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Sept. 4, 2015, 10 a.m.

From Nieman Reports: Why news outlets are watching India’s next billion Internet users

“I can think of a billion reasons why it’s in the interests of news outlets to overcome barriers of language, literacy, and relatively low-end tech.”

Editor’s note: Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its new issue. There’s lots to read, but Nieman Lab readers might be particularly interested in this story, by former Nieman-Berkman Fellow Hasit Shah, on the evolving landscape for digital media in India.

Every morning, Mr. and Mrs. Singh gently shoo their dog away from the freshly delivered copies of The Times of India and the Hindustan Times, two of India’s oldest and most popular English-language newspapers, and settle down to read over the day’s first cups of strong tea. In their comfortable home in the well-to-do South Delhi neighborhood of Greater Kailash Part 1, the Singhs have a good broadband connection and own BlackBerry smartphones, an iPad, and a MacBook. They are Internet users, but never first thing in the morning, and only rarely for news.

In the evenings, they watch one of the major Indian news channels, whichever has the most interesting stories or the least irritating shouting match, and often switch to the BBC or Al Jazeera. I stay with them once or twice a year when visiting India, and we often discuss news and current affairs over an evening drink. In India — unlike in the U.S. — TV and print are still doing very well, as suggested by the Singhs.

The couple represent the opportunity — and one of the challenges — facing American news outlets looking to set up shop in India. Over the past year or so, Quartz, BuzzFeed, and The Huffington Post, as well as Business Insider, have all launched India-specific versions of their sites, each chasing the same 125 million fluent English speakers. At the same time, legacy brands have a diminished presence. CNN is ending its content and licensing partnership in the country, and The New York Times scrapped its India Ink blog last year.

The recent digital arrivals face considerable revenue challenges. Although Internet use is growing — India now has the third-largest number of Internet users in the world, behind the U.S. and China — advertisers spent only about 12 percent of their budgets on digital in 2014. In the U.S., it’s closer to 30 percent. Plus, for most of the population, broadband networks are poor to nonexistent, and cellular coverage is erratic at best. Furthermore, many Indians still prefer to consume news through legacy channels. The challenge: How to make money with minimal staffing and a strategy based almost exclusively around digital advertising and branded content, when print and TV are still so dominant.

Meanwhile, many of the billion-plus Indians who have had no Internet access at all are expected to buy inexpensive smartphones. Though these people are linguistically and culturally diverse, they will likely share three characteristics: Their devices will be basic; their literacy rates will vary widely; and the vast majority won’t speak English. “We’re on the verge of seeing a massive number of people discover the Web for the first time, mostly through mobile devices,” says the BBC World Service’s Indian-born mobile editor Trushar Barot. This emerging demographic represents the next big audience for news.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports →

Photo by AP/Ajit Solanki.

POSTED     Sept. 4, 2015, 10 a.m.
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