Last November, Sam Pitroda, the technology adviser to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, held a “global Twitter press conference.” Hyped as the first of its kind, the press conference was scheduled to last 90 minutes.
But those expecting to see Twitter used to its full interactive potential came away disappointed. The “global” conference amounted to 20 tweets and received scant coverage in India’s news.
For journalists at The Hindu, the Chennai-based English-language daily with the third-largest circulation in India, this came as no surprise.
In the West, social media has arrived at a time of crisis for traditional newspapers. In India, newspaper circulation and advertising revenue are growing.
Lacking a sense of urgency and saddled with a variety of cultural, political and organizational challenges, Indian journalists are still searching for a meaningful role for social media.
Social media is “soft”
We spent time recently talking to journalists at The Hindu about their attitudes toward social media.
One of the few people willing to go on the record was assistant editor Karthik Subramanian, who suggested that Indian journalists view social networks like Facebook and Twitter as serious tools for reporting.
Subramanian said that reporters at The Hindu use social media to find stories and identify sources, but only for “soft features” as opposed to “hard news.”
“When it comes to hard news, I don’t think journalists take social media too seriously,” Subramanian said. “We have not yet reached a stage where we get some specific breaking news information – for hard news – that we verify and follow up.”
But Sam Pitroda’s press conference was hard news. So why did The Hindu and other news organizations give it only minor coverage?
Subramanian explained that “in the traditional news houses in India, Twitter is considered as a tool for self-promotion. It is yet to become an important tool for hard news verification and dialogue.”
Part of the reluctance to employ social media tools for “serious” news stories stems from a lack of trust. The internet is a fount of information, but it’s also filled with misinformation.
Subramanian pointed to the example of Vilasrao Deshmukh, a senior government minister who had recently been hospitalized in Chennai, and was mistakenly pronounced dead by one online publication.
“The story started trending in no time,” said Subramanian. “Hard news verification that is done by journalists, who cannot afford to get it wrong, cannot be done by social media at this moment, at least in India.”
When print is thriving, why go digital?
Indian newspapers have a “problem” many media outlets would love to have: In India, the success of print removes much of the incentive for papers to prioritize their digital presence.
It is a curious feature of India that at the same time as its consumers seek the latest mobile phones, they are also opting for the “old” technology of printed newspapers.
While Western newspapers struggle with declining revenues and high fixed costs, these are heady times for India’s press barons. India sells more newspapers than any other country in the world, and print circulation rises each year.
Economics tells part of the story. Indian newspapers are very cheap. The average per-issue cost of a major daily newspaper is less than 10 U.S. cents, only slightly more than the price 15 years ago.
By keeping prices so low, India’s major dailies have created large audiences for print advertising. And unlike in much of the West, where searchable websites have replaced the classified ads newspapers once printed, in India newspaper ads remain popular among advertisers and profitable for papers.
Audience size also affects how much time journalists give to social media. Today, with 1.2 billion people, India has fewer than 15 million Twitter accounts, many of which sit inactive.
This means that even on a good day, India’s Twitter population is less than that of Chennai, the southern city where The Hindu is based.
For these reasons, India’s major news organizations are content to wait before making significant investments in social media, according to Lata Ganapathy, The Hindu’s assistant editor on the internet desk.
“For a newspaper that does so well offline, recognition of social media as a ‘thing of the future’ can be delayed, resulting in playing catch-up later on when it could be too late,” Ganapathy, told us. “This curbs our online potential.”
A number of cultural and structural challenges also play a role in the reluctance of Indian newspapers to embrace social media, says Karthik Subramanian, The Hindu’s assistant editor.
As with most other newspapers in India, The Hindu’s digital operation remains physically separate from the traditional newsroom, meaning that the paper’s veteran print journalists have little interaction – and little regard for – the digital side of things.
“Siddharth Varadarajan, who took over as editor less than a year back, has been asking all young journalists to actively take to Twitter,” Subramanian said.
“But it is a mindset change, to ask digital immigrants – traditional journalists who are just taking to Twitter – to be very open about the information they possess. It is a professional reflex to be a bit closed.”
From political dissent to dialogue
The journalists we spoke with at The Hindu emphasized their desire to forge a stronger dialogue with readers, but several challenges stand in the way.
Old battles have found a new stage on Twitter. For instance, opponents of the paper’s editorial position on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue have criticized articles, columnists and editors.
One reporter told us that The Hindu is genuine in its desire to discuss the Tamil issue and other controversial editorial positions, but that the paper’s critics see social media as a way to distract and discredit the paper’s editors.
“Since dissent is the biggest motivator on social media,” the reporter told us, “it has been difficult for us to engage in a dialogue online.”
This is not the only politically related deterrent to social media use by journalists.
In recent years, the Indian government has limited social media use in troubled regions, as it did during last summer’s riots in the northeastern state of Assam. It has also blocked individual Twitter accounts.
Ganapathy, for her part, says she hopes to make The Hindu a pioneer in online Indian journalism by “bypassing the ‘catch-up’ phase and moving directly into the next version of the web.”
This means “more planned interaction, richer multimedia content and greater coordination between the print and online editions.”
She also said The Hindu, which considers itself a national paper, plans to focus its social media efforts on local coverage; the paper maintains Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts called “Chennai Central” devoted to “soft news” in the city where the paper is based.
“Any new experiments with social media are being conducted at and through Chennai Central,” she said.
These experiments already include a monthly photography contest, a monthly architectural tour of the city, a daily podcast and a monthly e-newsletter.
The conversation awaits
In recent years, century-old Western papers have faced questions of how to embrace new, more interactive technologies and retain their identities. That conversation still awaits the 130-year old Hindu and many other Indian dailies.
For now, if you want to read about the latest pronouncements from the prime minister’s technology adviser, you’ll need to pick up a newspaper.
A version of this story was first published by Neiman Journalism Lab.