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. 

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Let’s be objective and let facts speak for themselves

Journalists may leave newspapers or magazines for varied reasons. Usually, the reasons trotted out are not being able to cope with work pressure or gaining a better opportunity, status-wise and salary-wise. One young journalist I bumped into a while ago said he was wanting to quit because the management of the newspaper he was working for, had come under a cloud. I told him if he was happy with his work and as long as the newspaper had a sizeable readership there was really no reason for him to contemplate quitting. But, of course, public perception plays a major role in many of the things we do, even if it has to do with a job. Even as a reader, for instance, being seen with a particular newspaper matters at times.

In journalism classes, everybody talks about following good editorial practices, adhering to ethics, the qualities a reporter should have, etc. There is not much focus on the ownership of a newspaper and how a newspaper needs to be run well commercially for it to be a successful product. ‘Commercially’ doesn’t just mean the economics of running something, it also means adopting the latest technology (printing presses and sundry), even sourcing the right newsprint so that the ink looks good on paper. Many of the newspapers in India are family-owned, there are very few that are run by trusts. Corporate ownership of the media is a relatively new development. Whatever be the form of ownership, it is clear that somebody has to own a newspaper. Even a corporate entity is backed by a human mind. So, owners are entitled to have opinions and a newspaper’s policy is normally charted out by the owner (s). Editors and journalists are expected to follow the policy and if for some reason they disagree or are unhappy following such policy, they have the freedom to leave.

Generally, the owner does not interfere in the day-to-day running of a newspaper and the editor is given a free hand. There have of course been numerous instances of pressure being brought to bear on editors to change course or editors being fired because they did not follow the policy laid down by the newspaper or ran an article or a series of articles to considerably upset the political dispensation. However, what a senior journalist told me a few days ago caught me by some surprise. According to her, an editor today can tweet about his preference for a political party and some senior journalists and columnists are setting themselves up as spokespersons and defenders of the ruling party or others. So, what about objectivity and ethics? What is disturbing is that it could set a dangerous precedent.

The fact is, many of our reporters and sub-editors, including those who work for top newspapers, do not know the rules enough and certainly not how to handle sensitive issues. They do not even refer to the style sheet. In the mad scramble for news and bytes, ‘checking’, ‘condensing’ and ‘clarifying’ have taken a back seat for some years now. How many young reporters today thoroughly know the subject they are covering, or even make an honest attempt to understand it? 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. A lot of all that is manageable, but a mainstream news publisher repeatedly driving only a highly subjective point of view and trying to influence the opinion of readers or viewers by not presenting the other side of the story can be disastrous for journalism and all that it stands for. Let us steady the ship before it is too late. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

How do you keep pace with the dynamics of the Mobile Revolution?

No other instrument has created a greater impact in our lives, at least in recent decades, than the mobile phone. There are more than a billion users in India of the mobile phone, but more than the numbers it is the sheer power of the instrument, especially the smartphone, that is amazing. If at home it may not be surprising to see silence reign and members of a family engrossed in texting, pinging, chatting or whatever with their eyes glued to the small hand-held screen, the transformation of the media landscape and publisher business has been quite dramatic, so much so that several organisations, including the majors, are now focused on meeting the challenge of catering to the customer of today and tomorrow – Generation Z – who, according to Dushyant Khare of Google India, is likely to be a mobile-only user.

For owners, publishers, editors and technical heads, riding the “smartphone wave” hasn’t been easy and it is unlikely to be smooth in the days ahead. For the mobile revolution is still as dynamic as ever. As Khare says, the question that is uppermost in their minds relates to money, especially at a time when print subscribers have dwindled. So who is going to make sense of the “digital phenomenon”? We may have to wait a while for that to happen.

The latest World Press Trends Report has found that for the first time, circulation revenue of newspapers across the globe has surpassed advertising revenue. Declining advertising revenues are posing yet another challenge for publishers – how to make print more attractive.

Kasturi Balaji, director of Kasturi & Sons who now heads the World Printers Forum, suggests that a redefinition of the newspaper may be required if the printed newspaper and the printing plant are to be sustained. Can newsprint compete visually with high-quality displays on mobiles, tablets, he asks. We all know the answer to that. So, what’s the way forward? One of the ways could be users buying the articles they wish to read. Blendle’s micropayments system holds promise for publishers not only as a revenue stream but also as a gateway to selling subscriptions. The concept as far as I know is yet to take shape in India but it is an interesting concept nevertheless. 

