HT Media to launch a startup accelerator for digital media along with US partner

HT Media Ltd, the 91-year old media company and the publisher of English daily The Hindustan Times, wants to catch digital startups young to stay battle-ready amid major digital disruptions in India.

The Delhi-based media conglomerate will launch an accelerator programme for media and advertising technology companies this week, in partnership with US-based North Base Media, an investment firm founded by Marcus Brauchli, a former top editor with The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

Details such as duration of the accelerator programme, selection criteria and the number of companies to be admitted into the first batch weren’t immediately available. A formal launch is scheduled for Friday in Delhi.

An email sent to Vinay Mittal, chief financial strategist, HT Media, did not elicit a response. 

HT's partner in the effort, North Base, is a new and so far relatively stealth fund based out of Bethesda, Maryland. Brauchli, a former executive editor of Washington Post and former managing editor of WSJ, who started the firm in 2013 to invest in digital media companies in the US and elsewhere, has also been a digital advisor to HT Media and its CEO Rajiv Verma over the past year.

Even though the nature of the partnership is unclear, it is possible that promising startups in the incubator could potentially leverage Brauchli's relationships, especially in the US, for funding and other synergies.

For HT Media, the latest venture is part of a long string of digital ventures in the past decade, many of which have not yet been major businesses, in terms of being large or consistently profitable enterprises.

Its biggest digital business, the Shine.com jobs portal, is a distant second to Naukri.com, despite years of investments. Other businesses, such as entertainment focused networking platform DesiMartini.com, have had several pivots, while the company has been late to enter classifieds ventures such as real estate--it recently launched a real estate bidding portal called bindbid.com.

In comparison, its main media rival, Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd (BCCL), the publisher of Times of India and The Economic Times, has leveraged its significant print business to fund a large portfolio of digital ventures, both standalone and some joint-ventures. 

Times has also been the first among media companies to launch an accelerator and an early stage fund called TLabs. Set up in 2011, this accelerator has supported about 50 companies in internet and mobile technologies. It has also exited a few companies such as ZipDial, which was sold to Twitter, and Timesofmoney Ltd, which got acquired by Network International LLC.

However, neither company has been able to replicate their print name-recognition or prowess into any meaningful leadership in internet, including through the digital sites and apps of their own news operations.

In recent months, HT Media has made an aggressive internal effort to focus on digital at its core brands and has embarked on an ambitious effort to put all its newsrooms--Hindustan Times, Hindustan and Mint--on to a common publishing system and on a common floor in New Delhi. That project is expected to be completed toward the end of this year, though it remains to be seen if it will lead to significant changes in the digital trajectory of each of those news brands.

HT Media also recently made an investment of undisclosed amount in a $100-million fund launched by Silicon Valley accelerator cum seedfund Tandem Capital, run by an ex-Oracle veteran Sunil Bhargava. Tandem plans to fund Indian product startups and give them a global exposure by taking them to Silicon Valley. In March, HT Media also announced investment in online job referral company Round One Pvt Ltd.

While the accelerator is an attempt to try and leverage HT's Media platforms to seed new opportunities in media and ad-tech space, an area of growing importance in India, it is unclear what competitive advantages the media house could bring, beyond physical facilities and its media reach, to startups in this space.

HT Media, whose Hindustan and Mint are the second largest dailies in Hindi and business segments, respectively, also runs FM radio stations under Fever 104 brand, education businesses StudyMate, Bridge School of Management, and a slew of digital properties.

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