New Delhi: Daily News & Analysis, a daily known by its initials “DNA”, brought the shutters down on its print edition Wednesday, 14 years after it was launched with much fanfare as a potential alternative to The Times of India (TOI) in Mumbai.
Although launched in the financial capital, over the years, DNA came out with editions across India, including Delhi (2016), Bengaluru, Jaipur, Pune and Ahmedabad. At one point, it reportedly boasted of a nearly 6-lakh-strong readership in Mumbai alone.
In a press note issued Wednesday, DNA said the shutdown was aimed at optimising costs and reducing losses. The brand will continue to live on as a digital platform, with DNA announcing that it will launch a mobile application with a focus on video-based original content.
Employees say they were caught off-guard by the abrupt manner in which the paper exited the print industry, but there had been murmurs about DNA’s imminent shutdown, what with the financial troubles of its parent company, Essel Group of Subhash Chandra.
In fact, when the curtains were brought down Wednesday, only two of its editions were still live, Ahmedabad and Mumbai. DNA Delhi, the newest of its editions, ceased operations earlier this year, as did the one in Jaipur.
DNA acting editor Akash Shah told ThePrint that it was “not viable to run the paper anymore”, refusing to respond to other queries about the exact reason behind the shutdown.
While DNA CEO Sanjeev Garg did not respond to calls and messages for comment, senior journalists who served as editors at the paper as well as industry insiders told ThePrint there were several reasons why a promising start didn’t lead to industry longevity for the platform.
A promising beginning
DNA was launched in 2005 in Mumbai with editorial talent poached from industry leaders, with salaries much higher than the market rates.
The launch was accompanied by a major advertisement blitzkrieg pegged on catchy taglines such as “Speak up, it’s in your DNA”, word play that invoked the more-recognised meaning of DNA, the repository of genetic information in human beings and other organisms.
The Mumbai edition of Hindustan Times was also launched around the same time.
Initially, DNA, run by the Essel Group company Diligent Media Corporation Limited (DMCL), was started as a joint venture with Bhaskar Group, with its own printing press at Mahape in Navi Mumbai.
While it was hailed as a vibrant newspaper, with supplements like DNA Money, Afterhours and hyper-local editions that earned a positive response from readers, industry insiders say DNA barely managed to earn a sixth of its Rs 300 crore investment in the first year.
The daily had since been running at consistent losses, which sources estimated at thousands of crores of rupees.
Amid constant losses, the Bhaskar Group exited the joint venture in 2012, and Essel Group took complete control.
Senior journalist Aditya Sinha, who helmed the paper from 2011-12 and currently edits Deccan Chronicle/Asian Age, told ThePrint that DNA started as a good product in terms of content and as a rival to TOI.
“The advertisers in Mumbai were very keen on an alternative to TOI. Advertising rates were high in TOI and they thought a competition would lower the reach,” he added. “So, DNA poached talent from all across the industry and started on a promising note. But, TOI too, was not sleeping.”
According to Sinha, within “the first year itself, DNA started running into losses and could never break even”.
“There was no proper plan. Due to subscription offers set at low rates, there were extra copies printed and all were getting wasted, which was an excuse to scale back copies and expenses,” he added. “This was the beginning of the end.”
By the time he left DNA, Sinha said, “the losses had accumulated to around Rs 700 crore”.
However, the immediate trigger for its final shutdown was the liquidity crunch faced by Subhash Chandra’s Zee Group, he added.
Shares of Chandra’s Zee Entertainment hit a five-year low earlier this year, before recovering slightly, after a report in The Wire claimed Essel Group had links to a company under investigation for suspicious deposits to the tune of Rs 3,000 crore during demonetisation. Chandra also reportedly has a debt of nearly a billion dollars.
R. Jagannathan, who was part of the DNA launch team and edited the paper between 2007 and 2010, said the daily was not correctly positioned in the market from Day One.
