Rebirth of the Native

India’s multibillion-dollar vernacular press is flirting with the new digital world. Can it cut out the distractions and take the next step online?

VINAYAK PARAB remembers the angry letters from readers in the mid-1990s, when his employer, the Marathi daily Loksatta launched in 1948 by the Indian Express Group, started writing about computers. “No other Marathi paper would touch the subject,” Parab, one of Maharashtra’s best-known technology writers, who’s now executive editor of the Marathi magazine Lokprabha published by the same group, tells me on phone from Mumbai. “They were scared that it would repel the aam aadmi who was their core market.” But Parab hunkered down and took out a 90-part series demystifying cathode ray tubes and suchlike. After the initial resistance, he says, circulation shot up on days the column was published.

Parab claims Loksatta’s success triggered a flirtation with technology in Marathi newsrooms—but getting the vocabulary right was a struggle. “I had to constantly adopt words, like pranali for operating system. Happily, readers kept pushing me. Even reporters from rival newspapers started approaching me for tutoring,” he says, a little wistfully. “These days, I hear books teaching Facebook tricks in Marathi are all the rage, even in the small towns of Latur, Satara, or Sangli.”

It’s a well-worn parable on legacy publishers in the digital age, which has three well-known subplots. To wit: Venerable mastheads—think the New York Times—embracing digital but stumbling at monetisation; the rise of digital-only—Huffington Post or Quartz; and finally; social upstarts—Buzzfeed, Twitter, or Facebook—upending all things media. Even in India, one of the world’s last few growing print markets, this story has played out ad nauseam. Except, as with the examples above, it has been shaped almost exclusively by the English media, neglecting Parab and his ilk.

Jayanta Ghosal, editor (Delhi) at the largest-circulated Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika (owned by the ABP Group, which also publishes Fortune India), sees in it the English media’s arrogance. “It has assumed the “national” title, although its footprint is a fraction of the regional languages.” He finds support in Sanjay Pugalia, who worked with the Hindi daily Nav Bharat Times (owned by Bennett, Coleman and Company) among others, before taking over as editor of the Hindi business channel CNBC Awaaz (Network18). But, Pugalia adds, “many regional players were themselves lethargic and did not engage with digital holistically.” While some were convinced that it wasn’t relevant for them, others clung on to the familiar logic that pushing digital would cannibalise print. Those who did act seldom went beyond building websites.

Generalisations about India’s gigantic vernacular press (see graphic) can be risky. But the nuance in Pugalia’s rebuke—the lack of a holistic approach—is valid. Consider that the editors of the biggest vernacular newspapers are virtually nonexistent on social media. Contrast that with their peers from the English-language press who produce a glut of analyses on digital platforms, evangelising their papers’ brands on, say Twitter, almost as a matter of hygiene. Pugalia puts the difference down to the feeling in the regional press that such spaces are “elitist fads”.

For long, that stand was justified by the absence of an Indian-language setup on the web. But advancing technology, and vernacular readers developing digital habits, are blowing holes in that argument. Vernacular media is on the cusp of disruption and gainsaying that is perilous.

Regional papers graphic

Exhibit A: the meteoric rise of the vernacular news aggregation app Newshunt. Launched in 2007, it presents content from 100 publishers in 11 Indian languages (plus English) and has become India’s most successful news app, with 55 million downloads and over a billion page views a month. It also has the fifth-highest monthly user base among all web-based services in India, according to research cited by financial services firm Avendus Capital. (Predictably, the top four are e-retailers.) The company says 70% of its readers are bilingual, but they read Indian-language content eight to nine times asfrequently as English content. Days before we went to press, Verse Innovation, its parent company, closed a Rs 100 croreunding round, valuing the company at a reported Rs 900 crore. Virendra Gupta, Verse’s CEO, says it’s barely scraping the surface; the plan is to scale up to 1,000 publishers. (For more on such startups, see ‘The Media Net’ in Fortune India’s August 2014 issue.)

