Wednesday, December 03, 2014

You can’t do without knowledge of technology and business today

While making a presentation at the recent WAN-IFRA Conference in New Delhi, a senior executive from HT Media explained how his organisation was focused on pursuing continuous improvements in environmental health, safety, compliance, quality, overall equipment effectiveness, and total cost productivity. The objective was to reduce per-page cost by reducing per-page consumption of raw materials by minimising wastage and maximising efficiency. Several companies now realise how important it is to reduce wastage and improve efficiency. And if the sights are set on maintaining the highest standards of productivity and raising the bar whenever possible, progress is assured.

In the case of HT Media, after a safety policy was implemented, training programmes held and weekly reviews conducted, there was a positive impactemployees had a significant awareness about total costs, there was higher employee engagement, there was critical thinking, increased generation of ideas and continuous feedback. All this not only triggered further improvement in the workflow, but also led to greater transparency in processes.

In today’s world, achieving operational excellence is critical. If you look at your editorial system, for instance, there must be maximum efficiency when feeding the many different media channels as well as optimal usability for satisfied users. Publishers and editors worldwide are increasingly realising this.

This sentiment is reflected in WAN-IFRA’s Trends in Newsrooms 2014 Report, which states that the only one thing certain in newsrooms today is Change. You have to necessarily innovate to survive. So, editors must evolve accordingly, the report points out, assuming an increasingly diverse range of responsibilities. Not only must s/ he be an expert editorial manager and an excellent people manager and team leader, but also a person with the stomach to lead innovation, an entrepreneur’s approach to new technologies and products, and possibly even the holder of a degree in business. How times have changed!

And in Koenig & Bauer’s headquarters in Würzburg, KBA marketing director Klaus Schmidt, while stressing that printed newspapers would still be around in 2030, reflected a similar sentiment. The newspapers of 2030 would be different to today’s newspapers in terms of content and look, he said, adding that simply reducing costs led to a downward spiral and “surprising contents, smart commentaries and an attractive appearance are in demand… good editors and cutting-edge technology are thus essential”. 

Going green benefits readers and advertisers in the long run

Reading a newspaper in India is equivalent to travelling one km by car or four km by a motorbike, assuming that the mileage of a car is 12 km/ litre of petrol that of a motorbike is 50 km/ litre. It was an interesting point made by WAN-IFRA’s Anand Srinivasan when he spoke at the organisation’s 22nd Conference in Delhi recently. He added that reading a printed magazine and an Internet-based one generated the same amount of greenhouse gases. Now, when about 2.5 billion people around the world read newspapers in print and 800 million read them on digital platforms, we know how we are contributing to degradation of our environment. So, is there a way out?

Yes, there are ways but it will take concerted and continuous efforts by all, especially by those in charge of newspaper production. According to the Print Process Champions Group, France, there are broadly ten parameters that have to be seriously considered: energy efficiency, paper efficiency, water consumption, developer consumption, ink consumption, washing solvent consumption, dampening solution consumption, cardboard packing consumption, PE film packing consumption and liquid waste generation. In other words, the focus has to be constantly on a range of areas that can be broadly classified under raw material usage, lower power consumption and reduce waste generation. The big plus is that going green lowers costs, which in the long term can prove attractive to both readers and advertisers.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Is objectivity no longer a sacrosanct principle?

Narendra Modi has turned out to be a different kind of prime minister, especially for the media. What media houses had perhaps not quite bargained for was his becoming content to get along merrily without feeling the need to court any of them. Modi was known to be a man of few needs, but editors and journalists hadn’t really thought they’d have to contend with being ignored, something they are not really used to. The Modi Government seems quite happy making do with All India Radio, Doordarshan, PTI and UNI. At a time when journalism in India is facing a credibility crisis, when objectivity and independence are hardly considered sacrosanct anymore, it does make sense in a strange sort of way to keep the media at arm’s length. Modi has no media advisor; reports suggest he has a septuagenarian public relations officer.

Several media houses, as powerful as they are, are unhappy with the goings-on. They seem irked by the fact that Modi manages to get his messages across to the masses from public platforms and via social media, and not through their newspapers and channels. The Indian people have certainly taken to the PM’s social-media vitality in a big way, at least judging by the followers he has on Twitter and the anxiousness many show to send him (PMO) messages online. Publishers and editors now have the feeling that the government’s intent is to keep media away; the government’s refusal to invite media representatives for various public and diplomatic functions is an example they cite.  

