Tech entrepreneur B.G. Mahesh has seen three media swells in his career—dotcoms in 1999, search engines in 2004, and social networks post 2010. In 1999, when Mahesh, then 31, launched, a news and consumer services website, on his return to Bangalore from the U.S., India was discovering the Internet. Broadband did not exist, and online reading was limited to those who ‘dialled’ into the web once, maybe twice, a day. The rise of smartphones and tablets in the past decade, dirt-cheap mobile data packs (to tackle slow optic fibre deployment issues), mushrooming app stores, public Wi-Fi zones, and social networks have changed it all. Since then, India’s Internet population has grown to over 240 million—nearly 15 times since 2004. Now more people surf the web anytime of the day, from anywhere.

This has created a digital media opportunity worth more than Rs 3,000 crore, according to consultancy KPMG. It is vindicating the early efforts of seasoned entrepreneurs like Mahesh, and attracting global investors, brands, and startups. In the past year, about 10 media startups have set up shop. The opportunity is altering the contours of the media industry. For one, traditional media—both print and broadcast—are aggressively embracing hybrid models of digital add-ons to grow. This, despite the rise of regionalism giving a fillip to their revenues. If traditional media are funnelling cash from their core businesses to digital, new media entrepreneurs are bootstrapping themselves to take the big leap. Not all, however, are making money, though some are close.

The Indian news business is at an inflection point. It is one of the most crowded in the world. And unlike the West, the Rs 37,000 crore broadcast and Rs 23,000 crore print media (based on KPMG estimates) still wield enough muscle for advertisers to back them. But digital news is gnawing at this market: It’s expected to have the highest annualised growth of 32% between 2013 and 2017, albeit on a much smaller base. India, with a mammoth English-speaking population, is among the top three traffic sources for any global news website. It is the second-largest for The Economist (1.6 million unique visitors a month) and the New York Times (2.7 million), according to web traffic data tools like Alexa.

So, if old media houses are racing to connect with an emerging audience aged between 18 and 34—they make up 75% of online users—lean digital upstarts are adding new swagger. The market is highly fragmented, with a multitude of publishers, bloggers, and user-generated content exploding on social networks. There is no clear leader, barring Google. Neither is there any established business model in new media. But, as Krishnan Ganesh, an investor in, a social network for news that operates out of Berlin and London, says, “Online, there is enough of a base to generate, consume, and distribute news in a democratised way.”

Looking for that one established model may be a forlorn quest. The nature of the Internet is such that it begets constant innovation, and content, as always, is the key. Websites like Cricinfo, an ESPN property since 2007, have made a mark after two hard decades. When people want cricket news, they think ESPNCricinfo. More than 10 million fans globally log more than 1 billion minutes of time on it on average in a month. India is unsurprisingly its largest market. Then, business news website Quartz, which recently launched here, has created ‘annotations’, a function for its registered users to tap on a paragraph, read comments specific to it in a quote bubble, and annotate in 280 characters (two tweets). Launched by Atlantic Media in New York in 2012, Quartz globally has 4 million monthly unique visitors, and prides itself on the culture of developers and journalists sitting together in newsrooms. Quartz tells its readers, “We know the future of news will be written in code.”

In the scramble to attract eyeballs, Mahesh recognised the relevance of innovation early, in 2005. He sold Indiainfo to the Rs 1,884 crore Dainik Bhaskar Group—Indiainfo merged with Bhaskar’s portals—to start OneIndia, a website that provides news in five regional languages, apart from English. Mahesh bet on multilingual users in towns and small cities which weren’t online yet. He was aware that more than 70% of those who consumed content via TV and newspapers did so in regional languages; English content was consumed more in the metros. He developed a platform to produce original content in Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu, and Hindi.

OneIndia discovered its market organically as a pure-play new media company. By 2011, it had diversified into five portals, apart from a classifieds site to raise advertisement revenue. When a news section hit 1 million page views a month, it was made into a portal with three dedicated writers. It then aimed for 45 million page views to become a self-sustaining division.

Today, OneIndia’s websites attract 460 million page views a month, with more than 25 million uniques. Mahesh’s bet has paid off: Cities such as Haridwar, Mathura, Pilani, Siliguri, and Guwahati contribute to half of its user base. Advertisers like Cathay Pacific want to be part of, say, the Telugu channel, because the airline has specific campaigns aimed at that audience. “The creative brief comes to me in Telugu, not even in English,” says Sriram Hebbar, CEO, OneIndia, who worked with teams that launched Indiatimes and the online editions of The Economic Times in the late ’90s. “Sometimes, we get a premium on non-English content from advertisers,” he adds.