Then there’s the buzz around vernacular-enabled mobile devices—led by Google’s Android One, which supports seven Indian languages and was launched at a globally watched event in Delhi last month. Google India head Rajan Anandan predicts that the next 300 million Internet users in India will access it in the vernaculars—the lion’s share of them on mobile. Google Trends shows that searches using the keywords ‘news in Hindi’ have jumped 350% in the past five years, with even bigger returns for Bengali, Marathi, or Malayalam.

Despite such strong currents of change, there’s a sweeping perception of the vernacular industry’s immunity from digital—like in this comment from a report by consultancy KPMG and advocacy body Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI): “[English publishers] will likely face a greater threat from digital platforms, [because] the English market is … most likely to adapt high-speed mobile devices and change reading behaviour.” (Aptly, the section on the Indian print industry in the report is titled ‘Regional to the Rescue’.)

The report backs this up with compelling numbers: Between 2012 and 2017, the market for vernaculars including Hindi—which already account for 62% of the print industry’s revenues and cater to 89% of its readership—will likely expand at a compound annual rate of almost 11%, from nearly Rs 14,000 crore to Rs 23,000 crore. The growth in English: less than 5%. Little wonder that heavyweights Bennett, Coleman and Company, and Kasturi & Sons (which publishes The Hindu) have launched papers in Bengali and Tamil, respectively, in the past few years.

Dainik Bhaskar Group—a listed company with a market cap of over Rs 6,000 crore—which publishes 58 editions of the eponymous Hindi daily across 13 states (highest circulation in Hindi as per the Audit Bureau of Circulation)—along with papers in Marathi and Gujarati, is among the top non-English players with a digital thrust. Its website ranks among India’s top 100, according to analytics portal Alexa. But over the course of my interactions with them, they stress that talk of digital must not undermine the regional print story, which will remain extremely strong for the next 10 to 15 years.

That’s at odds with the fact that more than half the literate population in as many as eight Indian states already don’t read newspapers. Digital may not have caused that, but it will almost certainly accelerate the trend. To their credit, many publishers understand the need to do more, but are hobbled by short-termism and poor advertiser support. “I dare say we don’t invest as much as we’d like to [in Loksatta’s digital presence], because the ad revenues in Marathi are very low,” admits Anant Goenka, the 27-year-old head of new media and wholetime director at The Indian Express Group. “As market leaders, we should ideally be investing in convincing national advertisers [to advertise digitally in Marathi], but our focus is on growing the more lucrative print advertising.” (The KPMG-FICCI report says the difference between vernacular and English print advertising has narrowed to a two to three times premium for the latter, from 10 times five years ago.)

“Advertisers haven’t incentivised digital thinking in non-English media,” concurs Manisha Pandey, features editor at India Today (Hindi). The perception, again, is that it’s irrelevant to their core market—traditionally, “offline” rural and mofussil India. “[But] in an increasingly connected world, rural vs. urban is irrelevant,” argues Jessie Paul, CEO of marketing think tank Paul Writer. “Success doesn’t depend on language—only on your imagination.” Industry lifers across languages claim that barring a small set of outliers, most publishers imagine digital in oppositional terms—as a distant “threat”. They add that there’s little personal motivation for them to challenge that view. “Fancy talk about digital is all very nice,” a Hindi editor at a bilingual (English and Hindi) media house with almost 10 years of experience tells me on condition of anonymity. “But when you are paid less than a trainee reporter in English—it’s difficult to get excited.”

Pugalia says Indian languages, led by Hindi, are headed for a perfect storm: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a huge digital acolyte, has already made Hindi cool by choosing it over English in his widely followed speeches. But he cautions that in the absence of long-term thinking and sustained investments, “Google, Twitter, and Facebook will cash in on this mood way more than mainstream media. We will just be followers.”

