World: Medium of the week - Indian Herald Tribune sparks government action

Rules on foreign ownership are coming under renewed pressure as the IHT arrives. The New York Times Group's decision to grant a licence for a local publisher to produce an Indian edition of the International Herald Tribune is testing the boundaries of the restrictive rules governing Indian newspapers and magazines.

The IHT is printed at the presses of the Deccan Chronicle in Hyderabad.

Its publisher is Midram Publications, the owner and publisher of the Deccan Chronicle, and its editor is MJ Akbar, a veteran journalist who is also the editor of The Asian Age and the Deccan Chronicle.

The IHT launch appears to fly in the face of Indian law, which has always been restrictive towards international media. A government resolution in 1955 banned any foreign ownership of Indian media. While foreign direct investment is now permitted, foreign entities are allowed to hold a maximum 24 per cent stake in any news publication.

Midram has no foreign equity holding and has obtained a "no-objection certificate" from The New York Times Group, to use the IHT name in India.

It's also registered the International Herald Tribune name with India's Registrar of Newspapers, so is legally allowed to print a newspaper under that name - the crux of the publisher's argument that the IHT is legitimate.

The Indian IHT's content is a mix of stories from its international editions, The New York Times, Bloomberg News and other agencies. Regulations concerning syndication in Indian publications restrict the amount of content from any one agency to 7.5 per cent of the total copy. But these are merely part of a code and guidelines and not law. Whether they can be enforced is questionable.

The government has written to the Indian publishers, as well as to The New York Times Group, asking that the printing cease, and is planning to tighten the relevant legislation.

The IHT as it presently appears carries advertising from the Asian edition, with no Indian campaigns, but, Akbar says: "We are really focusing on circulation now, and will then make a pitch for advertising." That might prove easier said than done, as niche papers don't really excite Indian media planners - The Asian Age, which uses the advertising tagline "Unabashedly upmarket", nevertheless remains resolutely ad-free.

However, the IHT's unique positioning might help it overcome the handicap of its tiny circulation.

Divya Gupta, the president of The Media Edge India, believes that the elusiveness of the affluent reader looking for an international perspective will make the IHT a viable proposition. "The Herald Tribune has a very strong brand equity internationally, and it will depend on how that is handled here," she says. "And, of course, the cost per contact needs to be reasonable."

Title: International Herald Tribune

Publisher: The New York Times Group

Local publisher: Midram Publications

First published (India): May 2004

Print run: 5,000

Average sales: 3,500

Distribution: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad

Price: 30 rupees (35p/60c)