The demise of the printed newspaper is a death long foretold, yet it still came as a shock when the United Kingdom’s daily, The Independent, announced it was abandoning paper and going digital-only.

By way of comfort, the industry looked to the launch of The New Day, the UK’s first new national newspaper since The Independent and its sibling the I. Less than two months after launch, The New Day announced the presses will stop. Many are asking if the new day dawning belongs to digital after all.

Other newspapers the world over are turning to digital and mobile in an attempt to reinvigorate their print product. They want to use print to leverage their digital presence, thus offering their audiences various touch points with their brand throughout the day.

The Hindustan Times successfully uses social media as an engagement platform: Its Facebook community surged from 500,000 to 4.5 million in two years; Twitter from 200,000 to 2.8 million.
The Hindustan Times successfully uses social media as an engagement platform: Its Facebook community surged from 500,000 to 4.5 million in two years; Twitter from 200,000 to 2.8 million.

It’s a story repeated around the world — except for in Asia, where the pundits point, at the moment, to a thriving newspaper business. It is a newspaper Shangri-La where circulation figures are, in many cases, still rising, and advertising revenue is growing.

This is usually explained as a simple regional exception due to development in modern digital infrastructure and growing literacy. But on closer inspection, we believe that digital is also showing newspapers how to engage successfully with their audiences.

Take India, for example, the second-most populated country in the world with around 1.325 billion people. Daily newspaper circulation tops around 260 million copies, and the numbers are growing as literacy (currently around 80%) increases and consumer spending rises. Internet access penetration, however, is only around 30% compared with the USA and UK, which stands around 90%.

India is experiencing an explosion in digital communication and the government is ramping up efforts to give Internet access to every citizen. The world’s cheapest 3G smartphone — priced less than US$4 — recently arrived in the market. India is now the second-largest smartphone market in the world after China, having just surpassed the USA earlier than expected, with a user base of 220 million — and that was prior the US$4 model coming out.

Although smartphone penetration is still under 30% of the potential, 42% of urban smartphone users say it is their prime means of access to the Internet, according to FICCI-KPMG Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report, 2015. By June 2016, India is estimated to have 400 million mobile Internet users, mostly accessing through smartphones.

Newspaper publishers in India, while still growing in print, are mobilising and teaming up with digital as an ally. They have learned the lessons of what happened to many newspapers in the West a decade or so ago and are diving into the deep end of digital while they are still strong.

So what can publishers in the West learn from India?

The Indian media sector is ferociously competitive. Great attention is paid each day as to whether publishers are beating their rivals in content, audience numbers, innovation, and advertising.

Indian newspaper publishers are also increasingly focused on audience data and on audience relationships. Digital metrics show, for example, those stories that are being read more and being shared more.

Some publishers have seen a virtual explosion in their social audiences. The Hindustan Times, for example, found that its Facebook community had surged from around 500,000 to around 4.5 million in just two years, and its Twitter followers had grown in the same period from around 200,000 to close to 2.8 million.

Why? Because basically it stopped using the old-school social media “push” approach: From “Here’s my stuff — read it!” to using social media as an engagement platform.

There’s a big advantage in that boom. Active engagement with its readers — listening to them, talking with them — can show a newspaper the direction to go. For some this can mean a shift in content from being purely of a reporting or informative nature to one that provides more explanation and analysis.

It can be detrimental to assume that readers know and understand everything. Helping people make sense of the news can gain traction with an audience. If newsroom staff are equipped to involve their readers in a dialogue, this can further develop ties to the community and start to develop relations between customers and all platforms in the portfolio, including print.

That means training your staff to be more socially savvy is crucial. Every single one of them sitting in the newsroom.

It also means keeping a close eye on performance and rankings — SEO and sophisticated analytics are the way to go. It is increasingly becoming a question of quality, speed, and the performance of Web sites and mobile apps. All of that needs to be continuously optimised — if the audience benefits, the rankings will rise, too.

Facebook algorithm changes in how news is dealt with is another prime consideration. It pays to watch performance and be prepared to respond rapidly.

Emphasis on localisation is another key to survival. Even the largest newspapers in India have localised editions. The Hindustan, the second largest-read daily newspaper in the country for one, has 146 (!) editions just across the heartland alone. The English-language Hindustan Times has 23 local editions that prioritise local content, putting it right up front, as a key point of contact or relevance to their audiences.

One newspaper executive said that kind of contact with local communities wrapped around a spine of national authority, national presence, and national credibility is a very powerful.

Smartphone-optimised offerings can achieve this localisation easily, which is far from unique to India. The Kleine Zeitung (“little newspaper”), the largest regional media brand in Austria with more 15 regional print editions, put its digital transformation programme under the motto “regional first, mobile first” and organised its content and editorial processes accordingly.

It understands very well that its readers would not stick around if it reduced or neglected the local focus and feel or if it didn’t communicate with them on mobile.

Publishers too often look wistfully at the Indian model and write it off as a cultural exception, or some kind of publishing time warp. The reality is that the success of Indian newspapers only underlines the importance of digital transformation in Western media.

Case studies of digital transformation project are available through the Institute for Media Strategies. A special report about the transformation project at Hindustan Times will be published shortly. Please contact Dietmar if you want to receive a free copy.