In India, newspapers are likely to be a long story

The Internet poses little threat and literacy is rising in this vast nation.

May 18, 2007|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — Extra! Extra! Researchers have discovered a place where the newspaper, a threatened species in some parts of the world, is still thriving.

That would be India, home to 1.1 billion people. And not only is the press in robust health, it's breeding at an astonishing rate.

From 2005 to 2006, nearly 2,100 newspapers made their debut in India, joining 60,000 already circulating. Here in the capital, a bustling megalopolis with 15 million residents, two new dailies have hit the streets in the last four months, angling for their share of a market already divided among more than a dozen competitors.

Why the rush to join an industry that seems to be heading for extinction in the U.S. and other developed nations?

Indian newspapers are blessed with propitious circumstances that their ailing Western counterparts can only dream of or recall with teary nostalgia.

This is a country with an expanding middle class and a booming economy, which have fueled an explosion in consumer spending and advertising. At the same time, the illiteracy rate -- though still stubbornly high at an estimated 35% -- is gradually coming down.

In cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai, about 80% of residents age 7 and older can read and write.

Meanwhile, Internet penetration remains marginal, despite India's reputation as an information-technology powerhouse. Only a tiny sliver of the population, mostly well-heeled urbanites, can afford the home computers and high-speed Internet access that have punched the wind out of print media in the West.

People in the world's biggest democracy still respect newspapers; they count on them for information and read them in numbers that would make publishers, editors and advertisers in the United States drool.

"You cannot really compare the Indian market with the market in the West," said Subir Ghosh, the editor of Newswatch India, a website that tracks the media. "The bulk of the market is actually virgin territory, even now."

With such a vast potential market -- more than 350 million of the people who can read and write do not buy newspapers, Ghosh says -- there is plenty of room, and good argument, for going after a specialized audience.

In New Delhi, four financial newspapers were vying for readers when upstart Mint, a spinoff of the mainstream daily Hindustan Times, arrived on the scene in February.

Mint has tried to separate itself from the pack with its Berliner format sized between tabloids and broadsheets, splashy graphics, livelier writing and the prestigious imprimatur of the Wall Street Journal, which may provide as much as 20% of the paper's content. That's the maximum allowed by law. India limits how much foreign-sourced content a news publication can put in its pages.

"A lot of business-newspaper readers felt that reading them was work," said Raju Narisetti, Mint's managing editor. "The whole idea [of Mint] is that business journalism can be clear and you can understand it. Clarity is the big promise that we make."

Narisetti spent 13 years at the Wall Street Journal, which, like most big American newspapers, is struggling to hold on to readers and advertisers in the digital age. By contrast, advertising in India's print media shot up by nearly a quarter last year, according to one estimate.

"I've sat here in meetings -- and it's kind of a shock -- [where] the CEO pounds his fist and says, 'Forty percent growth? You guys aren't doing your work!' " Narisetti said.

In three months, his paper has built a circulation of about 80,000. (The runaway leader, the Economic Times, pegs its circulation at more than half a million.) Leavening the usual diet of market trends, corporate earnings and mergers and acquisitions are lifestyle features and chatty columns on life in New Delhi and Mumbai.

The paper's target demographic is obvious: the 25-to-45-year-old professionals who shop in gleaming new malls, order martinis at clubs and generally move in a world that most of their parents never knew.

Among this crowd, reading a newspaper is an indicator of upward mobility.

"Most households look at it as a sign of their economic and educational progress, especially when it's the first or second generation that's gone to college or moved to the city," Narisetti said. "One of the first things they do is subscribe to a paper."

For that reason, too, Mint is in English. In spite of its colonial roots, the language of Britain is still preferred by India's movers and shakers and its young and hip. English-language papers account for a small proportion of the nation's newspapers but receive nearly half the advertising revenue.

The vernacular press also is growing rapidly. The nation's bestselling newspapers are in Hindi, which is spoken by about 30% of Indians. The top Hindi dailies, Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaksar, boast a combined circulation of 4.3 million and a staggering implied readership of 40 million people.

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