featuring them and MGR/Sivaji Ganesan)

The plan for the afternoon was ‘Beautiful‘. A movie we missed in Bangalore. We watched it at Padma, one of the several ‘feminine’ theaters Cochin is famous for. Most of them have survived, though the multiplexes have begun their march. Beautiful lived up to its name, and I loved the way they have quietly, but wonderfully shot the city and Fort Kochi in the movie. The day before, the other M had asked us to note a house in Fort Kochi – the one that had been featured in the movie.

In the evening, I met a friend whom I knew from Bangalore. K suggested the Cocoa Tree on MG Road, a place that has consistently ticked me off whenever I have visited, but is still a fave hangout for many in Cochin. She had moved to Cochin only a while back and I quizzed her on her first impressions. A city in transition, we both agreed, and something that reminded her of Bangalore a couple of decades ago.

To me it was still a small ‘town’, where most people still knew most other people. I probably bored her, talking of old landmarks and routes to school, and how the skyline has changed since then. I told her that I’d never felt a Cochin culture, something I could sense strongly in Trivandrum, Kozhikode, Trichur etc. Cochin has always been Kerala’s big city, changing too fast to have crafted an identity beyond that. She showed me the photo of her house with an awesome balcony view. Once again, I began thinking of where my final home would be. Oh yes, it would be fun to walk the roads as an old man – to walk past the Public Library, where I have spent so many hours, the CISF grounds whose pitch has seen many of my ‘spin experiments’, the school and its surrounding areas which has seen me transition from walking to cycles to a motor vehicle, Foreshore Road, where a dimly lit university computer room hosted my first forays into the internet, and so many many others. But would they be the same? A thought that crossed my mind when I walked back home, seeing familiar faces that had grown older, same people, doing the same things, even as time passed by. A mirror of a different sort.

Dinner was at Kahawa, the owners were the other M’s friends. A coffee shop+ with a distinct character. Hand painted wall art, a book lending mechanism ( a tie up with another of their friends) and reasonably decent food. They also have a section upstairs which is opened on days that Manchester United has a match on. Also available are group discounts and discounts for the Mayor on Foursquare. :)

 

    

We tried the Mango Italian Soda, which could have done a better job with the fizz. The Choco Chiller was significantly better and so was the Mint Hot Chocolate.

 

In the main course, K had recommended the mashed potato and Meat Sauce, but the Roast Pork was too tempting. But sadly, it just about passed muster, as did the Chicken a la Kiev. The best dish was the Grilled Fish with Mornay Sauce. Once again D was the one who got lucky! There were a few options for dessert, but nothing that we really fancied.

Before we left for the airport, we stopped at Malabar Chips – banana chips for Bangalore. Familiar faces, though they didn’t recognise me. Except for one person. :) I wondered if this was the idea of home – a place that you can come back to after several years and still be  recognised, a place that thus gives you a sense of belonging.

As we passed the North Bridge, we saw the first signs of the Kochi Metro construction. There was a line that stayed with me long after ‘Beautiful’ – “Maturity is the loss of innocence” It probably is true of cities too, and I wondered if it was only incidental that there were huge hoardings of a TOI launch on Feb 1st.

We detoured through the University, and though the place shows small signs of transformation every time I visit, there are parts of it that refuse to change. Islands in time. Places where I could stand and travel back in time, because the settings were the same, all I had to do was remember. But I had a flight to catch, and a journey to end.

until next time, timed travel

Newsmakers

Its ironic that I have to start the post this way, but

Disclosure: I work with The Times Group :)

There was some amount of Twitter buzz a couple of days ago on the article carried in the (city edition) Times about Arindam C’s new book selling a lakh of copies in 10 days. This also appeared in a post at “Don’t trust the Indian media”, in the context of ‘paid-for news’. The post dealt with the TV medium primarily, but also noted that in the coming years, consumption will be not be medium specific.

Like I’ve written before in the context of content marketing, the key factor, irrespective of platform, amidst the changing nature of advertisers, publishers and consumers and the relationships between  them is trust.  In a sense regular advertising is also paid-for news, but its form is such that one immediately knows its paid for. With the influx of advertorials and paid-for news, the lines began to blur fast, with  credibility beginning to suffer.

In an increasingly user generated environment (almost all of social media is just that) advertisers (brands) now have a way to source positive content without paying obscene amounts for it. They can find relevant spokespersons who have their niche, but contextually relevant fan following. Of course, on the flip side, finding them is still a task. But they already have a name for it – ‘social influencer relationship management’ 😀 The other point is that even the nature of sharing – blogs/microblogs/statuses are in a constant state of flux. Meanwhile, like Shefaly pointed out in the comments, it is still relatively easy to get away with non-disclosure on the web.

