Exploring the Good, Bad and Ugly of Online Media with Raju Narisetti, VP (Strategy) News Corp

With the conflux of disruptive technologies, we are entering a new time-space of limitless possibilities, we fancifully call the Post-Digital era. The period boasts of the best of scientific and technological achievements, and stands as  witness to human evolution perhaps at its fastest pace. But what is the biggest takeaway of this age? The answer to this question is quite simple. It is the acute reduction in the time taken for information exchange leading to the economization of the time spent on processing an activity, thereby optimizing human efficiency at an incredibly high rate.  Any rational process fundamentally rests on the phenomenon of information exchange in myriad ways. From calling a cab via an app to sending pictures of Pluto, all of such activities involve interchanging of deets, and that too instantaneously.

Raju Narisetti_3_VP Strategy_Photo Credit Hannah Yi (2)

The other day, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Raju Narisetti, VP (Strategy) News Corp. It was not the first time that I had had the opportunity to speak with him in person. Only that I had missed the previous chance. He was one of the panelists of a conference conducted by Omidyar Network on The Future Directions of Media in India (where I was a backbencher). To be honest, there was a sense of nervousness prior to meeting him which I will credit to his sombre voice and crisp Indian-American accent. Not to miss, his accomplishments. Yes, I had ‘stalked’ him the night before.

I could retain little of the immediate couple of sentences he uttered upon meeting me. But as I recall, the very first impression that my mind captured of that rendezvous was him quoting  Albert Laszlo Barabasi- “Time is our most valuable non-renewable resource.” Not many would understand the urgency and credibility of this statement better than a person representing one of the biggest media houses in the world. Why? For by the very virtue of being the instrument of immediate delivery of relevant first hand information (carrying a room for further investigation) to the masses or colloquially speaking- ‘news’, media in its very essence is bound by time.

As he talked of the importance of time and how the need to save time led to a plethora of  inventions driving the mobility of our lifestyle, he said, “we are not very far from that hour when all our activities will be processed through mobile. With miniaturization of machines and devices, the size of technology is shrinking but its efficiency is burgeoning. And with digitization, things have taken a very different course altogether.” He picked up his handset and laughingly said, “It is ridiculous, you see. This stupid looking big phone I am carrying, it is kind of hard to accept the fact that it is as smart as a computer”. By this time I was pretty much at ease with the interaction.

As we moved forward with our conversation, his statement on mobility enticed my curiosity and compelled me to ask, “With technology snowballing and advancing to higher avenues, we are being introduced to ultra high tech innovations like Augmented Reality. Once we are able to tame such technologies completely, everyone will have access to first hand information, and that too, ‘on the go’. In short, citizen journalism will rule as every individual will be a journalist. So, what impact do you believe would such a situation lay on media houses?”  I could see the man’s visage turning a little serious. Heaving a sigh, he replied, “ It will indeed have a lot of impact on media houses. And therefore, innovation is the need of the hour”. But he also stated that given the limitation of scope for direct innovation in media, as it remains a challenging market in terms of ownership and operation, most of the companies fall back on advertising models with nothing new happening on that front. However, he was quick to add a point that The Wall Street Journal which is a part of the News Corp umbrella is doing immensely well with its subscription model. He asserted, “Actually, people in the West are willing to pay for quality content.”

Continuing the discussion on innovation, growth and business model, I requested him to lend out some insights into the workings of News Corp, for it is quite interesting to see a company which is essentially a media house or if I may say, perceived commonly so, taking interest in an area like real estate and making acquisition on these lines . To which he replied, “with a name like News Corp, it is hard for News Corp to be not associated with news. It is proud fact that News Corp is associated with brands like The Wall Street Journal, The Times of London and The Australian, but the reality is that only four of our companies are actually centred on the business of news. News Corp’s overall portfolio point of view, the company works in a broader space.”

