Behind the investigation of India’s two biggest defence scandals—the Bofors deal under Rajiv Gandhi and the Rafale deal under Narendra Modi—is one common newspaper and one common byline, The Hindu and N. Ram.
But with one big difference: the first scandal was reported when hard-copy, ink-and-paper journalism was king; the latter in the digital age, when social media is huge.
Back when Ram and Chitra Subramaniam reported the Rs 64 crore kickbacks in Bofors, The Hindu had six printing centres, five of them in South India: Madras, Coimbatore, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Madurai, and Gurgaon.
News of the scandal reached readers in those six cities, and towns close by, some in the mornings, many in the late afternoons.
In other words, there was a finite readership, bound by geography.
In 2019, with entry barriers for printing and transport coming down, the picture is substantially different. The Hindu is printed from 21 centres, seven of them in the North: Noida (replacing Gurgaon), Kolkata, Mohali, Mumbai, Lucknow, Cuttack, Patna.
Then, as now, cities and towns in the vicinity of the printing centre receive copies, most now in the mornings, some in the afternoons.
But now there is the the mighty imponderable: the greatest invention after the printing press, the internet.
So, thanks to the world wide web, the Rafale scandal was available not just to the newspaper’s subscribers or readers, but to practically anybody with a smartphone–through the newspaper’s website and its apps, or through emails, links and forwards shared by virtually anybody.
It also shows that in the new era, media houses need to keep the mobile phone at the centre of their solar system, with dedicated social media teams to push and share content with greater expertise rather than randomly.
# The four Rafale stories received in all over one million unique visitors: 10,42,031
# The stories attracted 413,911 first-time visitors to the The Hindu website
# The four stories had over 16 lakh page views on the paper’s website and apps
# On average readers spent 5.7 minutes on the four articles, the highest on day one: 6.34
# The four articles received 83,616 retweets, the highest being for the third story: 30,200
# On Facebook there were 20,491 shares of the articles, the highest for the third: 8710
# 82% of the readers of the first article read it on their phone; 77% of the fourth article
# International readership spiked from average 18% to 28% for the second article; 33% for the third
# Maharashtra generated the most traffic (165,360 views), followed by Delhi (119,320) and Karnataka (111,530)
# Bangalore city generated most visitors (105,438), followed by Mumbai (59,415)
What the digital numbers for The Hindu‘s Rafale stories show is that, while the new technology acts as a force-multiplier, there is no consistency of consumption, engagement or geography.
There is no guarantee the same readers in the same locations will come back for each instalment of a story, spend the same amount of time each time, or react to and share the stories in the same way to the same recipients.
It’s a Russian roulette.