Bahl says there was roughly an “eight-year advantage” between the launches of leading US media sites like Buzzfeed and the time when traditional print players like The New York Times and The Economist woke up to the potential of digital and started putting serious resources behind it (around 2014-15). But that won’t be available in India as traditional groups like the Times of India, NDTV and Bhaskar are all “going digital with a vengeance.”
Role of the powerful strategy
“I know that Quint will not be VC fundable for a while, but I see that as an opportunity. To build significant strategic positions in properties. We came from a situation where we said we could fund ourselves for 5-7 years,” says Bahl.
All of this means media entrepreneurs have all the more reasons to look for angel investors that have built their own businesses. “I would look at someone who has built and run a business as an entrepreneur and isn’t just an investor. I would be wary of someone who’s understanding is purely financial.”
Paytm’s founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma is perhaps one of the most prolific investors in media startups, having invested in The Ken, Factor Daily and The Print.
“I don’t know how much I’ve invested in media startups. In fact, I don’t know my startup [investment] portfolio. Because my intention is to not look at them as an investment class,” says Sharma.
Despite his seemingly blasé attitude towards startup investments, Sharma claims to have a simple thesis of judging new investments: a founding team with “history and pedigree” that will publish news stories that are “real, trustworthy and will inform people.”
The reason this is needed, says Sharma, is because digital has removed all barriers for publishing, allowing anyone to publish articles that range from poor quality to being complete untruths.
“Shekhar is someone I have valued for his journalistic honesty and his unique style of reportage both in print and on TV. When you have the likes of Nandan (Nilekani), Uday Kotak and Ratan Tata, I guess you can understand that we belong to the same ilk who want the fourth estate with integrity,” said Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder and CEO of Biocon and one of the anchor investors in The Print.
Sanjay Anandaram, a long-time venture capitalist and investor was one of the first to put money into Swarajya, the self-avowed right-of-center news site. He says his motive was to support an independent media source that would help Indians rebel against “entrenched socialist mindsets and bureaucratic structures”.
“I’m a strong believer that India needs to get out of the economic development model of the last seven decades and provide freedom to individuals and enterprises to build things. We also needed to get the government out of our lives by minimizing its role,” says Anandaram.
While some media investments may be strategic and some altruistic most might simply be about having a direct line to newer media sources that will end up shaping many discourses to come.
“Apart from a handful of investors who come from the media industry, like say Haresh Chawla or Raghav Bahl, primarily everybody else is making sure their profile is raised with these investments. Access to media has always been correlated with power and people believe that being an investor gives them access to editorial and narratives,” says Kunal Walia, founder of boutique investment bank Khetal Partners.
Bahl himself admits that this is definitely a factor. “Whenever a wealthy individual not from the news industry takes a stake in a news company, there is definitely a ‘feel-good’ factor, because there’s no question that news done well is a noble profession.
But there is also the inevitable feeling that they can have an influence in a very subtle manner. Most of these new investors are all honorable people, so what they might seek are not blunt control but collateral influence and a voice. Or an intelligent input into the narrative.”