Journalists must become better storytellers for low-literate readers

by Ritvvij Parrikh
Oct 30, 2018 in Digital Journalism
News reader

This post is the first part in an ongoing series on how newsrooms can expand their audience by using new storytelling techniques.

India’s population of internet users grew about 28 percent over a one-year period, and is now estimated at 355 million people (more than the entire population of the United States). This growth should represent a tremendous opportunity for Indian news companies. With vast online traffic, not only should they be able to earn more revenue from advertising, but you’d think they’d be able to further advance the fundamental goals of journalism by reaching many more people.

However, for various reasons, the reverse is happening — as traffic rises, the quality of journalism is dropping.

Journalists across the world, from Brazil to China to South Africa, are facing a similar problem: even as internet use skyrockets, newsrooms aren’t benefitting as much as they arguably should from a larger, web-savvy audience. What’s behind this? For the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on what I’ve observed in India.

Most of India’s growth in internet users is coming from low-literate audiences.

Some 46 percent of them primarily consume local language content. They understand English if they hear it spoken. They can functionally read short snippets of English — road signs, etc. However, they do not demonstrate either the desire or ability for discretionary reading (i.e., longform content). As per a recent study by Wikipedia, only 25 percent of Indian respondents had heard of Wikipedia, the world’s most famous site with longform, discretionary reading content.

Longform, a legacy of print, is tough for these readers because they have to be able to read long sentences and sustain concentration (working memory) across paragraphs. As a result, most of their internet consumption remains focused on personal communication and social media (34 percent) and entertainment (45 percent).

To take advantage of this growth, Indian newsrooms are expanding their offerings to entertainment and near-news instead of innovating on their core offering, i.e., making news more usable and relevant to low-literate audiences.

Traditional journalists may prefer to write in longform, a medium that they are used to reading and which they assume is the best way to produce “good writing.” Some may also see low-literacy storytelling mediums as infantilizing their “more serious” written reportage. These attitudes have got to change — there are so many other ways besides longform to tell important stories and create a more informed citizenry.

India’s newsrooms could have gone the route of more visual storytelling, which has a stronger appeal for low-literate web users. There’s plenty of third-party tools that newsrooms could use for more visual storytelling, such as DataWrapper, Google Maps or Knight Lab Tools like TimelineJS.

However, newsrooms have shunned use of innovative storytelling tools because they potentially compromise on mobile experience and page load time.

The reasoning goes, why publish stories that make use of visual storytelling tools, when this could make web pages load more slowly and cause impatient readers to navigate elsewhere?

There is good reason, however, for why Indian newsrooms have prioritised mobile experience and page load time over all else. Some 80 percent of India’s internet users use low-end mobile phones to access low-bandwidth, wireless internet. Simply put, the vast majority of the country doesn’t have access to the technology that would allow them to quickly download more visually interesting stories.
Newsrooms also could have experimented with more visual storytelling by building their own Javascript-based tools. However, this too is discouraged, thanks to the common belief that Javascript-rendered content is not crawled by Google and thus is not SEO-friendly. As is the case in many regions, over the last few years Indian news sites have become deeply reliant on search engines and social media to get discovered and have lost reader loyalty.
So rather than focusing on innovation, newsrooms have emphasized the following: don’t experiment with anything that could compromise a piece of content’s SEO score, or its ability to catch readers’ attention on social media.

In contrast to newsrooms, software giants have successfully adopted a better strategy for attracting India’s low-literacy audience.

When faced with this same dilemma, software companies chose a different approach: empathize with India’s low-literate population, and innovate as needed in order to deliver the same core product and services to them, but in a way that is more in-line with their needs, limitations and preferences.

Here’s just a few examples:

  • YouTube launched an India-specific YouTube app — YouTube Go, which is designed to be offline first. Since low-literacy audiences prefer hearing over reading, video consumption has skyrocketed.

  • Facebook runs Facebook Lite for India. It is the 10th most downloaded app in India on the Android Play store.

  • Google built PWA (Progressive Web App), a technology for building apps that do not take up space on low-end phones.

What can newsrooms learn from this? Can news companies transform the way they deliver information to make it more useful, readable and relevant to low-literacy audiences?

Over an upcoming series of posts, I’ll discuss some experiments that we at ICFJ are conducting while seeking answers to these questions.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Ivan Rigamonti