The Media Web: Why Indian News Sites Are Proliferating

News sites

Three Indian digital news sites have been launched in the first six months of this year: The Wire by journalists Sidharth Bhatia and Siddharth Varadarajan, former Network 18 founder Raghav Bahl’s The Quint, and Catch News by the Patrika Group. The three can be considered part of the second wave of digital news publications that has been rolling over the country’s webscape since 2014. In February that year, the news and opinion site Scroll was birthed. The same year Scroll Media, which runs the site, also started a local edition of American business publication Quartz in partnership with US magazine The Atlantic. The India Today Group debuted the news opinion site DailyO in September 2014 and in December the Indian edition of The Huffington Post, brought here in partnership with The Times of India Group, went live.

The first wave of online news sites lapped India’s digital shores in 2011.That was the year The New York Times launched the India Ink blog, Network 18 its hugely successful digital news site First Post, and former Bloomberg TV editor-in-chief Govindraj Ethiraj the data-driven news site India Spend. Two years earlier, the Wall Street Journal had kicked off its India-specific website followed by its blog India Real Time. Since then both India Ink and WSJ‘s India site have shut, reportedly as part of global downsizing measures. Though India Real Time continues to run. In 2012, journalist and founding editor of India Today Madhu Trehan began Newslaundry, a niche site focused on critiquing politics and the media industry.

The recent proliferation of news sites was entirely expected. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, the number of Indian internet users crossed 300 million at the end of December 2014. That’s more than the number of users in America. The association also predicts that by 2018, India will have more than 500 million users, becoming second only to China in internet penetration.

The world over, the number of news sites has been growing as the circulation of newspapers declines. In India however, the rise in digital publications is happening at a time when print continues to flourish. But as is the case with digital media companies around the world, news sites here have found it tough to turn profitable primarily because, unlike publishers, advertisers have been slow in moving online. Foreign media houses that have been online for much longer than their Indian counterparts have taken years to start making money. For instance The New York Times, whose print business suffered considerably at the hands of the boom in digital news, is constantly experimenting with different kinds of advertising and pay walls to increase its web revenue. These efforts are finally paying off.

“Everyone is playing in the future field,” said Shoma Chaudhury, editor of Catch News. “Readership numbers online are larger than offline. But the advertising world is trying to understand how to get past the impatience of readers online.” She means the reluctance of internet users to click on ads. Catch News, which went live on June 15, is the first English offering of the Patrika Group, a media company that owns several Hindi publications including Rajasthan Patrika. Chaudhary said that starting Catch News was a “strategic” move on the group’s part. Even though raking in profits might take time, it’s a necessary progression as “the children of their existing readers will move online. Also many of their Hindi readers – their children are part of a bilingual generation that’s digital native.”

Scroll founder Samir Patil believes it’s only a matter of time before Indian advertisers fully leap into the digital pond. According to a report on digital advertising prepared by Scroll, digital accounted for only a tenth of India’s total advertising expenditure in 2014, the year the country’s number of internet users exceeded that of the US. “For the next few years what the start-ups need to do is very clear: get the audience,” he said. “Once you have the audience then advertising will follow.”

Patil reckons that subscription will become an important source of revenue in coming years. However subscription models have not always been successful as internet users, in general, expect information to be free. “People said the same thing about e-commerce,” Patil said, referring to the initial scepticism over whether people would shop online. “People pay for magazines, they pay for trade publications.” Scroll is funded by the Omidyar Network, the philanthropic venture capital firm of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Patil said his strategy has been to gather a significant viewership before chasing advertising and to build “scale”. By scale he means having several digital avenues under one stable. Currently there’s Scroll and Quartz, and soon the company plans to introduce a video feed.

“There’s going to be a lot of experimenting, we’re going to go beyond display banners,” said Ritu Kapur, who started Quintillion Media with her husband, Raghav Bahl, founder and former editor of Network 18. The company’s news site The Quint is currently in its beta phase. Kapur said there are myriad ways by which news sites can sustain themselves and be profitable. Many of these are still in their infancy but are likely to pick up rapidly as more people take to the internet. “The big hope is revenue share on social media,” she said, citing Facebook’s Instant Articles. The programme allows publishers to run articles on Facebook’s news feed. The load time for each article is reportedly faster. Publishers make revenue from ads they sell, and if Facebook sells an ad on the same page as an article, the publisher keeps 70 per cent.

Earlier this month, Apple announced it would soon launch News, an app that aggregates news and has a similar revenue-share model. “Social media becomes a distribution channel for content creators,” Kapur said. “So many other avenues are opening up. Like live streaming has opened up with Periscope. Snapchat is opening to publishers. This is going to evolve over the next two-three years.” The Wire, on the other hand, was started with the idea of being the antithesis of corporate-owned and influenced media. Its founders Siddharth Varadarajan, former editor of The Hindu, and journalist and writer Sidharth Bhatia, are clear that the site must be unfettered by the demands of advertisers in order to put out fair journalism.

Bhatia said the two had been considering new ventures for some time before they decided to work together. “His point was let’s get funding in place, my point was let’s start,” Bhatia said. “So we held our noses and jumped into the deep end.” He added that the founders pitched in the funds to the start the site and that all the contributors have been writing without taking a fee. Meanwhile they’re trying to raise funds from individuals and organisations interested in bankrolling “an idea different from corporate-owned media”, Bhatia said. “We may be living in a fool’s paradise but I think there are people who want to inject new ideas into the media.” However the decision to not pander to corporate interests doesn’t mean they’re ruling out advertising. “It’s a very simple philosophy,” he said. “We’re here for journalism. We don’t favour A, B or C.”

A number of news sites have been launched since 2014. Here’s a quick look.

Catch News
What: Skewed more towards reportage than commentary, the articles on Catch News cover fields such as entertainment, technology, business, health and sport. It also publishes videos and podcasts.
When: June 2015.
Who: Started by the Patrika Group and helmed by the former managing editor of Tehelka Shoma Chaudhury.

The Wire
What: A site focused on news, political commentary and features about culture.
When: May 2015.
Who: The founders are former editor of The Hindu Siddharth Varadarajan and journalist and writer Sidharth Bhatia.

The Quint
What: A mobile-focused site that publishes articles and videos about politics, entertainment, business, technology and sport. The Quint is currently in a beta phase.
When: March 2015.
Who: Started by Network 18 founder Raghav Bahl and his wife Ritu Kapur.

The Huffington Post
What: The site offers news on politics, entertainment, internet trends and opinion.
When: December 2014.
Who: The Times of India Group partnered with The Huffington Post to start the Indian edition.

What: News and commentary on politics, sport, culture and lifestyle.
When: September 2014.
Who: The site was launched by The India Today Group.

What: Primarily a business news site, Quartz also covers politics and culture.
When: June 2014.
Who: Scroll Media partnered with The Atlantic to launch the Indian edition of the site.

What: A tablet-focused portal that offers news and commentary about politics and culture.
When: February 2014.
Who: Scroll was founded by entrepreneur Samir Patil and is helmed by former Time Out Mumbai editor Naresh Fernandes.

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