“DNA’s pricing was very low and they had targeted very high circulation with zero advertisements. So, in a way, they miscalculated on advertisements, even as their rivals bottled up all advertisers by getting into market share agreements,” he added.
“This led to massive losses. In about four years, the losses went up to nearly Rs 500 crore,” he said. “The situation became worse during the global recession in 2008, when it had to let go of staff in a major way,” he added.
DNA’s first editor Pradeep Guha did not respond to calls and messages for comment.
Makeovers and more
As advertisements started drying up, DNA experimented with a variety of editorial and marketing tactics to increase circulation.
This included bringing in new editors — starting with Gautam Adhikari, R. Jagannathan and Aditya Sinha, to Ravi Joshi, C.P. Surendran, Uday Nirgudkar and Dwaipayan Bose — in quick succession, and changing the logo and masthead of the daily multiple times, and listing the company at the stock exchanges in 2017.
But things refused to look up. According to the company’s financial returns, in 2018-19, DNA suffered losses to the tune of Rs 57.6 crore. In 2017-18, the daily lost Rs 98.17 crore, while in 2016-17, it suffered a loss of Rs 25.51 crore.
Around the same time, DNA substantially scaled down its staff and finances. No replacements were hired for employees who left and what started out as a 32-pager costing Rs 10 (much higher than the going rate for most newspapers), was a 12-pager costing Rs 5.
Sai Nagesh, CEO of Tempus Fugit, a communications firm, said DNA was editorially rich and attempted to make a difference, but pointed out that no new newspaper had done well in the last 10 years.
“The youth has largely shifted to online modes for news. Those who still read newspapers are usually at the 35-plus age group, who read a newspaper purely out of habit,” he added. “They tend to develop a psychological familiarity with a newspaper. So, when a new daily launches, it is difficult to draw them.”
“Moreover, a person reads a newspaper, not just for news, but also for information they get from classified ads, appointments and matrimonials, among other things… A new daily will fail to attract such advertisements as circulation and readership take time to pick up,” he said.
Sevanti Ninan, founder-editor of The Hoot.org, which was a South Asian media watch website, said while other print media outlets were legacy organisations — The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Indian Express and The Hindu all predate Independence — DNA was a small part of the Zee business empire.
“When the group is going through a financial crisis, it is more viable to shut down its print operations, which was a small part of the business and also has become insignificant over a period of time,” she added.
‘Not your father’s paper’
The fact that DNA was going through troubled times was evident to the employees, with the sacking of around 10 top editorial heads as well as marketing and HR chiefs, and shutting down of editions one by one.
In 2014, DNA shut down its Bengaluru and Pune editions, despite the fact that it had a good subscriber base of around 25,000 in the Maharashtra city and had launched youth-centric advertising campaigns there as well (“Not your father’s paper. Choose your DNA”).
In February, DNA shut down its Delhi edition, which was launched in 2016 after a delay of nearly three years, as well as the one in Jaipur, to cut down losses.
A top industry source, who was once associated with DNA, said the launch of multiple editions was part of an experiment to increase the paper’s popularity by making it nationally relevant.
“But it’s not just DNA, look at other papers in Mumbai and Delhi. Just a handful of dailies are making profits, even after getting somewhere in the Indian Readership Survey ranks,” the source added. “But they continue to run as it is a matter of ego for the owners.”
Insiders said employees came to know of the shutdown Wednesday — they are said to have got an email from the management around 2 am Tuesday night, about a town hall the next morning.
An employee who attended the meeting said they were informed that the company was suffering a financial crunch, which had worsened in the last one year.
“We were told that because of this, DNA will cease printing of all editions and all employees will be paid their dues within a week,” the employee added.
“While we knew that DNA is going through a financial crunch, the management repeatedly denied reports of shutting down and said these were rumours spread by its competitors,” the employee said.
“We believed that as there are several dailies which had failed to break even. We were least expecting this abrupt shutdown,” the employee added.
It is not yet known whether DNA will retain staff as it makes the all-digital shift.