Indeed, referring to the restricted access to ministers and bureaucrats, the Editors Guild of India has asked the Modi Government to "enlarge access and engage more actively" with journalists. "By delaying the establishment of a media interface in the Prime Minister's Office, in restricting access to ministers and bureaucrats in offices and in reducing the flow of information at home and abroad, the government in its early days seems to be on a path that runs counter to the norms of democratic discourse and accountability," the Guild has said in a statement, stressing that the public will be well served by “professional journalistic practices”.

The other side of the story is about private television channels pulling out all the stops to provide virtually non-stop coverage of Modi’s speeches, campaigns, rallies, etc. Ahead of his visit to the USA, the channels announced the timings of coverage, the composition of their teams in the studios in New York and outside, and how such coverage was not to be missed. The telecast from Madison Square Garden began hours before the Modi arrived; NRIs queued up for interviews before and after. There was a repeat telecast, too. It was almost like an Indian Government PR exercise etched to perfection, the only difference being that those conducting it were some of India’s private TV channels. It was an extravaganza of theatre, song and speech… and anchoring, the like of which I have never ever seen. If only media focused its attention to covering the more pressing issues of the day (public health, for instance), what a positive change that would bring to the lives of the underprivileged millions!

Against such over-the-top coverage, I was stunned by the lack of coverage of a kind. When former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa and her three associates were sentenced to four years imprisonment and sent to jail, one Chennai newspaper did not mention a word of it on Page 1, preferring to fill up the page with Modi’s performance in New York. As a loyal reader, I felt terribly let down. Where had the journalism of courage disappeared, I wondered. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

An unforgettable meeting with U. Shrinivas

I had met U. Shrinivas in the summer of 2004, April. At his home, which is not far from where I live. I was then writing a weekly column for The New Indian Express called People, Places, Things.

I was taken to a large waiting room that was packed with his pictures, certificates, medals and memorabilia. U. Rajesh, his younger brother, kept me company till he came. Tea was on the way. But before tea arrived, arrived Shrinivas. I stood up – I had to. There was an unmistakable aura about him, a sort of romanticism, a certain mystique. He was all smiles, beaming really. And very friendly. Hearing his soft voice, I made an effort to tone down mine.

Shrinivas started by narrating his “amazing experience”, playing at the Central Hall of Parliament a year earlier, on Flag Day, with Pandit Jasraj, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and L. Subramaniam. He and Rajesh had just returned after playing at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, delighting an audience that included India’s First Citizen.

I had known of Shrinivas as a child prodigy. Meeting him was an experience. There was humility written all over his face. Sadly, God doesn't make many like him. Shrinivas was the first exponent of the mandolin as a Carnatic music instrument, the first to play it solo. Staring to play at five, Shrinivas, born in 1969 in Andhra Pradersh, had his first concert in Gudivada, at the Thyagaraja Aradhana Festival. The family later moved to Madras.

At the Berlin Philharmonic Hall during Jazzfest in 1982, he, accompanied by Vikku Vnayakaram on the ghatam, had created magic. There were entreaties for more. An encore followed. In 1992, Shrinivas performed at the inaugural concert at the Barcelona Olympics; seven years later John McLaughlin urged him to join the Shakti Group, which had Zakir Hussain and Selva Ganesh.

I remember Shrinivas telling me that the Paramacharya of the Kanchi Mutt had encouraged him and that encouragement went a long way in his achieving success at so young an age. And that his first memorable performance was at the 1995 International Mandolin Festival in Germany. He would later play at the Royal Albert Hall for BBC Live.

The tea was spiced with adrak (ginger) and spices. I almost felt at home, the brothers made me feel so much at ease. Before leaving, Shrinivas gave me his card. It read Mandolin Padma Shri U. Shrinivas, Asthana Vidwan, Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. On it, he wrote his mobile number, just in case I needed to call him. I never had to. But I still have the card. It will always be a treasured item. Let his soul rest in peace. As somebody said, the gods wanted him back badly.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Newspapers have never been more important to society

The WAN-IFRA India Conference, the 22nd annual conference, got back to New Delhi this year, after nine years. It’s been a decade of unprecedented change for the news publishing industry, particularly for the printed newspaper, as K. Balaji, chairman, WAN-IFRA South Asia Committee, and director of Kasturi & Sons, said in his remarks at the inaugural.

According to Magdoom Mohamed, WAN-IFRA South Asia’s MD, this year (2014) has been “the toughest with the mood of the industry swinging from month to month”. In the circumstances, it was remarkable that there were 375 registrations. As Magdoom said, it was perhaps an indication of the keen desire among publishers in South Asia to learn from one another and collectively address the challenges of the industry – improving efficiency, engaging with readers, or monetizing content being some of the critical ones.

