Saturday, May 27, 2017

Engaging with local readers and serving the community can be profitable too

Sufficiently engaging with local readers is now said to be the key to attract readers to a newspaper. Writing for The Conversation, Rachel Matthews, who has worked in the regional newspaper industry for 15 years and is a lecturer in Journalism at Coventry University, the UK, says that the national press is given more attention by both academia and industry despite regional titles dominating in terms of local readers and profits for much of UK newspaper history. A significant point she makes is: profit and community benefit are not incompatible. “Now, with cost cuts, digital editions and other concerns, it can be just as easy to forget about this community role which local newspapers have made their own – but equally, it needn’t be a choice between revenue and serving a community. The future of the local newspaper lies in it working in a way which supports its role as watchdog. By investing financially in and articulating clearly that it provides a service to the community, local newspapers can weather any changes,” she explains.

Matthews points to the new generation of ‘sociolocal’ newspapersthat would put community benefiton an equal footing with an element as important as circulation. It is not some distant dream or academic hypothesis, she says, providing the examples of the family-owned Isle of Wright County Press and the cooperative-run West Highland Free Presswho “have written this relationship into their business model, and are working to preserve community values while turning a profit”. “If these newspapers are to have a sustainable future, they need to be rescued from the tug of love battle between profit and community which has beset them for 70 years.”

A report prepared for the Geraldine R Dodge Foundation by Jessica Crowell and Kathleen McCollough talks about the importance of running focus groups in the local news community.
As newsrooms reinvent their business model, design new products and services, and invest in community engagement efforts, it is critical that they listen deeply to their communities, they suggest. According to them, focus groups are one model of listening that can be very effective in gathering feedback from a cross-section of people who represent different voices and stakeholders in an area. “The feedback gave newsrooms the confidence to test new ideas and take risks that otherwise might have seemed like blind experiments. We believe that these kinds of focus groups can be important tools for newsrooms to listen to their communities.”

Steve Gray, VP of Strategy and Innovation at Morris Communications in the USA, writing for the WAN-IFRA website, says that as the relentless decline in ad revenues empties more and more newsroom desks, there’s been a little-noted side effect: waning commitment to locally written editorials. Gray intends to make the case for strong local opinion writing as a key element of community journalism, which creates value. Narrating his experience as an editorial writer, he says he came to understand that the most important editorials were those that unravelled community issues with a combination of facts and logic borne of a desire to raise the common good.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Print still scores, but newspapers need the money to play game

Writing for The Guardian website, Roy Greenslade says print (still) remains a favourite with readers. He refers to a new study that finds newspapers are read for an average of 40 minutes a day, outstripping by a wide margin the time spent on online reading. If that is the position in the developed world, the amount of time spent on reading a newspaper in a country like India could be far more, which must surely be heartening for newspaper owners and publishers.

Greenslade thinks “print in future will largely serve a niche market (a reality already for magazines)”. An educated, affluent elite will most likely be prepared to pay for the pleasure of getting ink on their hands, he says. What he finds worrying, however, is “whether anyone can find a business model to support independent, trustworthy, quality journalism on a large enough scale to stage a daily national conversation”. A question many of those in the know about the media here have also been asking.

Greenslade finds the growing use of social media to access news “equally problematic”. He refers to his colleague at City, University of London, Neil Thurman, who has just published a study, Newspaper Consumption in the Mobile Age, which shows that 89 per cent of newspaper reading is still in newsprint, with just 7 per cent via mobile devices and 4 per cent on PCs.  Thurman’s research, Greenslade points out, shows that while newspapers are read for an average of 40 minutes a day, online visitors to the websites and apps of those same newspapers spend an average of just 30 seconds per day.

A fair wind seems to be blowing for newspapers Down Under as well. Fairfax Media, while announcing a half-year profit, plans to keep printing newspapers, says a report on The Guardian website. Fairfax chief executive Greg Hywood says the company will keep printing the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age “for some years yet”. The report mentions the publisher radically restructuring the way the papers are run.

