Monday, 18 February 2013

SOS from the print media ?

News media has been undergoing revolutionary changes throughout the last three decades. Working in a medium  newspaper in kerala, I have seen it closely. I joined the news industry in the beginning of the eighties when metallic types and hand composing were still in vogue.  A newspaper printed in Calicut in northern Kerala often found it impossible to publish the photograph of a major event happening in the state capital,if that did not take place at least before noon.  Ambassador car with their headlights on, used to speed the four hundred odd kilometres of the  narrow highway to Calicut with the very important photo, if by luck the news happened sufficiently early.  Things were not much different even during the Delhi Asiad, when we sought the help of sympathetic passengers coming to Thiruvananthapuram  from Delhi to carry the photo cover. It is a long way from there to the days of live telecast when you get photos in your newsroom of anything happening anywhere in the world, in no time.

This revolution had helped newspapers flourish. But revolutions will not always be helpful. Various types of new media have come up and some of them are threatening the very existence of the printed paper. Media specialists like Philip Meyer predict ‘The vanishing(of) newspapers’ in 2040, and there are other more ‘optimistic ‘ media pundits who think that the devil will die much earlier.

 Predictions are difficult in science and technology , as in astrology.

These days’ revolutions are more frequent, it happens as sun rise or set. Yesterday they said everything was over as far as the print media was concerned, but now the talk of the town is about the Apple iPad coming to save newspapers. We always hope for miracles, like the knight errant, sword in hand landing in the deserted desert to save the beautiful princess. But, even if the newsprint and printing presses are to become archival showpieces, will it be the end of news, end of media or the end of journalism as such? No, not at all. Then why are we overtly worried about the end of newspapers? News will survive and media will definitely be there forever.

 I feel, it is not the news media, but it is Journalism of the traditional variety that is being threatened. The profession as we know for centuries is questioned by the very readers who had all along seen them as those who had the last word on everything under the sun. They were the heroes who saw for them, who talked for them, who wrote for them and even fought for them.  He/She  was the one who see history as it unfold with his/her own eyes, talked to all the major actors, rubbed  shoulders with the high and mighty, photographed all the scenes, read all the related documents. Only an eye witness could question the veracity of what reporters reported and their number was always very limited and they could only keep mum even if they found things wrong. At most they could shoot an angry letter to the editor, which most probably went to the waste bin.   Common people now have all the gadgets that only journalists handled before. From mobile phones and videos to internet discussion groups and blogs, there are ever so many methods to disseminate news and information. Non journalists are the players there and the audience is larger. No wonder journalists feel threatened.

When the Internet came, many newspaper owners and professionals thought that it might eventually kill newspapers. At first, they refused to put their newspaper in the Internet as they thought it will affect sales. But soon they found that newspapers cannot survive without the Internet. New media is no different. Newspaper editors with an eye on future have already started using the tools of new media. Citizen journalists are now reporting for the print media too. Citizen photography is welcomed with a broad smile. Bloggers have found respectable corners in the inside pages of respected newspapers. But do you think this is all very new in the print media? Newspapers have a long history and some of the new phenomenon are only slightly revised versions of old practices. Take for example citizen journalism. Even  till a quarter century back we in Kerala had a lot of genuine citizen journalists who were well treated in newspapers desks and their reports used to appear with the by line ‘A reporter‘. Of course, they did not have video cameras or Bluetooth. Many of the news sources on whom reporters depended, and still depend are citizen journalists of a less glamorous variety. Newspapers in those days had just one photographer in their headquarters and when the news broke, they had to depend on citizen photographers.

Interactivity is one area in which print media lag behind. Letters to the Editor column was the only space given for the ordinary readers to comment. Language newspapers with just twelve or sixteen pages could not allow much space for letters and generally appreciations and congratulations for the great Editor were the rare letters that got printed. Criticism by readers was not encouraged.  Why do readers criticise when the editor is there for it all!