So were there new ideas, answers and inspiration to tackle the challenges ahead? Did the participants feel they benefited? Perhaps WAN-IFRA receives feedback from those who attend the various sessions at every conference and the expo. It will be interesting to know what the participants think or what they find useful or lacking.

An interesting announcement at the conference was about a record 17 winners from India (out of 115) at the International Color Quality Club (INCQC) Competition, second only to Germany. Ananda Bazar Patrika gaining entry into the Star Club of INCQC is a recognition for the newspaper winning the award five years in a row. Clearly, quality has become a way of life in most Indian newspapers.

 At the conference, while sharing updates from World Press Trends, WAN-IFRA’s annual report (focuses mainly on trends in circulation, advertising and digital newspaper performance, based on inputs submitted by member associations and individual country reports),Vincent Peyrègne, chief executive officer, WAN-IFRA, referred to the worrying attacks on press freedom. One the one hand, people say newspapers are declining; why then when there is a political crisis, are there attacks on editors and journalists, he wondered. If we are no longer relevant why would they bother, he asked the audience, stressing that newspapers have never been more important to society at large.

News about the Rural Media Network Pakistan (RMNP) presenting its 2014 Sadiq Press Freedom Award (supported by WAN-IFRA) to the son of murdered journalist Malik Mumtaz Khan makes us pause and think – of the dangers journalists around the world face daily, who yet plod on relentless. As RMNP President Ehsan Ahmed Sehar said, the award is “a symbol of the struggle for the right to information and a reminder to the international community about the tragic conditions Pakistan has been suffering since the War on Terror began following the 9/11 attacks”. The sacrifices journalists like Malik Mumtaz Khan, James Foley, Steven Sotloff and others have made must never go in vain. We must continue to tell the truth fearlessly. And fight hard against attacks on editors and journalists. 

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Sharing lessons and developing strategies for the days ahead

The WAN-IFRA Conference in India has now become a premier event for publishers, editors, technical directors/ managers and journalists. Although this is the 22nd year of the conference, it really took off after the WAN-IFRA India office was established in 2001. Until then IFRA only had a representative office. With R.V. Rajan shepherding the team in the early years till about 2008, and Magdoom Mohamed ably taking on the baton, the conference has seen attendance grow; it’s now almost become a must-attend event for many. There is a lot of work that goes into organisng the event, most of it done quietly from a nook on the third floor of the SIET College campus in Chennai where the WAN-IFRA South Asia office is headquartered. And come to think of it, it is quite amazing that a small team is able to pull off a huge event like this. A lot of the success, I’m sure, Magdoom and team owe to Rajan, for all the lessons they learnt from him.

One of the reasons for the popularity of the conference is that it usually manages to bring worthwhile case studies from newsrooms and provides perspectives on news businesses and news production from around the world. Recent years have seen the conference having three parallel sessions or summits as they are called – Newsroom, Printing and Crossmedia Advertising. There are also pre-conference workshops that some find quite useful (this time, the workshops are on Data Journalism, New Media Metrics and Densitometry).

Although the attendance has been encouraging, the same cannot be said about support by exhibitors (suppliers to the newspaper industry). Many feel there’s no point spending money to exhibit products when there is hardly any investment in new newspaper presses. Given the situation, it may not be a happy time for several of the ancillary industries that are dependent on presses running. With the newspaper market doing well in India and most of the revenue coming from print, publishers are not really too keen in making heavy investments on the digital front. Digital subscription and digital revenue are not streams they can bank on – at least for now. So, there is a lull. There is no Expo this year but I understand there will be ‘info-tables’ at the foyer for a few exhibitors. 

There are several interesting sessions lined up in Delhi, starting September 16. I am looking forward to listening to T.N. Ninan speak about the blurring line between business editorial. Another interesting session is likely to be the one on the digital transformation of Malayala Manorama and how the ‘print-strong’ publisher is gearing up to face the digital revolution, session to be handled by Mariam Mammen Mathew, COO, Manorama Online. WAN-IFRA’s Antony tells me that a not-to-be-missed session will be the one by Thomas Smolders, head of International Roll-out, Blendle, The Netherlands, on how a Dutch start-up has united newspapers of The Netherlands under a single paywall and what the business model is. The title is quite interesting: iTunes of Print Media. Can alliances between newspapers in India help? Perhaps. There’s a session on that too, by HT’s VP Marketing. I also wish to attend a panel discussion on Day 2, focusing on where our future readers are and whether the reading habit is vanishing among the younger generation. Later that afternoon, there is a session titled, Working Together with Google. Now, that surely will be well attended. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Knowing ‘a little about everything and nothing about anything’

The other day a few of us got discussing something on Facebook when a young mother said (unedited): “We see such low quality of reporters who come up on the main channels. In fact the print media is also no better. Just the last year my daughter had to write a piece and give to xxx Mumbai reporter who had come to report an event in their college! And the reporter published just as such without even a change in the punctuation. During the interaction it was also learnt that the paper paid the reporter a pittance… and so the old adage comes afore… "If you pay peanuts, monkeys will come flocking!"

