India’s media explosion

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in India over the weekend, she could be forgiven for feeling like all of the country’s eyes were upon her. India’s economic boom of the last two decades has won global attention and the committed engagement of Washington’s strategists, but Clinton will have come face to face with another boom much less noticed abroad: that of the lens, the notepad, and the ubiquitous journalist. Buoyed by rises in literacy and income across the country. India’s media — and particularly its newspaper industry — is growing prodigiously in a time of global shrinkage. As their bureaus close, editions collapse, and entire publications fold, journalists in the West have cause to look enviously eastward, where the Fourth Estate is flourishing.

The world got its first real taste of this astonishing growth during November’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, when India last dominated international headlines. The atrocity will be remembered not just for the image of the smoking cupolas of the Taj hotel, its grand Victorian facade engulfed in flames, but for the sheer profusion of cameras, microphones, and frantic reporters covering the tragedy live. The attack was designed for the consumption of India’s media, now nearly as sprawling and varied as the country itself. A calculating, vicious assault of the scale of Mumbai’s “26/11” would no doubt shake any country to its core. That it could so transfix a nation of such size and diversity is a testament to India’s changing media landscape — to how information in a blizzard of languages and forms is increasingly available to the billion-plus people who live in the world’s largest democracy.

Priyaranjan Das Munshi, India’s minister for information and broadcasting, has described the growth of Indian media as “a revolution.” In all sectors, the information landscape has been transformed radically over the last 20 years. Take television: Before India departed from decades of dense regulation in 1991 and embarked upon its wide-ranging project of market liberalization, Indians only had access to the grainy broadcasts of Doordarshan, the staid state-run network. With the subsequent arrival of international satellite television and the emergence of several India-based private broadcasters, entertainment and news alternatives developed rapidly. The last 10 years have witnessed a further expansion; there are now at least 300 channels available via cable, including 30 news channels broadcasting in almost all of India’s 22 official languages. Indian radio has seen a similar proliferation, with the number of FM stations soaring. The chatter of the Indian blogosphere grows more vigorous by the day. By any measure, India is a much noisier country than it once was.

But louder still — and perhaps more significant — than the blare of TV or the crackle of radio is the crinkle of newspaper. As the fortunes of the printed press have plummeted across Europe and the United States, rising literacy and robust advertising have ignited a boom in India. In 1976, when the country’s population was 775 million, one copy of a newspaper was published for every 80 Indians. By the turn of the 21st century, as the population passed 1 billion, there was one copy available for every 20 Indians. So extraordinary is the growth that it has been compared by some scholars to the heyday of the press in the United States of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when 20 dailies in New York City alone fought for the attention of a print-hungry readership. According to government statistics, there are 62,000 newspapers already in circulation in India, with more expected to emerge.

The newspaper owes its success not only to the growth of India’s city- and town-based middle classes, but to transformations in the vast rural hinterlands of the country. Rising literacy rates have illuminated the once seemingly dark and benighted countryside. In 1976, 35 percent of Indians could read; now almost double that percentage can, and rising youth literacy, now at 82 percent, guarantees that the ranks of readers will only swell. According to a 2006 study, literacy rates are climbing even faster in rural areas than in urban ones. So while a deep chasm still exists between rural and urban India, it is encouraging that at least half of all newspaper readers are found outside the cities.

The clearest sign of newspapers’ broadening appeal is the ascendance of the non-English press. Circulation of Hindi newspapers, for example, has risen from less than 8 million in the early 1990s to more than 25 million today. At least 3,200 newspapers are published in Hindi — more than three times the number published in English. The largest of these, Dainik Jagran, maintains a circulation of more than 17 million and claims a readership of 56 million, where “readership” numbers account for the Indian habit of sharing newspapers broadly with several friends or relatives. Many other regional languages — from Assamese in the country’s far east to the more established (in literary terms) Malayalam in the southwest — boast strong and growing newspaper industries.

Read the rest of this piece at Foreign Policy

This piece was originally published on 20 July 2009


11 thoughts on “India’s media explosion

  1. Well written. I would like to see what the solution could be for Kashmir.

    Interesting to note that Musharraf want an autonomous region (with both countries Armies protecting?), with both Kashmir’s getting united, while Jammu stays with India!

