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Why Digital Skews Media

Do only some consumers matter? It is a question I frequently ask of researchers, media firms, marketers and analysts. For example, 31 percent of Indian voters had chosen the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP in 2014. Why then does more than 90 percent of news media talk only to that 31 percent?

Similarly, 836 million Indians watched TV, more than 385 million people read a newspaper, more than a billion film tickets were sold in 2018 but most discussions and research on media focus on digital audiences.

The Reuters Institute for Study of Journalism’s (RISJ) India Digital News Report was released last week. Online news generally (56 percent), and social media specifically (28 percent), have outpaced print (16 percent) as the main source of news among respondents under 35. Trust in news sources is low are among its varied findings. Many of these are in line with anecdotal evidence. The survey was conducted by YouGov using an online questionnaire in early January 2019. The sample size remains undisclosed. “The sample is reflective of the English-speaking population in India that has access to the internet. As a result, it is skewed towards male, affluent, and educated respondents. As an online survey, the results will further under-represent the consumption habits of people who are not online (typically older, less affluent and with limited formal education),” says the report.

To be fair — it is the ‘Digital News Report’, RISJ does put caveats all over the report on language and internet access and this is an honest effort.

But reports like these or even the last two years’ FICCI-Frames reports are part of a skewed narrative about online media being this ubiquitous, omnipotent force that is killing TV, print and other media.

It is not.

Of India’s 480 odd million broadband users, 279 million consume news and information online says comScore. There is some duplication between a reader of The Times of India online and offline, much of this is corrected by agencies like comScore that tabulate this data. So far, except for English, readership is not significantly affected for most of the large language groups.

TV has been facing the same kind of negative discourse. Netflix, MX Player and Voot are about to kill TV it would seem. The reality — Indians spent three hours and 45 minutes watching TV every day, a figure that has risen year on year. They spent 50 minutes a day watching streaming video in 2018. It was also one of the best years for the film industry that actually saw ticket sales rise.

The point is all media co-exist. Look at the US. In the 1940s, the fear that vinyl records would ruin the live concert business led to a strike by musicians. In the 1970’s, it was a war against analog tapes, in the 80s against blank CDs, in the 90s against music compression technologies — remember Napster. Live music bounced back, the music industry is having a great time thanks to digital. And radio and podcasting continue. Every new technology comes, reshapes things and then settles down to co-exist. Tomorrow if something better than digital comes along; it will wedge itself in too.

In the US each media — newspapers, radio, TV — had its day in the sun, it matured, consumers explored it and then went to another new technology long after. India was, technically, a media dark market till the mid-80s when the first cable channels (showing pirated video films) came. It really opened up in 1991 with the first private satellite channels and economic liberalization. It took off only in the late 90s when everything — private TV, radio, newspapers — started expanding madly. That explains why print and TV consumption continue to grow. We just haven’t had enough of these.

There is a whole India out there reading newspapers, watching films or listening to radio in Malayalam, Tamil, and Marathi among a host of languages — and a bulk of this is not online. It is embracing digital too, with as much enthusiasm. On revenue, profits and every other parameter, digital is still catching up. Even if it overtakes print or TV or any other media, it will co-exist.―Business Standard

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