OneIndia’s beginnings were frugal. When Mahesh started off, Hebbar, a colleague from Indiainfo, was his lone salesperson. To begin with, each portal was a business unit for Hebbar. Unlike traditional publishers or VC-funded startups, OneIndia had to push its resources far more. Writers were trained to deliver eight articles a day. It is now a 200-strong company, with revenues estimated to be under Rs 20 crore. “We have been profitable for 16 months in a row,” says Hebbar, without giving further details.

Going ahead, Mahesh says, “We want to serve users based on their device.”

Another outfit which also focuses on the vernacular, NewsHunt, a free mobile app for news aggregation that runs on iOS and Android, began in 2009. It doesn’t build content. It gets content from regional publishers and renders it for mobile screens in six languages. It has taken stories from various newspapers to more than 400 cities in local languages, which is what interests media agencies and advertisers. The venture, promoted by Versé Innovation in Bangalore, employs 80 people, and it recently breached the $1 million (Rs 6 crore) revenue mark. The app has clocked 55 million downloads, and grosses 1.6 billion page views every month. “Revenue could grow 10 times because of mobile Internet,” says Virendra Gupta, MD and co-founder of Versé, referring to the outlook for the next 12 to 18 months.

Google India head Rajan Anandan says smartphones have been crucial in taking the Internet user base in India to over 100 million in 2011, and beyond. (Facebook has 100 million users here.) “The Internet’s next round of growth will come from mobile users and video in myriad languages from small towns, primarily on video.” That makes Rajesh Jain of enterprise communications and digital marketing solutions firm Netcore, which has a controlling stake in OneIndia since 2010, an astute crystall-ball gazer. Jain predicted in 2007 that the Internet will bloom in India because of mobile phones. In the late 1990s, he had famously sold IndiaWorld to Satyam, triggering a dotcom gold rush.

Digital news reached a peak in India with the general elections of 2014, particularly on May 16, the day of counting. News sites witnessed the highest-ever traffic. Large sections of the 240 million users took to social networks from computers or mobile phones, despite TV channels beaming developments live. People discussed and followed results like cricket scores, via online updates. All this on a weekday. The excitement was palpable, and there was enormous advertiser money riding on websites., which forayed into India in June 2013, reportedly committed over Rs 1 crore of digital spend for just that day. “Typically, it spends between Rs 30 lakh and Rs 40 lakh a month,” says a media buyer, who requested not to be named. Amazon wasn’t available for comment.

Traditional media—both publishing and broadcast—were equally in the online race. TV network NDTV’s website clocked 11.6 million unique visitors, the highest web traffic on a single day. It registered over 13 billion hits. It had learned the ropes in the 2012 Gujarat elections, transmitting a record 80 terabytes of video in a day. For FY13, NDTV’s web revenues were Rs 38.6 crore (or 7% of its consolidated revenue, up by three percentage points in two years).

Old media have started monetising their digital businesses. Online classifieds are particularly successful, sometimes accounting for up to a quarter of digital revenues for those that have a strong web presence. The Rs 2,363 crore HT Media, a newspaper group in Delhi, expects digital revenues to grow 75% in 2014-15, according to its filings. It ploughed more than Rs 35 crore in digital businesses in the past two fiscals. For FY14, its online businesses earned Rs 76 crore. Losses, according to Vinay Mittal, chief financial strategist, HT Media, were between Rs 35 crore and Rs 38 crore. Its online revenue engines kicked in with HT Mobile and, a classifieds portal. Rival Bennett, Coleman and Co. (whose flagship products are The Times of India and Navbharat Times), according to industry estimates, has a digital business earning of over Rs 200 crore, around a third of which comes from online classifieds under Times Business Solutions. Times Internet has also co-invested in News In Shorts, a news aggregation mobile app.

The old media have more knowledge and experience in coping with advertiser inefficiencies, like delayed payments. They use their muscle and size to prevail, sometimes threatening to blacklist advertisers. But their biggest learning is that, with the Internet, even if top line grows slow to begin with, it is imperative for publishers to discover and cultivate their following across platforms, scale up inventory, and measure and learn from user data.

Ask Girish Agarwal, non-executive director of Dainik Bhaskar (DB). A regional newspapers group, Bhopal-headquartered DB is among the largest print players nationally with 19.8 million readers. Nearly two-fifths of India’s population reads in Hindi, which is its stronghold. Last year, it launched its 58th print edition in Patna, and continues to be bullish in non-metros. At the same time, it is launching websites—three in 2013—a portal each for Bollywood, business, and DB itself, as well as smartphone apps for Divya Bhaskar and Dainik Bhaskar. Its websites demonstrated tremendous activity in 2013-14: 12 million unique visitors a month., the Hindi website, clocked 196 million page views, registering a growth of 39% year on year in the same period.

