On Saturday, 6th July, 2013, the Observer Research Foundation held a conference titled, "Marathi Journalism in the Internet Age." The conference was attended by around 30 journalists from various Marathi publications, and Satish Lalit, the Public Relations Officer of the Chief Minister of Maharashtra. Dr. Sudheendra Kulkarni, Chairman of ORF welcomed the participants and said that when he was advisor to Prime Minister AB Vajpayee, Vajpayee used to say that IT was "India's Tomorrow." However, those who speak Indian languages have no role to play in India's Tomorrow. This was leading to a new secessionist movement with people moving away from their mother tongues. He added that the grossly inadequate development of Indian languages on the Net was one of the biggest barriers to inclusive development. He said that what is important to India's development cannot be left to the private sector and that the government must actively support Indian languages online. In particular, he proposed that advertising support to online Marathi publications should be stepped up dramatically.
Anant Goenka, Head of New Media for the Indian Express Group Internet penetration in India is very low and nothing that people need to use the net in Indian languages is easily available. He said that a Flipkart in Hindi or Marathi would be a wonderful idea. He claimed that when Loksatta, the Marathi newspaper of the Indian Express group launched their Android app, they got 10,000 downloads within a week, most of them from expensive Samsung Galaxy phones, proving that the Marathi language audience had purchasing power.
Lalitesh Katragadda, Head of the Emerging Markets team of Google joined this meeting over a conference call and gave an overview of Google's work in Indian languages and the road ahead. One of the points he made about Indian language computing being taught in schools was taken up by the Chief Minister's PRO, who said that he agreed with this demand and would place it in front of the CM. Incidentally, Prithviraj Chavan, the Maharashtra CM had started a company developing fonts and other Indian language technologies after completing his MS from UC, Berkeley.
This was followed by an interactive session that was jointly moderated by Vinayak Parab, Editor of Lokprabha and myself, where the participants spoke on the challenges facing Marathi online journali
sts. Vinayak said that journalists had a huge role to play in establishing Marathi language on the Internet. He said that he was part of a group of 25 journalists who had met the Maharashtra CM and successfully petitioned the Maharashtra government to use Unicode.
I mentioned that Wikipedia, Red Hat and Google have come together to create the Indic Computing Consortium. I made the point that while Indic scripts are complicated, may other scripts like are far greater in terms of complexity and yet have a significant presence on the Internet. India has all the technical capabilities required to solve the problem but lacked thew will to do so. If we worked in a focused manner to build the tool set for Indian language computing, we can solve this problem, once and for all.
Some of the key takeaways were:
1) Fonts render very differently on different platforms, and this is a big problem for publishers.
2) Most of the hits that Marathi newspapers are getting nowadays are from links they post on their Facebook pages. This is because search in Marathi is used by very few users because keyboards and input methods are significant barriers to entry.
3) Many newspaper have e-paper versions that do not show up in search results. These papers should move to Unicode.
4) Some Marathi sites are now beginning to leverage YouTube to generate more viewership. During the recent Uttarakhand tragedy, one Marathi newspaper posted videos from Uttarakhand which were in Marathi. However, by translating the videos and captioning them in English, they generated many more hits.
5) There was a strong pitch from the journalists that Google AdSense and Google News should support Marathi. The web sites of Marathi newspapers are seen as a cost center and are therefore resource starved. I got the clear sense that the online journalists were itching to break out of this rut and were keen on seeing their online editions bring in revenues. Some journalists also asked if we could build tablet/smartphone tools that could convert Marathi handwriting into documents.
6) Satish Lalit, the PRO to the Maharashtra CM said that the government was creating a new advertising policy and invited the online journalists to sen in their representation demanding support for online publications. He said that the Inscript keyboard had been made compulsory across the Maharashtra government. He said that all Maharashtra government press releases are being sent out in Unicode and a PDF copy of the same is also attached. The CM's Facebook page was recently launched and a blog set up. He said that in his travels across Maharashtra, he has found people in remote districts like Gadchiroli access Marathi news over the Internet because the printed papers would take time reaching the districts. In his role, he said that he used to scan 20 newsp0aers every day at 7AM in order to prepare a daily news digest for the CM. That job has become much easier nowadays due to online publications. He also said that he uses Whatsapp extensively to keep in touch with people.
7) It was suggested that the number of glyphs in fonts should also be standardized.
Some of the action items that were identified were:
1) Create a forum for Marathi online journalists
so that online journalism is recognized as a distinct skill. Since mostMarathi online journalists have received very little training, the group has decided to create a handbook for Marathi onlinejournalists. ORF promised all the support needed for setting up this group.
2) The group will petition the Maharashtra CM and ask the Maharashtra Government to create tools like dictionaries etc and make them available for free, in order to promote Marathi computing. It was suggested that the Maharashtra Government could make a one-time payment to CDAC and acquire their fonts and other Marathi language technologies and release them as open source.
3) Dr. Kulkarni said that he will also reach out to the newly appointed NASSCOM president, R Chandrashekar, who was former IT Secretary of India, and request him to support this initiative.
Credit goes to Dr. Kulkarni who has taken up this cause with a lot of passion. The organizing committee consisted of Anay Joglekar of ORF, Nilesh Bane of Maharashtra Times, Vinayak Parab of Lokprabha and myself. This event convinces me that online journalists can be a powerful support group for us in making Indian language computing popular, over the next few years.