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The changing role of the news media in contemporary India

In the midst of this old media crisis, more and more people are reading newspapers digitally and it is a global audience for the best publications. Worldwide, printed newspapers, with a reported circulation of 519 million, reach an estimated 2.3 billion people every day, 20 percent more than the internet (Riess 2011). But the ‘terms of trade’ are shifting remorselessly in favor of the web, mobile, and newer interactive digital platforms.

Many newspapers have excellent websites offering rich, many-sided, multi-media content, including long-form features, investigative articles, and thoughtful analysis. Several journalism schools around the world now take digital journalism seriously. It still comes mostly free-to-air but some major western newspapers have begun to price their digital content and some new revenue streams have opened up.

Mobile platforms and tablets led by the iPad hold promise, with several newspapers and television channels coming up with innovative and attractive apps. But all this does not add up to a viable revenue and business model for digital journalism. The internet advertising model is doing exceedingly well but it is the search engines, above all Google, that take the lion’s share of the revenue; the paid-content model is also well established on the mobile platform, what with hundreds of millions of users accepting ‘monthly contracts, pre-paid phones, and paid-for apps’, but here too, the new kids on the block, Apple and the mobile operators, take the bulk of the revenue (Riess 2011).

The newspaper industry faces a double squeeze: the print business continues heavily to subsidize digital journalism, which cannot pay for itself by attracting enough advertising or subscriptions or a mixture of the two; and the new digital players put increasing pressure on newspaper circulation, readership, and the business itself.

Two Media Worlds and India Let us now turn to the differences in the situation of the news media across the world. These differences, which mirror the larger patterns of the world’s uneven economic and socio-political development, run wide and deep and can even appear dramatic. How long this duality will endure is a matter of conjecture.

Let us call this situation ‘The Two Media Worlds’ and see how India figures against this backdrop. While daily print newspaper circulation has been in decline globally, by 17 percent between 2006 and 2010 in the United States, 11.8 percent in western Europe, and 10 percent in eastern and central Europe, it has risen 16 percent in the AsiaPacific region and 4.5 percent in Latin America over the same period (Riess 2011).

With nearly three-fourths of the world’s 100 top-selling daily newspapers now published in Asia, India and China are regarded as ‘the world absolute leaders in the newspaper industry’ (WPT 2009: 6), with current daily circulations in the vicinity of 110 million copies in each case.

In India, the growth trends in circulation and readership are especially strong in the Indian language sectors of the press, led by Hindi. But the buoyancy and implications of this development need not be exaggerated, as it comes on the back of extreme underpricing of cover prices and the dumping of hundreds of thousands of copies that go straight to the radhi market.

Side by side, satellite television has been in buoyant growth mode in South Asia, in China, and in other parts of the developing world. In 2011, television households in India are estimated to number 141 million, with 116 million of them served by cable and 26 million by direct-to-home television (TAM 2011). And since the total number of households in India is estimated to be 231 million, there is considerable space for growth (Ibid.). From a low base, internet use and broadband access are growing rapidly, although unevenly, across the developing world.

China’s development in this 2 There are plenty of signs of complacency in Indian media circles about the time frame available. According to Jacob Mathew, current president of WAN-IFRA, ‘some studies predict that, by 2040, the Indian print industry would meet the fate of the American print media industry’ but by then Indian media publishers should be in a position to ‘get a good share of the [advertising] revenue’ (Mathew 2011).

It seems to me that these studies miss the whole point and the assumptions and perceptions behind them reflect a widespread attitude of denial of the immediacy of the digital impact. It seems highly improbable that India has until 2040 for the tipping point to arrive. 5 area has been quite spectacular: it has upwards of 500 million internet users – by far the largest number for any country in the world – most of them served by broadband, minimally defined by western standards (Fu 2011).

India, by contrast, has only something like 100 million internet users (Internet World Stats 2011), most of them poorly served by bandwidth. One would think the number would be much higher, given the country’s fairly advanced capabilities in the software field but this is typical of India’s political economy paradox, large swathes of backwardness amidst high economic growth rates.

The most revealing indicator in the comparison is the internet’s penetration of the comparable populations: China’s 36.30 percent, which is still only about half the developed country norm, contrasts sharply with India’s 8.40 percent (Ibid.). What this means is that the impact of the digital revolution on the print press and on broadcast television is considerably stronger and the tipping point is likely to arrive sooner in China than in India.

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