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India’s newspapers are read all over

Miranda Kennedy May 15, 2007

India’s newspapers are read all over

Miranda Kennedy May 15, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: The news has been in the news the past couple of weeks. There’s that Reuters-Thomson deal Lisa was just telling us about. Rupert Murdoch wants to buy the Wall Street Journal. He’s asking for a face-to-face meeting with the family that controls the Dow Jones Company. But otherwise nothing much new to report on that.

The conventional wisdom about newspapers is that they’re a dying breed — that falling circulation and disappearing ad revenues will drive most of them out of business. Or at least out of print and onto the Web. But before you write that obituary, look at India. Home to 300 big papers that are read by almost 160 million people. Miranda Kennedy reports.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: Dozens of customers are lined up outside the classified ads office of Mumbai’s famous city tabloid, Midday. Theyre waiting their turn at the window. Then they dictate their ad — to announce a name change or post for a job vacancy at their company. The agent types it up and prints it out on a stuttering printer.

Advertising hasn’t yet gone digital in India. This antiquated media model generates hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for papers like Midday, which has about 160,000 readers: Not bad for a local paper, but not huge either. Yet editor Tariq Ansari says his revenues have increased 20 times in the 17 years he’s been running the paper.

TARIQ ANSARI: We’re all riding the crest of this huge advertising wave.

Newspaper readership is flattening in the U.S., because so many people read online now instead. But in India, fewer than 2 percent of adults have Internet access. So newspaper readers are actually proliferating.

ANSARI: Economic growth has led to development and development has led to literacy. Outside of the big cities, Hindi newspapers have just exploded, fueled by new literates, people who are literate for the first time. So if I’ve just started reading, the big thing in my life is to carry a newspaper because it’s a sign that says I read. And that’s a powerful statement to make.

In India’s cities, there’s what Ansari calls a second wave of literacy — that is, from the local language to English. And it seems every other month someone launches a new newspaper to meet the demand.

Raju Narisetti recently joined their ranks. A couple months ago he left his lofty position as deputy managing editor at the Wall Street Journal Europe to move to India and start a business paper. Or, to be exact, the country’s fifth English-language business newspaper. But he’s betting there’s room for one more.

RAJU NARISETTI: It’s still the cheapest form of getting information. It’s less than what you would pay for a cup of tea on a street kiosk. Television is starting to really make a lot of inroads, but it’s pretty expensive. So while it’s spreading, I think newspapers will play a pretty strong role for quite a while to come.

Narisetti’s paper — which is called Mint and takes 20 percent of its content from the Wall Street Journal — literally costs less than the paper it’s printed on. Subscribers pay about 2 cents a copy, which means Narisetti loses 9 cents on every issue. But he’s not worried.

NARISETTI: I used to sit in meetings in Europe where if the advertising people said that we’re going to have a flat quarter, we would all be very very happy about it. I’ve sat in meetings here where the CEO pounds his fist and saying 40 percent growth is completely unacceptable and that we are like slacking off and why is it not 60 percent growth. So that’s the kind of environment India is in right now.

So although some of his colleagues thought he was nuts to leave the Journal to launch a paper in the Third World, it was an easy decision for Narisetti. And he already feels vindicated. He says almost every day he gets an e-mail from an American journalist asking if he has any openings.

In Mumbai, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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