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Press, the panic button

By : K Balakumar, E-Mail :
Saturday, 21st January 2017

We have a Breaking News coming in: The ‘Breaking News’ industry is in a huge crisis.

But worry not. This crisis is nothing new. The thing is media business, especially the newspaper one, is always in a state of trouble. If the media industry were a geographical location, then it is somewhere between Israel and Palestine: There is never a moment of peace and normalcy. Something is going wrong almost always. And there will be talks and meetings almost on a daily basis to understand what the problem is. We also think that we know what the problem is, but we have never managed to find any kind of reasonable solution to it.

The latest problem that the media is facing is also possibly the first-ever problem it encountered: Pressure on ad revenues and apathetic readership base. Okay, in the aftermath of demonetisation, things are decidedly worse. But the issues of readership and ads have been plaguing the industry right from day one.

The first-ever newspaper probably came out with its Editor writing on its Page One thus: “We are happy to have arrived. But our joy is tempered by the realisation that advertisement incomes may not be to our expectations as business sentiments seem totally dull because nobody knows what the heck this business sentiment is as we still haven’t figured out what business is. And readership habits are also not encouraging as very few actually know how to read and write. Our challenge now, as we soon get ready to move into the 18th century, is to find content that is both interesting and informative to the readers as we can’t get away by publishing huge photographs of attractive women what with the invention of camera is still more than a century away”.

But from time to time, we in the media business also invent new problems probably just to ensure that we are not bored to death by the same old troubles. When I joined this industry in the mid-90s, its main fear at that time was: Fake news. Okay, you know that is just a joke, because there was no fake news then; also, we had a different name for it: Editorials. The main issue then was actually the possible entry of foreign media, which was at that time seen as a mutant mix of Godzilla and Suhel Seth. A mega monster and an implacable irritant.

Well, it was those heady days of post-liberalisation, and thanks to the relentless pressure by the forward-looking libertarian sections of the media, Indian economy had just been opened up for foreign investments. Newer printing technologies and the arrival of satellite television also meant that the media business was also seen as being attractive for investment from overseas. Again, the vast cross sections of the media, peopled as it was by committed cheerleaders for open economy and easy business rules, wrote impassioned editorials and signed front-page articles, that allowing foreign investment in media industry here was most welcome over their dead bodies.

Seriously, we in the media while extremely welcoming of foreign investment in all sectors worked ourselves into a lather in protest against FDI in media business. But we had a legitimate reason for our stand: We were basically sanctimonious scumbags.  We opposed foreign investment on the logical grounds that foreign media would be extremely insensitive to India’s interests in matters of strategic importance, like the Kashmir issue, and also it was not as if there was dearth of our own journalists inimical to India on matters like Kashmir. Needless to say, that was the time Barkha Dutt had taken to journalism.

Anyway, we managed to stem the entry of foreign media then, and by the time the 2000s arrived so did the internet boom, and the media industry has never been the same since. But whenever we are in trouble, the industry mavens go on a brainstorming spree and eventually emerge to tell us that our coverage needs to get ‘punchy’ and ‘we have to ‘reinvent the ways news is presented’, which we in the newspaper industry rightly decipher to be an urgent command to: Change the news fonts. We don’t know anything else. We are the industry that is, to use the now popular Tamil meme metaphor, constantly eating mixture.

Another thing that we are forever told to do is to tailor our offerings to match with the sentiments of the youth. That is, we are advised to present news in a manner that will be attractive to people who basically never get down to read anything unless otherwise it is a meme on WhatsApp circuit. And at the end of it we still wonder why the industry is struggling.

So we are again at a crossroads. But what of the future? Where is the print media headed towards? Would we be around in the next five years or so? These are tough questions that don’t have easy answers. Probably all news will one day be offered in the form of memes.

But trust us to leave our unmistakable journalistic imprint on them: I think we will offer them in totally new fonts.

About Columnist

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