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May 27, 2016, 9:26 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The opening for budding digital news ventures to get in on the potential next billion internet users in India is widening, as access to the internet and smartphone use takes off.

Digital startups born in India are taking hold far better than foreign competitors, journalist (and former Nieman-Berkman fellow) Hasit Shah, who’s researching Digital India at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, wrote in his snapshot of three digital news ventures, each successful in its own way.

A new report out from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism profiles in detail six digital journalism startups in India, from for-profit aggregation-based ventures to non-profit news outlets, and finds some shared challenges — as well as opportunities.

For context, from the report: Growth in Internet users in India has outpaced projections, driven by a smartphone boom. In India, 65 percent of Internet traffic in 2015 was estimated to be mobile traffic (though much of it was limited by 2G or 3G service). Digital advertising, too, has been estimated to grow 40 percent annually from 2011 onward.

Many Indian news startups, as well as legacy news organizations, have clearly been attentive to this growth area. The year-old for-profit outlet The Quint, for instance, is building a mix of content across many different channels, but is focusing on “a younger audience of smartphone users active on social media.” It looked at U.S. ventures like BuzzFeed, Mashable, Vice, and Vox for insights, and its business strategy depends largely on “rapid growth in audience reach and volume” and advertising.

Currently, The Quint has three streams of content, one of which is original, the other is what is reported by other media and curated with full attribution, and the third is what they pick up from the same wire sources as everyone else. To avoid being seen as an entertainment-only brand, The Quint is promoting its more substantial journalism via social media and also prioritizes these pieces both on-site and in their app….In terms of reach, the Quint is in a different league from most start-ups in India and competes more directly with legacy players like newspapers and broadcasters.

A very different model is Khabar Lahariya’s. Khabar Lahariya is run by women with a focus on rural areas and issues, born from a print newspaper launched by a Delhi-based NGO. Its digital presence, however, grew and evolved quickly:

The context Khabar Lahariya operates in has changed in the last years, as mobile penetration has also increased in poor rural areas. When the website was launched initially it was just like an archiving system, where some of the stories would be uploaded on the website, only some would be translated, and it wasn’t so extensively promoted or circulated. “Now we do it actively through social media and also through the website. Last year we carried out crowdfunding twice and through that our networks also increased.”

The organization is grant-supported, though, and the funding it received for digital expansion has ended. It’s considering moving beyond grants and donations, and perhaps even advertising:

Whenever we have presented our model to funders we have been told that this is unsustainable. [Another co-founder said], “If you know what the Vice media model is, we are thinking if we can follow that. Our primary audience of the videos will be very niche. We can tell advertisers if they wish to advertise in those videos they can reach out to them.”

The full report, co-authored by Arijit Sen and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, is available here.

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