But despite all that, and the fact that I believe in the loop of objective-> idea/strategy-> medium, I’d say that the web is more advanced than other media in terms of content marketing, primarily because user generated content, and discontent, has been an integral part of its evolution. Users, potential users, all talk to each other, and trust evolves. A crowd is involved, conversations happen. Also, with more and more lives being lived with an audience in mind, and people becoming conscious of how they’re perceived online, hopefully it will ‘become too costly to be evil’ (non disclosure)

And that’s why its erm, refreshing, when I see brands making a strategic commitment to the digital space. Pepsi recently junked Super Bowl for the first time in 23 years and has included $20 million in grants for the Pepsi Refresh Project. Some say, its a risk, but to me its about as risky as putting a 30 sec ad that might get trashed. Moreover, its not an isolated thing. I recently read about Pepsi using Foursquare to fund a youth mentoring program called Camp Interactive, which helps youth explore technology and environment. Consistent efforts like this will get them unpaid editorial space and buzz at least in the online space.

Closer home, Nokia is using a digital dominated strategy for N97, in its first 4 months of launch. I liked it because of the reasons stated – “Digital media blends very well with the product features of N97 Mini. Also, the audience to be targeted is all available online.” That sounds like its reasoned out well, though I’d also like to see a similar approach to execution too. There are a couple of things I am hoping for in addition to the obligatory display advertising – that Nokia not make this a short term venture, because though this product might become non priority for them in a few months, the poor sod who bought it will still want to connect with them online. The second hope is that they experiment with content marketing, and go a little beyond the ‘over-the-counter’ blogger outreach stuff.

In the case of Pepsi, its a concept, an idea. In the case of Nokia, they have a product based strategy. In both cases, there is a potential for natural buzz, which to me is the way it should be. Buzz should be a result of a good product/strategy, too many time it IS the strategy, and that is what has caused things like ‘paid-for content’. The bigger hope in all this, of course,  is that an increasing commitment to the evolving digital space will force advertisers and brands to be on the ball, and in that, a better mindset will evolve, one that believes in a two way communication approach, as opposed to blind advertising and paid-for content.

Its interesting that on one hand, networks, brands and individuals are trying to carve out a niche based on trust, using digital media for reach, and on the other hand, we have the news media, the original custodians of trust,  despite guilt , oops,  guild feelings, using their massive reach to push one way communication.

until next time, news making

PS: See you in a fortnight :)

When the mass gets social…

While there have been many negative reactions to the way the media handled the recent Mumbai events, I came across a few interesting ones that were a direct attack on the brands involved.

One is a Facebook group demanding that Barkha Dutt be taken off air. At the time of writing this, I can see 1666 members in the group, and some pretty angry outbursts on the Wall. The photos are quite expressive too. The others were this post, and this, which talk about the Lead India campaign by TOI, and ask very pointed questions on where the winner is, and about collective responsibilities. Since news is a daily commodity, and has a way of affecting the audience more than say, the toothpaste used everyday, the media’s relationship with the audience is at a different level altogether, and that’s a double edged sword, as the examples above show.

It set me thinking on the evolution of media brands, and also a service like Twitter. Mass media and social media have (among other things) one point in common – they’ve both been built on a certain amount of trust. I read a newspaper/watch a channel because I trust them to verify the content they give me, provide analysis and take outs and give me enough objective information to form a perspective. They’re filters. A service like twitter works on trust, among peers, and can be a wonderful filter, but only on very few occasions does it provide original content. Though the trust factor weighs heavily in favour of twitter, the difference in scale (of content) makes a comparison quite premature. But meanwhile, social media, by its very nature, is more or less transparent. Vested interests will come out sooner or later, the system has a way of bringing it out. Somewhere down the line, mass media has failed on this count.

In an era where news has become a commodity, media brands have had to differentiate themselves somehow to remain relevant. One way to achieve this is through packaging, which, these days mostly amounts to sensationalism. Another way is through specific properties that people identify with. In some cases, this would be the same as packaging, and in others, it would mean creating something new – like a campaign. However efforts on both counts have perhaps resulted in the erosion of trust, and a negativity towards the excesses of coverage. And that’s where an instant journalism friendly tool like Twitter stepped in, whenever the situation was conducive. And this is not going to go away.