THE CHANGE in mindset starts with unravelling vernacular’s “core market”. The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI) and market research firm IMRB International say 60% of urban Internet users access content in Hindi (followed by Tamil and Marathi). In rural India, on the other hand, Hindi’s share is 27% (followed by Marathi and Tamil). Over 70% of Newshunt’s users come from urban areas. Even with Dainik Bhaskar’s 50 lakh circulation, more than half comes from big cities. B.G. Mahesh, founder of vernacular news portal OneIndia, confirms that it’s “wrong to assume only [smaller centres] consume Indian languages”. OneIndia creates original content in seven Indian languages (as well as English) and gets 25 million unique views a month. “We have seen impressive growth even in tier 1 cities,” claims Mahesh. OneIndia has reported profits for 16 straight months, and has revenues of Rs 20 crore.

BG Mahesh

BG Mahesh, founder, OneIndia, says it’s wrong to assume only the small-town Indian consumes Indian languages.

Top Hindi publishers are on the trail. Dainik Bhaskar Group’s digital business grew 54% year on year to Rs 16 crore as of fiscal ending March 2014. (That compares with Rs 76 crore for HT Media, which owns the English dailies Hindustan Times and Mint, and the Hindi daily Hindustan, plus miscellaneous job search, education, and entertainment portals.) Jagran Prakashan—the parent company of Bhaskar’s rival Dainik Jagran (whose portal is also among Alexa’s top 100)—also reported “steep growth” of 150% in digital advertising revenues, “albeit on a smaller base”. Apart from the main news portal, Jagran runs a clutch of education and classifieds portals, and in July launched a site where advertisers can compose, book, and pay for print classifieds.

Slowly, the playing field is expanding beyond websites. “Loksatta was the first Marathi paper to launch Android and iOS apps,” says Goenka of The Indian Express Group. “We were shocked to see 10,000 downloads on Android in the first week.” The group’s next big bet is localised video. Goenka says Loksatta was the first Marathi paper to sign a partnership with YouTube for a dedicated channel with exclusive content. “We have shot, in our own boardroom, more than 200, 20-minute Marathi lessons for SSC students. This year, like last, we did a live broadcast from some of Mumbai’s most famous Ganapati pandals. These crossed 500,000 views on YouTube.”

But advertisers are cold. Goenka says there’s some support from Marathi clients who patronise the newspaper, but digital is so far down their list that even with the biggest of them, Loksatta’s own team has had to help convert creatives to suit digital formats. “Revenue in regional languages is all about investing in creating a marketplace, which is far too nascent right now,” says Goenka. “We have been distracted with print. Maybe we’re better off waiting for Google to invest in getting that local sari shop in Thane to create a digital ad.” He adds that Google has advertised in Loksatta print—in Marathi copy— asking small and medium business owners to put up websites.

Anant Goenka

Anant Goenka, head – new media, The Indian Express Group, says the regional digital marketplace is far too nascent.

Advertisers like Dabur, which have equal emphasis on metro and non-metro markets, indicate a chicken-or-egg problem. The vernacular industry hasn’t proven return on  investment in digital yet,” says K.K. Chutani, executive director-marketing, Dabur India. He contrasts that with the success of Indian-language entertainment channels, which are a key part of every national advertiser’s budget. Brands like Uninor, known for their regional focus, are also waiting for things to mature. Till then, presence on vernacular digital platforms “is a good-to-have, not a must-have”, says Rajeev Sethi, Uninor’s chief marketing officer.

The Malayalam industry is an exception. “Unlike other languages, digital ads in Malayalam actually fetch a premium over print, including English,” says Santhosh George Jacob, head of content at Manorama Online, the digital arm of Kottayam-based Malayala Manorama Group, whose eponymous daily has the largest circulation among non-English and non-Hindi publications. “That’s because 70% of our readers are affluent expats from the Middle-east, the U.S., and Western Europe.”

MUCH BIGGER upheavals are under way on the social side. Think of the blokes buying Marathi guides to spruce up their Facebook profiles. “This is the newly learned class,” says Pandey of India Today (Hindi). “Earlier, the newspaper at home was the ultimate statement of moving up in life for them. Now, that role is played by Facebook on the latest smartphone.” That changes everything—starting with their lifestyle aspirations, and ultimately, their perception as consumers. Recognising this, e-commerce player Snapdeal recently announced services in Hindi and Tamil.