At a journalism seminar conducted by the Press Institute of India recently, a veteran journalist-editor who handled the sessions, kept urging the participants to read more. He referred to a reporter from a top English newspaper calling him and asking him questions about a particular landmark in Chennai, the interiors of which had got gutted. When the veteran suggested he check with the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) that had been set up by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, the reporter had no clue what HCC was. In another recent instance, a reporter who had come to cover an event at the Press institute of India did not know who T.S. Krishnamurthy (one of the speakers) was. His explanation for not knowing: he had just joined the paper!

Often, we keep wondering why there seems to be such a woeful lack of knowledge today. I was reading an interesting piece in The New York Times by David Carr, which carried the headline, ‘Riding the juggernaut that left print behind’. In the article, he talks about the “unrequited bid” that Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox made for Time Warner, how both the companies got rid of “slow-growth print divisions”, and how print had “lost value in business realms because it has, in fundamental ways, lost traction with you and me”.

Referring to the appearance of graphic images and arrival of “breathless news alerts” and the “ambient feed of information (that) pulsed and heaved all around you” after the Malaysian airliner was shot down in eastern Ukraine, Carr wonders what is left for print! “I’m not so much a digital native as a digital casualty,” he writes. He relates another experience he had – on a train where “a few people around me were cursing the indifferent Wi-Fi as they desperately tried to remain tethered to the grid”. And then, Carr makes the most profound statement: “It struck me that part of the reason we always stay jacked in is that we want everyone — at the other end of the phone, on Facebook and Twitter, on the web, on email — to know that we are part of the now. If we look away, we worry we will disappear. We are all on that train, the one that left print behind, the one where we are constantly in real time, where we know a little about everything and nothing about anything, really…”


A report on the Press Gazette website says Facebook is a more trusted news source than the Daily Star and the Sun, according to a survey of nearly 2000 UK adults. Conducted for the BBC by Ipsos MORI in February, the survey’s aim was to gauge “public perceptions of impartiality and trustworthiness of the BBC”. BBC News comes out on top with scores of 6.5 for impartiality and 7.4 for trust.  Facebook and Twitter each scored 3.9 for impartiality, indicating that social media is now an important and fairly reliable source of information. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Mutual respect and camaraderie matter much more than TRPs

Lionel Messi may have been awarded the 2014 World Cup Golden Ball as the Best Player of the tournament but he wasn’t quite able to stamp his mark over the month-long sporting extravaganza. In the event, as it turned out, it was Germany’s “miracle boy” Mario Goetze who clinically chested down a pass and essayed a classy left-footer past the diving Argentinean goalkeeper to score the winner and enable Germany to record a historic win – the first by a European team in South America.

All through the World Cup tournament, as in the final, there were fouls galore, yellow cards flashed, and injured players hobbling off. Nothing was quite as saddening, especially for Brazilian fans, as the exit of Neymar who suffered a minor fracture on his back bone while jockeying for the ball mid-air in a match against Colombia. However, despite all the aggressive charges, wild tackles and deliberate fouls, what one saw on the field was spontaneous camaraderie, the shaking of hands and the patting of backs. After Brazil was destroyed 7-1 by Germany, the German players were seen comforting the Brazilians who were weeping in anguish. This is what makes the world of sport so very special. You may fight the bitterest battle but after the game is over, you shake hands, smile, exchange pleasantries and even chat over a drink or two. The media has often played a part in highlighting some of the nuances, friendships and bonds that are forged cutting across teams, nationalities and religions.

I often wonder why we do not get to see this kind of bonhomie in our Indian world of politics. Why doesn’t mainstream media, especially television since it is such a powerful medium, focus more on holding gentlemanly discussions, on bringing leaders from various streams of political thought together? Sadly, on our television channels, prime time, or super prime time, is all about pitting one person or one group against another,– spokespersons of political partiers, lawyers, leading editors and columnists (the same faces are seen most of the time), social and political activists, and, of course, some celebrity or the other. Most of the time it is high drama, with voices raised, people speaking out of turn, some not allowing others to speak. It is a sort of vociferous game, the person with the loudest voice often outdoing the others. Just as the anchors want, for after all, the more dramatic, the higher your TRPs. 

