Ritu Kapur: “We Don’t Look Over Our Shoulders Or Try And Compete With Legacy Media”
The global digital space, today, is all about the survival of the fittest. And in India, it’s a race to the finish. Either you capture a loyal audience or you’re out of the game. So in the unfiltered world of the internet, how do you make your mark? How do you make sure your platform garners the following it rightfully deserves?
Well, these women we feature in our Women In Digital series this month can teach you a thing or two about that. Having founded and established popular content platforms with high traction, these smart, sassy, digital natives are putting India on the global map. If you want a piece of the digital pie, we suggest you take notes.
With over 23 years of experience in various forms of media, there is not a shred of doubt that journalist and entrepreneur Ritu Kapur knows what’s she’s doing. From writing screenplays to starting a television production house to now a popular digital news portal, Ritu is about the story and the way it is told — armchair journalism be damned.
The Quint has become the Indian youth’s go-to destination for relevant news and interesting content, a portal that has grown from strength to strength in just 2 short years. On average, the site reaches about 30 million people, and is followed on Facebook by about 5.6 million users. Given the reliability of the site’s content, these numbers come as no surprise.
Ritu chatted with Hauterfly about her 2-decade long journey in Indian media, and how she’s making sure that she and her team remain relevant and continue to innovate, no matter what. Here’s how she’s doing it all.
Walk us through your career trajectory, and what led you to start a digital media company.
I started my career with a bunch of other bright, young people in the ’90s when satellite television was just opening up in India. Our country hadn’t yet seen the kind of business and lifestyle content we see today, so we came together and founded TV18, which was a production house at the time. Our first show was created for BBC, after which the company really grew as a number of other channels launched.
But after a while, we realised that just being a production house was a bummer, because we were creating content for others and had no intellectual properties of our own. And after working out budgets, the channel could, on a whim, decide to discontinue the show.
So finally, after jumping through a few hoops, we launched what came to be known as CNBC TV18, the business channel. But I wasn’t terribly interested in business, I had been working on fiction and docu-dramas prior to this, for about 6-7 years.
So I took a sabbatical, during which I had a baby, and worked on a few screenplays from home. I came back to TV18 when we attempted to launch a channel for the Indian diaspora abroad, which didn’t take off, after which we launched CNN IBN.
Here, I took over as Features Editor and did a number of things, including starting the concept of citizen journalism in India. Later on, I also headed programming on History TV18, the international history channel we brought to India.
Once Reliance took over TV18 and I moved on, I wondered what next. We knew that digital was the future, and having been communicators for all these years, we knew we couldn’t stop being that. So we educated ourselves as quickly as we could, travelling to New York to learn more about the tech and content aspects.
At this time, 2 things became clear to us — one was that young India had stopped consuming content via newspapers and TV channels, at least in the metros, but still wanted to engage with current affairs; and second was that content consumption had become non-linear — they were consuming it as and when they wished, and that too, in the palm of their hands.
So we knew we had to create content that would be consumed by the youth on their hand-held devices.
Tell us a little bit about what makes your company special/different.
I think one key feature that sets The Quint apart from other legacy players like Scroll and The Wire is that we are constantly and consciously reaching out to a young audience, assuming that they are not passive, that they will engage with whatever we are putting out, that it is going to be interactive. And to do that, we have a very young team — the average age on our news floor is 25, at best. So it is the youth talking to the youth.
Also, we brought video to the digital space in India. Before us, people were creating digital content for television and then repurposing it for their digital platforms. We started creating digital content for the digital platforms, for the digital user, to be consumed on the tiny cellphone, and therefore, started the whole digital vocabulary for video at Quint, which of course, then got picked up by everyone else.
At what point in your journey did you realise you had something special on your hands?
Actually, we realised this quite early on. We had given ourselves a pretty long timeline — as a brand and entity — to be noticed and be engaged with. We launched as just a Facebook page, not a website, and we were amazed at the kind of traffic and engagement we started getting from the word ‘go’.
Once we started the website, we shifted our focus to enterprise journalism and content creation, so we actually do some pretty mad, quirky stuff. We wanted to be the ones to go out there and tell the story that no one is telling, or tell a story that is being told, but in a different way.
When we delved into the Sheena Bora case and reignited the Aarushi murder case, we realised that these are the matters that young India was interested in and engaging with.
Once we knew what kind of stories we wanted to do, we had to figure out what format to push them out in. So we experimented a lot with various forms of multimedia, and when we got a positive response, we realised that we had something special on our hands.
Starting a company is no easy feat. What’s been the most rewarding part of the process?
The most rewarding process is working with young people. It’s such a high to come into the morning edit meeting, where there is no way to predict what ideas will come our way.
