There is a sense of adventure associated with the launch of a new project that goes hand-in-hand with the challenge it poses. For Saira Menezes, currently editor of People magazine, it’s a feeling she’s enjoyed at frequent intervals through her career of nearly two decades in the business of journalism, especially in the second half. From 1991 to 1999 (apart from a short stint as an executive with the Newspaper in Education initiative at The Times of India), she was a correspondent — first with Savvy, then the Sunday Observer, and then with the yet-to-be-released weekly newsmagazine Outlook. “Outlook gave me my first high of being associated with new launches. In some way, this experience was to determine my career in the decade to come,” she said.
From 2000 onwards, Menezes has variously been the editor of Savvy, Sunday Mid Day and The Emirates Evening Post (a UAE-based daily noon compact), the last of which she counts as one of her most cherished stints. “My tenure there reinforced what I’ve always known. That no matter where in the world you are, the journalist’s art in impactful story-telling lies in being interesting, relevant and true.” Having worked with editors like Ingrid Albuquerque, Trupti Kotecha, Nikhil Lakshman, Vinod Mehta, Tarun Tejpal, Padmanand Jha, Krishna Prasad, Aakar Patel and Meenal Baghel, she also states, “To aspiring journalists, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of working with the right editor with the right set of journalistic values. The money and designations will come, but there is absolutely no substitute for inspiring bosses and colleagues.”
Menezes was assigned the task of launching the Indian edition of People in early 2008. “As the magazine’s founding editor, this job is — and will always be — very special and will perhaps enjoy the gram of extra affection reserved for a first-born,” she said. The passion for the launch itself was fuelled by the slightly daunting data thrown up by the US edition of the magazine. According to a MediaMark Research Inc (MRI) report in fall ’07, in the US, People reached 42.4 million adults every week – an audience said to be higher than any other magazine. The Luxury Report 2007 stated that it was the most purchased magazine by luxury consumers. An AC Nielsen Home-scan Data showed that in a similar category, the People reader is the most affluent and the most educated.
“These statistics made the road ahead pretty clear. We simply had to emulate the success of People (US),” said Menezes. “Editorially, we also sketched a picture of our reader: belonging in the A, A+ category, between the ages of 22 and 40, residing in the top 35 cities in the country.”
In terms of content, there are four crucial components to People magazine: entertainment, celebrity, achievement and news. The first three constitute about 90 per cent of the magazine with news stories taking up the rest. Per issue, about 15 per cent of the content comes from the international edition. “In terms of format, when we set out we madly hoped that the combination of two known genres (celebrity and news) allowed us to bridge and claim the space between readers of two kinds of magazines: those who consumed news and those who simply couldn’t live without their fix of celebrity and entertainment,” said the editor. “Editorially, the challenge is not just getting the story first, but telling it like no one else can.”
Apart from making a connect with the reader editorially, was the task of convincing advertisers to come on board. “Broadly we faced two challenges immediately after we launched People: positioning of the brand and paper quality. Tackling the latter was easier. We had launched People on thinner paper which the advertisers were not too happy with. We made the switch to thicker paper almost instantly and that took care of the advertisers’ problem,” recalled Menezes. Regarding the task of establishing a market for a celebrity newsmagazine, she said, “No matter what the pressure, we did not deviate from our format and our perseverance paid off. Today, if we are growing exponentially in advertising volumes, it is because every advertiser understands that the reason People did not belong to a particular genre was because it came in and created its own.”
Out of the stories featured in the two years since the launch of the magazine, Menezes has her favourites. “Our first-ever exclusive featuring Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone on the cover remains special,” she said. “It was their first-ever joint interview as well - after stepping out as a couple. Both the interview and the photo-shoot were magical as they were relaxed and at ease with each other, reflecting their fresh romance.” Another “hot-button” issue was the Michael Jackson edition. “His death timed with our first anniversary issue. We had to do headstands, pull out scheduled content and make a cover switch just as we were preparing to go to press. Within days of release, we needed an issue reprint,” she said.
It is the 26/11 special issue that stands out the most for the editor. “It was an edition put together over 48 non-stop hours during the weekend that Mumbai was still being held hostage and by a team that stepped out to bring in stories while the wounds were still bleeding and the horror still fresh,” she explained. “We were supposed to release our first ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ edition. But with the unstinting support of (publisher) Mahesh Peri, we took the hard decision of holding it back, putting out the 26/11 special instead.”
Having found a foothold in terms of credibility and positioning (though she can’t share numbers because the magazine isn’t a part of the IRS), Menezes says the goalposts keep shifting. “We are living in a convergent world where we have to tell a story in 140 words for a twitter audience and in 1,400 for the print reader. Our aim will be to ensure a strong presence on relevant platforms, create a robust website along the lines of People (US), build an event-led annual property and hopefully pioneer new apps for new technologies,” she said.
2008 Editor, People Magazine
2005-2007 Editor, The Emirates Evening Post
2001-2005 Editor, Sunday MiD-Day
2000-2001 Editor, Savy
1991-1999 Correspondent, Savy , Sunday Observerand Outlook