You don’t find this sort of thing on the BBC, for instance. Discussions there are much more sober and calmer. So, as a viewer, you feel like watching. I wonder whether our television channels understand that when there is cacophony, the viewer’s immediate reaction is to reduce the volume and if that doesn’t help, to switch off. Many don’t return any more to view such programmes. We all need peace and quiet. Discussions can be forceful, but they should be held in an atmosphere of mutual respect and friendliness, as football’s sporting heroes have just shown all of us. The channels should actually discourage speakers from going hammer-and-tongs against one another and lay the ground rules for healthy and stimulating debate. Will we ever get to see that happen? I don’t think so. But some of India’s top television anchors and media groups would do well to introspect and change for the better.

Friday, July 18, 2014

As technology segments the news market, we can only wait and watch

A few interesting articles, all of them echoing the same sentiment, caught my eye the past few weeks, thanks mainly to Joe Scaria who chose to retire from a well-paying job in Journalism at 50 to pursue his interests, but still keeps in touch with developments in the field and has me in the loop. 

One of the articles by John Gapper in the Financial Times points to how “advertisers have lost the attention of a generation”.  We have shifted from parents trying to stop teenagers slumping in front of the TV to young people losing all interest in the box. US teens are so occupied with social networks and mobile video that they watch only about 21 minutes of live TV a week, Gapper writes. According to him, the ad industry is suffering from attention deficit disorder – the audience that once sat obediently in front of TV spots lovingly devised by its creatives is hard to pin down. Millennials are out there, on their phones and tablets, but they are as likely to be tweeting angrily about a brand as noticing its ads in the content stream. He adds: Publishers complain that the rates they can charge advertisers are falling steadily, especially in mobile, but this is a problem equally for advertisers and agencies. If digital and mobile ads are not worth buying, despite the migration of the audience from traditional media, something is wrong. Indeed, technology has not helped advertisers but rather, it has given viewers a tool to fight back.

Writing for BloombergView, Megan McArdle says online journalism is suffering print’s fate. She sums it up pithily: dollars in print, dimes on the Web, pennies on mobile. The problem is, advertising dollars are shrinking, she writes, “We just can't charge as much for Web advertising as we used to for print advertising. A decade ago, when I entered professional journalism and began earnestly discussing its financial future, there was a reasonable case that, eventually, digital advertising would be worth more than print advertising. That theory has, alas, been pretty well destroyed by the last 10 years. Advertisers still won't pay print rates for digital. Worse, the money that does get spent on digital advertising increasingly isn't going to news outlets; it's going to Google and Facebook and Yahoo… Digital ads simply have a lot of drawbacks that print didn't. For starters, people either hate or ignore them; the more you try to get their attention, the angrier they get.”

The Guardian reports that newspapers are searching for ways to survive the digital revolution. The newspaper refers to how much of the traditional media is considered to be several years behind in the digital revolution, still experimenting with paywalls, digital technologies and alternative means of storytelling. And Roy Greenslade, in his blog for the Guardian, referring to the third annual digital news report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, states how traditional news outlets are facing a new wave of disruption as the digital revolution sweeps on. The report, in pointing to new threats to traditional news sources, identifies the smartphone and social media as the most powerful agents of change. Greenslade says while some news organisations are being outpaced by the speed of change, others show signs of rising to the challenge. And rising to the challenge, it seems, is the UK’s Telegraph Media Group, which has announced the creation of 40 new editorial jobs, some of them focused on innovation in digital journalism and expansion of the digital design team. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

‘Why am I doing what I am doing?’ Give employees the ‘big picture’

A few days before Tamil Nadu went to the polls in General Elections 2014, the Press Institute of India conducted a discussion on the role of the media in the elections. One of the participants was T.S. Krishnamurthy, former chief election commissioner of India. Towards the end of the programme, one of the young reporters present came up to me and enquired who the speaker was. When I mentioned Krishnamurthy’s name, he seemed a trifle nonplussed and went on to ask me who Krishnamurthy was. To my response – how did he not know a former chief election commissioner and that too, from his own home state – his nonchalant reply was that he had only recently joined the newspaper (a leading national one at that).