So what I’m wondering is whether the first brands to feel the effects of a connected social world (in India) would be media brands, as opposed to say a toothpaste or a cola brand, or even a service like banking/telecom, simply because while other product categories can use social media as a tool,  media brands instinctively start looking at the twitter brand of reporting, as competition. I’d say that twitter has always been giving news to me, at the thin end of the long tail. This time, the information was such that  it interested the massive head of the long tail, and the aggregation was something no single channel could possibly do. The interesting part of the MSM vs Twitter journalism debate is that while all those who use Twitter can comment on MSM and its excesses, there are very few in MSM who can and do speak of the pros and cons of Twitter. :)

To me, mass media has to handle itself on two levels. One, at a product level, it means that mass media have to get back to the basics -making sure that it provides the reading/viewing audience all the facts required to make an informed opinion, and then going a step further than the regular ‘SMS your views’ concept, and making sure that they take a stance that’s in alignment with the audience’s views. On a brand and communication level, they’ll have to walk the talk, roll out campaigns that don’t just pay lip service to issues that the audience cares about. Social media could help on both counts. But MSM has to do this now, when its brand equity and reach is far far more than social media. I can see some action already – Eyes and Ears, and A Billion Hands.

until next time,  reporting vs journalism

The times, they gotta be changin…

The last few days saw a frenzy of activity in the Indiatimes space. But before we go there, I read a few interesting things that I thought would make good starters. One site I chanced upon was Local Signal, which allows you to choose a city (its a limited list, for now) and once you have, gives you news, events, Q&A, and even blogs from that area. A pretty neat utility site, from what I saw. And now for some news. Hi5, which is really irritating me with invites from people I really haven’t even heard of, has gone mobile. And lastly, AlooTechie tells me that MIH (of the Ibibo ‘fame’) has invested in ‘Singapore-based BuzzCity, which owns a mobile social network myGamma that has more than six lakh members from India’.

But the action has been happening very much at home!! Indiatimes has been rolling out services, like there’s no tomorrow. I first read about Indiatimes’ tie up with Onyomo, for a local search service. With Sulekha having announced some major plans just a few days back, this space has become very interesting indeed. Then it was the launch of AdRingles, an Ad Ringback Tone service (the link explains it well) and MocoLife, a group SMS service which also offers content on subscription. I remember reading that OnMobile, a VAS company had launched its ARBT a couple of months earlier. Since we are mentioning Indiatimes, I just read that they have also launched QnA.

All this made me wonder (as I always do) on what exactly Indiatimes (both web and mobile) is upto. There’s clearly nothing profoundly innovative happening since all the services mentioned above are things that have been done by others, even Mocolife. Incidentally, Medianama has a good analysis of the last one.

Now, I don’t see any decrease in the dominance of the Google, MSN, Yahoo, Rediff in the Indian webspace, unless Indiatimes manages to pull some rabbit out of their hat. With their track record, I wouldn’t bet on that. Which means, they would have to use the mobile platform to gain a foothold in the digital space. One way to do it is to launch cloned services and use their offline media might to build traction. But that wouldn’t be a great strategy since users would slowly shift to better services, once they get comfortable with the medium. I’d still say that the best bet for them is to create synergy with offline products right from a product level (right now its just using them as a communication tool).

For example, look at the multiple editions that TOI has. How difficult would it be to use the TOI backend to provide news/business/events and even the listings (local search) part (Times Classifieds would have tonnes of data), build in the newly launched Flubber, sorry QnA into it, and make city specific sites that would add on to Indiatimes. Now, how difficult would it be to experiment with the iTimes platform of theirs, which anyways is idle (i don’t have stats, but i don’t know anyone who uses it, maybe I’m just not social enough) to build communities around this structure, make a mobile version, and then top it up with services like MocoLife? Digital communities which have a one stop shop for all requirements in their cities – local search, QnA, events……  and even have a group sms service to communicate all this!! Maybe its worth an effort..

Indiatimes better move fast, since Big Adda is pushing the mobile version very hard, judging by the TVCs, and knowing Reliance, they won’t be satisfied by anything less than the premium position in any vertical they operate in. It perhaps is a calculated strategy from them, after seeing the dizzying pace of mobile growth in India. After all, even the great Google sometimes chases mobile more than they do the internet.

until next time, the changing times

Virtual Fourth Estate

A few articles that have to do with newspapers caught my attention in the last couple of weeks. One was the fact that Instablogs, is doing something I desperately wished it would do – opening the network for external blogs. I personally consider Instablogs a good benchmark for what online news sources should be,  going forward. If you haven’t checked out Instablogs yet, now would be about time!!

