Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes really surprised us all recently when it was announced he’s resigned and is off to India, where he will take up one of the top positions at the Hindustan Times in New Delhi. In the first of a two-part interview, Grubstreet finds out from the highly respected Dawes more about what he will be doing in India, how he took the M&G to rare circulation and online success in an extremely tough market and why the paper is thinking in terms of “audience” and not “readers”.
Grubstreet: So you really amazed everyone when it was announced you’re going to India. What an unusual move but what an amazing opportunity and what an incredible experience it’s going to be.
Nic Dawes: Ja, that’s what ultimately won out. I genuinely love my job and what we’re doing here. But India is a huge challenge.
It’s a staggering country and an extraordinary media market – and it’s an organisation (parent company HT Media) of real scale. (The daily Hindustan Times, according to its website, has 3.7-million readers across India while Hindustan, the group’s Hindi title is the second-largest daily in the country with 36.6-million readers.)
Grubstreet: Your title at the Hindustan Times will be “chief content and editorial officer”. What exactly will you be doing?
Dawes: I will be leading the big quality renewal project that runs across their print and digital operations.
Grubstreet: OK. And why do they need quality renewal? Do they need some kind of repositioning?
Dawes: It’s a newspaper with a pretty long history. It comes out of the Indian struggle against colonialism. It was founded by a group of people around Gandhi in 1924 and it’s a company that, for the past 10 years, has been working on turning around its commercial side and doing a range of innovations. It launched a more niche business paper called Mint. It has a radio station and does some digital stuff. But there’s a feeling that the main flagship title could do a lot better at covering the full complexity and dynamism of what’s happening in India in both print and online.
The leadership in the organisation clearly feels very strongly about moving it forward and they think that quality is the key to that and innovation.
Grubstreet: And do I understand correctly that there are two big national papers in English and they are the Hindustan Times and The Times of India?
Dawes: My understanding is that there are roughly 750 editorial staff. There are a number of editions. The main ones are Delhi and Mumbai but there is also a very substantial edition in Chandigarh and there are a range of editions in smaller cities across north and west India… They have, I think, 13 printing plants. It’s an extraordinary operation.
Grubstreet: How did this come about, Nic? Did you come across them by chance or did they headhunt you?
Dawes: They approached me. They employed a global-search firm and they initially approached me a year ago. At the time I said I was happy to talk to them and get to know them but I didn’t feel it was far enough down the road on a number of things we’d been doing here to leave. I felt it would be too soon.
They called back this year and said they had clarified the role and they were very keen to move ahead.
Grubstreet: What were you not far enough down the road on at the M&G? Things like online?
Dawes: Ja, we’d made a lot of progress with online but we hadn’t relaunched the website yet. We hadn’t taken the tablet stuff to where we wanted it to be. Our mobile product wasn’t what it should have been.
We had relaunched our new business section something like six months before that and it was gaining traction. We were stating to formulate the ideas that became the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. We were talking about relaunching in Zimbabwe, which we now have done (this year).
It was a range of things and then there were other things which I wanted to consolidate like diversifying the mix within the main body of the Mail & Guardian, repositioning the Friday section…
Grubstreet: Let’s talk about where M&G is at the moment. Digital is going great and the paper’s circulation was on the up for quite a while until late last year. Why has there been another quarter of circulation decrease? (In the first quarter of 2013, the M&G was at 45 279 total sales compared with 47 922 in the same quarter of 2012.)
Dawes: Well, the first thing I would say is that in the context of the industry it’s a very small decrease.
I think there are a few reasons for it, Gill. Firstly, we face the same headwinds as everybody else but I think we are sailing a lot more effectively than most other people into those headwinds… So a small decline a little bit worse than flat is quite a good result in that setting.
There are some other specific reasons, for instance, there was the week of (the breaking news) of Oscar Pistorius (being arrested for the murder of his girlfriend). I saw your piece analysing ABC figures in the context of that and I thought it was telling.
