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Digital Media
Digital-first upstarts in Indian newsrooms

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India has one of the largest media markets in the world with unique online newsrooms. But it’s high time legacy media started thinking about digital innovation and integrations.

By Nimish Sawant

With over 100,000 print publications and more than 400 TV news channels, the media landscape in India is quite diverse. Over the last few years, online news websites have been growing steadily. Legacy news websites (those attached to newspapers or TV channels) are facing competition from digital-first news outlets. In fact, according to a 2019 report by ComScore, India is the second-largest online news consuming country globally, with 287 million monthly unique visitors.
The rise of online news websites in India has to be seen in the context of mobile internet connectivity. According to a report by Cable UK, Indians pay an average of $0.09 per GB of mobile data, making it the cheapest data plan offering country in the world. As a result, Indians consume an average of 9.8 GB per month of mobile data. Taking into consideration over 500 million mobile users, phones are naturally an important news distribution platform.
The era of digital news in India ushered when legacy media first went online with its news websites that were just meant to be a line extension, i.e., an online front for their legacy properties in print and TV. The concept of digital-first newsrooms kicked off a decade ago, when Network18-owned Firstpost.com went online in 2011. It has since spawned a new category of news websites which aren’t attached to any legacy publication.

Online newsrooms: Impact and challenges

“If you look at the path-breaking investigative stories in the last year, most of them have been done by new media organisations. That says a lot about mainstream media houses,” says Kunal Purohit, a freelance journalist.
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Journalist, author and former newspaper editor, Samrat Choudhury feels legacy news houses don’t have any shortage of capacity or manpower to do such stories, but lack the will to do so. The pressure on editors is to maintain the status quo and avoid annoying those in power, he says. Two independent digital-first newsrooms such as The Wire and The Quint have been at the forefront of investigative reportage and routinely question the establishment. As a result, the editors of both organisations have faced pushback in the form of defamation cases and raids on their offices.
Purohit, who reports a lot from rural India, feels the independent digital-first news websites face the challenge of reach and are barely known outside the main cities. “Many of these websites have a Hindi or regional language component. Despite heavy mobile data consumption in the rural areas, when it comes to news, only the mainstream media is influential,” says Purohit.  
While news websites in English language, which is spoken by a fraction of the population, have a limited reach, they have the most impact as they reach the right people. “Digital-first sites in English are reaching important stakeholders and people who matter, so they have a lot of impact. It’s like among the newspapers, Indian Express has a small reach, but it’s still influential as politicians read it,” says Manisha Pande, executive editor of Newslaundry, a digital-first news website with a no-ads policy.

Unique online newsrooms

Barring pan-Indian news websites, there are some new media players who are catering to a niche audience. The Better India, for instance, only focuses on positive, solutions-oriented journalism. The News Minute has its coverage geared towards the South Indian states. EastMojo, headquartered in Assam, focuses on news around North East India - which gets a very little coverage in the national news media. IndiaSpend is a data-journalism driven news site and focuses on long-form data reportage. Alt News has emerged as the definitive fact-checking website in India.
Newslaundry is unique among this lot, as it not only is free of advertisements, but also the only site that does commentary on the Indian news media itself. It has been trying to evangelise the message that unless consumers pay for the news, they will be at the mercy of advertisement-subsidised mainstream media, which doesn't have public interest at the top of its agenda. “Over the last 4-5 years, mainstream news has become hyper-partisan and with that, there is a slow realisation among people that they are being taken for a ride,” says Pande.  

Digital-first media isn’t immune from political pressure 

Given that the ownership of digital-first media does not necessarily need big bucks, one would assume that there is zero political pressure. But that is far from the truth. Data journalism website IndiaSpend’s editor resigned after the site took down one of its projects called ‘Hate Crime Watch’ which documented hate crimes in India. Political pressure was one of the reasons cited.
“A lot depends on the donors and investors of digital-first sites as well. The problem of political pressure will always be there. If you are seen as anti-establishment, then whoever is funding you is also seen in that light,” says Pande. So ethics do end up taking the back seat at times. Choudhury feels that during such times, digital-first organisations should stand up for one another and collaborate.
Politics and Media
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For many owners, journalism is one among their many business interests. For instance, one of India’s largest media groups, Network18, is owned by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries (RIL). RIL counts petrochemicals, textiles and telecommunications among its major business interests.
Would regulatory guidelines in such instances help? Indian online media currently has to follow the regulations under the Information Technology Act 2000, which many think tanks feel are even stricter than for TV and print media. Choudhury says regulation by the government isn’t desirable at all. “Wherever the politicians get in, the system ends up being gamed in favour of the ruling party,” he feels.
All said and done, the verdict is unanimous - digital media is here to stay and it’s high time legacy media starts thinking about digital innovation and integrations. The current operational models of newspapers and TV are not sustainable in the long run.

“The recent Coronavirus pandemic, which has forced the shutdown of newspapers in many parts of the country, is a clear indicator that legacy publishers took a hard look at their digital strategies,” opines Pande. The challenge, however, remains figuring out a strong business model to mitigate any existential pressures.