Indians love the news. Uniquely for any of the world’s major nations, their newspaper industry has been growing and TV news ratings are up.
Now, with smartphone sales booming and half of the population—600 million people —under the age of 25, there is a digital news market in India that will surely continue to expand.
But it is also perhaps the most uniquely difficult digital audience to reach in the world. More than a billion people in India still aren’t connected to the Internet. Three hundred million don’t have electricity and a similar number can’t read. For some, other areas of development are a greater priority: half the population doesn’t even have a toilet at home.
I was a 2014 Nieman-Berkman Fellow in Journalism Innovation at Harvard, trying to reconcile this great opportunity in India with these enormous challenges.
We’ve just seen an election in which digital technology has played a greater role than ever before. The new prime minister of India has shown commitment to internet access in his home state and has just announced that “a digital revolution is about to begin”.
For a long time too expensive and too complex to reach most of the Indian market, smartphones are now within touching distance of mass affordability.
You can get a basic touchscreen, Android device for around $40. Mozilla has launched a $33 phone, based on its Firefox operating system. 3G mobile internet is becoming increasingly prevalent, with 4G on its way.
According to recent estimates, there are currently 150 million smartphones in use in India, and another 200 million new users will be added by the end of 2014. Ericsson thinks 5.9 billion people will have a smartphone in five years, driven largely by places like India.
This boom is having a dramatic impact on e-commerce, too. Flipkart, described as India’s version of Amazon, raised an Uber-esque $1bn in the latest round, while Amazon itself is investing $2bn in India.
But at the moment, not all of these low-end smartphones are connected to the Internet, because a lot of the available content and platforms are simply not designed for the people buying the devices. Many people don’t yet have a compelling enough reason to fork out the extra rupees.
Any mobile strategy in India must therefore take a two-pronged approach: in the short term, a platform must be light and simple enough to work on India’s current smartphones and networks, while developers simultaneously prepare for the inevitable modernisation of India’s digital infrastructure in the longer term.
India’s huge and diverse population raises many design challenges for media companies trying to reach a mass audience.
The most successful content in India, like anywhere else, demonstrates a deep understanding of its audience. For an Indian creator, that may be fairly intuitive. But a foreign media company, even one with large resources, must undertake thorough, constant ethnographic and data-led research.
The principles of user-centered design, now taught at Harvard, are also useful here: What does the user do all day? When and how do they use their devices? What are the ‘pain points’? And ultimately, what content and platforms work for them?
These are the key roadblocks that must be overcome:
Language – only around 10% of Indians are fluent in English, so these new mobile internet users are instead likely to communicate in one of India’s 22 major languages (or more accurately, one of the hundreds of dialects). For news organisations, this represents a big problem in terms of staffing, translation and scale.
Literacy – 25% of the country is illiterate but that doesn’t disqualify them from using smartphones, since many people still use these devices for music and photos, among other things. Digital literacy is an additional challenge.
Low bandwidth – these are not iPhones on 4G. Although the cheapest phones are functional, some don’t even have the processing power to run the Facebook app effectively. Videos often fail to load, and the connection itself can be erratic.
Low attention span – research suggests that smartphone users spend far more time on social media, entertainment and practical necessities like mobile money, than on news. There are many more immediately enticing ways to spend time online. We will need to figure out a way to make news engaging, necessary and shareable.
Since most Indian users seem unlikely to go directly to news sites, we will need to go to the platforms they use most. Facebook with 100 million users, and Twitter with 30 million, are a piece of this puzzle.
But the future – and greatest opportunity – is with chat apps like Whatsapp (50m users) and WeChat. Because they work across most devices and networks, these are now the primary form of communication for smartphone users in India, and growing fast. They’re no longer just messaging services either. You can send and receive media, set up groups, post status updates: they are proper social networks that work well on low-end devices.
My own research project has focused on the possibility of news in comic book form. In theory, it could work: it’s easily translatable; it has relatively little text; it doesn’t need a lot of bandwidth; it’s engaging and shareable. But it – like any platform, any new idea – also needs to be carefully and rigorously tested with its potential users.
And that’s the point, ultimately. Media companies will address the challenges I’ve outlined above in different ways. The successful ones are likely to be those who can work out how to respond to users and build the right platforms, designed specially for this new, enormous, diverse audience.
Hasit Shah is a senior producer at BBC News in London: he has worked as a news editor, a digital media strategist and as a foreign affairs producer. He has covered major breaking news stories and events across the world, including the Mumbai attacks; riots in France; violence in Indian-administered Kashmir; the London bombings; elections in the UK, France and India; regime change in Egypt; and the earthquake in Japan.
Hasit was a 2014 Nieman-Berkman Fellow in Journalism Innovation at Harvard, and remains an Affiliate at the Berkman Center. He has been researching the impact of the rapidly rising numbers of internet users in India – driven by increasingly inexpensive smartphones- on digital news platforms and business models.