In India, print continues to be robust, especially in the vernacular. The newspaper reading habit dying all too quickly is not only unthinkable in these parts, it is also highly unlikely. When television arrived years ago, doomsayers predicted the death of print. That never happened. A similar sentiment was expressed when the Internet boom occurred. But the printed newspaper held out strongly. And there are still millions in India who cannot do without the morning newspaper over a cup of tea or coffee.

However, there is some amount of uncertainty prevailing especially after the ABP Group had many journalists leave and the Hindustan Times closed down a few of its smaller editions. A senior marketing executive in The Hindu I spoke to yesterday said the newspaper was going through tough times. It may well be that most leading newspapers are facing a similar situation. Could it be the demonetisation effect? There seem to be no remedies in sight to get revenues back on track. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out in the days and weeks ahead.  


Can Mark Zuckerberg really fix journalism? Well, Emily Bell, director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, says “what independent journalism needs more than ever from Silicon Valley is a significant transfer of wealth”. It is not necessarily enough just to re-energise existing institutions (although the involvement of Jeff Bezos and his money at The Washington Post has been, from a civic and journalistic point of view, wholly beneficial), she says, adding that Zuckerberg has “a chance to make a generational intervention which will dramatically improve the health of America’s journalism”.

America, in Bell’s view, needs a radical new market intervention similar to that made by the UK Government in 1922 when it issued a Royal Charter and established the BBC. “Remaking independent journalism requires funding that is independent of individuals or corporations, has a long-time horizon built into it, and offers complete independence and as much stability as possible. If, instead of scrapping over news initiatives, the four or five leading technology companies could donate $1 billion in endowment each for a new type of engine for independent journalism, it would be more significant a contribution than a thousand scattered initiatives put together.” 


After 10 months of testing headlines seriously, The New York Times has started slicing its audience into finer segments, albeit informally, says Max Willens on the Digiday website. The right headline can drive exponentially higher traffic to a story, which is why publishers big and small are optimising their headlines not just on social media or their owned and operated properties but inside third-party recommendation widgets too, he says. What’s less common, he adds, is optimising by device. While some publishers have toyed with using different headlines inside their mobile apps, fewer are showing headlines to mobile readers that differ from the headlines shown to readers accessing their sites from desktop computers, or from the ones that appear in newsletters, he points out. Most haven’t taken the step because muddling through reader data on that level requires dedicated analytics and support for the work.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Why the media needs a crash course in journalism and more

Earlier today, I was drawn to an article on The News Minute website with the headline, ‘Jayalalithaa’s health and why the media needs a crash course in social media verification. The article was by Kalyan Arun, faculty member at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai and former journalist at The Indian Express. 

What had riled Arun was the fact that, while reporting on Jayalalithaa’s health, the media had “lapped up... (WhatsApp) forwards of unknown origins and parroted them as gospel truth”, that television channel reporters had announced a holiday being declared for schools and colleges that come within the ambit of Madras University and Anna University, when that was not the case.

Arun uses strong words when he says that “some journalists, sitting in newsrooms of television channels, as well as some of the reporters on the field (outside Apollo Hospitals) seemed to have suspended their common sense in accepting this forward as gospel truth without any verification”. He adds that the reporter of one TV channel even quoted from a WhatsApp forward to ‘confirm’ the news.

Responding to Arun’s article, senior journalist Vincent D’Souza, publisher, Mylapore Times, had this to say: “To NDTV's credit, the anchor did keep telling viewers not to be taken in by WhatsApp messages on Sec144/schools closure, etc. Apollo and other private and state-run organisations can learn a lot on how they must handle their communications in the public space.
And yes, we all need a course on social media and news; but how many media folks / organs want to really learn / unlearn?”

Vincent wonders whether ACJ (social media sourcing and verification is part of the curriculum at the college) and the Press Institute of India could conduct such courses and, if they did, how many journalists would seriously want to learn. Arun feels there is a distinct aversion among the journalist fraternity towards organised skill enhancement. And I agree.

