The Indian Newspaper of 2013

The first rule of a capitalistic enterprise is to boost value to its shareholders by increasing profits and expanding revenues. But as capitalistic pursuits go, the Newspaper business does not fall so neatly into such frameworks. What is the real goal of a newspaper? Does it owe its allegiance to its stock-holders or to the public at large? Managing these two objectives, sometimes conflicting in nature, has always been a challenge to any newspaper worth its salt. 

Before proceeding, I must confess that I am no insider to the newspaper industry. My sole experience with the newspaper lies with the thousands of hours I have spent reading newspapers in the living room, the bed room, the kitchen and most-definitely, the bathroom. Thanks to my parents, I was introduced to reading the morning paper very early on and I cannot imagine a day now without at least skimming the headlines and the editorials. 
However, unlike other industries, newspapers lend themselves to convenient scrutiny by the public at large. As voices of commentary and critique of the society, it is only fair that the public also exercise that right from time to time. Another point I would like to stress is that the object of commentary in this piece is only the newspaper industry (that too, largely on the English Newspaper industry in India) and not TV news or Vernacular newspapers. 

Firstly, I believe that profits cannot and must not be the sole motive of a newspaper. Indian constitution rests on the three pillars of the Judiciary, the Legislature and the Executive. But there is a silent, fourth pillar, eternally examining and censuring the actions and inactions of the first three, that is the role of the Media as envisioned by the creators of our Republic.

As much as we would all like the media to be an independent, profit-agnostic exercise, the fact remains that achieving financial self-sufficiency is a prima facie requirement for the pursuit of intensive journalism. Unlike other enterprises, the media cannot rely on state funding as that could convert the media from the voice of the people to the voice of the rulers. So from that perspective, the framers of the Republic would like the Media to attain financial independence from the State for the carrying out of its responsibilities to the Indian public. 

When countenanced with such delicate, roundabout arguments for balance, it is likely that every once in a while, the Media will tip-toe on the wrong side of the border. I fear that this could be a time of such an unwarranted incursion. 

Indian newspapers have a long and glorious history. From the Bengal Gazette in 1780 to the Times of India in 1838 and The Hindu in 1878, Indian newspapers were an integral and catalysing part of the reawakening of the nation under the ambit of nationalism and Satyagraha. They were constant commentators on the British Government in India and the Indian Freedom Struggle. With such a long tradition of critical study and reporting under its belt, the Indian print media was well placed to midwife the Nation towards a mature democracy with a vibrant media. 

While Indian print media has a long history, it paled in comparison with the print media in the West, especially when it came to technology if not in terms of content or quality of reporting. 
Technologies, management practices and revenue-generating initiatives that were commonplace in the West would take many years before making their way into the Indian English Newspaper Industry and later on, into the Vernacular industry. But this time delay in the transfer of technological and management benefits from the West has been greatly reduced in the last few decades. Today, the latest and greatest in the world of reporting and printing are used in India within a few years of them making an appearance in the West. This has been a major boost to the profile and esteem of our Newspaper industry. 

However, tighter integration and globalisation mean that the bad effects get propagated too, sometimes with frightening intensity and pace. The Western print media is now crippled with the twin body-blows of falling advertisement revenues and plummeting subscription numbers. Consolidation and sale of major, iconic newspapers such as The Boston Globe and The LA Times have become staple news pieces. In these times of such great financial uncertainty, one cannot help but wonder at the effects these would have on the journalistic independence and investigative endeavours of these newspapers. 

Even though Indian newspapers are not facing the same issues as their Western counterparts today, thanks to lower internet percolation in the country, they cannot stay smug for too long. It is only a matter of time before the growth in Internet percolation ensures people start considering hard copy newspapers a redundant expense. 
But being behind the curve in this matter, has given Indian newspapers some time to adapt and hopefully stave off the crises of the West. 

Among the measures pursued by Indian newspapers in warding off the fall of subscription numbers, the most prominent are the increasing focus on entertainment aka the tabloid culture and a capricious tendency of sensationalism often by throwing caution to the wind. 

Personally, I am deeply concerned by this development as an indirect victim of these policies is the relegation of investigative journalism especially in topics unpopular with the masses. A newspaper that allows its subscription numbers to decide its charter fails the Constitution, the public and the tradition of journalism. While I may sound alarmist to many, I have very solid reasons behind my panic. Reputed, national newspapers which deeply influence public opinions are also falling into this trap and transforming the business of reporting into pitched street battles played out through pointed advertisements on TV and Youtube. There is no 'one way' of journalism, and ergo, there is no 'one-right-way' of reporting the news. It is amusing to see newspapers with over 150 years of experience  implicitly propounding this fallacy. 

