Winter 2000

It’s the Old West in the New East

In India, dot-coms create a gold rush for journalists but so far not much gold.

By Rakesh Kalshian
When an affair turns sour or bland, most of us tend to philander afresh in our quest for the romantic ideal. In the early 1990’s, when familiarity with the print media was turning into boredom, if not contempt, the Indian journalist found currency, celebrity and, of course, a new canvas to paint old themes on, in the arms of television. Today, a decade later, a new pied piper is in town, luring journalists, this time with beguiling overtures of greater clout, a grander canvas, and bigger bucks.

If you live at the cutting edge of modernity, surely you must have heard of this international charmer. Dot-com is his name. His mission: to redefine and refashion the way news is gathered and disseminated. His hope: that one day the entire world will be transformed into an electronic village. His premise: In an increasingly global world, the World Wide Web would be a quicker, more efficient, and more democratic engine of news.

And in this game of mass seduction, journalists have become the coveted handmaidens. It would be a hyperbole to call it an exodus, but reporters are being poached all the time. Sudeep Mukhia, 28, a history graduate of New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, a hotbed of leftist politics, made his journalistic debut six years ago as rural reporter with an environment journal. His salary was $150 per month. Today, he edits news for a dot-com called go4I. His emoluments: $1400 each month plus a company car. That’s a phenomenal jump by any standard. Had he remained with print, Mukhia would have been earning a little more than $400 a month.

For most dot-com converts, big money might have been the deciding factor. But given the precarious nature of dot-com ventures, disillusionment with print media also helped push many dithering reporters to this new media. Saibal Chatterjee, 40, a writer and commentator on culture and sports for more than 15 years, recently left Outlook, an up-and-coming Delhi-based weekly newsmagazine, partly because of what he describes as “an editorial impatience with serious, thoughtful reporting.” It is certainly true that competition from television has forced newspapers to react more to market forces, and this can mean that they pander to obsessions of the urban elite. Saibal is now the sports editor for go4I and is handsomely compensated.

Lucre and disillusionment on the part of journalists aside, some dot-com converts also find the medium refreshingly different and challenging. Says Tarun Tejpal, former managing editor of Outlook and now chief editor of India’s only e-zine called tehelka.com (Hindi for furor): “There are these inbuilt constraints of print journalism. I was tired and weary of doing the same old thing. On the Net, you can innovate endlessly. You can write a 5,000 word article and compress it into 500 words if you like. You can never do such a thing in print.”

One irony is that, at least for now, journalists who rush to take a job at Web sites find that very little original news reporting is used and few bylines appear. On most news sites, the “content” is essentially a cut-and-paste job using material from other sources. At a few of the leading Web sites, such as tehelka.com, bylines are accorded importance and, by inference, so is the authenticity of the news reporting. Indian consumers aren’t necessarily going online to get their news. Many are there to use e-mail and chat. As a result, some of what might have seemed promising Web sites are now disappearing: A portal called indiainfo.com, which hired about 200 journalists, appears to be on the verge of shutting down.

Indians have established themselves as leading computer software professionals in the world. Now they are clambering onto the dot-com bandwagon with the frenzy of an El Dorado mercenary. It’s impossible not to notice the relentless, in-your-face dot-com propaganda carried in Indian newspapers, displayed at conferences and on billboards, in cyber cafés, on radio and television and, of course, the Web. Everybody, it seems, wants to start a dot-com. Offering a smorgasbord of services, including e-mail, e-commerce, chat, entertainment and, of course, news, dot-coms are enticing India’s galloping middle class.

Sanjay Baru of the Economic Times, an Indian financial paper, calls this dot-com boom the “third wave” of market expansion in the Indian media. The “first wave,” he says, came in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, soon after the emergency crackdown imposed by Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party. Renewed media freedom and the revival of economic growth resulted in the print media boom. New economic policies and the post-Gulf War boom in satellite television unleashed the “second wave” during the early 1990’s. This wave involved a mass migration of talent from newspapers to the electronic media. “But while the first two waves were driven, for the most part, by domestic demand,” Baru observes, “the dot-com tsunami is fueled by the increasing global demand for Indian infotainment software, on the one hand, and global business interest in the Indian infotainment market.”

Tehelka.com announced its arrival with an exclusive on the match-fixing scandal in cricket, India’s most popular game. With its original investigative stories and experimental sections, such as Indian erotic writing or Indian poetry, it has managed to attract a relatively good following. However, Tejpal’s Web experiment, comparable to Salon.com in the United States, remains an exception as a freestanding news e-zine. All other dot-coms in India are horizontal portals; along with news, they offer other features such as e-mail, chats and entertainment.

Rediff.com, India’s only dot-com listed on the Nasdaq, is Indian surfers’ favorite stomping ground. With its neatly packaged news section, divided into themes such as sports, foreign and health, it registers about 30 million page views per month. Compared to other online news vendors, rediff.com, oldest in the business, invests a lot of its resources in newsgathering and offers a fair amount of original stories in addition to regular opinion columns.

