Why it’s time for cautious optimism, not pessimism, in Indian media
Never before have the powerful been as apprehensive of the media, and so fearful of losing control over its narrative.
There is rising concern that the Indian media’s independence is deeply compromised, its credibility is in tatters, that it is only the mouthpiece of the government and it has failed in its role of being an institution of accountability.
These are valid concerns. The Indian media does suffer from real problems - which we shall turn to in a moment - and needs to introspect hard.
But the Indian media today is also larger, more plural, more heterogeneous, more accessible and more representative than it has ever been in Indian history. This is a moment of enormous possibilities. And that is why the news of the death of independent Indian media is greatly exaggerated.
Here is the context.
Last week, one of India’s most credible television platforms, NDTV, decided not to air the full interview with senior Congress leader, P Chidambaram. It also put out an editorial note, announcing ‘national security could not be mixed with politics’, and NDTV would not ‘air any remarks that risk security for political advantage’.
This was a flawed editorial call, for Chidambaram had said little to compromise national security. For a channel to create a false divide between national security and politics, run some political statements but not others, reflects poor judgment. Whether this was a result of direct pressure or self-censorship is not known--though the channel has insisted it was an entirely autonomous decision. This happened in the general backdrop of television news dropping all nuance in analysing the ‘surgical strikes’. Chidambaram subsequently gave an interview to The Indian Express asking the media why it was falling like nine pins.
Using that as a peg, and the courageous stance of Dawn and its reporter Cyril Almeida who are being harassed by the Pakistani establishment for their story on civil-military interaction on terror, others have written about the dismal state of Indian journalism. Dawn’s bravery must be recognised. There is a lesson to be learnt about honest reporting on strategic and security affairs in a risky setting for all of us.
But to use this to declare that the Indian media has now lost its spine and there is little left to redeem it is a stretch.
Instead, it is useful to try to understand why the media is behaving in a particular way, the longer term trends, where it is headed, the nature of challenges, and why this is a moment of cautious optimism - rather than outright pessimism.
The Indian media is at a unique moment, and is in the middle of three major transitions - technological, economic and ethical. All of this has cumulatively shaped the current environment.
First, examine the technological transition.
It is now but a cliche to suggest that digital has caused enormous disruption across the industry. But like most cliches, it is true.
The news cycle has changed. We are catering to a 24/7 cycle rather than working through the day to put the newspaper to bed late at night. The line between different platforms - online, television, print - has blurred and there has never been so much information and opinion out in the public sphere as there is today in India.
The nature of journalism has changed. There is more news aggregation, opinion pieces from ideologically opposing viewpoints, analysis, data, visuals and straight news reporting than ever in the media ecosystem today. Speed, immediacy and breaking news have never been more important, yet quality writing and long-form pieces have never before found a wider audience as now.
The manner in which media is consumed has changed. Today, a school teacher in Bihar’s Samastipur district or a sarpanch in MP’s Mhow or a constable in Manipur’s Churachandpur can get news at the same time as a bureaucrat sitting in his office in central Delhi’s bhawans, on his device. If they are not satisfied, they can turn to another source almost immediately: to cross-check information, to understand a different point of view.
The relationship between the producer of the news and the consumer of the news has changed. There is direct accountability for news items; critique is instant; there is a certain equality in the relationship rather than it being a top-driven approach; a reporter knows he is subject to a rigorous test on social media as soon as he puts his work out; a media house knows that its credibility is on line every single day and if it has a slant, it will be called out sooner than later. So if NDTV blocked an interview, a digital website, The Wire, broke the news and there was an immediate backlash; if Zee News pushes jingoistic nationalism, it can be held to account; if someone does a soft interview with a top leader, the rest of the media industry can instantly recognise it and can call it out.
The entry barriers to the world of media have changed. It is less expensive to set up one’s own media platform - with potentially universal reach - today than at any point in history. From blogs to social media to news portals, there is a proliferation of outlets. The diversity is staggering.
Not all of this is positive. The pressure to be populist is high. The pressure to respond to what the reader is perceived to want overwhelms the need to inform and educate the audience. Quantity has not translated into quality. There is also a Balkanisation of the media - where we are going to the platforms which will only reinforce our own views. So instead of the newspaper creating a nation, as Benedict Anderson argued in his seminal work Imagined Communities, the world of segmented digital news is actually creation separation nations in a way - differing not only over interpretation but also facts, all talking past each other.
But what is indisputable is that rarely have we seen the kind of disruption that we are witnessing today - all thanks to technology. This opens up doors.
Broken revenue model
Then, there is an economic transition.
In simple, and perhaps even simplistic terms, here is the issue: barring legacy media institutions, most media outlets do not make money, do not know how they will make money, and some are not even in the game to make money - and no, that does not mean their objectives are all noble and altruistic.
There are over 400 TV news channels alone in the country. One set of proprietors, particularly at the state-level, have got into the news business - not with journalism or even profits as the core motive, but because they see it an instrument to advance their other political and business interests. For them, the losses are tolerable if it serves this objective.
