“Change is the only constant”: Impact journalism in the Indian media

The Vikatan group, established in 1926, is a prominent Tamil media company known for its significant social and political influence. At FIPP Congress 2024, and after a dramatic Indian general election result, MD Srini Balasubramanian talked to journalist Preethi Nallu about how they continue to have an impact.

Preethi Nallu: India saw some surprises in the recent elections. What are the complexities of reporting on politics in India?

Srini Balasubramanian: India has been through one of the greatest democratic exercises in the world. 614 million voters cast their votes, and it’s been such a nuanced voting pattern that no pre poll or exit poll, even the ruling party could not predict the outcome. India is a diverse country, a melting pot of multiple languages, multiple cultures, and multiple religions, and it is time to work on a more inclusive agenda, and not try to divide people in the name of religion, caste and politics. The voters have spoken, and I think Narendra Modi has listened, this time. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has been reduced to a minority, and now they are part of a coalition government. I think there will be a change and change is always good.

PN: You’re a third-generation owner of the Vikatan group, inheriting it when it was chiefly print. Since then it’s gone through an immense transformation – could you run us through this journey and how you have adapted to evolving consumer patterns?

SB: Yes, I’ve been with the organisation for 34 years, and I’d say change has been the only constant. We were two print publications then; now we have over 12 titles, we have gone digital, we have started a television production company that is doing extremely well. We also recently ran the Cinema Awards. I would say the integrated newsroom has been the only way to go. In the midst of this, we’ve been working very clearly on many aspects of social change. For example, in 1979, we published a cover that was part of an anti-smoking campaign – more than 17 years before the government of India banned cigarette smoking. I think it’s important for magazines to understand the needs of society.

More from the FIPP Congress:

PN: You’re currently prioritising digital platforms – are you concerned at all that this will reduce the consumption of hard copies and your print circulation?

SB: When we decided to go digital nearly 10 years back, we knew there was going to be some kind of cannibalism, but we decided it was better to have a cannibal in the family. Today on social media we have 95 million followers and get huge traction in terms of engagement, but from the 18-25 age group. In contrast, our magazine readers are typically 35-plus. SO we are catering to different branches of our audience with content that is suited to their expectations on platforms where they consume, rather than expecting everyone to consume it however we produce it.

PN: What are some of your memorable stories in terms of social or legal impact?

SB: In 1984, we started a student journalist programme, where each year we have selected 50-75 students who have shown an interest in journalism. In 1985, one of our student reporters went to a nearby village and saw an old lady preparing a concoction for a child. When he asked her what it was for, she said, “She’s a girl, so she has to be killed.” He reported this example of female infanticide, and it was such a shocking revelation. It went right up to the National Council of Women. We got a summons from the government. People couldn’t believe this was actually happening. Several years later – and after much legislation – our chief minister introduced the Cradle Baby scheme, which allowed parents to leave their unwanted children in special government buildings. More than 3,500 children were saved through that scheme. Twenty years later we interviewed some of those children.

PN: So really your brand is nurturing not just collective memory, but intergenerational memory. Are there instances where you see family members of different ages consume your different products and formats?

SB: One of our sister publications covers environmentally friendly agriculture and natural farming. Our content comes from our visits with farmers, who tell us what is happening, how fertilisers and pesticides are killing their crops. There was one child who saw his parents suffering because of this, to the point where they had to sell their land. He started reading about these stories, then later went to study the subject. He wrote to us five years later saying that thanks to our magazine, they were a profitable agricultural family again.

PN: So your magazines are important educational tools. That reminds me of another educational service you have started to provide based on economy-based reporting – what impact are you seeing from that?

SB: Most of our magazines are launched based on feedback from our customers. On one occasion, we realised that financial inclusion and financial knowledge was not being protected, so we started a magazine for personal finance. We then started outreach to complement the magazine and travelled all over with experts to educate people about the importance of shares, stocks, mutual funds and so on. A bus driver who had attended one of our events wrote to us saying that because we made him aware of an investment programme, he began to save for his daughter’s wedding. He couldn’t save much every month, but over five years it had grown substantially. But his daughter said he didn’t have to plan for her wedding – she wanted to go to medical school. She has since graduated. He said that because of what we spoke about that day, he was able to help his daughter to become a doctor. These are the reasons we do what we do. These are the things which make you feel alive.

This is an edited version of a keynote discussion between Preethi Nallu and Srini Balasubramanian.


Your first step to joining FIPP's global community of media leaders

Sign up to FIPP World x