The Quint, a mobile-first website, was launched in March this year. With 80 journalists out of a staff of 135, it offers everything from politics and sports to entertainment, much like a newspaper or news channel but without the added frills of one. It covered the recent Bihar elections using only smartphones, doing away with OB vans and photographers. It gave them "speed, accessibility and they were less intrusive," says Ritu Kapur who set up the website along with husband Raghav Bahl, the founder of Network18. She reckons the site, which attracts an average of two million users a month, will break even in 36 months.
The Quint is one of several portals in the Indian cyberspace which are re-imagining news. The Wire, Quartz, Scroll, Catch News are among the other 'original content websites,' structured like a multimedia newspaper, where short videos rub shoulders with high-impact long-form pieces on the same platform. Up to 80 per cent of the content on these sites is created by journalists. The rest are aggregated from other sites or sourced from bloggers.
And they are finding audiences.
The numbers are small: one to three million unique visitors a month for most compared to 7.5 million readers for the Times of India in its physical form or over 60 million visitors a month for NDTV.com. But across the board, editors and owners say that long-form, high-quality investigative articles get read the most. "We are aggregating the thinking readers of India," says Samir Patil, founder and CEO, Scroll Media.
Many of them are accessing these portals on their mobile phones or through the social media. And they are mostly young. This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that young people are not interested in newspapers. They might not read them in the physical form, going by the data from the India Readership Survey, but they are drawn by a well-written piece on the Aarushi murder case or a serious video on Lalu Prasad online.
For instance, a 2,300-word piece on US shenanigans on trade negotiations, based on WikiLeaks documents, got over 2,000 shares from The Wire's Facebook page. Most editors wouldn't have given that piece any chance except in an academic journal. "One of our most shared pieces was a blog arguing that contemporary feminism is not adequately accounting for motherhood," says Puneet Singhvi, business head, Times Global Partner, the publishers of Huffington Post in India.
A new business model
Apart from reaching out to an audience hungry for something different from what is offered by the mainstream media, these portals are also trying a fresh approach to the business of news which has been in trouble lately. The entry of dodgy investors, pressure from aggressive advertisers, proliferation of paid news and lack of trained staff have lead to an unrelenting downward spiral, especially in TV news.
The Wire was funded by its co-founders, each of whom have put in about Rs 2 lakh in the venture. It is now a part of the newly-registered The Foundation for Independent Journalism, a not-for-profit company (under section 8). It has applied for a grant from the Independent and Public Spirited Media Trust that Azim Premji and a bunch of prominent Indians set up earlier this year.
A section 8 company is not allowed to award dividends to its shareholders, so Varadarajan and the other co-founders are now like any other employee of The Wire. "We want to see if we can create an institution that will outlive us," says Varadarajan. So far, The Wire has been putting out opinion-based articles but it hopes to hire people for ground reporting once the funds are in place. The Wire intends to remain ad free.
Scroll, on the other hand, is funded by Omdiyar Network which describes itself as a 'philanthropic investment firm.' The funding and ownership structure is key to these brands' evolution. Some of the trusted media brands in the world - The Guardian, BBC, The Economist, Al Jazeera - have a trust or a not-for-profit element in their ownership. This frees investing in quality journalism from revenue pressures.
The Google of all things
These websites are a brave attempt at democratising news. As things stand today, the web world is moving towards ghettoisation of audiences. A search engine based on what users have been looking for often directs them only to a set of news sources which it thinks might be of relevance to them, thus limiting their exposure to other news.
This holds a social consequence. "Many people see the digital world as a democratic world. But democracy functions when there is collective action and therefore we need to have a collective news consumption on some things at least," says Tim Luckhurst, head (centre for journalism), University of Kent.
In some ways, the social media, which is what many of these websites ride on, is breaking that pattern. "The social media is more of a meritocracy. It is not about fixing the Google algorithm but about quality journalism," says Jay Lauf, president and publisher, Quartz.
However, what is a bigger problem than the algorithmic nature of search engines is the question of profit. In a market dominated by Google and an ever increasing number of players, how will these websites make money to fund high-quality content?
Scroll just hired its first ad person almost 18 months years after its launch. Huffington Post, on the other hand, used the minimum guarantee route - it gave away the India inventory to GroupM for a year that ends in December this year.
Others are resorting to 'branded content', the equivalent of advertorials in newspapers. "We let our branded content sit in the main flow. Otherwise, marketers are struggling to figure out how to place their brands in the middle of stories on genocide or cricket. For example, Goldman Sachs' macro-economic outlook, why not use it as branded content?" says Lauf. Quartz claims it gets $69 (Rs 4,435) per thousand readers. That is just over twice of what The Economist.com claims to get. The best rate that (only) video websites get in India is Rs 300-400.
The third, albeit unstated, challenge is the competition from the likes of NDTV.com or the Times of India. These companies have an established news generating machine, making their costs a fraction of those for the new portals. Plus, they have a cash spewing machine in their offline operations. NDTV makes Rs 106 crore of its Rs 571 crore revenue from its online arm. The Times of India group gets 4-5 per cent of its Rs 7,200 crore topline from the internet.
What then is driving the surge in news portals, given the Rs 4,350-crore digital ad market is still dominated by Google and the Rs 26,300-crore newspaper business largely thriving?
The answer says Patil is that the internet has "happened in India only in the last three years. Facebook has gone from 10 to 100 million, there are 125 million internet users. The e-commerce boom has created an ecosystem of advertisers who are looking for leads from an online audience. Remember Amazon made Google."