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When print is thriving, where does social media fit? A look at practices at India’s The Hindu

In the United States, social media is seen as part of a survival strategy. In India, the traditional model is doing quite well on its own.

In November, Sam Pitroda, technology advisor to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, held a “global Twitter press conference” on his account (@pitrodasam). Hyped as the first of its kind, the press conference was scheduled to last 90 minutes.

But those expecting to see Twitter used to its full interactive potential came away disappointed: The “global” conference amounted to 20 tweets and received scant coverage in India’s news.

For journalists at The Hindu, the Chennai-based English-language daily with the third-largest circulation in India, this came as no surprise. Some claimed they found no new stories in Pitroda’s tweets and were disappointed by the one-way flow of communication. One lamented: “Sam Pitroda might have said all that to any number of journalists who had access to his chambers in the Parliament. But that information, coming first-hand from Sam Pitroda to thousands of people on Twitter who bothered to follow it, isn’t really news.” (Emphasis added.)

Why are reporters in India reluctant to incorporate events like this into print news? In the West, social media has arrived at a time of crisis for traditional newspapers. In India, newspaper circulation and advertising revenue are growing. At a time when print is still quite profitable, what role can social media play in India’s journalism?

When we spent time recently speaking to journalists at The Hindu, the responses we heard fit neatly into the three-level framework of sociologist Simon Cottle. Some explanations involve the nature of the newsroom (the micro level); others point to wider organizational factors (the mezzo level); others concern the politics (the macro level) of Indian journalism.

What we heard suggests a very different set of perspectives on social media than those that exist in Western newsrooms. While some American and European news organizations are making Twitter and Facebook an essential part of their journalists’ work, Indian journalism is still searching for a meaningful role for social media.

The micro level: New technologies, old newsrooms

One journalist at The Hindu willing to go on the record was Karthik Subramanian. After studying new media at the IIJ in Berlin, he spent three years at The Hindu’s online desk. Subramanian said that when journalists use social media, it is usually for softer stories.

“When it comes to hard news, I don’t think journalists take social media too seriously. At this point, I can only see journalists using social media — Twitter and Facebook — for identifying stories and sources. We have not yet reached a stage where we get some specific breaking news information — for hard news — that we verify and follow up. Facebook and Twitter are being used more for soft features.”

But Sam Pitroda’s press conference was hard news. Why did The Hindu and other news organizations give it only minor coverage? Subramanian’s explained that “in the traditional news houses in India, Twitter is considered as a tool for self-promotion. It is yet to become an important tool for hard news verification and dialogue.”

Subramanian pointed to several examples, including that of a senior government minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, who had recently been hospitalized in Chennai. “There was high pressure on all journalists to verify the news real-time. But one publication rushed to pronounce him dead, and the story started trending in no time. Hard news verification that is done by journalists, who cannot afford to get it wrong, cannot be done by social media at this moment, at least in India.”

Like its English-language competitors The Times of India and Hindustan Times, The Hindu has incorporated social media into its Internet presence. Lata Ganapathy, The Hindu’s assistant editor on the Internet desk, says The Hindu was a pioneer as the first major newspaper in India to go online — but others have since caught up. She says that in 2011,

social media at The Hindu was limited to sharing links to the paper’s online stories over Facebook and Twitter and, where applicable, YouTube. The company’s PageRank (currently 9), its India Alexa rank (over 100, higher than our closest rival), as well as a considerable investment in social media advertising has resulted in over 260,000 likes on Facebook, with a reasonable level of engagement since it was launched in 2009. However, since the posts are largely non-interactive, we haven’t done too well on Twitter. This is because The Hindu is one of the few newspapers whose offline, print editions do much better than all of its online versions combined.

The Hindu has attempted to use social media in more interactive ways. Since 2009, the paper’s website has allowed comments, but, as Subramanian notes, this exercise is still evolving: “Initially, we opened up a few stories every day and manually moderated comments before publishing them. This was new to us and it was challenging at the start. We faced a lot of incendiary comments targeting our writers because of our editorial stances on some issues. Sometimes even a well argued comment would have one sentence that goes over the top. It is a tough task to make judgement calls at such times.”

The mezzo level: When print is thriving, why go digital?

While Western newspapers struggle with declining revenues and high fixed costs, these are heady times for India’s press barons. India sells more newspapers than any other country in the world, and print circulation rises each year. It is a curious feature of India that at the same time as its consumers seek the latest mobile phones, they are also opting for the “old” technology of printed newspapers.

