Write-Side Up

The indifferent marriage of digital media and culture journalism

Long wedded to the formats of print journalism, culture writing in India is struggling to improve and amplify itself online. Jai Pandya
01 June, 2014

AT SOME POINT, anyone who runs a website must face the grim reality of their Google Analytics dashboard, which helps track user engagement online. Here, if you run a culture-focused publication, you’ll discover that the 1,500-word story on that Kolkata indie band, which you thought everyone really ought to know about, got less than one thousand hits, while the 150-word post on Salman Khan’s breakfast got about five times that number, in a quarter of the time. At Mumbai Boss, the culture website I run, we usually end the year by looking up the most widely read stories. Invariably, the bulk has some connection to Bollywood, while the remaining ones are usually about controversial topics—we had a particularly popular editorial one year on whitening creams for the nether regions—food lists, or ticketing information for popular acts coming to the city.

This is the landscape in which culture websites like Mumbai Boss—and a handful of other Indian outlets including NH7, Wild City and Blouin Artinfo—operate. It is also this same landscape that we have been struggling to transform for years, with mixed results. While cities like Mumbai and Delhi currently have thriving streams of dance, art, film, music and theatre, more concert venues and galleries and theatre groups than ever before, and enough of a mainstream circuit to warrant underground and indie spin-offs, these facts are barely reflected in how culture journalism is written—and read—online. Our landscape is heavily populated with young readers who have a strong preference for bite-sized, photo-friendly, entertainment-driven content that, in tone and presentation, mimics the social media they spend most of their time on.

In a space occupied by breaking-news feeds, cat blogs and burger memes, culture journalists are the Luddites, strangely wedded to the print tradition of headline-body text-photo, and not terribly competent at engaging with their audience beyond registering how many eyeballs they’ve clocked. This is in a country where 75 percent of internet users are between fifteen and thirty-four years old. After reading email, their first interaction with their browsers involves checking what their friends are uploading, posting and tweeting. This slice of the demographic pie has the most influence on consumption patterns online, and, in recent years, news outlets have adjusted accordingly. In the United States, new sites such as Quartz and Vox have developed strategies to publish news in feed-like formats, with charts, snippets, visualisations and mobile-friendly paragraphs, that show up high in Google searches. The goal is to entice readers to hit “share” before they veer to another tab.

Looking at the success rates of these outlets, it’s clear what we are doing wrong. Those of us trying to produce “culture-focused” content—this defined as websites whose content primarily deals with art, music, theatre, dance, books and film (not counting Bollywood gossip)—have realised that we may require a rejigging of our lens. This entails looking at two things: one, the tone and way in which we write; and two, how we present and deliver the information once it’s written.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean careening from one end—mainly jargon-dense blogs run by institutions and individuals that often abuse the internet’s limitless word caps—to the other—Buzzfeed-style sites where stories are stripped down to “listicles,” peppered with gifs and written with a ratio of ten words of text to every photo. “The problem is we’re going from one extreme to another extreme,” Roselyn D’Mello, the former editor-in-chief of Blouin Artinfo India, told me. “The writing is either esoteric and doesn’t speak out to people beyond a certain circle, or, on the other hand, we have writing that’s very much about entertainment, with no depth.”

There is a happy medium that has succeeded elsewhere. It adopts a tone that sits somewhere in between high and low. Here, the informal snappiness of blog writing, which assumes a pally connection with the reader, is melded with sharp reporting, real research, and at least a measure of honest criticism. The American outlets that do this extraordinarily well, such as the music site Pitchfork and NYMag.com, the website of New York Magazine, know that writing about their worlds must envelop readers in a certain comfortable familiarity. I found that this lesson was cleverly adopted by NH7 inTown, a mobile app for culture listings in major Indian cities, which launched in 2013 and has had about fifty thousand downloads since. InTown’s average post for an event rarely exceeds forty words, but distinguishes itself by its style. Take this recent description of the Hindi movie 2 States, which strikes me as the epitome of “shareability”: “The film adaptation of yet another Chetan Bhagat novel hits screens, enabling more Chetan Bhagat novels because nobody listened when we were told to kill it before it spawns.” Shreyas Srinivasan, co-founder of NH7 who helped create the app, told me that the goal was to go a step above cut-and-paste listings. “It doesn’t just give the content away in a flat, matter-of-fact way.”

But, by and large, others have been less successful. Part of why Indian culture writing has struggled to adopt a truly engaging voice online is that many of us skipped the “blog revolution” that swept through the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s, where early users were able to experiment with this new style. By the time most readers in India could enjoy better bandwidth and higher download speeds, the world had moved on to social media tools like Tumblr and Twitter, where word-length was sacrificed for other bells and whistles. As a result, our online reportage still reads like it’s been written for print—not always a very high standard to aspire to—and with a reporter’s dry, impersonal, need-to-know formality.

With the emergence of more outlets and growing audiences, culture writing, which has traditionally been subsidised by news anyway, is sure to benefit. In this regard, culture outlets, and I will include Mumbai Boss among them, have been slow to push the envelope. “Earlier the challenge was that people were not aware: they were expecting formats to be very similar to what they were reading in Times of India,” said Arjun S Ravi, founder of the indie culture site NH7.in, which developed the InTown app. “If you do it really well, if it has a bit of finesse, polish to it, and reads nicely, people gravitate to it more.”

In 2013, Ravi’s site debuted the NH7 Audiolizer, a sort of listening session for new albums that lets the viewer simultaneously flip through an album of images. It’s a remarkably simple idea—essentially an audio-visual slideshow—that somehow manages to recreate a bit of the romance of the creative process. It shows us that the process of enhancing what you publish is not, as wags have said, one of devaluing it, or making it “entertainment” by dumbing it down. Instead, it is one of completing the experience of the story for its readers.

Culture coverage must not simply accept that it exists in a niche space, where success is determined by the mere fact of whether it’s published on a given day or not. No medium is better placed to ensure the success of writing about the arts than the internet. But editors and writers who operate in this space will have to stop thinking of a story as a block of text you can simply slap into a WordPress template and populate as you would in print, with just a photo and headline.

To those who say that it costs money to create a site that feels like a virtual studio in which readers can experience an interview with an artist, or to put up recordings to go with a music piece, I counter that it does—but not as much as you’d think. Most of the tools that allow you this basic creativity—video recording, photo filters—are bundled in the average smartphone. Meanwhile, larger websites, with budgets to spare, are making space for web producers whose job it is to present content beautifully. In 2007, I worked for one such team in New York, where our task was to take a weekly magazine’s content and put it online. We were required not just to post, but to repurpose. Every week, for every story, the question asked was: how do we make this better for the web? How do we turn a food story into a food experience? When an artist talks about a work, how can we show the reader, sitting thousands of miles away, what she meant?

Many of the editors I spoke with in the course of writing this piece said that, right now, they’re just happy to have lured an audience hungry for this kind of fulfilling content, in defiance of the old-fashioned notion that a reader on the internet has the attention span and interests of a fruit fly. The numbers such content draws are small, at least small compared to the kind of traffic drawn by news sites—but it’s enough to keep all of us posting day after day. Now that we are over the first hurdle—of sustaining a readership—the natural next step is to play around with how we present what we produce. Belatedly, at Mumbai Boss, we will soon debut a new design. It will, I hope, allow us to show, rather than tell. In the process, we hope to find our own answers to some questions about how to make culture reporting—and thereby culture—better for the internet.

Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Shreyas Srinivasan solely as the co-creator of the NH7 inTown app. He is also co-founder of NH7.