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The British media's rush to make a mark in Indian ink

For years, Indian newspapers and magazines were infatuated with their English counterparts. Now it is the Western press scrambling to get a foothold in the Indian market, says 'The Times of India''s Manu Joseph

In the largest fragment of the Commonwealth, the spelling of "colonise" has changed to "colonize". On 12 November, The Times of India took the first step towards breaking from a long tradition, with an official email instructing senior editors that all verbs ending with the British "ise" must now be changed to the American "ize". "That's the way forward," says Jaideep Bose, the executive editor of the paper, which has an average daily circulation of over 3.1 million. "'Colour' has to be 'color'. 'Honour' has to be 'honor'. The world is moving towards American spelling. We are largely reading American books, American magazines. Indian children are taking American entrance exams. There is no good reason any more why we should stick to the British spelling."

This betrayal of the Queen's English endangers one of the only two enduring British traditions in India: spelling and keeping to the left of the road. Ironically, the change in spelling convention comes just as British media organisations are besieging the Indian market, seeking growth that is hard to find at home.

This month, the Daily Mail launched a tabloid in Delhi in association with a local right-wing partner, the India Today group. In October, Cond Nast International, which is based in London, launched the Indian edition of Vogue. Destined to arrive in two years are GQ, Glamour and Vanity Fair. The Economist recently announced plans to increase its circulation in the country; The Daily Telegraph is finding newer ways to syndicate its content in India; and the Irish-based Independent News & Media (INM), which owns The Independent, has bought a stake in Dainik Jagran, a huge Hindi daily.

Indian law allows foreign investors to own 100 per cent of niche publications, but no more than 26 per cent of newspapers and other mainstream titles though what is niche and what is mainstream are not clearly explained in the law. Despite the ambiguity, the British media are jostling for a slice of the Indian press, which will be worth about 2.5bn within three years, according to the estimates of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

In a way, the British media will be right at home in India. The Americanisation of spelling in the Times notwithstanding, the fundamental character of Indian newspapers has been shaped by generations of editors who have been somewhat infatuated with the British press.

Vir Sanghvi is the editorial director of the Hindustan Times and one of the most influential columnists in the country. "We have got the structure of our stories, the way they are written, and our opinionated style of news coverage from the British press," Sanghvi says. "The national character of our English newspapers, too, is a result of this influence."

But there is also a very Indian way of doing things in the press that is distinctly non-British. In every aspect of life in India from crossing the road to rocket science to journalism the individual triumphs over the system. This often perplexes foreigners. It is not uncommon, even at high-end newspapers, for imaginary interviews to be creatively generated by reporters who do not lose their jobs when found out. Content from Wikipedia is cut and pasted into articles. Design rules are routinely flouted. Lifestyle magazines that do not receive enough letters to the editor assign reporters to write them. And several journalists fondly remember occasions when the contracted astrologer was on leave and they had to write the horoscope themselves.

British media companies trying to get a foothold will also have to grapple with the sheer dominance of The Times of India group. The company spends about 25p to produce a copy of the newspaper and recovers less than 5p from the reader. Yet, the Times is one of the most profitable newspapers in the world. Ravi Dhariwal, the company's CEO (Publishing), says turnover last year was around 500m, and it made over 120m in profit.

The newspaper constantly experiments, and on occasions goes against journalistic convention. For example, corporations and aspiring socialites are allowed to buy editorial space in a supplement. And in the paper's Sunday columns page, the first-person "I" is written as a lowercase "i", supposedly to minimise ego and stress the unimportance of the individual in the larger scheme of things.

Independent News & Media surprised industry observers when it decided not to invest in the English-language press but rather in a Hindi-language paper. About two years ago, it picked up 26 per cent of Jagran Prakashan Limited (JPL), which owns India's most-read daily, Dainik Jagran, for less than 18m. Now INM holds 21 per cent, after selling the other 5 per cent on the bullish Bombay Stock Exchange for twice the price it originally paid.

Gavin O'Reilly, the chief operating officer of INM, says that when he first looked at the Indian market he realised that the English newspaper segment "was crowded with high quality papers" and they were not growing as fast the vernacular press. "Historically, the English press in India has got a disproportionate share of advertising," he says. "Now, vernacular papers are catching up." He does not see himself investing in the English-language Indian media any time soon "but you never say never". O'Reilly is planning to print a facsimile version of The Independent's international edition in Delhi, and is waiting for the Indian government to grant INM the rights to own 100 per cent of the venture.

Away from the newspaper market, a very different battle rages among lifestyle magazines. Cond Nast launched the Indian edition of Vogue last month with a cover price of 100 rupees (1.25), and was the first overseas publisher to be granted a 100 per cent stake in an Indian publication. "We have no clear idea how important India will become to us in, say, 10 years," says Nicholas Coleridge, the vice president of Cond Nast International, the division that launched the Indian Vogue. "At the moment it is quite a small market, despite the enormous population. But it is changing fast."

The head of Cond Nast India, Alex Kuruvilla, says that the coming of Cond Nast has instilled the fear of God in the country's lifestyle magazine segment. N Radhakrishnan, the editor and publisher of Man's World, admits that GQ will be a threat, though he insists that "our own loyal readership should help us face any competition".

There is a feeling among observers, however, that the Indian print industry's prospects might have been overestimated. Though Vir Sanghvi acknowledges that the growing circulation of Indian papers is an indicator of a growing middle class, he says that part of it could also be the result of desperate newspaper marketing, free subscriptions and "buy one get one free" selling philosophies. There have been gleeful newsroom conversations about how the foreigners are going to lose money in India. But on the brighter side, there is also a view that, like Mark Twain's death and the size of condoms in France, the imminent demise of newspapers might be exaggerated.

Manu Joseph is the national features editor of The Times of India