The incident set me thinking. Is even basic knowledge coming at a premium these days? A reporter or a journalist is supposed to have a fairly broad understanding of life around. Are youngsters not reading enough these days. Have social media and selfies left little time for anything worthwhile? How do you encourage people to read, how do you motivate staff and bring them up to speed with developments? How do you impress upon them that journalism is a sort of calling and that it entails a social responsibility?

I remember visiting The Times of India press in Kandivali, suburban Mumbai, a few years ago. I was doing a story for the WAN-IFRA Magazine. While taking me around parts of the plant, Sanat Hazra, the technical director, stressed that the plant employees were encouraged to innovate and take risks, and adequately trained to handle contingencies and become effective managers. The quest for quality and the effort to maintain quality standards were evident from posters and messages pinned on boards. A list of values on display in the reception area proclaimed that employees were taught to have mutual respect for each other. ‘Think beyond traditional boundaries’ and ‘Recognise and appreciate people for giving good ideas’ were some of the values inculcated.

When I asked him whether there was a philosophy that drove the team, Hazra said you have to go through the mission statement and keep talking to people all the time. Everybody is part of the problem-solution team, part of the success story, according to him. “Employees then really see their value, what they are contributing to the newspaper. You have to create a culture of innovation and generate new ideas; and then effectively execute these ideas to generate new products and services for our customers… Responsibility is not only the manager’s, it has to be pushed all the way down to the person unloading the roll. A huge task that takes time, but it gives results.” The most important thing, Hazra pointed out, was to give employees the big picture and get them to ask ‘why am I doing what I am doing’. “A person pushing the roll should know what impact it has on the operation, or why the floor has to be cleaned. Once you make people understand, they do a wonderful job.” 

How true! But such things seem far easier to implement on the shop floor than in a newsroom.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

May 3, and why we must value press freedom

Why is press freedom important? It is important because people everywhere have a right to know what is happening, journalists have a duty to report facts as they are, and readers or viewers have a right to voice their opinions and be heard. It is in many ways an extension of individual freedom. A journalist called me some time ago and asked why there wasn't any semblance of World Press Freedom Day (May 3) being celebrated or talked about in India. For a moment I was nonplussed. I then said that it was indeed true and that very little is being done by news publishing houses here to raise awareness about the crucial role a free press plays in the region’s development.

When the United Nations General Assembly declared May 3 to be World Press Freedom Day, the objective was to remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to Freedom of Expression enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  When I received the call from the journalist, I was reading a news report in The Times of India, about the controversial editing of BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s interview to Doordarshan. Prasar Bharati CEO Jawhar Sircar, the report said, had acknowledged that certain portions “were apparently edited”. What was more significant in the report was Sircar drawing attention to “this long traditional linkage between the ministry and the news division which has continued unabated even after Prasar Bharati was born….” He also hinted at the Information & Broadcasting Ministry having failed to give the public broadcaster the autonomy it had sought. The I&B Minister later clarified that there was “arm’s-length distance” between the ministry and PB.

I did not find it (the editing of the tape) particularly surprising, considering that in a recent report, Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit body, had ranked India 140 out of 180 countries surveyed for the freedom it gave the media. We have all of course heard about a leading publishing house withdrawing a book, about the clampdown on social media, about Twitter accounts sought to be blocked, etc. Quite ironical when you think that in today’s world where there are no bars really to communication, you should be actually encouraging young people, regardless of gender and ethnicity, to play a proactive role in advancing press freedom and recognising and finding ways to express its importance.

Press freedom is about so many issues, it is impossible to put it all down in an article. But certainly, the freedom has not been valued or used well. Accuracy, fairness and balance have taken a beating in recent years. Youngsters from journalism schools are finding it difficult to cope up with the pressures on the ground; there is a great deal of attrition. There is not enough 'mentoring' happening. Editors do not find time to spend with young reporters. It is again ironical that when today’s youngsters have good opportunities to train or apprentice, there has not been an appreciable improvement in the quality of journalism. In the mad scramble for news and bytes, ‘checking’, ‘condensing’ and ‘clarifying’ have taken a back seat, as a veteran journalist told me recently.

World Press Freedom Day is also a time to spare a thought about the detention and imprisonment of journalists around the globe, individuals who have been sent to jail simply for doing their jobs. In India, of course, the situation is far, far better. But we must salute journalists who venture into the back of beyond or inhospitable terrain to bring news to the reader or viewer.

