5 reasons to be optimistic of Indian journalism

“You can’t get a decent cup of coffee in India for what you might pay for a newspaper”

It is not only NRI engineers who are moving back to India. Some journalists are too.  Raju Narisetti, editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe and deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, flies to New Delhi on June 3 with a special brief—to set up a new business newspaper for HT Media Ltd, publishers of the Hindustan Times

From his office in Brussels, Narisetti gave an instant-messenger interview to Churumuri contributor and academic Nikhil Moro in Atlanta on Monday. Of course, by one reckoning, neither Narisetti nor Moro ever left India: As the Kolar Gold Fields-born British historian, Trevor Royle, once quipped, “You can take the man out of India but you cannot take India out of the man.”  

Moro: So Brussels is the headquarters of the Wall Street Journal Europe

Narisetti: Yes, even though most of our reporting staff is spread around Europe and Middle East. 

Moro: Okay, now here’s how this will work.  We’ll have a conversation via keyboard––feel free to be elaborate in your responses. Afterward, I may edit for style and typography before I send it off, unless you’d like to see the copy before I send it. Is that okay?

Narisetti: Sounds fine. I don’t need to see it unless you are not clear about some nuance when you are editing it. 

Moro: Okay, here goes: First of all, congratulations on deciding to move back to India after 16 eventful years in North America and Europe. 

Narisetti: Thank you. Am looking forward to the experiences it will bring. I visited India very regularly over the time I’ve been gone, so I have kept up with all the changes and innovation. 

Moro: So what’s on your mind?  Is your decision motivated by a craving for your roots? Or is it more pragmatic—a smart career move? 

Narisetti: Really a decision motivated by a unique opportunity—and a very unique one in my line of work—to start a newspaper from scratch. That it happens to be in India where I grew up is an added bonus.

Moro:  I had a similar opportunity way back in 1995 when I established Coffeeland News in Madikeri, Karnataka. So I understand your excitement. 

Narisetti: Madikeri, up in the hills. That would be quite a professional and personal adventure. 

Moro: You bet it was.  Here’s your first question: While the total circulation of newspapers in America last year was some 552 million, in India it was only 156 million. Can that be good news? 

Narisetti: It is really the difference between an established and slow, if not no-growth, market with huge penetration and a market that is growing at about 8-10% each year with a very young population. There are lots of upsides from a readership and a business perspective. India, China, Russia and some parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East are the only places where media companies are growing with newspapers, magazines and television. Internet penetration is also low so that continues to help “traditional” media. 

Moro: I’d like us to revisit the Internet impact topic a little later. In recent years, newspaper circulation in America has dropped steadily—it fell 2.6 per cent in the six months ending March. On the other hand, in India the Registrar of Newspapers’ report for 2004-05 shows an increase by 7 per cent over the previous year. What can you read in these figures? 

Narisetti: I think there is an upside for the next decade or so. Newspapers, especially English-language newspapers, are still aspirational for a lot of young readers. So if you can offer the right product, there are lots of opportunities to grow. Print-media penetration is still low and rising incomes and literacy rates, coupled with a GDP that is growing 7-9% and likely to grow for many more years creates a fertile environment for print media.

Putting on a business hat, one way to look at it is to note that ad spending as a percentage of GDP is only 0.38% in India while it is 1.3% in the US. But don't have to get to that level to do well–in China (0.5%), Malaysia (0.9%) and Thailand (0.5%) ad spending is much higher than in India so you can see the upside. 

Moro: In my experience, fact-checking is rather lax in Indian newspapers. There are only a handful of investigative stories when our politics is steeped in corruption. There is too much opinion, not enough analysis. Is there a crisis of mediocrity? 

Narisetti: On any given day, you can still find smart journalism in many newspapers in India. But there isn’t a critical mass nor is there a willingness to look past spot news/press releases to tell readers about trends, provide analysis. Newspapers haven’t appreciated how cable TV, especially the 24-hour news channels, has taken over the role of the disseminator of spot news. As a result the standards can seem quite uneven. 

Moro: It’s absurd, but many Indian newspapers seem to be insecure in the popularity of cable TV. 

Narisetti: It is natural for newspapers to see TV as a threat just as newspapers in the West saw online as a threat. But how you respond to a threat is what makes you good. Or bad. I don’t think making newspapers mimic entertainment TV is the only way to go. But there seems to be a lot of energy placed on covering celebrities instead of using the long-form and the format of the newspaper to stand out from television. But that doesn’t mean newspapers should be boring looking or dull to read. The trick is in taking complex subjects and making them interesting and entertaining using words, graphics, photos and complementary online offerings such as video. 

Moro: Agreed, so let’s take the example of the venerated Times Group, your former employer and mine. They sell advertorials on news pages, spearhead a so-called “page three” culture, sideline development and rural news, use unethical pricing strategies as with Mumbai Mirror and earlier with the Times of India editions of Bangalore and Delhi. But they’re only symptomatic of a trend. Are such papers just meeting the needs of their readers, or are they actually creating a new dumb market? 

