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"Tehelka's philosophy remains crusading and investigative journalism"

'Critics had written off Tarun Tejpal and his Tehelka (in English it would roughly translate to being 'sensational') venture after a run-in with the outgoing government over two years back when the company, then run as a portal, did a sting operation on Bharatiya Janata Party's top leaders and minister's aides allegedly accepting bribes for defence deals. Not only did media baron Subhash Chandra's Zee channels telecast the filmed sting operation, but Chandra had also evinced interest in picking up stakes in Tehelka, which would have given Tejpal's venture the much-needed financial boost.

But those are things that now adorn history pages of modern India. Still, the "tough times," as Tejpal says, that had to be faced could have crippled any ordinary mortal. Fair weather friends deserted him after the government machinery mounted pressure from various sides on Tehelka and Tejpal found himself defending, ad nauseam, the sting operation as "shooting the messenger", while letting the guilty ones --- or alleged guilty ones --- go free. If Tehelka had thought it could do a Watergate on the Vajpayee government, it had, probably, wrongly calculated the insensitivity of modern India's masses to such issues and the ingenuity of the ruling politicians' to weather such allegations. Not only have the alleged guilty ones survived, but have also been rewarded. One such person's wife contested for a parliamentary seat on a BJP ticket in the just-concluded general elections.

But Tehelka is still to recover from the blows. That's why, Tehelka and Tejpal's second coming in the form of a weekly newspaper --- the punch line being free, fair, fearless ---- is arousing curiosity in the media. Started with a corpus fund cobbled together from generous donations from 200-odd Indians, who still think a non-aligned and investigative media could keep the vibrancy alive in the country, Tehelka the newspaper has managed it till now after making a debut a few months back. But can it pull along?

Indiantelevision.com's Anjan Mitra tries to find the answer(s) and read the mind of Tarun Tejpal in this interview done at Tehelka's head office, located in an up market commercial area of Delhi.

Excerpts:





How would you describe the second coming?

I don't know whether this is the second coming or not, but the response that we have got from the people is extraordinary. Especially when you see that not much money has been spent on marketing and promotional activities. The biggest challenge was to get the venture (the weekly newspaper) off the ground and it has been quite successful. With an initial print order of about 73,000 copies, we must be selling approximately 60,000 copies.





What was the source of funds for starting this venture?

Some friends and like-minded people, totaling about 199, gave donations of Rs 1 lakh (Rs 100,000) each to start this venture. Add to that the money that we collected from advanced subscriptions, numbering about 16,000, ranging between a year and 10 years.





One also sees some advertising in the weekly. How has the response been?

I would say pretty enthusiastic and revealing too. We have some big brands advertising with us and it shows that people still have faith in us. There are brands like Pantaloon, Nokia, China Air, Ford, Park Avenue, BPL, Garden Saris, and Videocon advertising in the weekly newspaper and we also hope that as we mount our promotional activities, the list of advertisers would increase.

What is the USP of the weekly that would attract advertisers and readers too? In the past also, India has seen such weeklies, which have folded up soon after their launch or turned into a rag.

At Tehelka we subscribe to the view that we are doing crusading and investigative journalism. We are not aligned with any particular organisation(s) or ideology. The real aim is to align with fundamental issues that affect the lives of ordinary people.





But isn't being non-aligned also subscribing to a stance?

It may be a bit idealistic and romantic dream, but that's how it is. Nobody gave us a ghost of a chance to pull it off, but we have shown till now that we can do it and still be impartial, while being fearless.





Do you think that the traditional media (read the established newspapers and news magazines) in the country is afraid of a venture like Tehelka?

There is an element of apprehension in some people that we may take away some readership. Especially because of the type of investigative stories that we have been doing in the few issues that have been brought out. That is why I don't see the media crediting us for things that ought to have been done normally. Take, for instance, the story related to the AK-47 gun scam involving the home ministry. The story was broken by us and later taken up by the general newspapers. But no TV channel or newspaper has given us the credit for it.

At Tehelka, the team members may change, but the basic philosophy remains the same: investigative and crusading journalism. As I said, it's a romantic dream, but we are ready to live out our dream.





What happens now that Tehelka the weekly has got a good opening start? What are the plans to attract more funds to keep the venture running?

To grow exponentially we need to raise some more funds at this stage and put some gas in the vehicle. We do have plans to dilute the shareholding in the company and are looking for an investor or a clutch of investors who can help us in this round of funding.

What quantum of shareholding are you looking at diluting and what is the type of money that is being sought to be raised?

At this point of time, since we need money to put into our advertising and promotional activities more aggressively, we can dilute up to 15 per cent to investor(s). We are looking at raising about Rs 50 million that would take care of our immediate needs. We need to promote ourselves more aggressively and also beef up the distribution aspect. People write in to us saying they have heard about Tehelka, but don't know where to buy a copy. We need to look into this issue. Though we sell several thousands

of copies every week at traffic signals, a proper distribution chain needs to be built up as also a cohesive marketing plan that would entail promotional campaigns in the media. You also need marketing muscle to push your product. But the very fact that some organisations see us as competition, testifies to the quality editorial product that we bring out.





Would a dilution of 10-15 per cent of the shareholding be enough to see you through?

No. We may look at a second dilution six to nine months from now. But we would always like to retain a majority control to safeguard out editorial independence. Still, at some point of time, I'd love to give a piece of the cake to all those who had chipped in with financial help at the start.





At one point of time, Subhash Chandra of Zee Telefilms wanted to invest in Tehelka. Have you been in touch with him in recent times over investments?

The less said about that affair, the better. Though the valuations had been done, he (Chandra) backed away without citing any reasons. Probably, the (government) pressure on him was too much to continue with Tehelka.





What sot of revenue has the weekly newspaper been generating till now?

In the first 12 issues, we have been able to do business worth approximately Rs 10 million. Our advertising rates are pretty low (between Rs 1,800 - Rs 2,000 per column per cm.), but if we manage to keep the present momentum, I think there's a fair chance that we would cross the initial hurdles because for a product like this it generally takes five to six years to fully establish itself.





When do you think this venture could reach the break-even point?

As things are moving now, and if we are able to ramp up certain other activities, we should break-even in a year's time. The brand recognition is monstrous.





Wouldn't the running expenses also mount as you hire editorial and other professionals to expand the business?

Some compromises have to be made. For instance, most journalists who have joined Tehelka have taken cuts in the pay packet. This includes me too. Most editorial people have joined us because they believe in the paper's ideology of being non-partisan.

(Some of the senior editorial staff of Tehelka has worked in established media organisations like India Today, Hindustan Times, Outlook, The Telegraph and The Indian Express).

Apart from Tehelka, you have also taken up a TV assignment with India TV, promoted by Rajat Sharma? Wouldn't TV distract you from your main venture?

Rajat approached me first with an offer and, to be honest, I was very reluctant to take up such a TV assignment. Not only is my Hindi not that fluent, but also the fact whether Rajat would let me do the type of work that I do. But after Rajat convinced me that I'd be able to do the TV assignment the way I want to, I agreed.

Moreover, I am only co-hosting a small part of the election-related programming (with Rajat). The main programme that we have talked about would revolve around anti-corruption and would be an extension of the type of journalism that we at Tehelka are doing now.

But, more importantly, I also said yes for this assignment as I need to have some additional income to pay off my debts. I have run up huge debts during the days when Tehelka was battling the government on various fronts. Though it has subsided a bit, but some legal cases are still continuing and they're quite a financial drain.





Is Tehelka and India TV looking at having some sort of a synergy to boost editorial content?

We haven't discussed the issue so far in great detail, but it could happen.

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