Quite simply, she eats, drinks, and breathes news. It’s hardly surprising then that journalist Dhanya Rajendran was working right up to the day before her baby was born and was back at her desk three months after the delivery. “Journalism is not a job where you can switch off,” she says.
Rajendran certainly doesn’t have a mo ment to switch off. The 36-year-old journalist turned entrepreneur in 2014 when she co-founded an online news platform, The News Minute (TNM), along with her husband, Vignesh Vellore, and veteran journalist Chitra Subramaniam. TNM focusses on news from India’s five southern states and claims to clock about 6.5 million unique visitors a month. The website also provides aggregated news from other media houses. In an increasingly competitive digital news market, Rajendran’s startup has developed a “very distinct voice” on regional coverage in the English news media space, says Ritu Kapur, co-founder, Quintillion Media—a digital media company she started with Raghav Bahl, founder of Network18—and an investor in TNM.
Our next big aim is to enter the vernacular space in the south. We have a huge market potential... not just in terms of reach, but from a marketing and monetisation perspective.Vignesh Vellore, co-founder, The News Minute
The News Minute started as an online news aggregator from a single room in a house in Bengaluru’s central business district. Rajendran and Vellore pooled in the initial capital of around Rs 60 lakh and initially mostly dabbled with content aggregated from media outlets, while in-house news stories were minimal. “Even then, the stories that would get the maximum traffic or clicks were the ones written by us. Towards the end of 2014, we decided to put our own content more seriously instead of just aggregating news,” says Vellore. The site is sharply focussed on the five southern states—Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana, and Kerala—and in the beginning it averaged 50,000 unique monthly visitors.
By late 2015, the startup managed to grow the site’s traffic to over 1 million monthly unique visitors. TNM covers a range of subjects from politics to current affairs to human interest stories. Some of the stories that generated traffic to the site included its coverage of former Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s sentencing to jail in September 2014. In the following month when the Karnataka High Court refused to grant Jayalalithaa bail and rejected her plea to suspend the four-year prison sentence in the disproportionate assets case, TNM’s coverage got widely noticed.
“When she was rejected bail by the Karnataka High Court on October 7, 2014, that day, all journalists were present in court and the prosecution said that they were not opposing bail,” says Rajendran. Immediately, workers of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Jayalalithaa’s political party, “began celebrating” outside the court, believing that her bail plea had been granted. “Everyone put out a newsbreak that Jayalalithaa’s bail plea was granted. We were a small website then, but the only one to put out a story after an hour that her bail plea was rejected. That’s when people started noticing our coverage,” she says.
Rs 6 crore: The amount Quintillion Media has invested in TNM’s holding company
People might have sat up and noticed TNM then but Rajendran’s reputation precedes her. Before she struck out on her own, she was the Times Now South India bureau chief. Her track record as a journalist combined with the impact of TNM were a huge draw for investors. In November 2015, Quintillion Media invested Rs 6 crore in TNM’s holding company, Spunklane Media.
6.5 million: The number of unique monthly visitors to The News Minute’s site
The money was used to build backend technology support and hire more reporters. TNM also has a content sharing contract with The Quint, the news website of Quintillion. “The primary reason we invested in the company was because Dhanya had an excellent track record as a journalist. We had followed her work right though her days as a television journalist. And when we came in as investors, TNM already had a strongish presence in the south despite being just a year old. We had faith in Dhanya’s work,” says Kapur. TNM is currently in talks with investors to raise fresh funds—about Rs 12 crore—and plans to close the deal in the next one month.
Yet Rajendran, who grew up in Palakkad in Kerala, never thought of herself as an entrepreneur. She says her schoolmates saw her as a “quintessential IIT-IIM graduate”. But then she opted for commerce in precollege and thought she’d eventually pursue a career that involved interacting with people. She hadn’t yet decided on journalism as a profession then. It was only when she went to college that she developed an interest in politics and even became college students’ union president. “One thing I learnt in college was dissent, to not agree or conform to authority. I always rebelled if I found something to be wrong.”
Rajendran’s journey really began when she joined Asian College of Journalism in Chennai in 2002 for a post-graduate diploma in broadcast journalism. In 2003 she joined Indiavision, a Malayalam news channel and worked at their Delhi bureau for six months. In May 2004, she moved to Chennai and joined The New Indian Express, where she worked for a year as a reporter. By then, she realised that television was her calling. In June, 2005 she joined Times Now in Chennai and worked there until 2013. It was a meeting with journalist Chitra Subramaniam (who Rajendran met while in Times Now in 2012 for a reporting assignment) that led to TNM. “She (Chitra) asked me to explore something on my own in the online news space,” says Rajendran.
That’s when Rajendran decided on the news startup. Today, TNM has a young team of over 30 people, including 13 reporters across the five southern states. Co-founder Subramaniam, who is based in Geneva, is not involved in the day-to-day functioning of TNM. “As a co-founder, my current role is to mentor young journalists. I also write opinion pieces,” she says.
Rajendran focusses on the product and editorial content, and Vellore runs the business side in his capacity as CEO. “In the last one year, we have tried to make sure we create a steady source of revenue,” says Vellore. Currently, display advertisements are TNM’s key source of revenue. The digitalmedia startup also has some long-term content agreements with T-Hub Foundation, a startup incubator supported by the Telangana government, and The Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF), a not-for-profit trust. TNM did not disclose its revenue figures.
But what about profits? Turning a profit in digital media isn’t easy, but TNM is confident. “Profitability would depend on what is our burn rate. This year we are looking at growth and hiring a full-fledged sales team in Bengaluru, Mumbai, and Delhi, which would pump up costs.
But going by the current burn rate we should be able to breakeven in the next two years,” says Vellore, 39, a former HR manager with a U.S.-based software company, and an international business and law graduate from Queensland University of Technology, Australia.
The company flirted with the idea of a subscription-based paywall but did not pursue it. “I can break a big story, but within an hour everyone would either rewrite or aggregate the news on their platform. I can’t afford to be on a paywall. From a general news perspective, I don’t think subscription works in India yet,” he says.
TNM is also exploring the option of launching a paid app service for its readers. The payment model is still a work-in-progress: It could be a one-time download fee or a monthly subscription fee. “It will be a premium product only for exclusive news. There will be no sponsored content on the platform,” says Vellore. While it plans to expand its business, TNM’s main focus remains news from the south.
“Our next big aim is to enter the vernacular space in the south. I think we have a huge market potential if we can crack that. Not just in terms of reach, but from a marketing, advertising, and monetisation perspective. Tomorrow I can be a go-to website if an advertiser wants to tap into the southern markets,” he says.
The startup is bullish about India’s growing appetite for online news. The reason: according to comScore, which tracks website viewership, 81.1% of the country’s digital population accessed news on various digital platforms in December 2017. Rajendran and Vellore are aware of the competition they are up against. “Anybody who is in the digital business of news is our competitor. It could be large media house websites who are now focussing a lot on content from the south or independent media websites such as ThePrint, Scroll.in, and The Quint,” says Vellore. Manorama Online, the English website of the Malayala Manorama group, is another big competitor in southern India.
But, even as TNM competes with established names, it has an early-mover advantage. As Subramaniam sums up, the vision is: think news from the south, think The News Minute.