The arrival of 24x7 news channels on TV revolutionised Indian Media and the public's perception towards news and current affairs. Thanks to the inherent advantages of the medium, 24x7 news channels took the daily news to millions of Indian hitherto deprived from it. Their proliferation, thanks to healthy backing by sponsors, eventually led to a situation where news channels struggled to differentiate themselves from the horde. 'In just how many ways could you read the daily news?', one might ask. Some channels responded with the introduction of media-induced sensationalism. News items were picked for broadcast, not for their intrinsic worthiness but rather for their ability to stir up partisan emotions. Purporting to portray the angst of the 'urban, middle-class Indian' (of which I am a part) these channels have been at the vanguard of a disease that has hollowed out the media from within. The print media was not far behind as reputed newspapers started clamouring for the viable (and lucrative) voice of the urban educated masses. These developments have already converted the role of the media from that of an impartial rapporteur of events into a selective PR machine cum ad-hoc judiciary cum myopic speculators. One can only shudder about the future.

The second disturbing trend is the ever-increasing focus and pages being devoted for sports, entertainment and local political claims and counter-claims. Understandably, these instil great enthusiasm among readers and hence, occupy a role in any standard newspaper. But can they claim to be the bread and butter of a standard, non-tabloid, newspaper? Most certainly not. But market dynamics suggest that this strategy, 'tabloidization' if you will, is certainly working. Newspapers that devote greater share to tabloid-worthy material and localized content are boosting their readership numbers in B and C centres, for long the holy grail of the newspaper industry.  While the latter is a recommended measure for catering news, the former is a concerning development in the long run.

While there is nothing wrong in a newspaper catering to the requirements of its readership, any newspaper should first take into account two considerations. The first is the growth of the Internet in India. Driven by mobile devices, which already account for 2/3rd of Indians reaching out to the net, close to 122 million Indians go online regularly. That number is expected to double or triple in a decade or less. Given the fact that the Internet is a reservoir for news on entertainment, sports, fashion etc., for how much longer can a newspaper expect its readers to turn to it alone for these topics? Personally, I believe that it is highly unlikely.  The Internet can always deliver faster, steamier reports on these issues.
The second consideration is a subjective one that will vary from person to person and newspaper to newspaper. Whose voice does a 'national' newspaper represent? If we go by population figures, it must represent the voice of the rural poor. But how many in that demographic refer to a newspaper regularly? If it went by readership numbers alone, it will necessarily have to represent the voice of the urban middle-class. Neither extreme is justifiable of the term 'national newspaper'. Rather, I believe that a 'national' newspaper owes its primary obligation to an implicit social contract it shares with the people of India, all the people of India. A social contract that binds it towards equitable, objective representation of all their views, concerns and interests without falling to market compulsions or ideological tones. From that perspective, devoting greater and greater share of the newspaper to catering to a small subscription base is denigrating the social contract of the Newspaper with the people. 

It is imperative that newspapers collectively awaken to arrest these trends. Introspection is a bitter pill to swallow for anyone, let alone for an inured critic. Each newspaper must recognize its voice in this integrated, internet-driven, noisy world where each one has the information at hand to have an opinion. This soul searching must definitely involve market conditions but only as a peripheral concern rather than as the scope of the search. 
Newspapers must understand that the only areas where they can always hope to compete with and surpass content on the crowd-sourced Internet are editorials, in-depth analyses and investigative journalism. Realization of its key strengths will help in harmonizing the identity of the paper with its strategies. The internet is an important tool that must be leveraged by each newspaper, not only for boosting revenues but also for widening its reach. Some articles could be made available for free on mobile internet sites while the others could be charged, similar to the strategy adopted by leading International newspapers such as The New York Times. 

A relatively more obscure weapon in the arsenal of Indian newspapers but with potentially game-changing consequences is the treasure trove of historical data in its archives. As a nation, we are notoriously inept when it comes to maintaining history and more importantly, learning from it. No wonder that we needed the British to rediscover the wonders of our own history. Newspapers are the greatest collective source of contemporary Indian history, which is of more value to the governing of this nation. The historical archives of leading Indian newspapers must be indexed and made available online. Several newspapers could come together to make this information available in the public domain. Apart from making this information available, newspapers must also strive to use them more actively in their reporting. Editorials and analyses must draw historical parallels to enable a more comprehensive understanding of the problems of today. In a nation with little or no regard for historical facts, Newspapers are vital guardians of the value of history. 

In all fairness, Indian newspapers are in fairly good shape. It is a vibrant industry that is growing well in a country with increasing literacy levels and an overdue demographic dividend. The industry has an active self-regulator in the Press Council of India and a few newspapers such as The Hindu are reputed worldwide for their quality of news reporting. These achievements sit side-by-side with dangerous, nascent overtones which must be studied and checked. The public must play a role in this, an active role. After all, this is a classic question of who will report on the reporters. And democracy rests that responsibility on my shoulders, and yours. 




 
 

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