Who said young Indians are not reading? They are reading copious amounts of long articles, watching serious videos and having a lot of debates on everything that India faces. And, increasingly, a lot of that is happening on a slew of new websites such as Scroll.in, The News Minute, Newslaundry, The Quint, among dozens of others that have launched in the last 2-3 years. One of the most shared pieces on The Wire was a 2,300-word piece on US shenanigans on trade negotiations, based on WikiLeaks documents. On Huffington Post India, it was a blog arguing that contemporary feminism is not adequately accounting for motherhood. On Quartz, which has only three editions globally — in the US, Africa and India — both global and India stories do well.
Data suggests that young Indians don’t want to read newspapers. But there is a huge thirst for long reads online. Representation Pic/Thinkstock
This is surprising. The data from the Indian Readership Survey suggests that young Indians don’t want to read newspapers. And the stagnation in the readership of English language papers backs that up. What then explains the love for reading?
The big change of course is that a lot of this reading is being done online. More than half the traffic for news websites comes through the mobile phone and through social media. So far, mainstream media brands such as NDTV, Dainik Jagran or Times of India have done a good job of capturing this audience online. NDTV, for instance, gets about one-fifth of its R571-crore topline from online and more than 60 million unique visitors a month.
However, the way audiences are consuming online brands this time round, and earlier, has more subtle differences. Siddharth Varadarajan, the former editor of The Hindu, MK Venu (formerly with The Financial Express) and Sidharth Bhatia (ex-DNA) launched The Wire in May this year. In the early days of the website, Varadarajan believed, from his experience for writing for NDTV.com, that anything beyond 800-900 words would not run. But there is a huge thirst for long reads. Samir Patil of Scroll.in, Jay Lauf of Quartz or Ritu Kapur of The Quint all second that. Across the board, the analysis of what people are reading, sharing or forwarding shows that the best, longest, high-quality pieces do well.
“We are aggregating the thinking readers of India,” says Samir Patil, founder and CEO, Scroll Media. Maybe. More likely, these websites simply offer a way of covering and analysing news that mainstream is not offering currently. Whatever the reasons, they are a refreshing change in India’s troubled news industry.
While newspapers are very profitable and read by more than 300 million people in India, some are dogged by paid news, private treaties and by a terrifying dependence on advertising that makes them totally beholden to the advertiser. There are many others that remain strong, editorially driven products. News television, on the other hand, has become a downhill slide, largely because of overcrowding, especially by dodgy brands and even dodgier investors.
It is in this market that the new websites are finding an audience that has both the devices and the mindset to look for other options. More than 300 million Indians are online, going by numbers from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. Just over one-third of these, or 100 million, have broadband connections — either on their phone or otherwise — which enable them to watch movies, videos, news online, on the go. Therefore unlike the earlier comings of the Internet, this one comes on the back of a large audience that is real and already there. And one that could be respectably compared to the 300-odd-million newspaper readers or 800 million TV watchers.
There is another big difference — these brands are coming at the time when online has become a mainstream advertising medium. There is no need to sell it as a concept. The financial success of NDTV.com or others is on the back of an ecosystem that is rewarding good online brands. At R4,350 crore, digital advertising maybe small, but it is the fastest growing part of the R100,000-crore Indian media and entertainment industry.
If the new websites — most of which get between 2-3 million unique visitors a month — manage to create an ecosystem that sustains high-quality journalism, there couldn’t be better news for Indian democracy.
The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik