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. 

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.