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Aayush Soni
Media Minutes

Aayush Soni is a journalist based in New Delhi. Follow him on Twitter at @aayushsoni.

The impact of foreign digital publications on Indian media space

don't know whether you've noticed but a new wind has been blowing through the musty hallways of Indian media these last six months. Over the last few weeks, reports have emerged that Buzzfeed, the pioneer of "listicle journalism", and Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington's provocative newspaper tailored for the web, will launch their India editions later this year. They're following in the footsteps of Quartz, Atlantic Media's business news website, which will begin publishing from the country in June. Its local partner in the country is Scroll.in, the news and culture website founded by journalist Naresh Fernandes.

These developments mark an inflection point in Indian journalism where the web is the first port of call for any new media venture. To be honest, this approach doesn't come as a surprise at all. After the 2008 economic downturn, ad revenues for print publications slumped significantly. The dollar became more expensive and, as a result, newsprint costs increased, prompting newspaper and magazine publishers to slash other operational costs (laying off journalists and reducing newsgathering budgets). More importantly, the media market is flooded with magazines and newspapers that remain unread because readers are migrating to the Internet.

But while the time seems ripe for the rise of digital publications, their arrival also throws up important questions. India has been a market where advertisement revenues dominate the financial fortunes of all media outlets — print and broadcast. Websites for newspapers, magazines and TV channels were always considered a secondary arm and not as entities off which media organisations could make money. As a result, nobody has quite figured out a clear-cut revenue model for digital publications. So how, then, will the digital publications such as Scroll, Quartz, Huffington Post and Buzzfeed earn revenues? I think going forward this is going to be the most challenging question for new media ventures to answer.

The other big question that arises is related to policy. As per Indian law, foreign companies cannot hold more than 26% stake in news media — be it print or television. However, this rule doesn't extend to Internet portals — a loophole that, I suspect, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have used to their advantage. Both these American media giants have India websites managed by their bureaus in New Delhi and their contributors cut across nationalities. The fear, therefore, is that the new government might take note of international media organisations launching digital publications in India, and extend these FDI restrictions to the Internet. Should it do so? Absolutely not. One reason why Indian journalism has remained underdeveloped is because of this unfounded protectionist attitude. It has suffocated talent, hampered growth and ensured that the quality of reportage never improves. Will the new government extend restrictions? The answer will perhaps emerge over the next few months.

Authorities extolled and damned

Over the last three weeks, two particular incidents highlight the media's strange attitude to the Election Commission (EC). At the NDTV Indian of The Year Awards, Prannoy Roy was effusive in his praise for the organisation, pleading with politicians to introduce powers of contempt against the Commission. But, last week, Shekhar Gupta in his Writings on the Wall column for The Indian Express equated the EC with a mother superior of a girls' convent school. The media's attitude to the Commission is a bit similar to the one it adopts towards the judiciary. We journalists treat our courts with such reverence, often crediting them with "running the country", that when they deliver regressive judgments on gay rights, we react with trauma. Similarly, we hail the Commission for conducting free-and-fair general elections but when it embargoes opinion and exit polls or puts deadlines on campaigns, journalists get crotchety and criticise the EC.

Moral of the story: the Election Commission, just like the judiciary, is not the embodiment of perfection. Let's stop treating it as one.

 
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