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Digital Conversation: Kalli Purie, Chief Operating Officer, India Today Group Digital

Kalli Purie is chief operating officer of India Today Group Digital. She brings a rich experience of launching and managing a wide range of digital media properties from a digital newspaper to mobile contests. A graduate from Oxford University in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, Purie is uniquely positioned to address the Group’s integrated foray in the new media landscape.

Kalli Purie is chief operating officer of India Today Group Digital. She brings a rich experience of launching and managing a wide range of digital media properties from a digital newspaper to mobile contests. A graduate from Oxford University in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, Purie is uniquely positioned to address the Group’s integrated foray in the new media landscape. In an exclusive conversation with AlooTechie, Kalli Purie shares her experience of leading the digital arm of India Today Group and her plans for the future.

It has been two years since you took over the reins of India Today Group Digital in September 2008. How has been the journey so far?

It has been pretty exciting and dynamic just like the medium itself. Internet, as a medium, is always changing. When I joined the company two years back, Twitter was not a big deal but now it is a huge deal. Every celebrity has got their own Twitter feeds; people are fighting wars on Twitter. We have also got our own news feeds on Twitter. Facebook was also not a big deal and now everyone is on Facebook. Multimedia was not huge but the fact that you are doing a video interview with me is reflection of the fact that multimedia is getting big. So, the internet is at the developing stage and as a publisher one needs to be at the frontier of things, because if they are not, they are not fit for this medium.

The other big development is the tablets that are coming in the market. iPad came out six months ago and now we have Blackberry, Samsung and others coming into the market. And as a media company, one needs to be in that market and start looking at developing applications. So, one can’t be a veteran in the field of internet media and one can always learn new things.

What’s your vision for India Today Group Digital?

There are two things. India Today Group, as a company, is platform agnostic. We believe that we need to be present on every platform possible. We started with print and now we are on TV, radio and also the internet. On internet also, the strategy remains the same. If we are available on internet, we are there on mobile, iPad, Blackberry, HP DreamScreen and any other device or platform that is out there. The business is evolving but I think in a couple of years, there will emerge a concrete business model. Presently, there is none. This is an experimental phase and one needs to be present on every platform and hence India Today Group Digital is aggressive on being present on every platform. I don’t believe in doing hygiene. I mean putting an RSS feed on the mobile phone is something you need to do. I am talking about new things and new ideas which we can carry on this medium and that is what we are working on presently.

Secondly, I think multimedia is going to become very big. We have already set up our own multimedia team apart from what we get from the synergy with our TV channels. We find that the web, in our whole group, is the best way to tell a story because you have so many tools available. On TV you can’t have depth and you can’t allow the user to select content he wants to consume. The internet allows us to synergise all the things we are doing in the group. So slowly, internet is becoming the central pin of our entire organisation. During the Obama (US President Barack Obama) visit, internet became the converging point of all the editors of our group. To know what the top minds in the country thought about the Obama visit, you needed to come to the India Today website where the editors of India Today, Mail Today, Aaj Tak and Headlines Today voiced their opinions. So, web gives you a 360 degree platform and I think for the India Today Group, web will be the central point where all our content will converge.

In 2009, Aroon Purie reportedly said that India Today Group will not make any more investment in digital media. Recently, the CarWale investment happened. Has the group rethought its strategy?

I think there is a misunderstanding in what he said. What he actually said is that we are not going to spend dollars to chase cents. A lot of people in the industry feel that it’s the internet and we should start getting a multimedia team, get bandwidth and stream videos etc. But that is not our way of doing business. Our competitors do business like that and have been burning money for the last 12 years, but what is the point since today we are making as much revenues as they are making. So, we will not spend dollars to chase cents, but will definitely spend dollars if we see dollars and we are doing that. If we see that developing applications will give us dollars, we will go for that and developing applications is not cheap. Multimedia is also not a cheap arm to add to your business. But we believe in that and hence we have added a separate multimedia team over and above what is happening on the TV space. So, there is no change in policy.

CarWale, we think, is a good investment and we feel that in the ecommerce space you need to be at the top or else you are nowhere. We had a partner and we saw potential in CarWale and invested in that.

If I am not wrong, has been the latest offering from the group. What are your plans around the portal?

Actually, HeadlinesToday is not our latest offering. What we have last worked on is which is a collaboration of our all five women magazines. We deal with women in all different stages, like we have Cosmopolitan, when she is young and sexy; Good Housekeeping, when she becomes a homemaker; Harper’s Bazaar, when she is a fashionista; India Today Woman, when she is a career woman; and Prevention, for her wellness. So, we have put all that content together and created an online space for Indian women as we think that women in India now are going through a transition and they need help and guidance here. On, the women can talk to experts, have community opportunities. And that is where we have added the multimedia team. A lot of the content that we create for the magazines also work great on a video format, for example, things like behind the scenes for a cover shoot, which is very exciting to watch.

