Force magazine publisher, Pravin Sawhney, with Brig Gurmeet Kanwal, Director of CLAWS (Centre for Land Warfare Studies) at the Force Magazine stall in Defexpo 2010
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th Feb 2010
Amidst the talk of billions of dollars at Defexpo 2010, Rs 65 lakhs might appear small change. But this amount --- what SP Guide Publications paid to become the official media partner for Defexpo --- is such a quantum leap over earlier figures that defence industry specialists are sitting up and taking notice.
Indian defence periodicals have grown steadily over the last decade, in numbers, circulation and scope. The lone defence publication of the 1970s --- Vayu, a bi-monthly focused on aerospace --- now has some 20-22 rivals. Many of these are monthlies and bi-monthlies set up without real expertise, infrastructure or even correspondents. But they have created a tough playground where even established players struggle for sales and advertising income.
Fuelling this boom is India’s emergence as the biggest defence buyer in the world. Pioneering editors, including Bharat Verma of Indian Defence Review, recall that, as recently as in 2000, income came only from sales. Advertising became a significant revenue stream only in 2001, after the government allowed the private sector into defence production. And about 2004, when foreign companies, especially US corporations began to view India as a crucial defence market, advertising rapidly eclipsed sales revenues.
“The Americans’ thinking was: let’s be aggressive. Let’s place advertisements everywhere”, says Pravin Sawhney, Publisher and Editor of Force, a newsmagazine launched in 2003. “They still don’t discriminate between the good and the indifferent publications.”
That lack of discrimination, complain many defence publishers, postpones the inevitable shakeout, allowing even low-quality defence publications to feed off the limited advertising budget.
“Many of these magazines are just instruments to garner advertising sales and, with American companies pulling out the stops to gain visibility, ”, says Sawhney. “They don’t have correspondents, they don’t have news; they just hire a few retired generals, admirals and air marshals who pen their opinion on various subjects. Many of their articles are pulled off the internet.”
Of the two dozen-odd publications crowing the marketplace, the best selling --- Vayu and Force --- print close to 20,000 copies, though it is hard to assess how many are distributed at a discount or handed out free. The smaller magazines print just a couple of thousand.
But this relatively tiny readership is loyal and influential. “There is no way of making money in this business, but we take satisfaction in having built a bank of strategically educated people”, says Bharat Verma, the editor of the venerable IDR. “When India Defence Review came out in 1986, there wasn’t a single magazine in the strategic domain. India had fought four wars and had accumulated a wealth of strategic experience but there was no forum to express it.”
Verma also points out that the mainstream media now regularly picks up security and defence-related stories from specialist publications and taking these issues to the masses. According to Verma, “Even the army quotes us while raising thorny issues. A recent article in IDR, by Mrinal Suman, which argued that India was not yet ready to allow women a larger role in the army, formed the basis of a case that the army took up to reduce the intake of women.”
Even with the big players like SP, Vayu, IDR and Force, arms companies bargain hard while negotiating advertisements. A full-page colour spread is listed at Rs 3 lakhs, but publishers admit that they get beaten down to a fraction of that. Indian companies pay substantially less than their foreign counterparts.
“To survive, we cut down on production quality”, explains Ashwini Sharma who publishes the South Asia Defence Review, one of the smaller journals. “I would like top-quality colours and paper but let’s face it, that comes first only in pornography. In this business, content is more important.”
Content, however, remains a problem. Business Standard discovered in a survey of defence publications during Defexpo 2010, that a significant part of their content consists of “advertorials”. These are advertisements masquerading as editorials, except for a small tag on the top of the page saying “by invitation”. While accepting that his magazine, Force, carries paid-for articles written by defence companies extolling their own products, Sawhney explains that this happens only in “special issues” during the Defexpo.
SP Guide Publications has paid Rs 65 lakhs to rise above this melee. The company’s Chairman, Jayant Baranwal, says, “We want an association with the MoD; that relationship is important to us. The defence and aerospace business will become much larger and we want to be a part of it.”