My thing in this has always been: If you wish to follow the fundamentals of good journalism (truth-telling / honesty), then you have to check, double-check and clarify at every stage. That's what we were taught in journalism classes years ago. But the point is how many journalists today would want to go the extra mile when the battle seems largely poised at getting there first, not getting it right?

In the mad scramble for news and bytes, ‘checking’, ‘condensing’ and ‘clarifying’ have taken a back seat. How many young reporters today thoroughly know the subject they are covering, or even make an honest attempt to understand it? How many have the patience for legwork and the desire to put in hard hours of work to get to the bottom of a story, rather than ‘Googling’ up information or using the mobile phone to network and put together a hastily written piece?

Youngsters today have good opportunities to train or apprentice. But is there appreciable improvement in the quality of journalism? There is widespread agreement both within the profession and among the public that media output has been deteriorating in terms of both language and substance. The record of our news media on accuracy even at the most basic level of journalism – reporting on a routine event – is not very inspiring. 

Accuracy, fairness and balance have taken a beating. Often the main points made at the event are missing.  Facts are often randomly selected for inclusion, the main points made at an event are missing, facts are rarely presented with the context necessary for a reader to make sense of them, direct quotes attributed to speakers are often not correct and sometimes even attributed to the wrong speaker.

Creating frenzy by appealing to the emotions, not the mind; ignoring reality and any search for uncomfortable truth ... that is the media of today. Sitting at your desk and making a couple of calls for quotes or arriving with a mike for two sentences is anything but good journalism. So long as journalists do not go for the solid substance of a story and seek only quotes or report only excerpts from rabble rousing speeches by confrontationists on major issues, the Indian media will continue to be seen only as tabloidish entertainment.

Postscript (a day after): Some of the Tamil television channels reporting Jayalalithaa's death yesterday much before Apollo Hospitals came up with a statement is yet another example of desperately trying to get there first and not doing it right. The right thing would have been to wait for the hospital's statement or official confirmation before going public, even if credible sources had indeed confirmed the inevitable hours earlier. 

Friday, November 04, 2016

Striving to put public interest first is great, but do it with humility

As I sit down to write this piece, I receive a phone call from my aunt. It is almost 9 pm. She is in quite a bad way, combating vertigo. But that is secondary for her – what is most important is her daily date with the News Hour on Times Now. She is calling to say she will miss Arnab Goswami terribly and hopes he will be back on television soon. I cannot resist reaching out for the TV remote and switching it on. Goswami is still anchoring the show, the day reports had appeared in all the major newspapers, even on the front pages of some, that he had quit Times Now. It was my daughter who sent me news the previous afternoon about Goswami quitting, her WhatsApp message providing the link to the news report that had appeared on The News Minute site. By then, the news had already gone viral. In all my life I haven’t seen a media personality being discussed so much, someone who mattered so much to competition.

There has been a certain drag and monotony to News Hour the past few months with even some of the early faithfuls keeping away but what was it really that made Arnab Goswami attractive to young and old alike? I have seen youngsters watch his ‘super prime time’ show in what can only be called mute admiration. Clearly, here was a man who held people of all ages enthralled, almost like he was a
storyteller unfolding a magical tale. Of course, there were many who hated his high-decibel volume, his constant hectoring tone of voice, and his elbowing participants into submission, but whether you loved him or hated him, you did spare time to watch him. While debating issues, he made no bones about letting viewers know where his sympathies lay, in certain cases pressing the patriotism button too many times for comfort. That really wasn’t healthy journalism at all. At the other extreme was his chameleon-like change – his interview with the Indian Prime Minister appeared so thoughtfully choreographed that Twitterati had described the show as if they were “watching a date”.

