The economics and politics of the EPW

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (Photo: YouTube)
Finding itself in the spotlight following the controversial resignation of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, the editor of 51-year-old The Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) last month, the Sameeksha Trust, EPW’s non-profit parent, has acknowledged the need to reinvent itself, even as it begins the hunt for a new editor.

Thakurta resigned on July 18 after he was pulled up by the trustees for unilaterally responding to a legal notice from the Adani group for publishing an allegedly defamatory article in June.

Marriage of opposites

If his resignation came as a surprise, his appointment 15 months ago was no less so. Guha Thakurta, 61, is an investigative journalist, with a penchant for taking on large and powerful corporate groups and, as an author of many books that detailed high-profile corporate controversies, he did not shy away from the public eye.  

“My track record was well-known,” he said in an interview to Business Standard, explaining why he accepted a job editing a journal that focused on economic and socio-economic research.  “I thought because EPW was controlled by a trust, it would be less susceptible to pressures from large corporate conglomerates as well as corporate advertisers, and that was really what motivated me.”

True enough, EPW had little experience parrying big business hostility. Thakurta’s predecessor, C Rammanohar Reddy said, in his twelve years at the helm “since we wrote less about personalities and organisations and more about issues, instances of threats of legal action from individuals or firms were few.” There used to be some angry letters refuting arguments and threatening action but little beyond that.

Guha Thakurta had published about two dozen articles in EPW dealing with various companies and government agencies, eight of these under his own byline, before he ran into the Adani group.  On August 2, the trustees issued a statement saying they had raised concerns about the lack of checks and balances and conflict of interest in the editor writing under his own name.

In a recent column, historian Ramachandra Guha questioned the trustees’ claims. The trustees’ statement that Thakurta’s article “did not go through the editorial review process” was “extremely disingenuous” because virtually none of the articles in EPW’s commentary section are sent to academic referees for evaluation.

But the Trust suggests that this is inaccurate. On behalf of the Sameeksha Trust, chairman Professor Deepak Nayyar, a distinguished academic who has had short stints in the government, and the Managing Trustee D N Ghosh, a civil servant-turned banker, said in a statement to Business Standard: “On the editorial review process, we would like to reiterate what has been said in the statement issued by the Sameeksha Trust on 2 August 2017. The word review is simply intended to convey that every article published in EPW is subject to a review process carried out by referees, by senior editorial staff or the editor.”

The struggle for funds

The trustees’ concerns were not unfounded. Financially, the trust was no match for deep-pocketed corporate groups. If the battle reached the courts, it would not take too long for the lawyer fees to wipe out the corpus fund.

According to people with direct knowledge, Sameeksha Trust has a corpus fund of about Rs 12 crore but the mode of financing has altered over the years. Addressing questions on the financials of the trust, Nayyar and Ghosh said: “In its first 25 years, EPW sustained itself primarily through income from circulation and advertisements, on a shoestring budget, with poor scales of remuneration for its employees. During the past 25 years, the Sameeksha Trust has been successful in building up a reasonable corpus, and with the investment income from this corpus, it has scaled up remuneration for its employees from time to time, and has also met occasional deficits.”

They admit, however, that “in the last five years, EPW has earned, overall, a surplus of income (from subscriptions, sales and advertisements) over expenditure, though, of late, a significant drop in advertisement income has emerged as a matter of concern.”

Starting from the early 1990s, Nayyar and Ghosh said, the Sameeksha Trust and EPW have received grants from various institutions and individuals, but these are mostly earmarked for specific activities and specific purposes (including the acquisition of office space for EPW, housing for its editor, or technological upgrading) and cannot be appropriated for meeting any deficit. The trustees are continually exploring, as always, avenues for augmenting the corpus.”

Apart from this, certain grants have been received for specific purposes. For example, funds have been raised from the Tata Trusts for commemorating the 50th anniversary of EPW, and the Independent and Public Spirited Media Foundation has granted funds for the digital initiative, while the HT Parekh Foundation has funded the translation project under which EPW content is being translated into eight languages to take the wealth of knowledge to a wider audience.

Expenses and revenue

In the last financial year, the trust spent roughly Rs 11 crore against an income of Rs 10 crore, the gap being bridged by grants from foundations and charitable organisations. But for all its non-commercial image, there were concerns around EPW’s shrinking advertising revenue, the bulk of which was dependent on what an insider described as an “archaic rule” related to EPW’s “weekly” frequency.  

This USP— it is difficult to recall other scholarly publications that come out every week — had a business angle to it linked to a Reserve Bank of India regulation  that required banks to publish their annual reports and balance sheets in a daily and a weekly. In the second week of  July 2016, EPW, which is usually between 80 and 100 pages looked more like a telephone directory running to 396 pages. Over 300 of these pages were statutory advertisements by banks. EPW, bearing the adjective “weekly” in its name, has been a first choice for many banks.

In the early 1990s, Nayyar who was then a trustee, helped raise funds, mainly from public sector companies. In the following years, Ghosh, who had been the chairman of State Bank of India in the mid-eighties, added to the corpus, raising funds mainly from public sector banks and a few private enterprises.

But with the media and advertising spends shrinking — a June report by Zenith 

Media said share of magazines in global ad spends will shrink to 4.3 per cent in 2019 from 5.8 per cent in 2016 — attracting funds for a niche magazine will be challenging and, if Thakurta is to be believed (see interview), will involve a considerable amount of the next editor’s bandwidth.

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