With and all the other portals, the idea is to converge the content of our three flagship portals, and the third new sticky point for us And as we see that the websites have started getting traffic and traction, we will separate them in their standalone verticals.

ITGD was the first group in India to launch paid online news content. But the experiment didn’t work. What were the learnings from that? Do you think the initiative was ahead of its times?

We went into a paid content model in 2000. At that time we had a multimedia real-time newspaper up on the internet. I think the idea is still wonderful and would be great to execute it once again. But imagine, in 2001 what were we doing with multimedia as there was no bandwidth available. A lot of videos that we had for this just did not get downloaded and hence it didn’t work. We still have got a lot of subscriptions for our online newspaper. Moreover, it was also priced much higher than what publishers are now discussing as micro-payments. I think it was early for its time. Then what we did was we put all our content behind a barrier of free subscription. And now of course, all the content is free.

But there is a caveat to that. I think the content should be appropriate to its readers and has to be exclusive. For example, people would be willing to pay to get access to some of our specialised surveys of Business Today and India Today. And after willingness, we also need to make the payment procedure easy for the consumers. I think that bit of the proposition needs to be sorted out. We, as a group, are probably the best to bring paid content in India as we have a plethora of content with us. So, you can have your own payment gateway developed. Again, in the tablet space, people are willing to pay for downloads. Subscriptions for our international edition of India Today have been growing at a phenomenal rate.

In India, most of the online publishing houses are not profitable. What’s your take on this and how do you see this changing in the future?

To put the record straight, we are making profits. I think that an internet strategy has to be multi-pronged. You got to have a mobile piece and we are very focussed on the mobile. The mobile side has a payment system and that is where the micro-payments have worked well. So, the mobile strategy needs to be strong.

Secondly, we feel that, in our group, we have synergy with all our different mediums which are standalone. Your setting up a multimedia team is an expensive operation but for us we are getting most of our content from our TV channels. As long as the internet is looked at as a curation medium rather than a creation medium, I think there are higher chances of survival and making money, till there is such a large migration on the medium that advertisers and readers have no other options but to pay for it.

ITGO has maintained a low profile over the past couple of years in visibility for its properties. Was this part of a conscious plan? Is it likely to change?

For the last two years, we have been experimenting with a lot of things. Like you said we went from paid to free. We went to the Hindi website in a big way. We created the two flagship portals and we also added a multimedia section to our business. But now I am talking to you and hence I think we are coming out of hiding. We are also in a place to talk more about our strategies as we know where we are headed. But on new developments we like to keep it low profile as we don’t want to give competition ideas and it is always better to prove yourself than start talking about it. As a media company, you are supposed to be behind the scenes and not in front of the scenes.

How do you see the digital publishing industry in India growing and where do you see the future?

What remains exciting and also a little scary for us, as publishers, is to see what is going to happen with the smartphones and the tablets. I think this is going to be resolved in the next six months. Especially on the tablets, the magazines and the pictures look amazing and better than any other medium we have ever seen. And moreover, it is so personal. But what will be the pricing and will people see it as their second device is what we need to see.

Another concern is about the smartphones, will they really come at a cheap price that people are promising? Will the 3G spectrum deliver what it is promising; and can it be used for data and thus allow us, as a media company, to do things that are restricted right now with bandwidth problems? We are doing multimedia in a small way but the reality is much bigger in developed countries like Japan.

We, as a group, have the best chances of survival in this space because in the media industry today, nobody has the spread that we have. We have 32 magazines, 7 radio stations, 4 TV channels and we have an internet presence. We are also present on the mobile side and are also looking at the iPad and the international market. Now, if we join all these things together, we get an internet strategy that is formidable. There might be other media groups that kind of have these verticals, but they don’t look at it synergistically. We are still a small organisation and we still have one editor-in-chief. On internet, both the revenue model and the content model need to be interdependent and if you can’t get synergy around your different divisions, you are pretty much sunk.

Being the daughter of a hugely successful publisher (Aroon Purie), does that create a high pressure environment at work?

Pressure is just to be involved with a group that has set such high standards and benchmarks. Working for the India Today Group means that you stand for credibility and you are expected to deliver that. There are many things, business wise also, that we say no to just because they don’t gel with our principles of credibility. And that puts pressure especially on the mobile and internet side. I am always pushed by my team to venture into new things and that puts high pressure. So, I think more than being a daughter, being involved in management role in a company like the India Today Group is high pressure.

by Satrajit Sen

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