The Daily Mirror in Sri Lanka printed a mirror image of its front page on May 3. The only legible sentence on the page read: ‘Only true freedom of the press can turn things the right way around. Celebrating World Press Freedom Day 2014!’ The objective was to raise questions about the state of press freedom in that country. It’s time we raised such questions about ours.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Practical tips from a Dutchman on how a newspaper can be made better

I was quite surprised by the enthusiasm shown by Gerard van der Weijden in conducting workshops for smaller (regional and local) daily and weekly newspapers. I had met the Dutchman in Chennai, in the foyer of the hotel he was staying, ahead of a WAN-IFRA workshop. He seemed to have a far greater idea of Indian newspapers than I had thought.

The smaller or vernacular newspapers depended more on the youth in the community and had more chances and room to improve than some of the national publications, Gerard felt. He loves taking questions, loves a good fight, and was certain the smaller publications in India would have all kinds of questions for him. What about a workshop just for local, regional magazines focused on family, sport, youth, he asked me. Most of the magazines had not ever thought of youngsters/new readers and the possibilities via schools, he said.

Pointing to some of the pages in the copies of journals of the Press Institute of India I had taken to show him, he asked whether the journals reached journalism students/ schools. Then why was there hardly anything about any of those schools, hardly any article by a journalism student? He then wondered why some of the pages were so text-heavy.Pay attention to whether the reader wants what you are giving, he cautioned me. Relevancy is what matters, he kept stressing. "Make it attractive to the reader; make it relevant. Give specific examples. Don’t theorise. Don’t pester, be tolerant.”

It was all so very true. Do newspapers in India really have a bottom-up, readers-driven approach? Does the person laying out the pages care much about the relation between text and visuals? Gerard represents the reader and he tries to tell newspapers what the reader does not want. Before any workshop, he flips through hard copies of the publications, studies them and picks some concrete examples from the copy. And then he gets ready for a “fight”. Advertisers understood the reader better, he said. I couldn't but nod in agreement.

Gerard says the pure presence of reading stuff is a very decisive element in encouraging people to read; the second decisive element he says is when there is no TV or if the TV is switched off. “Then we found for creating the reading culture, families might be more important than schools. If you teach children Literature you don’t create Literature readers. Every Indian, Dutchman, Belgian has been taught Literature in school but how many continue to read Literature? Very few. Because that’s connected to culture and assignments etc and so it does not mean if you teach Literature they will read Literature. Likewise, if you teach (people) how to read a newspaper they will not read one. Just give them ten minutes to choose what they want to read… be quiet… then let them get back to the order of the day… do that for six months… and then you have done something,” he explains. 

Youngsters don’t read books because they associate it with literature, with assignments. At home, they don’t read. “School books – that’s not reading!" he exclaims. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Testing times continue as the media grapples with some tough questions

Freedom and Accountability. Can the two coexist harmoniously? The Indian Constitution grants every citizen the Freedom of Expression, but what really is meant by freedom of the press? As a former high court judge says, the press enjoys the same freedom as every citizen. But is it as simple as that? The Justice Leveson enquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press has resulted in a lot of debate on the subject over the past many months. However, there are no absolute answers and the picture is still fuzzy. There are some who want the establishment of an independent authority to regulate various aspects of the broadcast media as well.

What is clear is that (as some of the speakers at two conferences held in Chennai in the first week of February have suggested)  while the media (private television channels to a large extent) have succeeded in exposing corruption in high places, be it in political parties, the government, the legislature or the judiciary, it does not reserve enough space for more important social issues such as education, poverty and health. 

What is also clear is that there is a lack of solidarity in the press. This is no doubt fostered by a sense of over-competitiveness. You can see it all on private television channels where each one claims a report is an exclusive. You can even see it in newspapers – for example, an event where a publisher, editor or director  from a competing newspaper is up there on stage will either find less coverage or the person will be conveniently left out in the picture accompanying the article. I see it happening often in the city pages of the four English newspapers I ready daily. So, would you call that unbiased coverage?

At a time when the focus is more on television and the digital media, there are other issues that are not gaining enough attention: ownership of the media or publication house, education of journalists, recruitment and employment of journalists, and corruption within the media itself. We all thought there would be a thorough cleansing after the Radia Tapes episode exposed the goings-on, the cosy relationships some journalists had with politicians and others. But has it really happened? Am not so sure. So there is a lot that needs to be done within. In many ways, the media today finds itself in a state of stupor, the shock administered by the Internet, Facebook and Twitter also having a part to play.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Pertinent thoughts from a technologist and a graphic designer

I had first met Matthew Sunil more than two years ago, in Chennai, when the ‘going green’ concept had really not caught the imagination of the printing industry at large in India. Of course, isolated printers were doing their bit for the environment but that was not enough. It was clear that the onus was on the industry to come up with creative solutions to be efficient and be counted in the expanding world of green printing.