We don’t have meetings wherein senior editors set the agenda for the day; we just have a room crammed with about 50 people brimming with ideas. The ideas can range from bizarre and quirky to serious and cerebral, and they’re all discussed with equal significance.
Learning from them about technology, software, and formats is one of the best parts of doing this.
Where do you think you’ve had your biggest struggles, and how have you overcome them?
Oh, there are daily challenges, and not all have been overcome. One of the primary ones was to be able to channel the energy of the same team that is brimming with ideas. The challenge was to ensure that our editorial vision didn’t get carried away; that we put forth a balanced point of view; that our content is error-free. We didn’t want to dampen spirits or implement bureaucratic protocol because that kills experimentation.
Another huge challenge is bandwidth and connectivity in the country, because we are completely reliant on it. Sometimes, we’ve come up with a really innovative format, but in 2G connectivity, we see that it isn’t even opening.
The third thing is convincing advertisers to promote their brands and campaigns without the help of banners. There are so many innovative ways in which you can push out your message today, but they are used to the old-school way of seeing their brands on the front page of a newspaper.
Any challenges you face as a digital company versus a legacy media publication? How do you think you score over legacy media?
You know, we never really look over our shoulders or try and compete with legacy media. I think what we offer is distinct, and I’d rather follow what players like Vice are doing and what the new formats of storytelling are out there.
Legacy players have huge loyalty, but I find that they can’t be as agile as we can be. In digital, you need to adapt to anything that comes your way. Looking back in time to see what legacy media is doing, or trying to compete with that — I don’t think we need to do that.
Right now, we’re still quite new, so we need to keep improving ourselves and innovating so that we don’t become obsolete. If I try and compete with a legacy player, I run the risk of becoming stale. I don’t want to compete with them, because obviously they have huge boots in the ground, infrastructure in place — I’ve been there with Network 18. I know what it can do in terms of facilitating and what it can do to slow you down.
What, in your opinion, is the best thing about being a digital company?
The youthfulness of it all, in every sense of the term. We have a young team, the thinking is young, the reader is young. But also the youthfulness in terms of where digital is at right now. Every couple of months, things just turn on their heads. Essentially, no 2 weeks are the same, in terms of the tools you have in your hand, or the platforms that are available to you, or what is happening around you.
Like one Snapchat filter comes along and storytelling changes. It’s pretty much like when we were experimenting with television in the ’90s — there was no one to come and tell us “this is how it needs to be done”. There are no templates. As long as you’re keeping yourself informed. At (almost) age 50, I need to keep up, else I’m dead and gone!
Lessons you’ve learned along the way that hold you in good stead today?
More than lessons, the challenge is how not to slow down, how to never stop experimenting without losing editorial balance. These are tricky times — the world is in a tumble on various counts. We need to be sure to keep track of what the reader wants and of the people whose stories we’re telling, how to not become a newsroom armchair editorial.
Because let me tell you, in so many television channels, you end up worrying more about what other journalists think and say, how to keep up with other channels and journalists than what your consumer wants. We want to be able to ignore that and focus just on our readers.
I think it was a lesson to the American media when Trump got elected — they clearly didn’t have a finger on middle America’s pulse. That is important — to not just be talking to ourselves but to actually reflect reality.
Do you think building a business as a woman — raising money as a woman — has more challenges?
I’m not the right person to ask this because when we were launching TV18, I was not involved in the business building at all, I was purely a content person. And now, I think the world has changed, and I don’t see that as a challenge at all.
Also, for the first time in our lives, Raghav (Bahl, her husband and partner) and I have capital. So we’re trying to build revenue and we’re having far more success than we had anticipated, given all the challenges.
So I haven’t really dealt with a lot of the issues that many other women entrepreneurs would perhaps need to deal with.
If you had to go back and start over, is there anything you would do differently?
No, I don’t think so. There are times when you get bogged down by admin, logistics, and revenue, and you push innovation aside for a bit, but I constantly remind myself that we need to do both. It’s been 2 crazy, frenetic years with little sleep, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
What else can we expect from your website in the future? Where do you go from here?
There are various thoughts on where to go from here. Firstly, we are strengthening our Hindi platforms, because I think regional content is very important. The regional consumer of content is a significant person to reach out to.
We’re also about to launch Bloomberg Quint, the TV channel. The Bloomberg Quint website is doing well in a short span of time. We also want to start looking at other verticals, but our lessons from Network18 is to take things one step at a time, and not to stretch ourselves too thin.
As it is, it’s such a dynamic space that once we’ve established Quint, we can’t really move on to something else. What Quint is today and what it will be tomorrow are 2 very different things.