As international media steps up its coverage of India, Indians add foreign publications to their reading list

Within a few hours of Rahul Gandhi’s speech to a business chamber in the capital last week, The Economist magazine had a sharp critical commentary on the speech on its Banyan blog, written by the paper’s South Asia bureau chief, Adam Roberts. The India Ink blog of New York Times, and Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time were quick off the mark too, puncturing holes in Mr Gandhi’s narrative and style. No traditional Indian newspaper’s website had, till then, put up an analytical piece on the speech.

This was yet another instance of how the international media has stepped up its coverage of India in recent years, and how the coverage has taken different forms.

Explaining the key reason behind the spurt in coverage, foreign correspondents based in the capital told The Hindu that India was too ‘large and important a country and market’ to be ignored anymore. Its rising economic and strategic weight, integration with the rest of the world, had made a more nuanced understanding of the place essential.

Jason Overdorf, the India correspondent of Globalpost who was earlier with Newsweek, says, “The amount of press coverage of one country is directly linked to the financial investment of audience country in the former. With economic growth and investment, the interest in the west in India has grown.”

For Asian papers like The National, with its headquarters in Abu Dhabi, the motivation is different. The paper has an India page every day, and caters to a large Indian diaspora in the region. It has two political and one business correspondent in India.

Others point out that with declining revenues in their traditional markets in the west, news organisations are hoping that new territories like India – with an increasing English-reading population – could provide additional revenue. Mr Roberts says The Economist sells 35,000 copies every week in India, making it the fourth largest readership market after US, UK and Canada for the newspaper. “This allows us to print India-only editions with special covers...We do this for the sake of advertisers. More India-only ads are now coming in.”

There is also a clear recognition that digital is the future, and the success of sites and revenue will depend on hits it can generate. For foreign news organisations, the investment in setting up India blogs is limited, but the returns are high in terms of the visibility. When asked if India Ink generates revenues for NYT, Heather Timmons, who runs the blog, said, “Not yet but only because we have not really tried. It’s been more of an experiment.” But the big question is whether the quantity has corresponded with quality. Some stories have stood out, including the breaking story about the government’s efforts to censor the web, a sustained attention on the Delhi gang-rape case, the serialisation of Ayodhya dispute, investigations into public distribution system, profiles, archival research based stories, online debates between scholars and politicians.

While Mr Overdorf believes that much of the foreign press coverage remains ‘derivative’ from the Indian press, he adds that on stories with strong legal implications, there may be ‘higher standards of accuracy’. Another journalist says that foreign organisations can sometimes ‘pull-back’, and help the reader sift the important from the day-to-day din.

When asked how they added value for Indian readers Ms Timmons of NYT said, “I think we look at things a bit differently. After the Delhi gang-rape, for example, a lot of our coverage focused on the assailants and the question ‘Why?’ Why would a group of men do such a thing?” But she admits there are gaps in the reportage, particularly their excessive focus ‘only on the metros’.

Another foreign journalist points out that the fact that they do not have links with political parties or corporate houses means they can be trusted to provide more ‘independent coverage’. “Sometimes, outsiders are more direct, use less jargon, and do not assume knowledge, and that adds value,” says The Economist’s Mr Roberts.

But the biggest change for the foreign correspondent is that there is no fixed audience anymore. Traditionally, a journalist wrote for readers back home. But now, someone sitting in New York is reading Indian papers while someone sitting in New Delhi is reading foreign press on India. India Ink, which claims to have 800,000 unique visitors every month, draws readers from US, India, UK and Canada in that order. This, many correspondents admit, throws up major dilemmas about what stories to select, and how much background to put in.

With the increasing coverage, and the need to generate quality stories in the face of stiff competition, many foreign publications are also turning to Indian correspondents. Bureau chiefs may still be from headquarters, but the advantage of ‘knowing the context, language’ – according to several insiders – is now out-weighing the disadvantages of ‘over-familiarity’. “The energy in international media vis-a-vis India is unmistakabale,” says an Indian reporter with a foreign newspaper.

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