The trend transcends urban pockets. Sandeep Mertia, a fellow at Delhi-based Center for the Study of Developing Societies, has been researching social media use in the villages of Rajasthan. He writes that Facebook is at the centre of a growing chatter: “Frequent references to social media on television have perhaps led to a new kind of technological convergence, wherein Facebook, instead of being a platform for gossip, is more of a subject of gossip.”

A Facebook India spokesperson confirms that the company is aligned with the expanding conversation: “Our user base of 108 million equals the readership of four or five newspapers. The 10 Indian languages we support [9 of them on the Press Information Bureau’s list of languages with the highest number of newspapers] are a significant part of our growth.”

Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar again have a headstart here, with approximately 46 lakh and 40 lakh likes for their Facebook pages, respectively. Apart from the page for the main brand, Jagran has pages for its Meerut and Muzaffarpur editions. Leaders in other languages include Kozhikode-based Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi (13 lakh likes), Loksatta (5 lakh), and Anandabazar Patrika (3 lakh).

Kalpesh Yagnik, group editor at Dainik Bhaskar also talks of newsrooms integrating social tools: “When the Indian Oil plant at Hazira caught fire, our print reporters reported real time for our websites, and the updates were put up on our app and on social media.” More significantly, he says social media has itself become an important genre of news in print. “During the Lok Sabha elections, we dedicated a full page to social-media content for a whole month. We also covered the Instagram buyout in the front page.” Though the coverage may not be as in-depth as in English, Yagnik says stories on social media companies are becoming popular because people like Zuckerberg “don’t look like tycoons” and inspire young people.

However, the picture is different on Twitter—the first port of call for both creators and consumers of content, especially news. Here, individual editors constantly interacting with readers are often more impactful than institutional handles spewing links. But vernacular editors/writers tweeting in their own language, even using English script, are hard to find—barring a handful like Loksatta’s Girish Kuber (over 5,000 followers), or Jagran’s Bollywood writer Ajay Brahmatmaj (over 10,000 followers). It’s difficult to say whether this is because of official policies or poor motivation.

 

A standard argument has been Twitter’s lack of vernacular input. But for the past three years, the site has been available in Hindi. More recently, it added Bengali, and says it’s looking at other languages. Yagnik claims “readers don’t go to social media for news, but for jokes or other personal content”. But Raheel Khursheed, Twitter’s head of news for India, says the media would do well to remember the case of the yellow pages, which thought users wouldn’t go anywhere else to  search—until one day, they got hooked to JustDial.

THERE’S BROAD AGREEMENT that the vernacular digital play revolves around very different issues (literacy, class) from those in English (survival of print, monetisation)—but the industry is yet to free itself from comparisons with English. “The emphasis is on ‘we are not like English,’ rather than ‘this is what we want to be,’” says a former ad executive who worked on the revamp project of a leading Hindi daily.

That kind of muddled thinking shows up in strange contradictions. See, for instance, Jagran’s 2013-14 annual report, which gloats over the growth of the digital business, but hastens to make room for “necessary caution”. Tellingly, the word “threat” appears four times in the report in the context of digital, if only to deny it is one. (The company didn’t respond to my queries;
however, in its August 2014 earnings conference call, chief financial officer R.K. Agarwal said, “[while] speed is of utmost essence in this domain, one cannot achieve the desired result and progress only by making huge investments”.)

Compare that with digital’s own language. “Don’t look at us as disruption,” says Newshunt’s Gupta. “We are a conduit in creating the vernacular web.” The Facebook spokesperson adds that rather than worry about revenues, the focus in these early days should be on reaching the last person. “Think of us as the media’s operating system,” Twitter India’s Khursheed tells me. “Our job is to enable, not undercut.”

(Published in the October 2014 issue of Fortune India; artworks by Nilanjan Das. Some facts have been corrected here.)

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