Mr. Rebates

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Why journalism is becoming the theatre of the absurd

November 25, 2010 

Is news journalism in India headed for the rocks? What else can one conclude when newspersons are becoming news themselves, when they are busy doing deals for dubious politicians, when TV anchors become judges and inquisitors, and when news is no longer even “that stuff between ads” but “ads masquerading as stuff”?

If this sounds like grandpa’s lament about a fall in journalistic values, rest assured this isn’t the direction my argument is taking. Journalism, and especially print journalism, is thrashing about looking for a future when technology and the internet have completely changed the rules of the game. With readers now able to access all kinds of relevant information instantly — even on mobiles — the old journalistic skills of “accessing sources, determining significance of information, and conveying it effectively” are no longer of great value, says Robert G Picard, professor of media economics at Sweden’s Jonkoping University.

Picard makes a hefty point about value. In an article provocatively titled Why journalists deserve low pay, Picard says most publications do not add value anymore. “One cannot expect newspaper readers to pay for page after page of stories from news agencies that were available online yesterday and are in papers today.”
In India, the problem of poor value delivery has been compounded by the soaring cost of content, thanks to the proliferation of newspapers, news channels and internet sites. Good journalistic talent costs a bomb (by Indian standards, certainly, and increasingly by world standards, too), and this cost pressure has led publishers to economise on headcounts and use more generic content — exactly what Picard notes. One fallout of this shortage is that titles are getting inflated: anyone who’s been a couple of years in reporting or sub-editing is called an ‘editor’, even though all he may have edited is an occasional agency copy.

Since title inflation is often offered in lieu of higher pay or work content, these ‘editors’ seek psychic growth by pretending to be big shots with outsiders and influence peddlers. Lobbyists and racketeers pander to their egos by pushing “exclusive” content to god-help-us editors, weakening newsroom cultures further.
Proprietors are partly to blame because, for many of them, publishing is an ego trip. Newspapers and channels that have no reason to exist also end up pushing the cost of content. Reason: whether you are a good publication or a bad one, you still need some editors who can write news or anchor it. As for the revenue model, blackmail will do: positive and negative stories are often linked to advertising or the lack of it.
At the other end of the spectrum, the more legitimate newspapers and channels are fighting irrelevance by pushing down the prices of their publications to levels that anyone can afford: zero. Just in case you haven’t noticed, the Indian newspaper is practically free for the reader, though cover prices are not exactly zero. For most papers, news-stand prices — which range from a minimum of Rs1.50-2.50 for language dailies to Rs2.50-4.50 for English dailies in the metros — are barely enough to cover 10-20% of the cost of paper and printing. As for newspapers sold on long-term subscriptions, net recoveries after paying the hawker can be zero or even negative.

When the advertiser is footing 80-90% of the cost of attracting eyeballs, it’s no surprise why paid news is all the rage. Directly or indirectly, advertisers determine what kind of content they want.
The influence can be subtle, or direct.

However, the free model is not unique to newspapers. The internet model is essentially that, with basic content being free and value-adds costing you something. Every business has a mass brand which barely covers costs and a high-margin one that brings in the moolah: in airlines, the early seats booked cost much lower than the later seats; in petro-goods, diesel costs less than petrol, and kerosene costs much less than aviation fuel — though their individual production costs do not vary much. In power, the first units consumed cost you much less than latter units.

Which brings me to the starting point of this article: why our newspapers and TV channels have become loud and devoid of serious content. If some language channels and newspapers cater to low tastes, the English channels are not necessarily better. News anchors are trying to hold their audiences by taking up shrill causes in the belief that if people are not willing to watch sensible news, they will at least watch a movie, starring Arnab Goswami or Rajdeep Sardesai, who will disembowel their victims verbally. If you like mush, there’s Barkha Dutt. If your newspaper lead story looks tame and sensible, you should jazz it up with graphics and provocative headlines that may be a bit off the mark, but will at least fetch a second glance.

Style and sizzle are replacing substance in the fight for short-term relevance. Till news media discovers a real, value-adding offering for which viewers will pay, they can only get worse. So, hang on to that remote.

 Source: DNAIndia

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