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.