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Local-language newspapers flourish across India

Publishers in India are focused on developing local language newspapers as higher literacy boosts readership across the country.

India's changing demographics have made local-language newspapers the best source of growth in circulation and ad revenue. Rajesh Kumar Singh / AP Photo
India's changing demographics have made local-language newspapers the best source of growth in circulation and ad revenue. Rajesh Kumar Singh / AP Photo

NEW DELHI // During her school days, in the town of Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu, Jyothi Raghu could never find a newspaper she wanted to read.

Ms Raghu, 23, studied in the Tamil language, her mother tongue. Yet the Tamil papers available in Cuddalore reported only fleetingly on the world beyond the state.

“It was a real problem,” said Ms Raghu, a sales clerk. “I was hungry for all this news, but I wasn’t able to get it.”

Spotting this gap, media houses that have long been built around English newspapers, have recently started to launch or strengthen local language dailies.

The local-language press holds fresh promise of revenue for the world’s second-largest newspaper market, where the growth of English dailies may be a thing of the past.

The Hindu, based out of Chennai, launched a Tamil edition last September. The Times of India introduced a Bengali daily in October 2012, to supplement its Hindi and Marathi newspapers. The Hindustan Times has, over the past decade, poured money and enthusiasm into its once anaemic Hindi daily, Hindustan.

“Literacy is growing, and chances are that the newly literate will not be reading their newspapers in English,” said P N Vasanti, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies.

According to census data, literacy rates in India grew from 65 per cent to 74 per cent between 2001 and 2011. But a 2005 survey revealed that only 33 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women can speak any English at all.

While parents want their children to learn English to aid their future careers, local languages remain an important aspect of daily life.

“Everybody – including advertisers – has realised that to have a genuine emotional connection with somebody, the local language is crucial,” Ms Vasanti said.

“Until recently, English was always the prestigious language to be publishing in, and local languages were only an addendum,” said Vanita Kohli Khandekar, a media analyst. “Advertisers weren’t paying attention to small towns, and readers who read in Hindi or Telugu or Tamil were somehow seen as down-market.”

The shift indicates how India’s growing economy has enriched its smaller towns and villages, said Ravi Dhariwal, the chief executive of Bennett Coleman & Co, which publishes the Times of India, the world’s largest circulation English daily, with a readership of 7.25 million.

A former executive of Kasturi & Sons, the publisher of The Hindu, said its decision to launch a Tamil paper was because increasingly “English language advertisers have many more options: internet or television, for example”.

“Whereas in the languages, things are different,” said the executive, who left the company shortly after the new newspaper’s launch. “Literacy is up. People’s comfort in English is still basic, not always good enough to read the morning paper. Their disposable income has gone up. And they still rely on their newspapers to a large extent.”

He said many of the households targeted by The Hindu already subscribed to one or two other Tamil newspapers. “Even to be a second or third newspaper in that household is significant,” he said.

Both he and Mr Dhariwal, of Bennett Coleman, said that the existing local-language newspapers were not providing readers with the higher quality of journalism seen in the English dailies, and this was a space that could be filled by their media houses.

“The good old language papers focused only on hyper-local and regional news,” the former Kasturi & Sons executive said. “But even in small towns, the aspirations of people are now global or national, not local.”