  2. That was some observation! Liked the way in which you’ve started it off – with Hillary’s visit. But, for an Indian journalist, who’s left a promising career back home to explore opportunities in the Middle East, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Feeling bad about my career move. 😦 Can’t even claim to leave everything and return as I’m only a week-old in foreign land. Will just wait and watch. Have sent you a friend request in Facebook, please do accept. Liked your writing style

  3. My response is in two parts, one for Ramesh and one for the Author.

    This is in response to Ramesh-

    I somehow cannot connect to your comment.

    If Media were to decide matters, the state of affairs would have been totally different to what it is now; whether good or bad, may always vary.

    Also, what Musharraf wants is hardly something to be taken into view. It is like giving weightage to what any single political leader wants, say for instance, L. K Advani or Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.

    In the words of V.K. Krishna Menon- What we have in Kashmir is a situation and not an issue.

    Thus, it shall have to be resolved by taking into due consideration the wishes of all the people of the state of Jammu & Kashmir: The Kashmiri Pandits, The Kashmiri Muslims, The Dogras, The Ladakhis, The Gujjars and etc. One section of people cannot decide to secede from the nation and that too on the basis of the Two-Nation Theory that India does not endorse.


    This is in response to Kanishk

    If I get you right; I reckon you are trying to, in a very subtle manner, bring to the fore the volatility of the media in India. I, personally think, the dominant chunk of media in India is aggressive and preoccupied in sensationalizing and glamourizing a specific set of events and capitalising on them. Sometimes, it leads to serious impediments in investigative procedures, but then, I am not sure if anything concrete is done to prevent it.

    After the ’26/11′ (I am not too comfortable with the nomenclature), the way I perceived media was- as though being too restless and more than eager to capitalise on any information regarding the events. One such incident was the Ram Gopal Verma & Vilasrao Deshmukh incident.



  4. Very nicely written and very well timed. Having been in media and continuing to have an interest in it, this article was refreshing and added to my knowledge as well sparked off some thoughts of my own for a post on my blog.

  5. nice story on the media boom in indian subcontinent!
    But don’t u think that this boom somewhere is going to cause a turbulence in the near future??
    Even if we consider the case of 26/11, all types of balderdash stories were coming out by the alleged reliable news sources in the media…
    May be the ministry of inf. and broadcasting should do something about the regulation of the media broadcasting issues ………………………..

  6. You have an amazing style of writing and expressing.. You have found your ‘fan’ in me!

    Loved it! Looking forward to read more of your write-ups..! 🙂

  7. I was reading my teacher’s blog the other day and was overwhelmed to know that he believes in a principle to the core- “Do not talk about individuals, talk about issues”. I’ve seen him implementing this. On this context, let me address the current Indian media. Everytime when I tackle such issues, I borrow heavily from P Sainath sir, my favorite journalist. It’s long since our country’s media has taken up actual “issues” and done justice with them- price rise, farm crisis and rural injustice being the worst reported till date.

    We live in a country where every issue is reduced to a fight between individuals, heroic, villainous or just fun figures. So the complex issues behind the shunning of Pakistani cricketers by the Indian Premier League have reduced to a fight between Shah Rukh Khan and Bal Thackeray. The agonies of Bundelkhand are not about hunger and distress in our Tiger Economy. They are just a stand-off between Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati. The issues of language and migrations in Maharashtra are merely a battle between Rahul Gandhi and Uddhav Thackeray. And the coverage is all about who blinked first, who lost face. Here I go again, taking lot many names, again.

    As our TV and newspaper reporters blabber, I read somewhere “freedom of expression”. Frankly, we have neither. All we are left off with, is twisted freedom and a tortured expression. Issues today are either used to scare people, or entertain them. And all we do about it is hold a bag of popcorn and watch.


  8. Good and informative article.
    But it also avoids many bitter facts as facts are always manipulative. To say that there are one news paper on 20 Indian is not full picture. News papers are less accountable and people oriented.

  9. What do you think of Kochi IPL team?

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