Mobile-first India demands news on the go

News apps are on the rise but face a crowded, unmonetized market.

Guest post by Sumit Chakraberty, Tech in Asia


India is the world’s fastest-growing mobile market, and it shows no sign of slowing down.

Domestic smartphone sales are predicted to zoom 29 percent this year, even as they flatten out in the U.S. and China, while the number of mobile internet users in India is projected to cross 370 million in June. Two-thirds of the country’s online traffic comes from mobile devices, nearly double the global average mobile internet usage ratio. Clearly, India is mobile-first and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Since early 2015, a slew of mobile-user-oriented news apps have been zeroing in on this mushrooming mobile user base. One of the earliest was News in Shorts, which presents 60-word summaries of news in different categories with links to the sources. The startup later rebranded itself to InShorts to include other forms of short content.

Other apps followed, each with its own twist to hook the mobile user. PlanetGoGo, whose cofounders earlier worked for Japanese chat app Line, presents news on the lock screen. It even rewards users with data top-ups for reading news items.

The Quint has its own writers and subscribes to news agencies, like traditional media. It targets mobile users in breaking up the content into bite-sized capsules. Mostly, these are takeoffs on what’s buzzing. It was founded by Raghav Bahl after his exit from TV news firm Network 18.

Then there’s The Wire, which mostly relies on user-generated content; The News Minute, which focuses on regional news in the south; and ScoopWhoop, which has a plethora of listicles a la BuzzFeed.

What’s not evident in all this buzz is a path to monetization. Advertising money in India mostly goes to print and TV media. And subscriptions are unlikely to work in digital media where there are so many sources of bite-sized news. SoftBank president Nikesh Arora, on a recent visit to India, tweeted that he’s not a fan of news-based startups because they’re “tough to monetize.”

The differentiation in these apps is mostly in their sourcing of content: aggregation, user-generated or original. There’s little to distinguish in the nature of their content. The common assumption is that mobile users want small capsules of what’s popular and buzzing.

These assumptions are being reexamined around the world. BuzzFeed has been experimenting with longform content. Its vice president Scott Lamb recalls an 8,000-word essay about a guy buying a house in Detroit and fixing it up. It got more than a million views.

More importantly, Lamb points out that people reading the article on mobile devices were spending 20 minutes on average on it — much higher than the time spent on the same article on desktops. Perhaps it’s easier to lie back comfortably with a smartphone and read a long piece through to the end.

News apps in India, too, may have to rethink their models once the squeeze comes from investors to monetize. Right now, they’re happy to chase growth on the back of the smartphone boom.

The article was originally published on the website of the N3CON SEOUL 2016, n3con.com. 

About the author

Lee Tae-hoon

Lee Tae-hoon

Lee Tae-hoon is publisher at The Korea Observer. He previously worked for the Korea Times and Arirang TV. You can reach him at lee@koreaobserver.com.

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