Archive for June, 2014

So, what’s News?

At no time in recent history have journalists and journalism, been as much of a threatened species as they are today. This is true whether they work for a daily newspaper, a magazine, a news radio station, a news TV channel or even an internet news website or whether they are in New York, London, Paris, Bombay or Delhi,
Among private equity and venture investors, news businesses are nowadays referred to as “vanity businesses”, something that men who have made their money in some other business buy for social prestige or to get the ears of powerful politicians.

But all this must sadden those of us who look up to the media to be that institution of society that “the people” depend on to look out for their interests against the transgressions of powerful actors of society like politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen or even sports stars. And also sadden young entrants into journalism who are drawn to the idealism that that the young protagonist of Orson Welles’ classic film Citizen Kane portrayed: pursue a news story doggedly till the truth is finally revealed. But today’s question is what are these truths and to whose benefit will the revelation of these truths be? And most importantly, why does the sincere pursuit of such truths not make the news organization financially successful?

It was Joseph Pulitzer, an Austrian Jewish immigrant newspaper owner, remembered now through the Pulitzer Prizes, who invented the business model that practically all newspapers in the world follow to this day. He arrived in America at the age of seventeen in 1864, got his first job as a soldier in the ongoing Civil War, moved to being a reporter and then an editor and publisher and finally a newspaper owner. In 1883, Pulitzer bought the ailing New York World in New York, dropped its price to a penny (one cent) a copy when his competitors were pricing their newspapers at 6cents and to make up for this loss initiated the practice of selling advertising space at prices fixed in relation to actual circulation: the newspaper business model was born, in which circulation was the driver to profitability. Pulitzer’s model worked wonderfully till the audience started wandering away to other news consuming devices like the TV, the PC and the Mobile Phone.

Indian journalism may be hobbled by an additional factor:  Indian journalists imagine themselves as the audience and produce content that they think that they and their families would like according to Dr Somnath Batabyal of the Centre for Media and Film Studies, University of London, and a former journalist, in his recent book, Making News in India, an ethnographic account of Indian TV news practices. This worked as long as advertisers were also seeking the same audience, the so-called  SEC A (Socio Economic Class A) made up of families whose chief wage earner has a college degree and works as junior, middle or senior officer or executive or as a self-employed professional or business owner.

Unfortunately, if there is one group that has fallen behind economically and socially in the post-liberalization period it is this group, who are largely in occupations with fixed salary incomes. Skyrocketing real estate prices in city centres (that where SEC A-type jobs are mostly available) have made housing unaffordable for them, prohibitively expensive private medical care darkens their retirement, hyper-competition makes higher education institutions like the IITs and IIMs a long shot for their children. Indian news media, print and TV, particularly the English language versions of it, have tried their best to reflect the anxieties of this SEC A group hoping that this will resonate. It worked up until the end of the 1990’s when the newly liberated Indian industry was satisfied with the minuscule audience (according to a NCAER’s How India Earns, Spends and Saves, less than a sixth of Indian households are headed by a college graduate) that the SEC A group provided. Today’s  advertisers, be they financial services, consumer durables or auto companies need to go far beyond the SEC A audience if they are to meet their sales goals. So, they bypass News organizations that still stay focused on SEC A audiences be in print, TV or even the internet.

But, wait, look, a new dawn is breaking and in the early morning light a new world is starting to be revealed: one where 800 million or more Indians gaze at their mobile phones all day. This “audience” barely has a school education and the head of the household is more often than not employed as an unskilled or skilled worker, or in a sales and clerical positions in small shops or are tiny scale traders in the unorganized sector of our economy. Whoever decodes what’s news for them and their children and convinces them it is value for their money to pay, say Rs 10 per month for it on their mobile phone, may be the next winner in News.

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