What was interesting for us is that it was State of the Nation (on the same day that the Pistorius news broke, a Thursday and the M&G’s deadline day). We didn’t go big on the cover on Pistorius and we dropped something like 10 000 copies in that week – a huge swing. If you just counted back in that edition, we would have been flat.
Grubstreet: How fascinating.
Dawes: Ja, I was in Cape Town for the State of the Nation so I was little bit insulated from the huge interest that was growing in Pistorius. We ended up having quite a decent package on Pistorius. We had a substantial story to back up a big picture on the front page but we didn’t (go that route) and nobody cared about anything else (on Friday).
The other thing is that when retail sales are down, we always take a bit of a knock. I think the truth is that it’s very tough out there so in the context of other people seeing a 20% decline, I’ll take 3% and then say: “Well, what’s happening with our digital audience?” which is just booming.
Dawes: Ja, some of them are. It’s interesting what’s happening with the demographics of our print and digital audiences.
If you think of the historic caricature of the Mail & Guardian audience, which is probably relatively racially mixed but predominantly white and liberal and greying, that’s not its current audience at all. The M&G’s print audience is 70% African and actually skewed a little bit younger than you might expect.
Interestingly, our online audience looks to some extent what our old print audience looked like. But I think this is also starting to change quite fast.
Grubstreet: You mean more younger black people coming in?
Dawes: Ja, and we’re making specific efforts to make sure that online is relevant to that audience as well.
So some people are migrating to tablets (the M&G sells about 1500 iPad editions and about 3 000 on Kindle) but that’s relatively small numbers.
Certainly, people have migrated to the web and our overall audience is bigger than it’s ever been by miles. We now have 200 000 unique users (domestic per month) on mobile devices without having cannibalised our desktop users. That’s enormous.
Increasingly, I think we have to understand things in terms of: “Are we reaching an audience and are we engaging an audience?”
Grubstreet: M&G online is doing so well under Chris Roper (traffic was up 40% over the past year since the relaunch). One of the most interesting things that Chris told me in an interview recently is how the online identity is slightly different from print – and how they have more flexibility around the serious heart of the M&G. Is this something you think about as editor?
Dawes: Ja, all the time. When I first started to think very hard about online and its relationship to the core identity of the Mail & Guardian – when I became editor – I was struck by the extent to which the digital offering was failing to reflect the core of the Mail & Guardian and its brand: far too much commoditised news, far too many wire-service stories, not well enough curated.
The first step was to re-establish at the core of the online offering the Mail & Guardian’s news values. Having done that, it then becomes possible to say: “OK, this is a slightly different space, where a slightly different engagement is possible”. So now it’s still M&G stuff but sometimes more playful, quicker, snappier…
Grubstreet: What’s interesting to me is that we’ve had paywalls going up recently at Business Day and Beeld but when you look at some of the long-standing paywalls like at The Witness and the Sunday Times, I don’t see that it’s protected circulation. You guys have never had a paywall…
Dawes: …and our circulation is holding up better.
Grubstreet: Exactly. I don’t know what the answer here is.
Dawes: Well, I’ll tell you what I think the answer is.
I don’t think circulation is declining because people are moving online to read individual titles. It’s declining for a range of reasons that include people are going online to get their news.
But those titles that are suffering from this problem are probably not offering enough online that’s unique and worth paying for that people feel compelled to get all of the news that they need from that title, whether it’s in print or digital.
So those people might be reading IOL, The Guardian, News24 and they might be reading the Mail & Guardian and they don’t really feel that they need what that specific title offers them.
The other thing is that, I think, if your newsroom is open to what’s happening online and with social media and data journalism – and to news innovation in general and its audience – it actually enlivens its journalism and makes it feel more relevant. The result is that the print product is stronger and more relevant as well.
It means that discussion in news conference is better informed and harder questions are asked about what gets in. So I think you end up with a fresher, tighter, more interesting print product which sells better.
Please watch out for Part 2 of the interview next week in which Dawes talks about change at the Mail & Guardian during his editorship, what he views as his chief legacy to the paper and the press’ recent battles with the ruling party.