x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Developing a thirst for news

As publications in the West struggle to embrace the internet in the face of declining readerships, India is enjoying a boom in the sales of newspapers and magazines.

Taxi drivers read newspapers as they wait for business at the Defence Colony market in New Delhi.
Taxi drivers read newspapers as they wait for business at the Defence Colony market in New Delhi.

NEW DELHI // Jawad Baqui has a distinct morning ritual. A secular Muslim living in Old Delhi, he makes the trip early each day to the city's southern colony of Nizamuddin to visit the Dargah, one of Delhi's most sacred Muslim sites. On his way, Mr Baqui, 65, buys two newspapers and a magazine in English, one newspaper in Hindi and another in his native language, Urdu. "This is the most important thing for me," he said, ordering his bundle and settling down on a shady step beside the shrine. "News is very significant to India, and we must know it well."

For a good part of the day, Mr Baqui trawls through the publications, scratching notes and underlining headlines in several languages with a well-chewed blue ball-point pen. His insatiable appetite for the printed word is by no means a rarity in South Asia's burgeoning superpower. India is enjoying a boom in its print media industry unseen in the United States and many parts of Europe for decades, if not a century.

Stemming from advances in printing technology, rising literacy rates and the fact that the internet is still out of reach for a wide majority of Indians, daily newspapers - and there are about 60,000 in India - and their glossy counterparts are touting unrivalled readership statistics. "The current status of the print media industry in India is good. The industry has been growing continuously," said M Shakeel Ahmed, the general manager and former editor of the Press Trust of India news agency. "More and more newspapers are coming out at all levels.

"Newspapers in India are still very cheap, mostly costing between one rupee [seven fils] and three rupees, less than the price of a cup of tea or coffee [at a local street side stall]. TV news has only been adding to the appetite to subscribe to a newspaper and internet penetration in the country is still very low." As publications in more developed countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom grapple to restructure their organisations to reach a growing online audience and satisfy advertisers, Indian media and its bloating girth of middle-class urbanites are feeding a new found hunger for the printed word.

The average Indian spends about 44 minutes a day reading the newspaper, according to India's National Readership Survey. Compare that with the 27 minutes a day the average American spends on newspapers, according to a 2008 survey conducted by the Readership Institute, a media research centre based out of Northwestern University in the United States. In October, the Christian Science Monitor became the first national US newspaper to announce it would switch from its daily print run to an online presence. The paper - established a century ago - had seen its circulation drop from 170,000 in its heyday to around 52,000 recently.

The Times of India, which is India's largest English-language newspaper, boasts the world's second-highest circulation of any daily publication in English. In 2005, the US-based Audit Bureau of Circulation rated TOI the most circulated English paper in the world at 2.4 million copies sold daily, more than double that of the New York Times. Magazines are also a major emerging market in the subcontinent. A number of US and UK publications have launched Indian editions in the past couple of years, including Rolling Stone, the Economist, GQ and Vogue, with their content revised to meet the interests of its Indian readership, including finance, fashion and Bollywood.

Though new middle-class interests have undeniably raised the bar for papers to cater to an increasingly urbanised readership, a significant bulk of India's 220 million daily newspaper readers are from rural areas, where the focus is discernibly more regional and national-based. With more than 20 officially recognised languages in the country, the newspaper market catering to these is sizeable. The Hindi-language newspapers Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar have a combined circulation of more than 40 million, according to NRS, in a market of over 500 million Hindi speakers.

To add to this, there is a predicted mass migration of residents from small towns and the rural belt to urban areas over the next five years, creating an eagerly anticipated untapped market for tens of millions more new literates. "For a long time the [native] language press was playing second fiddle to the English media in India, but now you see the various languages newspapers, Hindi being a strong case, are really going through a boom period," said Bindu Bhaskar, an associate professor at Chennai's Asian College of Journalism.

"The reason why print media is doing well in India is linked to the literacy factor, with more new literates taking to newspapers. These new literates are a major expanding group." According to the Indian census, total literacy rates in the country grew by roughly 13 per cent between 1991 and 2001. Indian news media have indeed come along way from its recorded inception in Jan 1779, when a former inmate and wily Irish buccaneer set sail for the shores of Kolkata with the East India Company and set up Hickey's Bengal Gazette. Named after its founder, William Augustus Hickey, the two-page weekly was not only the first English-language paper in India, but also the first printed paper ever for the country.

During the struggle for independence, newspapers were instrumental in providing a platform for anti-establishment voices and uniting a disparate country in a desire to overthrow the British. "The Indian press played a considerable role in the struggle for the country's independence," said Mr Ahmed. "The father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, was also a journalist and brought out [numerous publications]."

Today, regional newspapers play a pivotal role in ensuring that non-urban Indians are informed about major events taking place across the country. "Not for nothing is the press seen as the fourth estate in a democracy," Mr Ahmed said. Journalism as a profession was once an infamously underpaid occupation in India, but with market growth and print still retaining roughly 40 per cent of all media advertising, demand and pay for skilled journalists has prompted an overdue influx."We've noticed a definite shift in the last few years because of the growth in the media," said Prof Bhaskar.

"The students in our last batch really were spoilt for choice, both in terms of the number of job offers and the kind of salaries they were offered. Journalism is seen as a decent career option here now." As the cost of living remains low and international interest in India continues to intensify, the country is also fast becoming a haven for foreign journalists. "A lot of journalists from the West are also now looking at India as a place to spend a couple of years and get that stamp on their resume," said Raju Narisetti, a veteran Indian journalist and editor of Mint, a business daily. "Even if it's not that financially lucrative, you can still live very well in India." Mr Narisetti is a flagship example of Indian journalism's evolution. Having trained and worked in India as a young reporter, he moved to the United States where he spent 14 years working for the Wall Street Journal, working his way up to deputy managing editor of the paper's global edition before returning to India to set up Mint in 2006.

Mint, which is a collaborative publication of the Wall Street Journal and the Hindustan Times, is an iconic example of the industry's direction. The paper pools journalists from both India and overseas and focuses on business and finance and has a sizeable lifestyle section. "Newspapers here, unlike in the West, remain fairly aspirational. People want to be seen reading newspapers. So there's not only a functional value, but also a social value," he said.

"In a lot of households in the US, children are growing up without ever seeing a newspaper. It's very hard to convert them to readers when they're 25. In India, most children grow up seeing their parents read papers and getting multiple papers for the house." * The National