If India is a land of paradoxes, then the world of Indian online media fits in perfectly. While many Indians have a fascination with technology, they depend on newspapers for most of their news.
Though Internet cafes have sprung up like chai shops on every corner, most Indians do not go online, and Indian news sites still depend on Indians abroad for a huge chunk of their readership.
And while India has received a surge of high-tech jobs outsourced from the U.S. and Europe (including much of Reuters' content operations), it remains a rural country where 60 percent of the population lives on less than $1 per day.
If you want to reach people online in India, you have to worry about more than just getting them computers and Internet access. The United Nations Development Programme reports that 40 percent of rural and 20 percent of urban households lack electricity in India.
"The circulation of regional newspapers [is] far ahead than that of the English press .... It is the regional language [press] that still drives India, whatever the elite few have to say." -- Freelance journalist Jyothi Kiran
The Computer Industry Almanac estimates that just 16 million of the 1 billion people living in India were Internet users in December of 2002. The expatriate Indian community -- a huge source of traffic to Indian sites -- likely tops 2 million in the U.S. alone (it was 1.7 million at the 2000 census). And for those without an Internet connection, the flourishing cyber cafes in India offer plenty of access.
Prem Panicker, managing editor of Indian portal Rediff.com, recounts just how quickly Indian Net cafes caught on. He told me via e-mail how he was covering elections in 1998 in small towns and cities in northern India. Each night, he struggled to find online access to file his stories, at cafes that had such horrendous connections that he ended up writing copy by hand and faxing it to Mumbai instead.
"Two years later, when travelling in that same part of the world, I found a cyber cafe on every street," he said. "Connections were better, access was incredibly easier -- to the point where, for me, the progress in just two years was an eye-opener. Today, it would be difficult to find a small town or city in India where there wasn't a cyber cafe on every other street."
Rediff started in 1996 as a way for Indians living abroad to follow the news from home. But by 2000, Indians started going online in larger numbers, and Rediff -- which now has 27 million registered users -- found its readership split almost 50/50 between Indians in India and Indians abroad.
"This in turn meant the Web site developed a dual mentality -- we had to cater to the diaspora, and equally to the Indians back home," Panicker said. "Obviously the needs of the two segments would vary."
Indians in India were going online for free e-mail and instant messaging, so Rediff provided that -- along with shopping and pre-paid long distance calling cards.
The younger Net generation in India is not into hard news, according to Panicker, who says the site's most popular sections are entertainment (with an emphasis on Bollywood), cricket and then news. Rediff started hosting Weblogs for readers a year and a half ago, but struggles to get users to update blogs regularly.
Obstacles to online success
Along with Rediff, the feisty independent Indian site Tehelka.com rose and fell with the Internet boom. Tehelka broke two huge scandals at the turn of the millennium: one on score-fixing in cricket matches, and the other showing government defense officials took bribes from a phony arms manufacturer. The latter expose led to the resignations of the presidents of two main parties in the ruling coalition, but it also brought down Tehelka.com with a raft of government inquiries and charges.
Tehelka's editor Tarun Tejpal says he is planning to resurrect the site and launch a weekly newspaper funded by readers' subscription fees. His staff has shrunk from 120 journalists down to just three, according to a recent BBC report.
Tehelka's planned move to print has some precedence. Rediff bought a weekly newspaper called India Abroad, which it distributes from the U.S. But reaching a mass audience within India poses challenges beyond just distributing your news to far-flung villages in remote areas. There's also a language barrier, with 18 different official languages and many more dialects. English was brought to the subcontinent during British rule, and remains a language mainly of the middle and upper class.
"Because India has so many languages, English is seen as the link language," said Jyothi Kiran, a freelance journalis who has taught new media at the Indian Institute for Journalism and New Media.
"But only the educated class prefers the English media," she wrote via e-mail. "This is a very small percentage though, as most of India is still illiterate and even less English-educated. The circulation of regional newspapers [is] far ahead than that of the English press .... It is the regional language [press] that still drives India, whatever the elite few have to say."
Subhash Rai has been working in online media in India for the past six years, and started an e-mail discussion group and Web site focused on Indian online journalism. He says that if the Indian media wants to make its mark on the online world, it needs to keep one eye focused on the basics, and the other on the changing times.
"Indian presence online is very marginal," Rai told me via e-mail. "The quality of information is not up to the mark. We need to change that. It can essentially be done by news organizations. The challenge is to get the big names in the business to get a better understanding of why we need to be online in full force. The turf will otherwise be overun by the Murdochs of the world."
The ritual of reading the news
One advantage that Indian online operations have is the rabid interest Indians abroad have in following news from back home. Sevanti Ninan, who runs TheHoot.org, an Indian media watchdog, emphasized just how news-hungry Indians abroad can be.
"Indians tend to be one of the more homesick expatriate communities in the U.S.," she told me via e-mail. "The Web helps specific ethnic or geographic communities abroad keep in touch with their state and city and people back home. There are sites for people in Bihar, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, etc. The fact that Google now offers search in at least five Indian languages ensures that journalists and others writing in regional languages use the Net a lot."
S. Mitra Kalita, president of the South Asian Journalists Association in the U.S., wrote a book called "Suburban Sahibs" looking at families that emigrated from India to the U.S. She talked to me about the ritual of reading the news for the Net generation in India.
"A lot of people turn to the Internet cafe, and log into Rediff, they'll go to their local Web site," she said. "It's part of their ritual of logging in. It's mainly among twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings. A family in my book was high-tech workers who came over [to the U.S.]. That same ritual they had in India is something they brought here. So when they log on, they go to the Times of India Web site and their regional newspaper site, and they're on all these listservs and e-mail groups."
While logging on is still a relatively middle-class phenomenon, the spread of cyber cafes, an increasingly wired youth culture, and an improved Indian infrastructure -- at least in urban areas -- have the potential of delivering an audience of hundreds of millions for Indian news sites.
And that kind of vast readership could break any paradox.
Selection of Top Media Sites for Indians
chief sub-editor of Frontline; runs IndianOnlineJournalism.org
editor and co-founder, Exchange4Media.com and Pitch magazine
Network of Women in Media, India
director, media communications, Pepper Square, Bangalore