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A self-taught editor who made a mark in business journalism

Can someone without specific academic qualifications or experience in journalism, and no financial resources, equipped with just a dream, launch an industrial magazine and run it successfully for 54 years? S. Viswanathan, founder, editor and publisher of Industrial Economist proved that it’s possible. R.V. Rajan remembers the veteran economics journalist

S. Viswanathan or SV, as he was better known, celebrated two landmark events in his life in 2018: his 80th birthday in January and the Golden Jubilee of Industrial Economist on March 15th. I had the pleasure of attending the grand event at ITC Grand Chola in Chennai and witnessing the tremendous respect he commanded from both the corporate bigwigs of the time, state and Central government bureaucrats. SV’s story as a successful economic journalist is worth recounting to provide inspiration to young journalists.

SV’s first brush with writing and printing happened when, after graduation, he was teaching Mathematics in some well-known institutions in Chennai. His association with the Social Service Centre, Mambalam, provided him an opportunity to work on social issues like hygiene and nutrition and also to bring out a souvenir for the Centre. It was a good experience in editing, advertising and marketing.

This brought SV in touch with Krishna Srinivas (KSri) who was publishing two magazines, Indian Industries and Poet, both printed at his printing press. Impressed by SV’s work, KSri invited him to help him run the magazines and the press. Armed with the knowledge gained working with KSri, Viswanathan decided to turn entrepreneur. He was only 24 when he launched the monthly magazine Mobile, in 1962, devoted to the transport industry. He did so with guidance from S.N. Ramasami of the TVS Group. Less than two years later, he started another trade magazine, Trade Wheel, focussed on the two-wheeler industry.

An important breakthrough came when SV traded advertising space for a round-trip ticket to Europe with Pan Am. He used his connections with the Press Bureau of German Industry in India, to visit six renowned German companies. The trip opened SV’s eyes to the immense opportunities and scope for industry-focused journalism.

SV decided to phase out Mobile magazine and bring out an industry-based magazine focused on South India, taking advantage of the opportunity created by the folding of economic journals from Kolkata (Capital), Delhi (Eastern Economist), and Bombay (Commerce). And thus, Industrial Economist (IE) was born in 1968. The first issue of IE was released as a fortnightly on March 15, 1968. It had 36 pages, a cover price of 75 paise (annual subscription Rs 15), and a print order of 2000 copies.

According to SV, the concept of the ‘advertorial supplement’ on a particular topic/ event in IE was the first of its kind in business journalism. The supplements had anywhere between 24 and 80 pages. The first supplement was on the inauguration of Madras Refineries in September 1969. It was a part of the regular issue of the magazine and carried special features on the prestigious plant built with multinational involvement. MRL ordered 5000 copies of the supplement for distribution. It was a good business idea and IE over the years produced over 100 such supplements.

The growing business necessitated shifting the office from his home in T. Nagar to rented premises. With the move came the idea of expanding the press. Unfortunately, by the time SV imported printing machines from Germany and installed them technology had changed. The letter-press became obsolete and computers took over. SV struggled for a decade before deciding to quit the printing business.

Even while SV was fighting a battle on the business front, burdened with term loans, he was fast gaining recognition as an economics editor. He started getting invited to the annual Economic Editors’ Conferences hosted by the Union Government in Delhi, which provided for interactions with Central ministers and senior civil servants. From 1973, for 45 years, SV was the sole person to focus on southern economic issues at these conferences.

In 1985, SV switched to electronic/ computer typesetting and desktop publishing/ digitisation. Eight years later, IE celebrated its silver jubilee. To commemorate the milestone, IE instituted the first-ever Business Excellence Award for corporates in South India. SV formed an independent awards committee to pick winners. The Awards were discontinued in 2001 when SV found the mushrooming TV channels in Delhi presenting a plethora of such prizes.

In 1994, SV decided to go public. His company, IE, became a unit of the new company, Economist Communications. In the early 1980,s he moved to rented premises in the Guindy Industrial Estate. When new sheds were built there, he got allotted a 2500 sq ft shed, and in 2001, 5600 sq ft of land. Foreseeing the transformation of Guindy into a large commercial hub, he raised a sophisticated commercial building designed by C.R. Narayan Rao, architects, and constructed by L&T.  In a record seven months, Economist House was built.

With steady rent coming from lessees, SV was able to bring out IE regularly, modestly supported by advertising. Importantly, he was able to be independent. SV also fought a long legal battle to win the right of journalists to be critical of corporates. He groomed many young journalists in economic journalism. His enthusiasm and energy in bringing out IE for 54 long years without compromising on the quality of content or production is truly praiseworthy.

Despite a setback to his health due to COVID, SV bounced back to think of new ideas to keep the magazine going. Keeping up with the times, in recent months the magazine also started coming out in digital format.

October – December 2022