The Indian news cycle has been operating at a feverish pitch of late. The world's most populous democracy is about to choose a new government, politics is at its polarizing best, and a colorful cast of characters vying for power is supplying a constant stream of sound bytes.
If things weren't already spicy enough news-wise, American media players are attempting to add their own 'Spice' to the mix, as they foray into the Indian market for online news.
Like Indian food though, they better have a strong stomach to digest the challenges the Indian market will throw at them -- this isn't the first time American players have courted an online audience in India, and results have been mixed so far.
Weaving a Tangled Web
It was a venerable publication like The Economist which had addressed the issue of India's online news potential in an article a few years back. Offering a pointed insight about the success of India's print news players, the article argued that one of the main reasons why India's newspaper barons were minting money was that online news in India was consumed by just under 7 percent of the nation's population.
Despite online news accounting for only 3.5 percent of ad spends, both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal launched India-specific news properties -- India Ink and India Real Time, respectively.
Fast forward a couple of years and data from Internet research firm Comscore is quoted to show how traffic from India to International news sites is hovering around the million mark each for some of the top players.
No one though will talk about the elephant in the room when it comes to India -- what is the state of monetization of online news in India? How have paywalls worked in the Indian context, assuming they have been tried in the first place?
Consider the (disputed) market leader in "pure-play" online news in India today, FirstPost.com -- Comscore data tells you it got 3.7 million visitors last year both from India and abroad. What it doesn't tell you is that all the content on the website is free-to-view, and parent company Web 18 (part of the larger Network 18 Group) has had to fold many separate content verticals like the technology channel into the main news website due to poor numbers.
Moreover, there is an interesting dynamic at play here -- millions of Indians are paying for their print and TV news, but the web properties being run by the same media groups are offering their content for free to visitors.
The fact that ad-based monetization offers severe challenges to online news sites isn't exactly breaking news but someone's got to pay the bills to justify the hype.
American Media 2.0
Trying to make money without a paywall though is not a foreign concept to American media. The standard bearer for this approach has been the Washington DC-based Atlantic Media, owner of marquee all-digital news brand Quartz. Launched in 2012, the site is said to have crossed 5 million visitors this January. Moreover, this is an online news site optimized for the new mobile and social web -- evidenced from its clean-cut design as well as data that shows that the largest chunk of traffic (40 percent) comes from social networks.
It's easy to understand the excitement then around Quartz's reported plans to enter the Indian market in collaboration with a relatively nascent homegrown news site Scroll.in. As things stand, the Indian edition of Quartz should be online by June this year and readers should expect a basket of both domestic coverage and International news and analysis.
However, it's not just the new kids on the block who are trying to shake up the online news landscape in India. As brands go, the UK-based BBC has had a deep connect with generations of Indians. In an apparent move to reinvent itself in the eyes of India's younger demographic, it has announced the launch of a mobile news site before the Indian general elections. Where the BBC might have an edge is in its ability to deliver content in vernacular Indian languages -- a capability none of the digital newbies have invested in.
In line with global trends, Indian authorities too are increasingly inclined to clamp down on freedom of expression on the Internet. Digital freedoms for the online news community in India cannot be taken for granted. In 2012 Google reported a 49 percent increase in requests made in India for it to take down "offending" online content. There were more than 2,000 requests made for user data as well.
When it comes to censorship in India it is not restricted to hard news either -- guardians of cultural heritage abound in India, and they can bring powerful publishers to their knees. In the U.S., an offending news item may bring thousands of angry emails from readers; in India it is likely to have a political party piggyback the issue and lay siege to a news organization's office.
Then there is the larger challenge of delivering the right content to cater to the Indian masses. In a country where business and technology news is a much poorer cousin of political news, culture and lifestyle revolve predominantly around movies and television, and sports is synonymous with cricket; finding the right content mix to generate mass readership will be an ongoing challenge for American media players.
While Quartz would like to entertain notions that the new age Indian Internet audience is eager for their offerings, maybe they should pay heed to other data about Indian digital consumption habits. Video consumption has doubled in just two years in India as per Comscore data. Google, primarily YouTube, dominates. Mobile TV channels are being aggressively marketed by a raft of new media players, some with old media moorings.
Is the written word, whether in print or in digital, going to retain its primacy for long? The answer from India and the world may be no different.