Whichever way you may look at it, most will agree that television’s Angry Young Man not only changed the debating style in the television studio newsroom but, more significantly, voiced the feelings of the common person. Goswami vented his ire on the rich and famous, the film star, the sportsperson, the diplomat, the religious head and several others, but, mostly, his seething anger was directed at the politician. It was as if the collective frustration of a country had finally found an outlet, a worthy outlet which people in high places just could not ignore. It was as if India’s common man had finally found an effective, thundering spokesperson. And much like Amitabh Bachchan reflected the hopes and aspirations of Indians in the 1970s, intolerant of exploitation and delivering speedy justice, Arnab Goswami came down hard on oppressors of varying kinds, not by using his fists but by his sheer gift of the gab.

Goswami’s innings at Times Now may have come to an end but it isn’t as if Indian television has seen the last of him. The competition must have squealed in delight when the news broke out but they will be waiting and watching. There will also be millions, like my aunt, waiting, which is all well and good. So, what’s the moral of the story? There may be more than one. Whether it is personal or business, both the sides have to work to keep a relationship going, which, of course, is easier said than done (news about Goswami quitting Times Now arrived the day Gautami announced her split with Kamal Haasan, and a few days after Cyrus Mistry was ousted as chairman of the Tata Group). The other thing is, no matter how big a star you are, it pays to work with humility, and this is where Goswami fell far short, earning dislike by the loads in the bargain. You may be the No. 1 news channel or the first with the breaking news, but it needn’t be announced from rooftops every single day. You can do much better without such braggadocio. And when you are in the media, you have to be absolutely neutral and unbiased, allow people to speak and listen to them with respect, and at all times be humble. Some of the reasons we have another star on the horizon who well-meaning journalists now look up to. His name is Ravish Kumar, but that’s a story for another day.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Putting readers first matters – they are not passive anymore

There is an interesting article by WAN-IFRA’s Cecilia Campbell on the whole issue of online users downloading ad blockers because they are so fed up with online advertising and, as a result, publishers wondering what to do. While Campbell goes into the crux of the problem and provides wide-ranging perspective, what she says towards the end of her piece is quite pertinent: “For all the talk of data, your customers are actual people. They will respond to how you treat them. They may respond to explanations about the cost of good journalism and the value exchange. But first and foremost, they need to know that you’ll protect their interests and that you care about and control what is published on your website, as well as who has access to the underlying data. If we’re to stop more people from resorting to ad blocking, everything must flow from this: trust.”

That the reader is king in today’s world of journalism there is no doubt. An article on the Newspaper Association of America website talks about the rise of the opinion section in newspapers. It says that several news media outlets have recently announced the expansion of their opinion section offerings, even creating new ones, to accompany its current news coverage. These include The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and The Tennessean. All of them having the “common desire to engage and connect with readers”. The article talks about “the importance of an engaged readership that feels represented and is encouraged to participate”. The publication’s readers are no longer simply ‘consumers’ or customers (the word Campbell uses) – they become active participants in representing the news that matters to them, the article points out. So, in many ways, the wheel has turned full circle.

A recent report by the American Press Institute emphasises the importance of a collaboration between publishers and their audiences.  The key focus of the study, which features feedback and insight from 25 news leaders and innovators, stresses how a strong relationship between journalists and their consumers can help to “produce strong, engaging content that is of value to readers”. Collaboration, the report says, “is not about what your audience can do for you, but what you can do with your audience”.

Monica Guzman, writing for the American Press Institute about the best ways to build audience and relevance by listening to and engaging your community, says people don’t just consume news today; they participate in it. “People have access to vast and varied information. They pursue news on their own time, and on their own terms, connecting with others who share and help satisfy their curiosity about their world. This presents an opportunity for news publishers strained by shrinking resources and growing competition: Now more than ever, journalists can engage their audiences as contributors, advisors, advocates, collaborators and partners.”

