New Delhi - Any key news event in New Delhi is usually swarming with reporters and cameramen jostling for quotes and pictures, and polite questions frequently turn into shouting matches.
Delhi is the hub of India's media boom, home to the world's biggest print news industry, with more print journalists than any other city, hosting dailies and periodicals in English, Hindi and dozens of regional languages.
Outside the cities, people poring over newspapers at road-side tea-stalls or dusty village squares is a common scene. A newspaper may be shared by many people and often read to those who are illiterate.
“The business, particularly in rural areas, has never been so good,” said Praveen Gupta, a newspaper distributor in Delhi's suburb of Ghaziabad, part of the Hindi heartland. “With migration to the cities, everyone wants to read papers and know about opportunities or courses that could land them good jobs.”
Media experts attribute the rapid expansion of the press to the country's fast-growing economy, higher disposable incomes and advertising budgets, a huge population, but most of all, literacy levels that have jumped from 12 percent at independence in 1947 to 74 percent.
And the threat of online news, which has undermined the newspaper business in the West, is low in India, where internet penetration is just 10 percent.
The country is the biggest newspaper market in the world with over 107 million copies sold each day, according to a World Association of Newspapers report from 2009, and 82,222 publications listed with the Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI).
According to RNI officials, the total number of newspapers has grown 24 percent in the past five years. Readership has also grown, to 329 million, up from 115 million in 2001.
It presents a stark contrast to industrialised countries where circulations have been shrinking for a decade.
An Indian newspaper may be just four pages and cost as little as 5 cents, while getting a television set and subscribing to channels is still beyond many people's means.
“With growing urbanisation in a young country that has higher education levels and aspirations, Indians feel the need to be more connected and aware. They are increasingly news-hungry,” said Durbar Ganguly, the editor-in-chief of the Millennium Post, a recently launched English broadsheet.
Media expert Paranjoy Guha Thakurta says the growth in newspapers is driven by the non-English-language press. Publications in Hindi - as well as Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, and others - keep launching in small towns and cities.
Hindi-language newspapers alone account for 45 percent of total circulation of all papers, and Hindi dailies dominate the top 10
The growth of local-language media reflects increasing regional self-confidence, according to industry insiders.
“It is a reflection of the growing ambitions and prosperity of people in the regions. They are becoming more literate and want to read about themselves, local subjects and politics which they will not find in the national press,” said Shravan Garg, chief editor of Nai Duniya group, owned by India's top print group, Dainik Jagran.
Virender Bidhuri, the son of a farmer from Haryana state, is preparing for an administrative services exam and lives in south Delhi. “Back in the village, our family gets only one Hindi newspaper, but here we are subscribed to two national English papers, besides current affairs magazines,” he said.
The Indian media can claim a long tradition of robust independence. But concerns are now being raised about the decline in its standards amid the growth.
“The media is becoming increasingly oligopolistic. As big corporate interests gain greater control over the media, this constrains choice by reducing the plurality and heterogeneity of both news and views,” Thakurta said.
Ganguly raised concerns over the involvement of big business.
“More than political parties, it is corporates who are hijacking the agenda of India, its reforms and policies, and pushing their own agendas. The objectivity of news and quality of journalism is getting compromised,” Ganguly said.
“Paid news,” which politicians used in the 2009 national polls to get favourable coverage, has also riled the Press Council of India.
But despite the challenges, newspaper revenues are predicted to remain strong, growing 9.6 per cent annually between 2011 and 2015 to nearly $5 billion, according to research by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. A lucrative untapped market still remains, with hundreds of millions of potential new customers.
Robin Jeffrey, author of India's Newspaper Revolution, forecasts that Indian print media will flourish for the next 15 years. And with a low internet penetration rate, it seems unlikely that free news on the web will be a threat in the near future. - Sapa-dpa