Indeed, it is opinion writers, more than reporters, who are profiting most by this change. Never before did they have, so to speak, such an embarrassment of columns. Aside from the words they write for dot-coms, columnists pontificate on the Web sites of newspapers and television news channels, too. And with newspapers now recognizing the need to put more original content on their Web sites, reporters, too, can hope to expand both the number and reach of their bylines. In Outlook, for instance, reporters can post their opinion pieces on the Web site.

Nevertheless, dot-com journalism has serious limitations. Like other emerging entities, its promise is promoted with a lot of hype. By 2005, estimates of Internet users in India vary between five million and 50 million (out of a population of more than one billion). Indeed, even figures of the number of current users, between 1.5 and two million, are probably exaggerated. After all, there are about three million personal computers in India, of which about two million can be connected to the Web. Even so, a McKinsey-NASSCOM (National Association of Software and Service Companies) survey predicts that India will have an estimated 23 million online by 2005 and possibly 100 million Internet users by 2008.

Also, a large slice of venture capital for Indian dot-coms is drawn from abroad. This makes their long-term survival uncertain, at best. Recently, the global dot-com shakeout resulted in the closure of many Indian ventures and mergers with larger companies of others. Internet analysts predict that over the long run only one out of 10 dot-coms will survive.

Since Web sites’ long-term survival hinges on revenues from advertising, it is imperative that they amass a large following. But with insecure futures, companies are likely to be wary of investing in online advertising. Besides, e-commerce, once considered the great hope of the Internet economy, is still a distant dream in India. Given this landscape, even interesting experiments such as tehelka.com might not survive. Indeed, after the recent shakeout, dot-coms are hiring fewer reporters and at much reduced salaries.

In India, as in other developing nations, technological obstacles such as slow and erratic connectivity, high phone bills, and narrow bandwidth make online reading not a very reliable or pleasurable experience. And the Pavlovian ritual of reading newspapers is too entrenched to expect a committed following to materialize for dot-com news. The required cultural transformation necessary for such a switch is likely years away.

In play, too, is the question of credibility. Even though dot-coms might claim that they strive to uphold journalistic values of fairness, honesty and accuracy, the intelligent consumer still scrutinizes information received through Web sites. The dot-com journalist, too, faces a similar problem of credibility when it comes to getting information from the government or the industry. Only reporters from the most well-known sites—such as Rediff and Tehelka—receive the same recognition as print reporters from officials in the government. Perhaps because of the peculiar format in which it appears, online writing tends to be short on analysis. For some reason, dot-com editors have come to believe that snippety and sassily written copy goes over well with the Web reader, whereas long reflective essays arouse boredom. Indeed, the changing character of market-driven newspapers and television demonstrates that there is nothing novel in this formula. It is clear that the media, in all its various forms, are pandering to the impulses of India’s rising affluent middle class by including a heavy dose of Bombay (rechristened as Mumbai by revivalists) films, fashion and gossip about the glitterati. Even tehelka.com couldn’t resist including a section of erotica on its site that is presented with style and sophistication.

Because most Web readers reside in urban areas, news on dot-coms tends to focus mainly on city and national issues. For that reason, people who live in rural areas and the issues they care about are pushed further to the fringe of national consciousness as Web sites define the parameters of what constitutes news. Of similar concern are the ways in which the technology is defining the space within which reporters now operate. Dot-com journalists hardly move out of their cyber holes. The result is that their copy tends to be highly imaginative and stylishly written but low on the substance and gritty detail that is the hallmark of field reporting. As long as their patron readers remain metropolitan it appears, unfortunately, that the journalistic ambit of dot-coms will stay narrow.

Language also remains a great barrier in reaching large masses of the Indian population. To serve the cause of good journalism, dot-coms will need to overcome their linguistic prejudices. But here lies a Catch-22. Those with access to modern communication technologies are, in large part, the English-speaking middle class who number a little more than 100 million. Given marketplace realities, dot-coms have little choice but to appeal initially to this ready-made audience.

It would have been good for India if this new medium would have provided a fresh counterfoil to the pulp and deadwood of the nation’s print and TV journalism. While it is probably still too early for a final verdict on the outcome, it is important to remember that dot-coms exist to make a profit, not for the sake of doing social good. Even so, dot-coms can no doubt enrich and empower journalists in exciting and powerful ways, provided journalists are able to keep in mind that service to the public good ought not to succumb to market pressures.

This might still occur, but it is unlikely to happen soon. Right now, Indian journalists are busy reaping the benefits of this new market. Yet, if they don’t plant the roots of solid journalism in these fields of news and entertainment, the harvest in future years might not treat so kindly the fruits of their labor.

Rakesh Kalshian, a 1999 Nieman Fellow, is a journalist with a New Dehli-based weekly newsmagazine called Outlook. He writes about science, the environment, and development issues.

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