An article by Ingrid Cobben on the WAN-IFRA website talks about building a community willing to pay for quality journalism. She provides the example of Danish publication Zetland, which is well on the way to doing so. Cobben says one of the co-founders and the editor-in-chief, Lea Korsgaard, wanted to create a platform that puts readers first, strongly believing that journalistic authority comes from standing among the audience rather than above them. “We consider our readers active not passive. They are more than capable to not only read, but also react, and use our stories out in the world, but also critically capable of giving us ideas, input and new perspectives,” Korsgaard had told the World Editors Forum recently.   

Asked how she was building a strong community, Korsgaard tells Cobben: “A lot of it has to with the tone of voice. It needs to be human, personal, not just a machine talking, so that readers can actually feel that there is someone behind the words. This is so contrary to what we're used to from the traditional news business, where news is written in a very anonymous way. I still think there are good things to say about that, but it doesn't build community.

Food for thought, indeed.

Even as social media takes charge, newspapers retain their special charm

It was just a while ago that I  read an interesting report on the Newspaper Association of America website, which has an interesting story by David Chavern, its president and CEO. Chavern had attended the Digital Publishing Innovation Summit in New York City, a summit that explored key topics and trends affecting the digital publishing industry and where he spoke on a panel about how social publishing affects the future. Chavern believes there are three key points to consider if as a publisher you are looking to expand your presence on various social platforms.

First, always remain reader-centric. The first thing Chavern says you should ask yourself is: What is my audience interested in? He urges publishers to look at audience habits, reader engagement, number of clicks and other key metrics to help understand what platforms make sense.  Second, don’t be afraid to experiment. Although understanding readers and their preferences can help publishers make smart, informed decisions about which social platforms to devote time and dollars to, Chavern says it is difficult to figure out what will work if you don’t actually try it out. Third, if done right, social publishing can lead to new revenue opportunities. Publishing directly on social platforms or linking to articles via social media, Chavern says, requires a re-thinking or re-structuring of a publisher’s pay-wall system to ensure that enough information is being offered to social followers while still maintaining a level of exclusivity for paying subscribers.

Chavern’s views echo distinctly in an article by Ingrid Cobben on the WAN-IFRA website, which talks about  the reality journalists world over have to face today – news increasingly ‘breaking’ on social media platforms before publishers and broadcasters have even had a chance to get to the story. With Facebook Live enabling audiences to live stream, the role of the news industry to provide breaking news has changed, irrevocably, she says. Advances in technology and platforms, and the actions of publishers – rather than consumer demand – are the main drivers behind the growth of online video, she adds, referring to the recently published Digital News Report 2016 by Oxford's Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Indeed, so much has changed, and changed irrevocably, the past two decades that it is oftentimes even difficult to believe. While today’s generation is moving more and more towards digital, there is still a large readership out there, certainly in India, that swears by print.

It was in the midst of reading Chavern and Cobben’s views that I received an email from a veteran journalist. G.V. Krishnan retired in 1998 as a Times of India correspondent after spending two decades with the newspaper, with postings in New Delhi, Bhopal, Chandigarh and Madras. He was earlier with the National Herald in New Delhi. As someone who had spent a life-time in newspaper organisations – as reporter, sub-editor, and even as editor of a London-based fortnightly, the Afro-Asian Echo – Krishnan says his old-fashioned mind will not accept anything that isn't on newsprint as authentic news. Also, a newspaper, home-delivered or picked up from a news-stand, has a feel, a smell that no on-line creation can emulate, he adds. How true!

Why freedom of the press is paramount
At a time when there is a lot of talk about freedom of the press here in India, and fierce debate about which TV anchor is right and who is wrong, etc, Krishnan’s memories of the 1975 Emergency provide a sobering  as well as chilling effect. Referring to Sachidananda Murthy (New Delhi resident editor of The Week) writing recently about the night that the Emergency was declared, Krishnan says he is prompted to send me this note, about his experience that night. So, over to Krishnan:

I was then on the reporting staff of the National Herald, identified as a Congress newspaper, though we, as staff members, took the task of reporting an assignment as professionally, as someone from the Hindustan Times or the The Times of India did. I had attended a public rally, addressed by Jayaprakash Narayan, at the Ramlila Maidan. It was at this rally that JP had given a call to the police and other officials, not to obey oral orders from their superiors. Thought it made a good headline – ' Get it in writing'. I had even worked out the headline font-type (in which it would be set) – 72 point, bold, all caps. As I sat down at my desk, inserted a blank white-sheet, typed the catch-line – JP's Call – on the sheet, the lights went off… never to come back again, for the next 24 hrs or was it more, I don't remember.