Narisetti: I was with the Economic Times, Delhi, a long time ago. Was a very different newspaper environment in India then. I have a lot of respect for the Times Group as a marketing powerhouse and their willingness to be flexible and change based on the environment, or lead the change in some respects. Their circulation figures suggest that they have hit a chord among certain types of audiences.

Clearly there are many different ways of approaching journalism and the thicker and firmer the Chinese wall between news and opinion as well as news and business, the better it is for Indian journalism as well as for Indian readers. The good news is unlike some countries that are also growing rapidly, there is a lot of choice in India and consumers can choose to take their money, time and eyeballs to places where they will get good—and honest—journalism. 

Moro: Okay, let talk Internet again. The fall in American newspaper circulation is attributed to more and more people turning to the Web and to other Internet sources for news. Why isn’t such a correlation evident in India? 

Narisetti: Internet penetration is still low in India but it is also a culture where newspaper-reading is well ingrained. That newspapers are quite cheap—too cheap in my view—has also helped fuel the habit. India sells 72 million newspapers daily is only behind China though some think that by 2008 that will reverse. The growth in readership has largely been bolstered by the increase in literacy rate accompanied by lower poverty levels. And when there is upward mobility, economically, English newspapers come into play. You are seeing magazines losing market share though as TV and Web take up the entertainment role. Also you have to remember that newspaper readership (as opposed to circulation) is only about 215 million, approximately 27% of India's 12+ population.  

Moro: In America the number of newspapers has been falling steadily, from a high of 1,878 in 1940 to less than 1,500 today.  India, on the other hand, has nearly 65,000 mastheads documented by the Registrar of Newspapers, who reports that in just 2004-05 an astounding 1,948 new newspapers were registered!

Narisetti: I wouldn’t necessarily go by the RNI figures because as you know hundreds of titles are registered but not many of them turn into actual publications. There are about 1,900 daily newspapers that are publishing in India though. Again because they are so very cheap—even by Indian earnings standards—and literacy is rising with incomes.

Moro: Why do you think newspapers should cost more?

Narisetti: I don’t think they should cost more per se but Indian newspapers, in a race to gin up circulation figures, have priced themselves at a point where they are almost 100% dependent on advertising. It is not a bad strategy but it also means that there is not much of a value connotation with what you are offering every day. I think as incomes expand, papers that are smarter and analytical and give a lot of food for thought can break out of this vicious cycle. You can’t get a decent cup of coffee in India for what you might pay for a metro newspaper of 24-30 broadsheet pages. Now that is a bit of a mismatch in pricing.

Moro: So are you saying the market is willing to pay more, but the newspapers insist on being overly dependent on advertisers?

Narisetti: I think the market will be willing to pay more if you consistently offer value and be different from everyone else. And that both circulation and advertising can be good ways to generate revenues and a successful paper, with the ability to invest in good news gathering resources, can't embrace one and not the other. But you have to offer value to command a higher price. Of course, all this might seem as heresy coming from an editor but I don't think successful newspapers can operate without a successful business model.

Moro: Your response reminds me of Noam Chomsky’s use of the “propaganda model” to argue why the so-called liberal bias is a myth, and why, instead, the media actually tend to have a conservative bias.

Narisetti: Hard to make a case for either, I think. By all measures from the outside, the Wall Street Journal will be called a conservative paper but I suspect if each news person is asked, you might find more “liberals” within the paper than conservatives. Sometimes it could also just be a matter of smart positioning or a historic posture. 

Moro: Any chance you’ll tell me the name of the Hindustan Times’ new business paper?

Narisetti: If we had one I would, Nikhil. We are testing several names and concepts right now so you will have to stay tuned. Remember it is a true startup even if it is within an existing and well-established media giant. And I am not even physically on board. 

Moro: Fair enough.  According to the RNI report for 2004-05, the Hindustan Times, Delhi, is the largest circulated single-edition daily with some 1.2 million copies. They seem to be an ambitious group.

Narisetti: Certainly. 

Moro: Here’s a last question. Give me five reasons why we should be optimistic of the future of India’s English journalism. 

Narisetti: 1. Because India has had a rich history and a track record of robust journalism, 2. Because India’s young and upwardly mobile population is becoming more and more adept at functioning in English, 3. Because India’s place in the world is secure, growing and English is the passport to the world, 4. Because readers understand the difference between good and bad journalism and in the long run will gravitate toward good journalism, and 5. Because India is a land of choices and if one or two or three or four newspapers don't offer smart journalism, the fifth paper can and will.

Moro: Thanks for the excellent interview, Raju. Sorry I played devil’s advocate a bit. Congratulations, again. Let’s raise an advance toast to your success in New Delhi! 

Narisetti: I think India is at a tremendous inflection point, and the opportunity to participate in it with a meaningful offering that will serve India but also act as a window to India is a huge opportunity as well as a responsibility. Glad we could find time to chat. Let us keep in touch.  And if India beckons, professionally or personally, look me up. 

Moro: Sure, I will. Good night.

Narisetti: Thanks. Logging off.