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May 7, 2014, 10 a.m.

Cheap smartphones, low bandwidth, and a billion people: Where is India’s news headed?

“I came to Harvard with skepticism and pessimism about India’s prospects,” said Nieman-Berkman fellow Hasit Shah. “How is it possible for people to be hooked up to the Internet when those basic development indices are being fixed so slowly?”

We’re approaching the end of the Nieman Fellowship year — a natural time for fellows to reflect on what they’ve learned. Nieman-Berkman Fellow Hasit Shah of the BBC gave a talk yesterday on the research he’s done during his year here at Harvard. Hasit’s interested in the digitization of India, and how news consumption patterns and behaviors there are rapidly developing. Here’s a video of his talk:

He presented conflicting portraits of India. On the one hand, there are 1 billion people in India without Internet access, 300 million without electricity, and the same number of illiterate citizens. At the same time, 100 million people there are on Facebook, 30 million are on Twitter and 50 million use WhatsApp. It’s a dichotomy he said was well captured in this clip:

On top of that, Indian digital media consumers still mostly rely on very low bandwidth, sub-par smartphone technology. And oh, they speak over 20 languages. “I came to Harvard with skepticism and pessimism about India’s prospects,” he said. “You look at that and think, How is it possible for people to be hooked up to the Internet when those basic development indices are being fixed so slowly?”

There is some innovation happening in the Indian market, he acknowledged, pointing to companies like Storypick and ScoopWhoop. “There isn’t a lot that’s visible in terms of people designing news services for that non-English speaking, low literacy, low attention span, low bandwidth audience — which is massive as a business opportunity, but also if you believe in journalism as a social good,” he says.

Hasit says he wants to spend more time developing an ethnographic study of the wants and needs of the Indian news audience. For example, messaging apps are a very popular way of communicating in India: “Chat apps are the primary mode of communication between friends and acquaintances,” he says. Messaging apps function as social networks, and news companies like the BBC are already taking advantage of them for the distribution of news. Understanding how and why Indians use these platforms is essential to understanding how a new product would best work.

He did float one prototype for a newsy comic book that would offer useful information in a simple presentation. Comic books are a commonly used tool to teach children Indian cultural history, he says, and graphic novels are popular with adults. His idea would mimic that visual approach, but instead for current events and other information. He also suggested an audio supplement might be included for those who cannot read, as well as a template that would allow users to create their own content.

POSTED     May 7, 2014, 10 a.m.
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