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Signs from the US and the UK

mumbai Updated: Apr 01, 2012 01:24 IST
Sumana Ramanan
Sumana Ramanan
Hindustan Times
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As someone with more than an academic interest in the future of news and journalism, I keep an eye on relevant trends not only in India but also in English-speaking countries such the UK and the US — the first because of its hold on our past and the second because of its grip on our present. Although the media landscape in India is very different from those in these countries, partly because we are a multilingual society and they are monolingual (although this might gradually change in the US, where Spanish is becoming important), some of what happens in these countries can be instructive for the English print media segment here.

A report released two weeks ago in the US sheds light on the state of journalism as a business, while an ongoing inquiry in the UK explores the condition of journalism as a social institution.
Newspapers did not fare well in either department — economics or ethics.

Economics

On March 19, the day after the previous instalment of this fortnightly column appeared, the Pew Research Center released its annual report on American journalism, The State of the Media, which seeks to uncover the major trends of 2011. The report is available on www.stateofthemedia.org for those who care for the details, but I’ll quote four key findings here.
1. The explosion of new mobile platforms and social media channels represents another layer of technology with which news organisations must keep pace.
2. A small number of technology giants, such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, began rapidly moving to consolidate their power by becoming makers of “everything” in people’s digital lives.
3. The web continues to dominate audience growth, as depicted by the bar chart below.
4. The traditional media’s revenue continued to decline.
As internet penetration in India — now less than 5% of the population, according to the latest Indian Readership Survey — increases and the economy further modernises, I suspect some of the trends encapsulated in this report will also begin to be seen here.

Ethics

In the UK, the latest findings of the Leveson Inquiry: Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press are also available online, at www.levesoninquiry.org.uk, which is being constantly updated. The British prime minister set up the inquiry in the wake of revelations of widespread unethical practices at the defunct News of the World, which was owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International. “The (Leveson) inquiry into the British tabloids has shone light on very dark deeds: bribery of police, bribery of civil servants, hacking into mobile phones, blackmail of contacts, harassment of citizens, blatant lying both to the subjects of stories and in the journalism itself, the deliberate destruction of reputations and an apparently endless stream of revelations of sexual infidelity,” says the Reuters Institute of Journalism at Oxford University, which has invited editors and media analysts two weeks from now for a discussion on ‘Why that which interests the public is increasingly not in the Public Interest.’
The Institute points out that “beyond the UK, the issues the affair arises are common to many.” What are they? “These are the rights of privacy vs the need to hold public persons to account; the need for, and the structure of, a press regulator.” Other questions include whether “the profitable conjunction of gossip, celebrity and sex will shift to the internet; whether the decline of the popular newspaper means that all news apart from broadcast news will become niche; and whether there will no longer be a written form of current affairs journalism that encompasses a country’s majority.”
In India, tabloids do not dominate the English newspaper market, but tabloid practices have penetrated some broadsheets, so many of these issues are worth debating in our context as well.

In both cases, we get a sense of economic and cultural forces marginalising serious journalism, which is something all of us should be worried about.

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