For, when the power supply on Delhi's Press Lane was resumed, the Emergency had been declared. The only newspaper that made the newsstand the next morning (well, barely made, for the copies were confiscated as soon as they were delivered) was The Motherland, which was printed at a press in Jhandewallah. The babus at the ministry, in their anxiety to switch off Press Lane, that is, Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, simply forgot that yet another newspaper was being printed off the lane, at Jhandewallah. And that was how The Motherland hit the stand (well, nearly did, for moments after the copies were delivered – and a couple of them even found their way to the coffee house – the EB (electricity board) blokes realised their blunder. And lost no time in locking the stable after the horse had bolted.

A bit more, about the night when the Press Lane lights went off. At the newsroom, the adjacent desk was occupied by our crime reporter, D.K. Issar. He had a dinner date with the New Delhi police chief; Ohri, I believe, was his name. But Issar had his appointment cancelled at the last moment… thought nothing much of it…for police officers tend to get called out, now and then, for some errand. Ohri came back to the newsroom. Later, in the evening, when a  staff driver reported having seen a crowd of policemen hovering around the Daryagunj Police Station, Issar called his contacts at the station level, only to be stonewalled by otherwise friendly and, even chatty, police contacts. And then there was that particular friend who couldn't simply ignore Issar's call. He came on line to say that some 'anti-social' elements were being rounded up – the police officer could not afford to ignore Issar but was obliged not to reveal anything substantive.

As it turned out, mid-night calls were made and the so-called anti-socials being taken into custody included JP. As someone who stayed in a Rouse Avenue bungalow, allotted to the National Herald, adjacent to the Gandhi Peace Foundation, where JP was put up, I found that the lights outside JP's place, which were usually on, had been switched off. It wasn't till the next morning I came to know of the mid-night knock of the celebrity's door, staying a bungalow away from ours.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Catering to the young and the old, in an effort to forge lasting bonds

It is interesting to read on the NiemanLab website that The New York Times (NYT) is taking its expertise and access to the classroom. The article by Ricardo Bilton says “the dual challenges of sinking print readership and contracting digital ad revenue are forcing legacy publishers to ponder new ways of making money”. NYT seems to have found a new way by opening a summer camp. Bilton says a few hundred high school students will spend a couple of weeks at the NYC Summar Academy this summer to get through “a set of courses designed to give students a comprehensive, cross-sectional look at some of the big areas within the Times’ wheelhouse”. Some of the courses offered include Sports Management and Media, Writing for Television: Inside the Writers’ Room, and The Future of Fashion.

Newspapers in India and indeed across the world have over the past several years been trying hard to attract young readers. Now, this initiative by NYT seems a sensible thing to do and newspaper publishing houses in India should consider offering similar courses for students. The idea is not just to earn extra income. Bilton quotes Raymond Ravaglia, director of the precollege division at The School of NYT: “The goal here is to get the students out of the classroom and into the intersection of ideas and careers. They spend a lot of their time studying and getting new ideas, but they don’t have a sense of how these ideas get operationalised in the world in terms of careers.” How true!

Such exercises must give students an opportunity to focus on the community, the neighbourhood, the city they live in. And you never know – from such exercises may dawn a student’s love for heritage or civic issues or sport or food, or even Journalism. Bilton says NYT charges nearly $4000 for the two-week summer course and that the cost has not discouraged students from signing up. By Indian middle-class standards, this is pretty expensive. I am sure media houses here can work out a reasonable fee. What’s also important is to get their reporters associated with the programme. We have students applying to intern in newspaper offices, but newspapers taking the initiative to draw students is quite different. It’s indeed a welcome step by NYT. Nothing like providing young and impressionable minds a true experience of what it is like working in a news publishing house.