“News Corp has always had a strong presence in digital real estate with majority ownership of real estate in Australia. And we have made real estate investments in other countries like Italy and parts of Asia as well. As News Corp looks at its investment portfolio, there is an interesting logic behind some of these decisions. A few years ago, a lot of revenue streams which used to be there with newspaper business involving classifieds related to travel, real estate, jobs etc., slowly started moving away to become transaction only businesses on digital. Most of the news companies then did not pay much attention to it, neither did they find out a way to fix this issue. So, of course the battle was lost eventually as all these businesses became standalone transaction companies.”

He added, “Now these transaction companies are realising that if they only rely on transaction, customer acquisition and building brand loyalty would be a tough nut to crack. So, now a lot of these companies have realised that the only way to have ongoing customer engagement is to surround the actual transaction itself with a lot of content. For News Corp, being in this business made a lot of sense due its strong B2C network globally and a great real estate content. The only thing News Corp didn’t have was the transaction capability. So, to fix this issue, News Corp decided to re-acquire the lines of businesses that were once classified, as the company already had the rest of the material.”

As he was talking of investments and acquisition, I could not have missed bringing VCCircle into the conversation. So, upon being asked about the reason behind this acquisition, he said, “Sahad ( Founder and Editor of VCCircle) in many ways is a pioneer, for 10 years ago nobody thought that people would pay for content. He went all digital by putting his own money and life on it and build up a niche focussed business. VCCEdge is an instrument to drive revenue in other parts of the business. The focus is not on page views or increasing advertising, it’s mostly about providing crucial information thereby, helping an umbrella of products.” Further, he stated, “News Corp does not view VCCircle as a media company. VCCircle is largely a data driven company with a strong offline events business. They run a paid subscription based website and the media part is more about the ecosystem to which they provide data. It is a successful niche business which has a successful profitable news component to it.” I interjected, asking him to elaborate more on News Corp’s strategies for the Indian market.

In continuation, he proceeded, “News Corp is not a financial investor and it is a strategic long term investor. One of the examples in this case is Star, which started 15 to 17 years ago as an importer of western television shows but shifted its focus on creating original content. It is now India’s largest entertainment platform. Likewise, News Corp views behind making investments based on company’s overall strategy. The company began its journey with very strong financial position with no debt. In fact, it had generated close to $8.7 billion in revenue, and about $900million in profit along with a portfolio of companies that stretch across news, information, education and publishing and in these two years, the financial health has remained very strong. The idea behind betting on India is strategic in nature”.

The discussion went on for about one straight hour only to be broken by a sudden realization that the gentleman had to board a flight in the next few hours. I was left with countable minutes and uncountable queries. But like I did mention, I had perused his profile, and in the process discovered that he was the founding editor of Mint, India’s second largest business newspaper. I knew those were the last five minutes he could spare for the interview. So, the inspired child in me asked, “You have a host of achievements to your name. You started your career as a staff writer with ET and then went on to establish Mint, moving further to become the Deputy Managing Editor of The Wall Street Journal. How has this journey been for you? He laughed. Took a pause with that smile intact on his face. Then sighed. I could sense, he was getting engulfed by nostalgia. He began by saying, “You have reminded me of my career as a journalist. It was a great time back then. And it feels great to come home and be able to contribute something back to my country…Frankly, i don’t follow Indian journalism anymore as much as to have a concrete opinion on it. But yes, in general, we have come a long way. However, we are still relatively lagging behind in employing technology to its best in comparison to Western countries. The country is now witnessing a mobile revolution but even in that aspect it is behind a lot of its developed counterparts. so, we need to pace up.”

I winded-up the interview thanking Mr. Narisetti for the quality conversation and wishing him a goodbye, and genuinely hoping to catch up with him soon sometime. As I was walking down the lobby, I realized,  he was right in saying media is a challenging ground when it comes to direct innovation. And in this age, with easy accessibility of information to consumers from multiple channels, maintaining a fertile business is getting increasingly onerous. But how about looking at the brighter side of the situation? How about exploiting the omnipresent nature of information for a greater benefit? We have Big Data and Analytics these days. How about employing these collective data to forecast and predict the future, rather than just being a mediating platform of information?

The jury is still out, watch this space for more!

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