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Tehelka storm rages on

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June 11, 2004 10:06 IST

Can a newspaper, with Rs 3.6 crore (Rs 36 million) contribution from founder- members and subscribers, survive? Running a newspaper, after all, is an expensive business that requires oodles of money.

But Tarun Tejpal, promoter of Agni Media that runs the weekly Tehelka, seems to think so. "We are here to stay," he says, adding, "I am happy with what we are doing and our numbers will climb."

It is another matter though that when the newspaper was launched in January 2004, it started off with a print run of 150,000 copies. This, the media industry sources say, has shrunk to 30,000 within six months.

The company's vice president (marketing) Piyush Sharma, however, says that since the paper is not part of the Audit Bureau of Circulation, there are no certified figures.

"But our circulation has stabilised at about 100,000," he claims. Adds Tejpal: "We launched without a plan. Some correction had to take place."

They feel that the media industry has not been able to digest that Tehelka has been successfully launched without institutional investment, corporate funding or political backing.

It is funded by 209 founder-members who paid Rs 100,000 each for a lifetime subscription to the newspaper. Besides, the paper has managed to enroll 16,000 subscribers.

"It is a good start. By the end of the year our target is 75,000 subscribers," adds Sharma.  Another Rs 20 lakh (Rs 2 million) from 20 lifetime subscribers is in the pipeline, he assures.

UCP Direct, the marketing company hired by Tehelka is also launching its second round of subscription drive. Earlier, it got 122 subscribers contributing Rs 12 lakh (R 1.2 million). "This time our target is to generate Rs 1.5 crore (Rs 15 million)," says UCP's promoter, Raj Bhatia.

The prospects of fresh funds is probably pushing Tehelka to think big. Its future plan includes launching a Hindi edition of the paper to be followed by a Malayalam edition.

As part of its original business plan it will also venture into television, radio and book publishing. The company has already launched the Tehelka Lecture series.

On the marketing side, subscriptions will continue to be the pivotal strategy but it is planning to lure readers with free gifts and negotiating deals with credit card companies, hotels and airlines to push Tehelka among their members.

Yet doubts about Tehelka's future remain. For starters, publishing industry veterans say that Tehelka's business model is faulty. While the founder members may have made a one-time contribution of over Rs 2 crore (Rs 20 million), the amount cannot run the paper indefinitely.

"We are aware of its limitations and hope to improve our fledgling corporate structure," says Tejpal.

He adds that at the end of the day, it is a business and "we may dilute our equity depending on scale, speed and growth requirements. But we will ensure that editorial control does not slip," he adds.

Currently, the advertising to editorial ratio is very poor. In the 48-page paper there are barely four to five pages of ads. "We are aware that 70-80 per cent revenue should come from advertising and we are working towards that," says Sharma. Fresh, year-long advertising deals are in the pipeline.

Questions have also been raised about content. "The editorial focus is detached from the expectations built in the market," says a consultant who helped launch Tehelka.

The marketing head of a weekly magazine adds that "People expect a 'tehelka' in every issue and lack of it may affect its subscription renewals and sales." Tejpal has an answer: "I've repeatedly said that we are not a bomb factory. But we are still doing investigative stories."

Despite their confidence, Tehelka may need more than a celebrity founder-member list including the likes of Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Shabana Azmi to survive.
Shuchi Bansal in New Delhi
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