We have all heard about newspapers reaching out to young readers, but here is something remarkably different. Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review,its contributing editor Trudy Lieberman explains why one local paper launched an online section for older readers. The new effort from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, she says, is a little unusual: it’s aimed directly at older audiences. In April this year, the paper launched Aging Edge, a section of its website dedicated to the interests and concerns of the area’s “older adults, their familiesand the professionals who deal with them”. The idea, according to Lieberman, came from Gary Rotstein, a veteran Post-Gazette journalist, the objective being to cater to a region that has a high proportion of the elderly. Some of the subjects covered include ‘staying healthy’, ‘aging at home’, and ‘preparing for the end’. The reporting, again, is more localized and community-driven. Yet another example worth replicating here in India.

Let us drive home the message that smoking is bad for health

Cigarette smoking is injurious to health. We’ve all heard that a million times. But who cares, anyway? There was a time not so long ago when smoking a cigarette was seen to be a cool thing (to borrow from today’s oft used terminology) to do, when boys just out of school and in college smoked to ‘impress’ girls or simply because if they didn’t, they would not be considered adults and be sneered at. The statutory warning, ‘cigarette smoking is injurious to health’ was carried by cigarette packs even then but few took the trouble to read it. Within families, empty cigarette packs were sometimes passed on to children to play with, and if you had the money to buy a pack of 20s of Dunhill or Benson & Hedges or Marlboro or Rothmans or State Express 555, you would have flaunted them; they all came in very attractive packages. And, of course, they were all status symbols of a kind.

Despite those rather glamorous heydays when film heroes smoked to make a point, in recent years, thanks to repeated warnings and mainly due to the fear of the dreaded C (cancer), many smokers have managed to give up the habit. For some, the initial stages have been akin to leading a wretched life. But having been brave enough to withstand and overcome the trauma, they have emerged stronger and wiser. Unfortunately, many in the young generation are getting into the habit of smoking cigarettes, like their fathers and grandfathers did. College girls and young women, too. Is there a way to stop them? It’s a free country, isn’t it?

So what do cigarettes do? Does tobacco smoke contain harmful chemicals? Yes, at least 250 of them. Is smoking addictive? Yes. It’s almost the same as being addicted to heroin and cocaine. Does
quitting smoking lower the risk of cancer? Yes. If you quit when you are younger, the better for you. It’s some of these messages that Dr V. Shanta, chairperson of the Cancer Institute in Chennai, a
this year’s recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, tries to get across at various forums. For her, it’s one of her life’s missions. And I feel it is our duty to strengthen the tireless efforts of doyens like Dr Shanta.

Let there be progress and change, and let us learn from shared experiences

Veteran journalist Pamela Philipose has captured well the flavour of “the throes of a great churn” as she puts it, after attending the recent WAN-IFRA Digital Media India Conference held in New Delhi. So, there is progress, there is change, and, of course, there are challenges. At the two-day conference, some significant points came to the fore: not every single new Internet user is proficient in English; Hindi content grew five times that of English; search queries in Hindi grew at a ten times faster pace than those in English; and, significantly, by mid-2017, the Hindi ad inventory will
overtake the English ad inventory.

In fact, the share of local language adspend on digital is expected to rise from 5 per cent last year to 30 per cent by 2020. Ad revenues will be under threat as the future becomes digital. And, what might not be welcome news to news publishers and television channel owners — with newspapers, television too increasingly appeals only to the 35-plus age group. However, riding the digital wave has never been easy or smooth. Yes, social is where the story breaks first, social is where journalists tend to follow up first. But being on social media and garnering ‘likes’ is not enough, mainstream media houses would need to translate the ‘likes’ into a continuous engagement, Philipose echoes the views of some of the speakers.