Matthew struck me as a man of style and substance and also as a man with a vision to take his company forward. He seemed to be a man in a bit of a hurry, to get his vision implemented quickly on the ground. The occasion was the presentation of the Green Printer Award instituted by technotrans India. The Times of India, Ahmedabad, was the winner, having taken small creative steps in saving energy and reducing paper wastage. The award was perhaps a first of its kind in the country – a printer being honoured for respecting the environment. It was Matthew’s idea of encouraging a corporate citizen who showed it was socially responsible about preserving the environment for future generations. It was also, I thought, a wonderful way to have a celebration for the ‘backroom boys’ in the newspaper industry without whose efforts the daily newspaper would never be produced before dawn.

technotrans India (suppliers of dampening systems, filtration plants, etc to the newspaper and commercial printing industry) under Matthew’s leadership, has come quite a long way since then. Despite the odds, the team keeps stressing that quality is its topmost priority and that there’s a price to paid for it. This, I feel, is being disarmingly frank. It will earn the company goodwill and help its growth in the long-run. A couple of other things Matthew said also struck me. One, for any system supplier, efficient service support is the core competence and if you cannot meet customer demand on service requirement, you will fail in the long-term. And two, being an advocate of healthy competition helps you do your homework, understand your strengths and weaknesses, and complement the areas that need attention. Matthew sees his competitors in India as partners in the industry who can together develop the best solutions for the customer. A statesman-like sentiment, one that will stand him and his team in good stead.

Simon Scarr, deputy head of Graphics for Thomson Reuters, was in New Delhi recently. It must be some job because Reuters has about 2800 journalists in 200 bureaus around the world. Simon says it is always rewarding to work very hard on projects you are passionate about and have them appreciated by your peers; it’s also good for the department to be recognised on an international stage for our work. And it is such recognition that Matthew I’m sure understands very well – there are many more entries coming in now for the Green Printer Award.  A pertinent point Simon made was about illustrators and graphic designers working in newspaper offices in India not finding adequate space in the newspaper for their work and lacking the confidence to voice aloud their views in the newsroom. Perhaps this will change once newspapers in India begin to look at information graphics as an important element in news production. It was another point he made that stuck with me for a long time. There should never come a point where you know everything, says Simon. You should constantly learn from your mistakes and also from the work and practices of others. Wish many of us could emulate his example!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

It’s all about a closer engagement with the reader

Ananda Vikatan, Junior Vikatan and Aval Vikatan are household names in Tamil Nadu. Chances are you will find a copy of one of these magazines or all three of them or perhaps even some of the others in the Vikatan Group bouquet when you visit any Tamil-speaking home.

How has Ananda Vikatan endeared itself to readers for close to nine decades? I found myself asking this question many times while drafting the questionnaire for B. Srinivasan, the Vikatan Group MD, grandson of the legendary S.S. Vasan who started Vikatan. A few days ahead of the deadline for one of the journals of the Press Institute of India where the interview was to appear, I received an email from Pravin Menon, national head, Marketing, Vikatan Group (who facilitated the interview), carrying an attachment that had Srinivasan’s answers.

Probably Srinivasn couldn't find the time to meet me, or perhaps he is a private sort of person who likes to keep a safe distance away from a nosey journalist. In any case, it didn’t matter at all. For, what came out clearly in the Q&A was Srinivasan’s thorough understanding of the readership today. Far better, I thought, than the understanding of some of the regulars we see on television channels or at seminars in five-star hotels.

While talking about the past and the present, Srinivasan also enunciated his vision of the future. The Vikatan Group’s philosophy is fairly simple: the customer is King and if you deliver value and happiness to him/ her, he/ she will pay. It is this philosophy that spawned titles such as Chutti, Naanayam, Motor, Pasumai and others in the 12-magazine bouquet.

Srinivasan says television and the Internet boom has only helped the Group adapt better and get Brand Vikatan more easily on to a worldwide stage. receives close to a million page views a day. The Group has extended its digital reach with apps for iOS and Android and amassed more than a million likes/followers/subscribers on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

As the Vikatan Group is set to enter its 90th year, many readers will fondly remember the great contribution made by Srinivasan’s father, S. Balasubramanian, who was editor, managing director and publisher of Ananda Vikatan for nearly 50 years till 2006 (he is now the chairman), and who founded  Junior Vikatan. Truly, it’s been quite a magical journey for a publication house.