Then there is the whole issue of mobile revenues not keeping pace with the rising number of people using smartphones to consume news. Google, Facebook and Twitter seem to be making all the money while others are left wondering what to do. More than half the readers of four UK national titles (Independent, Daily Mirror, Express, Guardian) access content only on mobile devices (smartphone or tablet), not in print or on a desktop computer. And that not only makes the picture clear but also strengthens the view many of us have – that the future will be more about mobile devices. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Yes, Mr Raghavan, it matters to have gentler ways

B.S. Raghavan’s piece on his blog about the exit of Malini Parthsarathy as the editor of The Hindu and some of the goings-on within and outside the family that runs the venerable newspaper may have surprised all those who have read it. A couple of former senior IFS officers I met yesterday in my office, who know Mr Raghavan well, told me it was so unlike him to put it all down for the record as it were. A senior journalist I spoke to said the same thing. We might all wonder what prompted him to write such a piece, but it appears as though he wished to just get a load off his chest.

Whatever may be the churning developing apace at The Hindu, it’s probably none of our business as long as they don’t affect us as readers of the paper. But there are some larger, pertinent points Mr Raghavan has made, which you just can’t shrug off as being unimportant.

Perhaps the most important point he makes is the one about Humility, about the need to be humble at all times. He uses the phrase, “the ephemeral and transient nature of life and its trappings” and how people change when they reach exalted positions. He uses the words “insensitive and encrusted bureaucracy” to describe some of the goings-on, and how his repeated emails never received responses.

In my three-decade-long career, first as an officer in the insurance industry, then as a public relations manager for a leading corporate entity, and later as a journalist and an editor, I have always responded to telephone calls and replied to letters or emails. And been courteous with customers, visitors and staff. Busy is not a word I generally use. According to me, feeling is everything. So, if you wish to do something, you will find the time to do it. It’s as simple as that.

Often, in recent years, my calls or text messages or emails to editors and journalists, even to those I have worked with, have elicited no response. Sometimes, I do get a reply – a rather brusque “Noted” or disinterested “OK”. I often wonder what it is that stops them from even writing a full sentence. Surely, nobody in this world is so 'busy'!

However, even among publishers, editors and journalists, there are exceptions. B.G. Verghese, who passed away a year ago, was one. He would occasionally even string two or three sentences to say he liked a particular issue we published or suggest something useful. Now, coming from a person of his stature (a former legendary editor who was press information advisor to Indira Gandhi nonetheless), it shows that the truly ‘great’ people are usually humble. I was fortunate to meet him once when he had come to Madras and get him to sign his book (First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India) for me. In fact, it was Mr Verghese who had sent me details of his visit before leaving Delhi and invited me to the programme, long before I received a call from the local host.

Another example I can recollect is that of Gopal Krishna Gandhi, former distinguished civil servant and diplomat, and West Bengal Governor, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson. When I once called his residence number with some amount of trepidation, I was pleasantly surprised to hear his voice at the other end, asking me if it would be convenient for ME (!) to meet him on so-and-so day and time. Recently, I met him at a wedding and later went to him and wished him. He remembered me well and spent a few minutes chatting with me.It was quite extraordinary. But that is the kind of person he is.

Now, these are giants I have hardly known, quite different from let’s say, my mentor S. Muthiah, veteran journalist-editor-author. And when they extend to you that kind of warmth, your respect for them multiplies manifold.

There is also the aspect of treating people with respect, no matter what position you hold and no matter whether the person is your deputy or peon, your driver or maidservant. Yes, you may occasionally raise your voice with them to make a point, but that’s all right if you bear no malice and treat people fairly. You have to be gentle to be liked and loved, and to succeed and be admired.

Mr Raghavan uses the word “subhuman”, which perhaps is going a little over the top. But, if as an editor I am publishing an article about the humane treatment of refugees, for example, I must be sensitive myself and show kindness to people. Of course, there are human weaknesses and failings but it is not very difficult to exercise the human touch. As publisher, editor or journalist, you have the same feelings and emotions as most ordinary people. And so does an entrepreneur or CEO. 

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Rising intolerance: Onus on media to play a responsible role

Tolerance and intolerance. Two words we are getting to read often nowadays in newspapers in India. So what really has happened to sobriety? Filmmakers, artistes, writers and scientists have returned their national awards to protest “growing intolerance in the country”. Their contention: the government is stifling freedom of expression. The return of the awards and all the talk about intolerance comes at the head of a series of occurrences – Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi being killed, Perumal Muragan having to quit writing altogether, a fatwa issued by a Mumbai-based outfit against A.R. Rahman for scoring music for an Iranian film, a warning issued to actor Rajnikanth for accepting the role of Tipu Sultan, and a bomb attack on the office of Tamil TV channel Puthiya Thalaimurai.

The happenings prompted Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi to say that intolerance is on the rise and there is a "dialogue deficit" between the government and its people. They have also prompted Moody’s (one of the world’s Big Three credit rating agencies) to state that the Indian Government needs to rein in elements that are out to intimidate media and society. And none other than President Pranab Mukherjee appealed to people to preserve India's multiplicity and pluralistic character. Overall, there seems to be a sense of fear, for all those who wish to voice opinion, as journalists, bloggers, tweeters, and those who are active on Facebook or on WhatsApp.

