A man reads the morning newspaper at the largest second-hand book market in the world on College Street in Kolkata, India. Photo: iStock

The latest Indian Readership Survey (IRS 2017) has scribbled grim writing on the wall for newspapers: For the first time ever, no English-language daily featured among the country’s top 10 most-read dailies. It shows an influential readership moving away from traditional news sources, and the dawn of a fascinating, complex, challenging new media order.

The new IRS – considered the world’s largest readership survey – only increased the decibels of the death knells tolling for conventional newspapers.

India has the world’s largest print-media market, with more than 70,000 newspapers and more than 100 million copies sold daily. But the new IRS data confirm the reign of the new masters of the media universe: online publications.

Statistics from Worldometers say 40% of the world’s 7.5-billion-strong population is Internet-connected, compared with 1% in 1995. The global Internet population reached 1 billion in 2005, the second billion in 2010, and the 3-billion mark was crossed only three years later, in 2014.

With Internet-connected devices increasing exponentially, the 2017 IRS survey showed 21st-century readers rapidly shifting to news online. Whether the new lords of the media are making the best and most unbiased use of their new power is a concern, however. Google News, for instance, presents a dire warning of online credibility challenges, with Google search algorithms being blatantly manipulated to offer only negative news of a certain presidency, ignoring the positives.

Media watcher Ashish Bhasin, chairman of the Media Research Users Council, offered a loyal pro-print-media spin on the IRS 2017 findings, saying “a bright future” awaits print.

But realistically there is no such “bright future.” Newspaper readership supply shrinking – like the pine, fir, eucalyptus and other softwood trees used to make paper (though some newspapers use recycled newsprint).

The fact that print media face bleak times ahead was highlighted with the Mumbai-based Times of India taking 11th spot in IRS 2017, the only English-language newspaper to feature in the top 20. It means that the most targeted audience for advertisers, English-speaking readers, has given up clutching the daily newspaper with the morning cup of tea.

A once-familiar sight increasingly vanishing from urban landscapes: tea with the newspaper.

It’s how soon, not if, non-English-speaking readers too turn to online news sources, after India increases its Internet connectivity to include villages.

India has the world’s second-largest English-speaking population, after the United States, and this English readership represents higher-spending consumer sections dear to big-budget advertisers.

Simultaneously, spending in digital advertising is seeing merry times. The revenue shift to online news pushes the good old newspaper vendor faster down the extinction road already followed by the dodo, the audio cassette and the floppy disk – all of which those below age 20 may never have seen in their young lifetimes.

New digital-age alliances are being made between old newspaper rivals. A press conference in Paris last July announces a deal called ‘Skyline’ between Le Monde and Le Figaro to share 70% of online advertising space in France.

The shift from print newspapers is a phenomenon not just with the young, but so too with middle-aged media professionals like me. It has been more than five years since I read a newspaper every morning, though the print-media office I inhabit in Mumbai gets a stack of them daily. The day’s first cup of tea is instead relished reading news online.

Change is the only constant, but news readership trends do not mean the death of newspaper names familiar from our childhood. Most leading newspapers have online versions. But with the website often  doing better than the print mothership, the newspaper genre is getting nearer to publishing its own obituary notice.

Yet the change to online news sources, while bringing the power of convenience, also brings the perils of carelessness.

Credible Internet news media with print origins – such as the pioneering Asia Times Online in 1999, since renamed Asia Times – continue with traditional, sturdy editorial safeguards in place. But it would be interesting for media surveys to reveal how many new online news publications have time-honored routines like daily editorial meetings.

Unlike conventional newspapers, online descendants have no static deadlines, are in continual update mode, and the frenzy to be early with the news often comes at cost of accuracy.

Therein loom challenges for the exciting new media cosmos, of ensuring convenience with credibility.

That is why the next Indian Readership Survey, and its global cousins, needs not just to reveal online readership numbers but also ask survey targets: How much do you trust the new news sources? And from the answers to such questions, we will learn, change and get better.

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Raja Murthy

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist contributing to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly for Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com etc. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

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