Looking back: Why alternative online media mostly failed to grow beyond its niche

Blame limited resources and failure to embrace a more diverse world of news and views.

ByAnand Vardhan
Looking back: Why alternative online media mostly failed to grow beyond its niche
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In the first autumn of the outgoing decade, something hastened the emergence of a new set of entities on Indian media scene – an emergence that anyway was inevitable. “Even for a pen drive it was small,” that’s how the then editor of Open magazine described the tiny pen drive containing the Radia tapes, a series of phone conversations which revealed in November 2010 some well known names in Indian media hobnobbing with a corporate lobbyist, and even facilitating political access, for what appeared to be non-journalistic purposes. Coming at a time when digital expansion was already being seen as the next driver of media industry in India, the Radia tapes revelations expedited the case for something more than that, the need for the alternative media as a counter to mainstream media.

By sowing a seed of scepticism, even disillusionment, about the legacy media in the minds of a section of news consumers, the Radia expose in a way made the ground conducive for alternative media entrepreneurs. What, however, made that feasible, and a technological inevitability, was something that happened a bit later in the decade. By the mid-2010s, the availability of affordable internet data on millions of mobile phones and computers added momentum to exclusively digital movement in the news media, especially alternative media. The rapid growth in internet penetration in India each year from mid-decade onwards could be gauged from the fact that by December 2018, India had crossed 500 million internet connections, a 65 percent jump from the number of internet connections in 2016.

However, even mainstream media groups like Network 18 (with Firstpost), the Times of India group (collaborating with an international brand to set up HuffPost India) and the Rajasthan Patrika group (running Catch News) also jumped in the digital-only media segment. But their origins could be traced to only the technological part of the two developments and the change in news consumption patterns. Being themselves a part of large mainstream media conglomerates, their genesis had nothing to do with the first of the above developments that one witnessed in the first year of the decade.

Standing in contrast to that and spurred by the space and feasibility offered by both the catalysts, the exclusively online alternative media canvas had early entries in the decade, like Newslaundry in 2012, and steadily got filled with digital news websites like Scroll (2014), Swarajya (2014, though it has a token presence as a print magazine too) and The Wire (2015) by the middle of the decade. The emergence of another category of digital-only media platforms – like The Quint ( 2015) and The Print (2017) – was more a case of former mainstream media stalwarts charting a different course after organisational churning in the legacy media entities with which they were identified. To an extent, that was true for The Wire too.

It should be remembered that these digital-only alternative media platforms have to compete with the digital platforms of mainstream media entities, like the websites of newspapers such as the Times of India or the Hindu and that of news channels like NDTV – websites which were in existence even before the decade had set in.

So the obvious question is: how did the exclusively digital alternative media portals fare in terms of their reach and credibility among media consumers vis-à-vis the digital platforms of legacy media?

The new online independent media publications remain small ventures that enrich the public sphere but lack the share of voice of the mainstream,” observed the media critic Sevanti Ninan in a piece earlier this year. This observation of a professional media critic is in sync with what the cursory glance of a casual media consumer would suggest. The quantifiable validation for such inferences can be derived from the comparative numbers for the readership of the digital platforms of legacy media entities and online alternative media portals.

Another way, obviously, was an online survey of media consumers. One such survey, published as the India Digital News Report earlier this year by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, and based on a little over a thousand online responses, shows the huge lead that digital platforms of mainstream media entities like the Times of India and NDTV had over alternative media digital platforms like The Wire or region-specific online platforms like The NewsMinute. Even in terms of brand trust, the flagship newspapers like the Times of India and the Hindustan Times and the public broadcaster DD News scored over alternative digital media portals like The Wire and OpIndia.

There are a few obvious reasons for the big gap in popular reach and credibility – the outreach resource gap, the clear early bird edge of legacy media, brand identification, and entrenched news consumption habits. But some reasons may be traced to the limits placed by the very nature of the mandate and motivations that shaped the origin of online alternative media entities.

In being stagnant with the mandate of counter-MSM editorial priorities and journalistic narrative, the alternative media has been mostly failing in going beyond that niche. There are many reasons for the failure to outgrow that insular niche, some of which seem more a case of orientation.

First, something that the alternative online media has been unable to do is where mainstream media platforms are still unrivalled – being a one-stop repository for different sets of news consumers. MSM digital platforms, despite many flaws, thrive as catch-all baskets for round-the-clock information seekers, ranging from politics to cricket, from fashion to music and important news (which doesn’t only mean the unusual massacres) from a hamlet in Arwal district in Bihar to that from a Delhi suburb.

The restricted news gathering of alternative digital media might be as much because of resource crunch as it might be because of how it defines its mandate as the “alternative” – the latter being largely ideologically-driven. The average news consumer may understand the former constraint, but will not be willing to be deprived of important news stories because of the latter. She wants the alternative news media to be an improved version of MSM, not a depleted version of MSM’s eclectic news basket.

Second, an important reason behind why the alternative media is infected with insularity is something that Ninan, in a different context, ironically credits it with. In pursuing its editorial mandate of what Ninan calls “a dogged counter to co-option”, the alternative media platforms – on the right, left and centre of the ideological spectrum – became echo chambers for like-minded groups of media consumers seeking news and views for reinforcement of their inclinations. They became far more pronounced expressions of similar divide in MSM, it’s just that the small scale of operations of the online media operations made its slants far more obvious.

Interestingly, the way the alternative online platforms defined the “co-option” that they were supposedly countering also revealed the binaries of ideological divide running through their worldview. The left or left-of-centre, or occasionally centrist platforms, platforms like The Wire, News Click, Scroll, or The Quint see their mandate at present as resistance to the danger of co-option coming from the political establishment, led by the powerful rightwing government at the Centre. On the other side of the divide, the right-of-centre, and occasionally rightist, alternative media portals like Swarajya see themselves as carrying the mandate of resisting the danger of co-option coming from the entrenched establishment in media discourse – led by a left-liberal coteries of the elite, pejoratively called Lutyens Media. They also see themselves as challenging the uncritical and ill-defined “common sense” that the left-liberal elite has been institutionalising through media and educational institutions.

Despite very different reasons for resistance and quite contrasting perceptions of danger, the common thread is that both sets of alternative media portals see themselves as a counter to some form of co-option. In positioning themselves as such, the nature of intellectual discourse and journalistic narratives on these portals have been confined to predictable lines of reasoning, commentary and storytelling. Any points of departure from such templates on these platforms is a matter of exception, not the rule. The latter defines their regular route, the former is only an occasional detour. One, for instance, has to look at the commentary and reporting in these platforms on the ongoing anti-Citizenship Amendment Act stir to get a sense of their confined frames.

Besides the above factors, the limited logistical and financial resources obviously put the alternative media ventures at serious disadvantage while competing with the digital presence of mainstream media giants. However, in editorial and journalistic parts of their working, it’s their inability to outgrow their origins and failure to embrace a more diverse world of news and views that defined their failures despite a promising beginning in the decade.

As a new decade arrives, there is little to suggest that the exclusively online media platforms in India – an enduring inheritance from the outgoing decade – would accomplish the delicate feat of outgrowing the mandate of their birth without doing away with the core values with which they were envisaged.

In a way, the idea of the alternative media in the new decade needs to see that what the media scene constantly needs is a counter to lopsided commentary and information on the same platform as much as it sees itself as a counter to any form of co-option – economic, political, cultural, or intellectual. The important words to mark are, “on the same platform”. To recall the expectation of an average media consumer: she wants the alternative news media to be an improved version of MSM, not a depleted version of MSM’s eclectic news basket.

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