As I was writing this, I received a long, forwarded message on WhatsApp with the opening sentence reading: “this is a very important message if you care about the unity, peace and progress of India”. I was asked to forward it in turn to “every Indian so that the evil face of media is exposed”. “Our media is wolf in sheep's clothes”, the framer of the message seemed convinced. While listing out some of the connections and relationships journalists had with politicians as well as the presence of some cozy clubs, the thrust of the message was: why is the media 'manufacturing' these stories of so-called intolerance. The English language press and English TV channels were continuously “harping about things like 'rising intolerance' and making a big issue of some isolated incidents...”, mainly to scare away potential foreign investors when on the ground common people were leading normal lives, the message read.

Today, the onus is on publishers, editors and journalists, perhaps more than ever before, to adhere to the principles of honesty and truth-telling, to be accurate and fair and balanced and, most importantly, to be sensitive to the pressures of the times. It’s a time also for reflection and to make an honest judgment. 
Well, it’s a tough time for journalists everywhere. UNESCO convened events in Paris, London, New York and elsewhere on 2nd November to mark the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. In the past decade, 700 journalists have been killed for reporting the news: one death every five days. In nine out of ten cases, the killers go unpunished. Less than one in ten cases involving the killing of journalists is ever resolved. It is almost as if there is near complete impunity for the perpetrators of crimes against journalists. Governments, civil society, the media and everyone concerned to uphold the rule of law are being asked by UNESCO to join in the global efforts to end such impunity.

Yet, as we all know, the challenge remains steep. In India, four journalists were killed this year in separate incidents. In 2013, eleven journalists were killed, putting India then at third position (after Syria, Philippines / Iraq) in the International Press Institute’s list, worse than Pakistan which was once billed as the most dangerous country for journalists. According to Reporters  Without Borders, India today ranks  138 out of 180 countries when it comes to freedom of media and the safety of journalists. What is it that makes journalists so vulnerable? Obviously, the courage to speak out against the corrupt in the establishment. Of course, journalists must continue to be brave and tell the truth no matter what it takes. That’s the hallmark of good journalism, of credibility, its raison d'ĂȘtre. There also needs to be greater unity among journalists. Sadly, the profession has lost some of the respect it had years ago. It is now time to work hard and recover what we have lost. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Newspapers still the most reliable, continue to attract younger audiences

The findings of the 15th edition of a data-heavy Newspaper of Association of America report (Circulation Facts and Figures) released recently may be interesting to publishers and editors in India. Rick Edmonds, writing for (The Poynter Institute), says that among 175 papers responding to a Newspaper Association of America (NAA) Survey, the median ‘bottom-line contribution’ of circulation had risen from 42.6 per cent in 2011 to 56.1 per cent in 2014. He quotes John Murray, NAA’s vice-president of audience development and author of the report saying that the significance of that improvement should not be underestimated. “I think we haven’t told the story very well of how the industry has managed to stay profitable after five to seven years of declining ad revenue,” Murray told Edmonds.

Typically, Murray found the median rate for a one-week seven-day subscription rose from $3.66 in 2008 to $4.50 in 2011 to $5.74 in 2014. That is a 64 per cent increase over the six years. Edmonds mentions that three quarters of the papers now also charge non-subscribers for digital access and that typically the higher-priced print subscription is bundled with digital access. Nearly 60 per cent of ‘paid starts’ in 2014 were for this combination, he writes.

If that’s about the commercial side of running a newspaper, I found encouraging news relating to the editorial side from an article written by Brian Tierney for (The Inquirer/ Daily News). The skyrocketing audience of newspaper content on all platforms, he writes, is evidence that journalism still touches an important chord in society today. In reality, more Americans read newspaper content today than ever before, he adds. Some 88 per cent of adults - that's 176 million Americans - consume newspaper media on digital platforms, according to recent comScore research. “And despite popular myths (must be indeed heart-warming for publishers and editors of newspapers), comScore shows that newspapers continue to attract younger and younger audiences: 92 per cent of women and 87 per cent of men ages 25 to 34 read newspaper content, with similar numbers in the 18 to 24 age group.”

It's easy to see why, Tierney points out. “In a world of information overload, newspaper content remains the reliable shortcut to news that is actually accurate and interesting. Some 59 per cent of Americans trust newspaper content, compared with the 37 per cent who trust information on social media. This trust allows journalists to shine the spotlight on matters that require our attention, wherever they find them. It allows newspapers to carefully cover issues of local importance, from government to sports to the newest restaurant. And it is that trust, earned over years of shining the spotlight on such issues, which allows investigative reporters to be taken seriously and gives newspapers the power to confront corruption - even in law enforcement.” So, clearly, newspapers have quite a bit going for them.