Economics tells part of the story. Indian newspapers are very cheap: The average per-issue cost of a major daily newspaper is less than 10 U.S. cents, only slightly more than the price of 15 years ago. By keeping prices so low, India’s major dailies have created large audiences for print advertising. Unlike in much of the West, where searchable websites have replaced the classified ads newspapers once printed, in India newspapers ads remain popular among advertisers and profitable for papers.

Audience size also affects how much time journalists give to social media. Today, with 1.2 billion people, India has fewer than 15 million Twitter accounts, many of which sit inactive. This means that even on a good day, India’s Twitter population is less than that of Chennai, the southern city where The Hindu is based.

For these reasons, India’s major news organizations are content to wait before making significant investments in social media. At The Hindu, as with most other newspapers in the country, the newsroom is not integrated. Its digital operation remains physically separate from the traditional newsroom, and this separation shows in the paper’s different online and paper identities.

According to Karthik Subramanian, Indian newspapers are aware of the long-term potential, but have not implemented social media in a major way: “The cause of social media has been taken up strongly over the past three years, ever since [The Hindu] launched a redesigned website in August 2009. Our former editor-in-chief N. Ram and one of our directors Malini Parthasarathy are very active on Twitter. But not all journalists are. In fact, some of our best writers are inactive in the social media space. Siddharth Varadarajan, who took over as editor less than a year back, has been asking all young journalists to actively take to Twitter. But it is a mindset change, to ask digital immigrants — traditional journalists who are just taking to Twitter — to be very open about the information they possess. It is a professional reflex to be a bit closed.”

Lata Ganapathy recognizes these challenges. She told us she hopes to make the paper a pioneer in online Indian journalism by “bypassing the ‘catchup’ phase and moving directly into the next version of the web.” This means “more planned interaction, richer multimedia content and greater coordination between the print and online editions.”

According to Ganapathy, the coming year will be very significant in The Hindu’s online development. She pointed to several initiatives the paper plans to ramp up: The Hindu Facebook, The Hindu Twitter, Chennai Central Facebook, Chennai Central Twitter, Chennai Central YouTube, and other pages such as for arts, books, and cinema.

A major part of The Hindu’s online presence is Chennai Central. Ganapathy told us that “any new experiments with social media are being conducted at and through Chennai Central. At the moment, there is a monthly photography contest, through which we crowdsource our pictographic material, a monthly architectural tour of the city, daily news/features/status updates, a daily podcast/video, and a monthly newsletter sent to our online audience. We are planning a two-minute documentary contest on Chennai in November and will open it up for our readers.”

The macro level: From dissent to dialogue in social media?

The journalists we spoke to emphasized their desire to forge a stronger dialogue with readers, but several challenges stand in the way.

With The Hindu, old battles have found a new stage on Twitter. Opponents of the paper’s editorial position on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue have criticized articles, columnists, and editors. As one reporter told us: “Since dissent is the biggest motivator on social media, it has been difficult for us to engage in a dialogue online.” The reporter said that the paper is genuine in its desire to discuss the Tamil issue and other controversial editorial positions. But some of its opponents see social media simply as a way to distract and discredit the paper’s editors.

This is not the only political deterrent to social media use by journalists. In recent years, the Indian government has limited social media use in troubled regions, as it did during the recent protests in Assam. It has also blocked individual Twitter accounts. As one reporter said, “I followed Anonymous India on Twitter to know about the sites the hacker group was bringing down, but this handle has been blocked by the Indian government because they were using the Twitter account to launch DDOS [Distributed Denial of Service] attacks.”

Beyond the deterrents of politics, there is also a “problem” many Western newspapers would love to have: In India, the success of print removes much of the incentive for papers to prioritize their digital presence. Lata Ganapathy, The Hindu’s assistant editor on the Internet desk, told us: “For a newspaper that does so well offline, recognition of social media as a ‘thing of the future’ can be delayed, resulting in playing catchup later on when it could be too late and thinking of social media sharing as added burden on existing duties. This curbs our online potential.”

With 130 years of history, The Hindu has an established reputation its editors wish to preserve, and a print-based business model that continues to bring in profits and readers. In such a context, the tentative social media approach of The Hindu is understandable.

In recent years, century-old Western papers have faced questions of how to embrace new, more interactive technologies and retain their identities. That conversation still awaits The Hindu and other Indian dailies. For now, this country is home to a quintessentially Indian paradox: At the same time as it goes digital with phones, it is opting for print in journalism. For those who argue that crisis is the norm in a paper-based press, India offers a counterargument: In India, if you want to read about the latest pronouncements from the prime minister’s technology advisor, you’ll need to pick up a newspaper.

Photo by Tricia Wang used under a Creative Commons license.

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