India's Printing Presses Roll on Newspaper Boom

While many newspapers in Western countries are going out of business, consolidating or cutting staff, the industry is exploding in India. National circulation rose 33 percent between 2001 and 2005. The World Association of Newspapers reports India now has nearly 2,000 daily newspapers - a growth of nearly 25 percent during this decade. VOA's Steve Herman in New Delhi takes a look at what is behind India's boom.

India's printing presses have never been busier.

Industry analysts estimate total daily newspaper circulation has hit 80 million copies, divided among almost 2,000 different papers. The country's newspaper registrar lists more than 62,000 publications, including weeklies, monthlies and corporate newspapers.

Subir Ghosh, editor of the web site Newswatch India, says the market has tremendous room for growth as both the economy and literacy expand.

"There are about, what? Roughly 396 million people here in India who can read and write, but do not read newspapers," he says. "Now that's almost … twice the existing market, so there is a lot of virgin territory there."

While much of the focus is on the elite urban English-language readership, Ghosh says the real boom is in the countryside.

"You have a big market there," he notes. "Now to see who are the people who are capturing this market, these are all (local) language dailies, these are not English newspapers.

But new English-language papers are also appearing, in large part because of the amount of advertising targeted at well-heeled, English-reading urbanites. Studies by Indian research firms show that advertising is growing by 15 to 20 percent annually.

One new English-language entrant is Mint, a joint venture of India's Hindustan Times and the United States' Wall Street Journal.

Mint has entered a marketplace already crowded with four major business dailies.

One of the Mint's journalists is Mitra Kalita, who worked for the Washington Post in the U.S.

"Our core audience is dealing with the West in a lot of cases on a daily and, in some cases, hourly basis," she explains. " And I think that's creating a shift in the whole country."

Kalita is the type of reader Mint wants: multilingual, well-traveled, highly educated and Internet savvy. Her boss, Raju Narisetti, predicts it will be some time before the Internet cuts into Indian newspaper sales, as it has in the West, noting that less than five percent of Indian households have Internet connections.

"There's no question that 10, 15 years from now the media cycle will be very similar to what's happening in the West," he says. " But until then it's a good ride. Circulation is still growing and growing in high single digits, and sometimes double digits."

Not everyone can get in on the ride, however. The market is not fully open to all players.

Indian law limits foreigners to 26 percent ownership of newspapers. And papers must limit content purchased from outside India to 20 percent.

Narisetti says that puts newspapers at a disadvantage to cable TV stations, which face no such restrictions.

"I think it's much more of a knee-jerk, political reaction, and when the ruling coalition is supported and stays in power because of the left parties, it's very hard for anybody to come forward openly and say I'm going to go to bat for a foreign media company. It's political suicide," he says.

Still Western media companies have an eye on the money to be made here. Analysts say watch the headlines for news that India will come under greater pressure in trade talks to open its media market further.