The second was an article on whether we need editors anymore. That question would be quite controversial in any case, but it helps when The Guardian asks this. It is quite a compelling read, and makes some telling points, on how editors should evolve in the digital era. I think that it also points to a mindset change in the newsroom and the presentation of news, because the way news is consumed is also changing. “Reporting becomes a process more than a product” and thats a fundamental shift in the way newspapers approach the business. Here’s a great read on the subject. It is sad to see how newspapers, with some of the best resources, are not able to channel it to better use on the internet. This is a perfect example for what I’m trying to say. Now, once you’ve thought about all this, check out Instablogs’ tour. It might explain why I find the site awesome.

Why is it important for newspapers to address the digital mindset issue? This data, (via here) though pertaining to the US shows how blogs and the online medium in general is making inroads into what was till now, the newspapers’ domain.

While, with a 4.5% penetration, newspapers aren’t exactly on a ‘near-death spiral’ in India, I believe it still might be just a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. Speaking of which, the last article I wanted to discuss was one on WATBlog about Indiatimes’ launch of Hotklix, a Digg like service. Like I commented there, it would’ve been a great way for TOI, ET and all the publications of the Times Group to showcase the loads of content that they possess. How about seeding articles on a daily basis? Where is the integration of the TOI, ET websites with Hotklix, where I can bookmark an article immediately after I read it?

On an aside, there are traditional news networks doing some pretty cool things on the web. CNN, for example, is allowing users to embed videos in blogs social media etc. No, that’s not a newspaper, I know, but it does come under ‘traditional media’. But even CNN received some flak a couple of weeks back. CNN is present on Twitter, and I happened to see this article, where a few users got pissed off with them for spoiling their Olympic fun. But that doesn’t stop the mashups. Take a look at Dialogg, their collaborative effort with Digg.

Given that newsprint costs are rising, all over the world, and people are increasingly raising an uproar over cutting down of trees, I think its about time that newspapers took a long hard look at how the digital medium is transforming the content landscape. After all, we even have sanskrit newspapers going online. By digital, I don’t mean just the web, it could be the mobile too. 9.22 million subscribers have been added this month. I would like to compare it with the circulation additions for newspapers. Meanwhile, just read about an effort – MeraMobi, by the Dainik Bhaskar group in association with Pitroda Group LLC.

Traditional media, especially newspapers, world over, have painstakingly created an equity and trust factor that’s extremely relevant in a transparency and trust led digital era, it would be sad to see it wasted. After all, with increasing global warming fears, newspapers might soon occupy the space that furs occupy now, so it might make sense to hunt for some virtual fourth estate.

until next time, read….online? 😉

Traditional Media 2.0 ?

Traditional media, and specifically the print media, don’t seem to be too worried about the web being competition. Possibly justified, since, unlike their counterparts in the US, their circulation numbers don’t seem to be dipping. Which is perhaps why, they don’t think much of web 2.0 or the potential it offers to them. For now, they’re satisfied with saying that they are on the web too.

In fact, the TV sites like CNN IBN and even NDTV to a certain extent looked much more closer to what a media site should be, online. Even they have some way to go before they can take on, say a CNN. I recently saw India Today’s site, which shows some promise.

But I’m wondering if the story of traditional media websites and pure web players is a little like the old hare and tortoise story, roles played respectively. Consider this, the JuxtConsult 2008 report says that checking news is the 4th most common activity that Indians indulge in, on the Internet. The same report shows Yahoo as the most preferred site for this purpose, with MoneyControl and CricInfo taking the top spots in Financial News and Cricket news respectively. At a circulation of 31.46 lakhs, why doesn’t TOI find a place there? If we take into account that the Internet in india is still at a nascent stage, don’t the already popular dailies have a good chance of replicating their success on the internet, especially if they start early and already have a good credibility factor in that space?

And this is not restricted to English media. With every online player realising the importance of vernacular, even the regional language players cannot afford to stand and watch. Which perhaps Malayala Manorama has realised, because the last few days saw a flurry of activity in pushing their website as well as their matrimonial site. One could say that the latter is a late entrant, but in both cases, MM is heavily leveraging their strengths in traditional media. This is of course, in addition to the news channel and radio stations. Perfectly poised, I’d say.

Meanwhile, on another and what I would consider a more dangerous front, there are entities like Instablogs, which in addition to a wonderful design, does a superb mix of news and user generated content, including the recently added user-generated-video-news, all of that based out of Simla. Sigh. Not to forget webdunia, which though does not boast of a cool interface like the former, is doing very well on the regional media front.

