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.