We have a habit of following the West. What happens in that part of the world inevitably travels to the Subcontinent. Similar is the advent of online journalism.
In spite of its constant newness, in terms of experimentation and adaptation, journalism in India has its beginning in the birth of nation itself. When the British had consolidated their Raj over the country, the print media were of two types – those run by the imperialists and those using these tools of communication to spread the word of freedom. By the time the British left in 1947, the Indian print media was a well-established entity, with publishers and editors participating, commenting on the dawn of the post-Independence political environment, even participating as a voice of the people. The leaders of the then India, led by first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, univocally made the media responsible to inform about the politico-socio-economic development of the country. The media also stood a watchdog to sound the alert on issues setting up a new nation was bound to face.
Over the years, the print media found various issues to write about: the changing polity, the agriculture – India is by and large an agrarian country, women issues, social evils, issues pertaining to the economy, developmental needs, infrastructural challenges and opportunities, communal standoffs, unemployment, wars with uneasy neighbours, the great rich and poor divide...all found space in the morning newspapers and a handful of magazines.
Perhaps it had become a powerful voice of the people too fast too soon, perhaps the detractors realised just how damaging the watchdogs’ watchful eyes could be in ‘inciting’ people’s response. By the time the mid-seventies rolled in, the Press found itself right in the middle of one of the most challenging times, the Emergency of ’75-’77. There were concentrated attempts to censor and gag the press.
But the media resisted; successfully. Soon, newspapers became not only powerful entities but strong institutions. And the publishing industry went on an overdrive. Soon houses emerged, with strings of newspapers, magazines and journals. An interesting phenomenon was the rise of children’s magazines. If the Times of India had ‘Chandamama’ with the ‘Vikram-Betal’ series, India Today had ‘Target’ with ‘Detective Moochwala’ series.
Newspaper publishers also felt the need to foray in the vernacular. Those who did anew, found a fresh avenue and those who already had vernacular properties, found renewed strength.
This was the scenario greeting the media in India when pro-globalisation and liberalisation policies were initiated in 1991. This was an altogether shift from the Licence Raj, an economic environment which opened doors for international players to enter the Indian media market. The phenomenon of computers in the West was also migrated to Indian newspapers and the era of desktop-publishing began. When VSNL introduced the internet in India for the first time in 1995, it was only a matter of time for mobile phones, laptops, broadband to become part of the news-gathering and news-dissemination apparatus.
It was also a matter of time that journalists would explore the online space not only as a professional imperative but also as a medium to express their creative zeal. Let’s not also forget the advent of TV journalism – again, a post-Liberalisation phenomenon – which made print media journalists a better way to connect closer to their readership, the online way.
Despite the fact that India hooked into the cyber world only in the mid-nineties, quite a late entry as compared to the West, the growth in IT and IT-related procedures has been phenomenal. Further, driven by youth, internet subscriber base in the country is expected to reach 150 million by the end of this year, according to a report by Internet and Mobile Association of India and IMRB said. “As of June 2012, there are 137 million claimed Internet users in India (99 million from Urban India and 38 million from the rural parts of the country),” the report stated.
Of the 137 million claimed users, there are 111 million active users, with the number of active users growing at the rate of 19 per cent, faster than the claimed users.
No wonder, then, that nearly all national newspapers and magazines, irrespective to what language they are published in, have their e-papers. A rising trend among journalists is to tweet, blog or set up their own sites.
Based on such successes, the Indian media now has online-only popular entities such as ‘firstpost’ and ‘rediff’.
Although it's been slow, Web journalism is gaining steady ground within Indian journalistic circles, interestingly, for reasons just the opposite than the West. For the US and the UK, online journalism grew on the decline of print journalism that began as early as the late eighties. In India, it gained popularity as an avatar of print.
In fact, online has been a sort of a ‘force multiplier’ for print, delivering where the later failed, establishing a ‘now’ factor that print never had. For example, with the rise of so many news channels, the morning newspaper rolling out news a day later has become a bit less interesting. Further, one must also understand that online, by far, is the most irreverent and exhaustive of mediums. The variety, further, enhances capabilities of in-depth analysis, opinions, giving space for inputs and bettering visuals. This, in turn, allows more transparency.
For example, a whodunit murder where a politician is a suspect. A news wheel can carry only so many reports or a newspaper has just so many pages. On the net, it is possible to place all angles of such an incident without a worry over shortage of space.
Further, gone are the days of the ‘vinyl work’ – coloured pages, boxes, packaging – that impressed the readers. Today they want more information, and the net wins hands down.
It’s also the depth that matters, for online journalism allows stakeholders create and consume reports in many different, varied, new types of languages and features, where multimedia and interactivity play essential roles. Add to that the social tools and you have no limitations – not even geographic – to read, watch, absorb and even contribute news from any part of the world, limitlessly.
Let’s also not forget the cost-effectiveness of online journalism over print. At the same time, there is a bit of an identity crisis. In fact, it is more like an identity search, even as media groups learn the ropes to define strategies to cope with the new demands brought by the internet. For example, there is still to emerge online-only news desks – what you have are those involved more in the commercial processes than news gathering and dissemination. Further, there is also the challenge of speed – you do things at a breakneck pace, you are bound to get something wrong, thus affect good journalism. For most Indian publishing, the dawning of the online son is flawed not because they don't have long-term goals but because they are still at loggerheads to introduce what’s best in the short-term.
But media in India has shown enough resilience till now to survive across platforms. And there’s cohesion still in the offing. The churnings are on, so is the transition, thus good times for journalism are yet to come, when possibilities will be fullest, understanding user-habits the best, and the consumption experience the best.
In other words, online media in India has charted the right route. It's only a matter of time when it gets there.