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June 5, 2012, 1:44 p.m.
Reporting & Production

For The New York Times, India Ink is a step toward figuring out how to please a global audience

The Times’ nine-month-old project has shifted its content mix as it tries to reach audiences both in South Asia and in the Indian diaspora.

The New York Times may have a city in its name, but its reach has long been much broader. The birth of a national edition in 1980 and a big push in the 1990s cemented its spread far beyond the tri-state area, and of course the Internet has pushed that reach around the globe. Now an established worldwide player, the Times, like other major news organizations, is trying to figure out its place in the international mediascape.

But just because the Times’ audience is defined more by demographics and interests than by geography, that doesn’t mean location has become meaningless. One of the newspaper’s most important experiments in the space is India Ink, a nine-month-old, English-language, blog-style account of Indian news — including politics, culture, sports, lifestyle, and the arts.

“One of the things the Times is figuring out is what do we do in English around the world? Where do you go with an English-language site in India?” said Jim Schachter, associate managing editor at the Times. “What do we do in foreign languages? What do we do that’s The International Herald Tribune brand, and what do we do that’s The New York Times brand? We’re not decided or settled on any of that. It’s all interesting.”

The Times has used social media, geo-targeted ads (so readers in India see ads for the blog when they visit, and events in India to get the word out about India Ink. India was the right country for such a project because the newspaper already has a “very large number” of readers there, Schachter said. (He wouldn’t give more precise numbers other than to say that India is “very high on our list of international audiences.”)

“The hypothesis was if you heavy-up on content there, and you focus on that audience, there’s something to nurture,” said Schachter. “There’s a thread to pull on. That’s largely what we’re doing. In fact, there’s some work going on now to try and use the ability of our website to target geographically — just sort of get even more in people’s faces.”

“What do we do in foreign languages? What do we do that’s The International Herald Tribune brand, and what do we do that’s The New York Times brand? We’re not decided or settled on any of that.”

Yet despite the promotional work in India, so far, most of the blog’s readers are outside of it. Heather Timmons, who runs India Ink for the Times, estimates that about half of readers are in the U.S., 40 percent in India, and 10 percent elsewhere. The fact that the majority of readers are visiting the blog from outside of India doesn’t surprise Schachter, who suspects that many India Ink readers are from the Indian diaspora “everywhere around the world.”

“If you look at, say, the Google analytics, which is an imperfect gauge, there is large readership where there are large populations of the Indian diaspora: London, greater New York, Houston, Northern California,” Schachter told me in an interview at the newspaper’s New York headquarters. “I mean, those are also big populations. If you start looking at the commenters — so commenters’ locations, Indian surnames — it enforces that impression. That’s a very good thing because, I don’t want to cast dispersion, but there is not a great media diet for the non-resident Indian. So if we’re that, that’s a great thing.”

But it remains to be seen whether that’s enough from a business standpoint. Part of wanting to attract Indian readership means looking for ways to attract Indian ad dollars. And Schachter points out “there are not a lot of marketers who are setting out specifically to hit a global Indian diaspora audience.” But he also says that India Ink is growing, and that “you have to build the audience before you sell the audience.”

As its audience has evolved, so has the blog itself. Timmons runs India Ink with the help of four other full-time reporters who make up The New York Times India team. (India Ink also has some local part-time contributors, Schachter said.) Timmons says she originally envisioned India Ink mainly as a discussion site, rather than news driven. Today, the blog publishes around two pieces of analysis, seven features, and up to 15 news stories a week.

“We would have one big essay/analysis-type piece a day on a topic in the news, with maybe two other short pieces related to news of the day or to NYT stories about India — an interview of someone in the article or a short vignette carved out of a recent story,” she wrote in an email. “But, we have really moved in the direction of reporting on breaking news and sometimes breaking news itself.”

To get an idea of the content mix, here are the stories India Ink offered readers on Thursday:

An 830-word article on a national strike

A brief on India’s slowing economic growth rate

An excerpt from a longer follow-up Times article on the growth numbers

A 17-photo slideshow of modernist architecture in Mumbai

An excerpt from a Times article on Indian chess champion Vishy Anand

An excerpt from a Times article on how India’s “Ultra High Net Worth Individuals” are affecting the global art market

An Image of the Day, showing an army inspection.

Or consider the package India Ink offered Monday. The Times had an article by Jim Yardley on the excitement surrounding India’s brief mango season. (“Mangoes are objects of envy, love and rivalry as well as a new status symbol for India’s new rich.”) India Ink featured an excerpt of the story. But it also ran separate pieces riffing on the topic, telling the diaspora where authentic Indian mangoes could be found in New York and in London and examining the mango’s place in Indian literature.

For The New York Times’ larger India coverage, the existence of India Ink advances coverage in the way that many blogs do. Real-time online coverage of breaking news means that the story that ends up in the printed paper can follow more of a second-day approach. The New York Times’ newspaper coverage of India’s Agni 5 missile launch demonstrates how India Ink coverage feeds into newspaper stories.

Timmons, sharing a byline with the Times’ New Delhi bureau chief Jim Yardley, says the piece they produced was richer in analysis than a traditional first-day story because India Ink had already collected and published reactions to the missile test.

It would have taken a reporter “hours to collect and sift through [what] was there ready and waiting thanks to the Ink team,” Timmons wrote in an email. When it came time to write the story for the paper, she says they were able to think “farther ahead,” and make calls they normally wouldn’t have made. Schachter says this approach is what the Times is increasingly doing across the board “to have any sort of competitive advantage in a world of instantaneous reporting.”

There’s also the benefit of having material ready for print editions around the world — like the International Herald Tribune’s Asia edition, for example. (The Times, which had shared ownership of the IHT with The Washington Post since the 1960s, took over complete ownership in 2002.) The ability to publish to multiple platforms and at just about any time on the world clock raises larger questions.

India is increasingly a media battleground, featuring a fast-growing local sector and numerous foreign players. “Others are there — the FT is there, the BBC is there,” Schachter said. “And then you’ve got a very large and growing indigenous media presence in English and a dozen languages. There’s clear hunger for high-quality news with Western ethics…The upper crust reader doesn’t really trust the Indian press.”

Of course, The New York Times isn’t the only U.S. news presence in India either. The Wall Street Journal launched an Indian news section in 2009 and the blog India Real Time in 2010. Six months after launching the blog in English, it launched a Hindi version of India Real Time that features distinct coverage from its English counterpart. And in the past decade, more than 2,000 new newspapers launched in the country, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Whether it’s the Press Trust of India or the Times of India or the Hindustan Times, these are all organizations with tons of journalists,” Schachter said. “We’ve got Heather and her band of warriors. And so, you know, it’s this question of whether you can sort of ride the wave — not by aggregating but by being incredibly selective — and have an impact on a conversation in as big a place as that. It’s an interesting test.”

Schachter considers India Ink a small-scale experiment in the Times’ larger international strategy. He doesn’t dismiss the idea of similar country-specific efforts at the Times, but he doesn’t reveal any specific plans either. But the Times has focused on expanding and branding its verticals. (Last month we wrote about the newspaper’s redesigned health living blog, Well.)

“I think you’ll see both core growth and verticals,” Schachter said. “We just put down a heavier bet on Well. A few months ago, we put down a heavier bet on Bits, the technology vertical. Dealbook is a continuing growth story. But, you know, the heart of the enterprise is The New York Times core thing. And I think it’s really incumbent on us to make that grow, too — both from a serving-the-world perspective, and from a making-money perspective, that’s probably where the biggest things are going to come from.”

Photo by Ryan Ready used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 5, 2012, 1:44 p.m.
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