 Many newspapers are now realising that media is not a one way traffic lane. Editors and journalists on the podium cannot go on and on lecturing and advising the readers. Many readers are much more educated and informed than many journalists.  But print media have serious limitations in this aspect. How much space can a newspaper allot for the reader’s feedback? Not much. How many people will spend five rupees to post a cover to the editor to offer an opinion or to correct a minor mistake in a report? I found that the number of people writing letters to editor have come down drastically in the last one- two decades.

But, Internet media is different.  You need not wait to write and post a letter. You do it as you finish reading the news or article.  I have been looking after my newspapers’ online edition for about five years and I have seen the difference. You throw a discussion on a controversial subject and you will see hundreds flashing their comments and opinions. Months back when Mr Shasi Tharoor resigned as central minister on the IPL controversy, we published 2500 comments!

Looking back, I have doubts about the usefulness of publishing so many comments. Who can read all the comments, except of course the letter writers ! Most letters are rubbish. 2000 people supporting  Shasi , 500 people opposing him. If you edit and rewrite, as you do in a newspaper it will fit in a quarter page column and will be read by all. In the web, often an editor does not have to edit. We don’t even correct spelling mistakes in reader comments. Thousands of letters, thousands of citizen journalist reports  and hundreds of thousands of blogs! And there are online discussion groups, facebook, twitter and what not. Who can read it all? It is about this that President Obama commented- “ With iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations--none of which I know how to work--information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation . . . With so many voices clamoring for attention on blogs, on cable, on talk radio, it can be difficult, at times, to sift through it all; to know what to believe; to figure out who's telling the truth and who's not . . . All of this is not only putting new pressures on you. It is putting new pressures on our country and on our democracy . .”

He said it.

We have to give space for readers but editors should never throw away the gatekeeper role. Editors have to be more answerable to readers. He should answer their queries and address their concerns. Not many do that.

Two newspapers I know have regular columns that publish both, reader’s comments on mistakes that appear in the reports and also editor’s reaction to the comment. The hindu’s   Reader editor column is the first of its kind in Indian journalism. A column in Mathrubhumi  too had a good number of regular writers and readers. But both have the same sort of handicap. They deal with minor mistakes, most of them grammatical, and some factual. There are ever so many higher issues in day to day news coverage. Media fail in a few, flounder in some, misrepresent in lot, and mislead in many. What has the editor got to say in all these? Do you have a consistent policy on the use of language? Do you have an ethical code covering the many serious aspects of reporting? Did you report the truth about  something which your institution had ‘other’ interests in?   Innumerable questions routinely come up, but no one answers. Interactivity is not just chatting, it is asking tough questions and getting  genuine answers.

Many predict that the end of mass media is imminent. I do not believe that.  All these new developments are not significant enough to bring an end to the mass media. This is specially so for the print media in India and other developing countries. Circulation and advertisement revenue are rising in all parts of the world except of course in some countries of Europe and USA. There has not been a big shift to the online media also. But there is a definite trend away from the print media. But, print media is not just the black and white letters printed on paper. What is an E Paper? Is it electronic media or is it print media? People will in future be reading news in computers or instruments like Kindle or iPads and that will not in any way diminish the importance of the ‘paper’ as mass media or even as the fourth estate. It will be much more advantageous as it will help to overcome the four major handicaps of the printed paper - lack of enough space, lack of interaction, lack of the facility to update once the paper is printed and huge production costs (New media saves trees!)

Traditional newspaper will give way to the new media and its business model will be different. The traditional printed paper, the web media, constantly updated e paper, television and radio are all going to work together complementing one another and flourishing. Each one will concentrate in areas where it can fare the best.

Media as a product must be made relevant to the consumer, useful to him in his daily life. And no media can rely on amateur volunteers.  You can use their service, but this is a professional job where truth, objectivity and credibility are the deciding factors. Citizen journalism, user generated content and even the so called crowd sourcing can be helpful as ways to engage the end user –the citizen- who must be allowed to participate in this vital area of news coverage and dissemination.



 (Published in VIDURA Magazine March - April 2012)