“Our digital strategy is centred on unique content, expanding an engaging platform, and the ability to leverage the Bhaskar Group’s huge editorial network,” says Agarwal. Three days before counting day in the 2014 elections, he was explaining DB’s Internet strategy at an analyst meeting. “While readers in non-metros have a long connect with their preferred newspaper, this personal relationship has extended to tablets and computers to access news,” Agarwal told analysts. DB’s digital revenues are a modest Rs 12 crore, largely because it has stayed out of online classifieds to focus on building a news portal.

New media’s challenge is how to keep pace with content that bloats month on month with blogs and websites emerging by the day. It is hard for individual companies to build scale on just advertising revenue, and yet have recall. Traditional publishers are happy to leverage cash from their core businesses, and they have a brand built over decades.

New media entrepreneurs are clamping down on costs—starting a venture typically at less than Rs 1 crore; focus on revenue comes a little later. Utterly unique or sharply focussed content is the priority to build an identity. There are also shades of traditional media business practices in them. Delhi-based Medianama is a case in point. It reports on developments in telecom, media, and e-commerce industries and analyses them. It clocks between 300,000 and 350,000 page views a month. In June 2008, Nikhil Pahwa, then aged 27, set out to build a community of readers focussed on the digital economy. Pahwa devoted the first 18 months building a body of work. By 2009, Medianama had built content that helped fetch advertisements at a premium. It’s a bit like increasing circulation in old media—more content gets more traffic, and thus advertisers.

“If we had started with advertisements from week one, the incremental revenue growth would have been insignificant as we would have begun at a low base,” Pahwa says. The revenue model is largely advertisement-driven, but Pahwa avoids media agencies and planners to save costs. “Agencies take a cut on spends from the advertiser, who anyway delays payments by more than three months.” He works with advertisers on annuity-based contracts—six months to a year—for scale. Pahwa refuses to comment on Medianama’s financials, but says it’s a profitable business. He’s now going the traditional way not only to deepen Medianama’s brand power in the digital economy, but also add to its coffers. Medianama will sell exhaustive reports based on studies and analyses on specific subjects. Each report
will be priced between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh.

Then, there’s IndiaSpend, born in late 2011. It is a non-profit public service website to promote a culture of ‘data journalism’. Founder Govindraj Ethiraj, the former editor of Bloomberg TV India, wanted to give a statistical spine to issues. He observed that there was a dearth of data in public discourse and debates. With IndiaSpend, his lean team of six tackles issues using publicly available statistics. In a couple of years, it has built close to 112,000 followers who have viewed over 240,000 IndiaSpend pages. Ethiraj is averse to discussing IndiaSpend’s financials, but says it’s yet to make money. He’s now working on a revenue model. “Data journalism is new even in the U.S., where demand for transparency is more evolved,” he says. He adds that, hence, there are no established answers yet on how to monetise it. IndiaSpend has ties with Hindustan Times, YouthKiAwaaz, Network18, Business Standard, and LiveMint, which tap into its data that is currently free.

IndiaSpend is also available on the Dow Jones Factiva and Yahoo News platforms. It optimises costs by sharing resources with Ping Digital Networks (co-founded by Ethiraj), a production company that partners YouTube to distribute content on food, entertainment, lifestyle, and wellness. Ping has produced over 1,500 videos on food (one of its top two categories) till date, and shares revenue with YouTube. While Ping caters to subjects beyond news (it started India’s first digital TV news network, Boom News, recently), like education and utility to lifestyle, Ethiraj is able to pool resources such as office space (to save on rentals) and computer systems, among other things, for IndiaSpend. Ethiraj is the lead investor in Ping, along with Ashwin Damera (founder of, Ankur Daga (founder of gemstone portal Angara), and (online food programming).

“There is a huge opportunity online for high-quality content,” says Samir Patil, 43, founder and CEO of, a news and information website that went live this January. When Patil travelled to New York two years ago, he courted publishers to invest in India. By then, he had amassed five years of local knowledge. Formerly a McKinsey consultant to media and entertainment clients in the U.S., Patil returned in 2007 as CEO of ACK Media. There he took the popular children’s brands Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle digital, with limited success. In June, Quartz partnered Scroll for its India foray. In India, Scroll and Quartz share costs, resources, and revenue. While Scroll has begun attracting half a million unique visitors after six months, its ability to monetise is still untested.

“In Web 1.0, the user was just a spectator. In Web 2.0, he was a participant. In Web 3.0, he creates content,” says B.C. Jojo, who founded IndiaPost Live to ride the video wave. IndiaPost Live is a video-streaming news conversation portal, where registered users participate in news debates by uploading videos on social media, or via Skype and Google Hangout. In the first phase, it will stream four hours of live original programming five days a week, with highlights of past and popular shows. It is also organising discussions based on what’s trending on social networks. “If you’re putting out good content, nobody cares what platform it’s hosted on. People recommend it to their circles on social networks,” says Sruthijith K.K., editor, Quartz India.

Follow us on Facebook, X, YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp to never miss an update from Fortune India. To buy a copy, visit Amazon.