There is another set which has set up platforms only to use it an instrument to extract rent from potential subjects of coverage, be it politicians or bureaucrats or celebrities.
But besides the more obviously corrupt institutions, there are other serious players, some who have been in the business for over two decades, who have still not found a revenue model.
Most of these entities are top-heavy, with high overheads. Distribution costs are high and digitisation has not brought the expected dividends. The advertisement model is not enough to meet expenses. Early investors have walked out. Either big corporates have taken over - or media entrepreneurs are constantly on the look-out for capital and have trapped themselves in a financial maze. There are serious issues of conflict of interest.
Or take the recent online platforms, which have introduced energy in the media ecosystem and have done some of the most exciting, critical stories in recent times.
None of them have sustainable business models. Some are on foundation grants; others have angel investors; a few are backed by established media houses. They are at the stage of collecting numbers in terms of traffic to position themselves for a time when companies will shift a lot of their marketing budgets to digital. But this is a game that the bigger media platforms have now grasped. With their deeper pockets, wide network of correspondents, massive infrastructure, they are making similar investments in digital - waiting for precisely the moment when the money will shift.
Or take even print
Subscription counts for a little fraction of revenues. This means that any newspaper is heavily ad-dependent. At the state and district level, some publications deploy their correspondents and stringers to double up as sales agents to collect ads - they then take a commission on these ads. This completely destroys their credibility; it skews the incentive structure. It also leads to the ‘paid news’ syndrome, particularly during elections. Heavy dependence on a limited set of advertisers also introduces redlines and conflict of interest issues.
All of this means there is money in the Indian media ecosystem. But it is not clear how this will be channeled; what revenue models will be sustainable; what platforms will work; who will be in the best position to capitalise on it. And because there are no clear answers, there is a temptation to cater to the lowest common denominator in the market.
It is a delicate moment. Having resources is necessary for profits, salaries and even news gathering. But the search for resources has led to a changing definition of norms.
And that is why the third is an ethical transition - where old world journalistic norms do not hold, but it is not clear what will replace it.
TV is the obvious case-study here. The line between reporting and opinion - long held as sacrosanct by journalists - is non-existent here. The old format of news stories has given way to studio discussion shows. And channels or anchors have concluded that a clear editorial position/slant on the theme of the day works well with the audience. So Times Now is not pretending to give you an objective assessment of all views on a particular theme. It has a take; it will push that viewpoint; and it will use its guests to vindicate its position. And since this format is seen to work, other channels have emulated it. This format is also the cheapest way for the media to continue to produce content, for it requires little more than an honorarium and pick up/drop facilities for guests.
For reporters across mediums, maintaining the balancing act between independence and access to policymakers is an old journalistic challenge and requires deft negotiating skills. In recent years, there has been a tendency to compromise on the former to keep the latter. This requires strong editorial direction and filter - and many newsrooms have yet to strike the right balance.
The third area in which a new ethical framework is yet to emerge is the editorial-management relationship. There was never a church and state separation between the two, but newer mediums are throwing newer challenges. The obsession with TRPs--which in turn determines advertising--drives editorial coverage in TV. This is well known. But a similar obsession with online traffic--which in turn will determine digital advertising--shapes a lot of online coverage. The point is not to condemn it but to understand that these relationships are being negotiated in an entirely new media ecosystem, which curtails editorial freedom but also opens it up.
The best of times, the worst of times
All of this has created a somewhat peculiar moment in Indian media.
There is overwhelming competition. There is a new world of engagement with readers and viewers, the implications of which are still not clear. There is an extraordinary amount of money floating around - yet most individual media platforms are bleeding. There is a new aggression in journalism, and a willingness to take on power, yet there is - on certain issues - an extraordinary degree of self imposed caution.
There are two other big issues of principle which need a concerted response. One, publications in Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and parts of the Northeast face an extraordinary set of challenges, which includes pressure from the state and militants battling the state. Mainstream Indian media does not stand in solidarity with these embattled institutions as often and as strongly as they should.
Two, there is a fundamental challenge to the entire framework of free speech in India, of which the media is just a part - this represents a blot on the nation’s liberal values and requires a far more concerted civil liberties movement than we have at the moment.
But despite this, it is important to remember that this is - in many ways - a golden moment for the Indian media.
There have never been as many media outlets - national, regional, local, hyper-local - as there are today. Never before has the media been able to reach out to so many people in multiple locations simultaneously, so instantaneously, through so many mediums.
Never before have readers and viewers become such an integral part of news exercise. Never before have the powerful been as apprehensive of the media, and so fearful of losing control over its narrative.
Never before have media houses been subject to such ruthless accountability. Never before has such a pluralist media ecosystem taken roots, with internal checks and balances.
For the Indian media, it may be the worst of times, but it is also the best of times. Work on the problems, recognise the real challenges, but stop the mourning.
(The views expressed are personal.)