At the conference, Philipose listened to Torry Pedersen, CEO/editor-in-chief, Verdens Gang AS
(VG), Norway’s largest media house. The only way to go it seems, according to Pedersen, is to experiment and learn from each other’s experiences. He makes some very pertinent points. One, you have to be the fastest – the Usain Bolt of the media. Two, you have to be live and present, and to be alive today all you need is a selfie stick and an iPhone. Three, your content will have to create emotion -- of course, you have to be opinionated. The biggest proportion of traffic from our Facebook is the opinion section because people like to express their views and you have to let them do it. Finally, you have to instil the ‘fear of missing out’ in your audience, so that people
keep coming back to you.

The discussion about going digital is usually preceded by a caveat on the consequences. Ricardo
Gandour, director of Brazil’s Estado Media Group, which includes the 141-year old flagship daily
newspaper, O Estado de SPaulo, says fragmentation of media introduced by digital technology and now amplified by powerful social platforms comes with a risk to journalism and democracy. “Social media has boosted superficiality, with instant responses of either like or dislike, contributing towards a polarizing society.

Monday, February 22, 2016

It’s a seething cauldron of emotion, the media must tread with caution

Incidents of the past few weeks have been rather disconcerting to say the least. Whether we are publishers or editors or journalists or technical managers working in newspaper presses, this is a matter that confronts us all.

The nation seems to be seized by a sudden pang of conscience. Words such as ‘national’ and ‘anti-national’ are being used in many of the conversations we hear. It all started off in institutes of learning, in universities, with students in the thick of things. The institutions read like a Who’s Who if a list were to be made – the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, IIT-Madras, Hyderabad Central University, and the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). With the storylines being similar, agitations have spread to other institutes and centres of learning. The cauldron started to simmer in January when Rohit Vemula, an Ambedkar Students Association leader at the Hyderabad Central University killed himself, leaving a suicide note that touched many hearts. Then things came to a head in the second week of February when JNU Student Union president Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on sedition charges. In all the cases, the response from either the administration or the government has not been adequate to deal with what at times threatens to be a conflagration that could well devour everything in its wake if left unchecked.

What has been even more disconcerting is the role being played by the media in this whole thing. As it is, with feelings running high, the responsibility of the media in such cases is to be extremely cautious while reporting the events as they unfold, to ensure that everything is double-checked and that only facts are reported. However, the reporting by some journalists, especially by those working for television channels, has done little to instill confidence in readers/ viewers and to restore the faith of people in the media. It was sad day for journalism in India when it emerged that the video showing Kanhaiya Kumar raising incendiary slogans was allegedly a doctored one. The Hindu reported that four such videos were in circulation. The question many people are asking is how is it that when Kumar had not raised any anti-national or anti-India slogan, the videos doing the rounds of news channels showed something different. So, was an audio track superimposed on the video?

To make matters worse, there were accusations and counter-accusations between senior journalists, the one between the head of a prominent news channel and the co-founder of a prominent online news portal standing out. Of course, readers and viewers are fairly intelligent to judge for themselves. But the fact that there seems to be so much of dislike and animosity between members of the media fraternity is really sad and does not bode well for a healthy and robust media and for a healthy and robust democracy. And most of it really fuelled by competition, the race for readership, eyeballs and TRPs (television rating points), or whatever. In the midst of all the cacophony, where might seems to be always right, what the media is witnessing is further erosion of its credibility. It is I suppose also a reflection of the times we live in and symptomatic of a wider malaise that has crept in our society. If journalists can be beaten and threatened as we have seen happen at the Patiala House court complex after the Kanhaiya Kumar episode, we cannot stop wondering whether we are a tolerant country after all and whether the freedom of the press is in peril. For sure, we need far more sane voices within media than we have at the moment, to quieten the voices of incitement. It’s still a rather dark world.