With the rapid penetration of the mobile, the increasing access of the internet through mobile, and the vernacular factor, I’m wondering if the race in India will buck the regular trends shown globally, and suddenly swing in favor of the new media players, while the hare is caught napping.

Printing Concerns

This post suggests that its not not just Jaipur and Goa that’s going to have changing times, the Gulf too might have TOI spewing out the intricacies of their version of Page 3. Considering the ever growing number of my brethren there, maybe they should consider a Malayalam edition? 😉

Meanwhile, The Economist has an article on the newspaper scene in the US, where a lot of the old mastheads might soon be out of circulation, while web only entities like the Huffington Post are flourishing. Thankfully, Bush hasn’t blamed India for the decline, yet. The article also goes on to say that while the majority of players are suffering there are some who are bucking this trend. But there’s no arguing that the web, which is seen as a major contributor to the decline, is here to stay.

Meanwhile, they have another article, which talks about the print industry in india, for which PwC predicts a rosy future, thanks to rising literacy levels. But we have to keep in mind (as the article says) that it is an industry that survives on ad rates as opposed to circulation and pricing, and the IRS figures anyway show at best a single digit growth, if at all there is a growth. Also, English dailies are more of an urban phenomenon, it is unlikely that future growth will come from rural areas, because the audience may not be monetisable, and the vernacular dailies would be taking a large share of the advertising pie already. Which only leaves the urban areas, where the medium itself would face stiff competition in future from Television, radio and the internet, especially since the last one provides much better measurement metrics.

So I, for one, would like to know the details of PwC’s study that claim that the print media in India will rise from 149 billion rupees ($3.6 billion) in 2007 to 281 billion rupees in 2012. I am also not sure why a scenario like the US would not be replicated, at least in urban India. For those who say that the broadband penetration in India is a pipe dream, we must not forget the other medium called mobile, thats growing at a blistering pace.

until next time, stop press?

Ménage à trois ?

And finally the battle is on. The one that most people in the media fraternity would’ve been waiting for. TOI has finally launched in Chennai, amidst a lot of fanfare, and has succesfully provoked two of its three resident English publications. More on that in a bit.

While the planning has been going on for years, I feel that TOI is late, by about 3 years, around the time that Deccan Chronicle took its baby steps outside AP. This was around the time that TOI was beginning to pull away from Deccan Herald in Bangalore and establishing itself as a clear leader. This momentum should’ve been carried on to Chennai too. From its experience in Hyderabad, TOI should’ve realised that DC is not to be taken lightly, and understood its intentions.  But then, thats water under the bridge.

What have the resident publications been upto? Indian Express has woken up just in time (thats debatable) and launched a new brand campaign, and a new look, complete with tagline – ‘100% steel, 0% gas’. While it does sound a bit like an infrastructural mutual fund, the ads per se were quite interesting, sporting a graffiti look and tabloid style provocative lines.

The Hindu, in what i believe, is a strategic faux pas as far as timing goes, has reduced its cover price from Rs.3.25 to Rs.2.50. They look to be rattled already, and that’s a wrong signal to send out, especially from the market leader. The least they could’ve done is timed this earlier so that it didn’t look like a reaction.

Deccan Chronicle has been conspicuously silent. It is inching closer to the Hindu and currently priced at 1.50. Wonder if they will revert to their old pricing, if TOI eats into their share.

From the looks of it, TOI might succeed in becoming the second paper in the Hindu households and possibly the first paper for the new entrants to the city. Exactly the situation in bangalore a while back. But Hindu is no DH, since they’ve already started supplements which are supposed to bridge the need gap, which The Hindu per se, cannot do. And thats exactly what the biggest barrier for TOI is, a habit. One that it will try to circumvent by inculcating itself as a habit to the new Chennai residents.

Chennai reminds me of Panipat. To tell you why would entail a short history lesson. The first battle of Panipat resulted in the founding of the Mughal empire. Against the massive resources of Lodhi, Babur’s guns proved to be the ace. Not dissimilar from the price war that DC unleashed on Hindu. And while Babur won, and DC is a close second, it might be just a matter of time. Those of you who have seen Jodhaa Akbar or paid attention to your history teacher (her history lessons, cheapos :) ) would understand the pivotal role of the second battle. If not for a freak archer, it would’ve prevented the Mughals from establishing their empire, it changed India.  For Hindu, Chennai is home, one that has to defended at all costs. For DC, its second home, and critical to their plans of becoming the masthead of South India. For TOI, its one more significant step towards becoming the only significant player to have footprints across India. Who will blink first?

until next time, or is it fourplay?