India’s Media Explosion
Why print journalism is flourishing in the world's largest democracy.
As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in India over the weekend, she could be forgiven for feeling like all of the country’s eyes were upon her. India’s economic boom of the last two decades has won global attention and the committed engagement of Washington’s strategists, but Clinton will have come face to face with another boom much less noticed abroad: that of the lens, the notepad, and the ubiquitous journalist. Buoyed by rises in literacy and income across the country. India’s media — and particularly its newspaper industry — is growing prodigiously in a time of global shrinkage. As their bureaus close, editions collapse, and entire publications fold, journalists in the West have cause to look enviously eastward, where the Fourth Estate is flourishing.
The world got its first real taste of this astonishing growth during November’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, when India last dominated international headlines. The atrocity will be remembered not just for the image of the smoking cupolas of the Taj hotel, its grand Victorian facade engulfed in flames, but for the sheer profusion of cameras, microphones, and frantic reporters covering the tragedy live. The attack was designed for the consumption of India’s media, now nearly as sprawling and varied as the country itself. A calculating, vicious assault of the scale of Mumbai’s "26/11" would no doubt shake any country to its core. That it could so transfix a nation of such size and diversity is a testament to India’s changing media landscape — to how information in a blizzard of languages and forms is increasingly available to the billion-plus people who live in the world’s largest democracy.
Priyaranjan Das Munshi, India’s minister for information and broadcasting, has described the growth of Indian media as "a revolution." In all sectors, the information landscape has been transformed radically over the last 20 years. Take television: Before India departed from decades of dense regulation in 1991 and embarked upon its wide-ranging project of market liberalization, Indians only had access to the grainy broadcasts of Doordarshan, the staid state-run network. With the subsequent arrival of international satellite television and the emergence of several India-based private broadcasters, entertainment and news alternatives developed rapidly. The last 10 years have witnessed a further expansion; there are now at least 300 channels available via cable, including 30 news channels broadcasting in almost all of India’s 22 official languages. Indian radio has seen a similar proliferation, with the number of FM stations soaring. The chatter of the Indian blogosphere grows more vigorous by the day. By any measure, India is a much noisier country than it once was.
But louder still — and perhaps more significant — than the blare of TV or the crackle of radio is the crinkle of newspaper. As the fortunes of the printed press have plummeted across Europe and the United States, rising literacy and robust advertising have ignited a boom in India. In 1976, when the country’s population was 775 million, one copy of a newspaper was published for every 80 Indians. By the turn of the 21st century, as the population passed 1 billion, there was one copy available for every 20 Indians. So extraordinary is the growth that it has been compared by some scholars to the heyday of the press in the United States of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when 20 dailies in New York City alone fought for the attention of a print-hungry readership. According to government statistics, there are 62,000 newspapers already in circulation in India, with more expected to emerge.
The newspaper owes its success not only to the growth of India’s city- and town-based middle classes, but to transformations in the vast rural hinterlands of the country. Rising literacy rates have illuminated the once seemingly dark and benighted countryside. In 1976, 35 percent of Indians could read; now almost double that percentage can, and rising youth literacy, now at 82 percent, guarantees that the ranks of readers will only swell. According to a 2006 study, literacy rates are climbing even faster in rural areas than in urban ones. So while a deep chasm still exists between rural and urban India, it is encouraging that at least half of all newspaper readers are found outside the cities.
The clearest sign of newspapers’ broadening appeal is the ascendance of the non-English press. Circulation of Hindi newspapers, for example, has risen from less than 8 million in the early 1990s to more than 25 million today. At least 3,200 newspapers are published in Hindi — more than three times the number published in English. The largest of these, Dainik Jagran, maintains a circulation of more than 17 million and claims a readership of 56 million, where "readership" numbers account for the Indian habit of sharing newspapers broadly with several friends or relatives. Many other regional languages — from Assamese in the country’s far east to the more established (in literary terms) Malayalam in the southwest — boast strong and growing newspaper industries.
The picture isn’t entirely rosy. Although English-language newspapers have seen tremendous growth, with publications like Daily News & Analysis in Mumbai and the Wall Street Journal-backed Mint entering the fold, critics point to the overwhelming (and at times distasteful) commercial clutter that comprises many serious newspapers. Between ads and pictures of celebrities, it can be a chore finding bits of real information. And when one does encounter an original story in an English-language paper, it too often reads clumsily or uncomfortably. A decline in the quality of written English over the last 20 years has been marked in several newspapers, and precipitous in a few.
Yet the newspaper has maintained a dynamic, important place in India’s increasingly crowded public sphere. Its rise has coincided with (and has not been slowed by) the rise of TV and the Internet. The newspaper’s success might stem from the considerable market share it still holds free from competition; despite the gargantuan reputation of India’s IT industry, Internet penetration in the country as a whole was just 3.7 percent in 2007. And though there are an extraordinary number of homes with televisions — more than 100 million — there are many more without. The lo-fi alternative, the newspaper, is much more accessible for many in rural areas. It helps that print does not depend on fickle variables such as electricity and telecommunications infrastructure, both of which are woefully deficient in many parts of the country.
At the same time, television might encourage Indian viewers to read, driving them toward newspapers. One form of media can generate interest in another, and vice versa. According to India specialist and anthropologist Robin Jeffrey, television "with its tantalising, six-second grabs, introduces people to topics and stories they’ve never encountered before. But television rarely provides background or puts things into context. People look for newspapers to do that the next day."
From city to town to village, the information revolution has allowed Indians to become more connected than they were 20 years ago. It has also reshaped the political landscape, narrowing the distance between the public and ruling elite. The boisterous scrutiny of 24-hour news, for example, has demanded greater accountability on the part of the political classes. Of course, a wealthier, more energetic, more copious media doesn’t necessarily strengthen civil society; it can also be guilty of sensationalism. In a recent report, the media monitoring site Newswatch.in argued that India’s many private news networks covered the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in far too "theatrical" a manner. Who did the job better? It was drab, old Doordarshan — that public organ of the state, now made to seem refreshingly sober amongst its noisy competitors. That is an impression that even Americans, flicking between PBS and cable news networks, might find familiar.
Correction: This article originally stated that Priyaranjan Das Munshi was the current minister of information and broadcasting. He is a former minister. FP regrets the error.