Newswatch: News cannot be customized

10 Nov,2011

By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr


It is the old story of a death foretold, and which is for ever deferred. The novel died and it has managed to live on. Poetry died, but a Swedish poet gets the Nobel for literature this year. Philosophy has died. And still there are a few too many philosophers around. So it is with the print media. The newspaper is dead. This was what that ostensibly venerable but really pseudo-ish news paper, The Economist, had prophesied not too long ago. And in the middle of market meltdown in the western world, most of the newspapers editors and owners are singing the dirge as well.

India seems to be bucking the trend as of now. Newspaper circulation, including that of the English language ones, is rising and rising briskly too. Many social and economic factors have been invoked to explain the phenomenon. It is being said that the explosion of literary in a billion plus country means millions of readers every year, and that the high will persist longer than imagined. There is of course the cliche that we are a booming economic power in a world flattened by recession.

Whether the newspaper survives as we know it is indeed a billion rupee question with long-term implications and with no philosophical or existential strings attached. Newspapers may change and even disappear but news will remain with what the 1930s British (Anglo-Irish really) poet Louis MacNeice summed up in a sardonic spirit, “Give us this day our daily news.” I an information age, news is not going to disappear into a black hole though there is the real danger of too much trivial news creating a mountain of information trash.

Beyond the playful and woeful prospect of dealing with too much news, what seems to be of greater interest is whether the reader should be able to choose what he or she wants, the so-called customized news, whether in the newspaper, on the radio, on television and on the Internet. This seems to make immense market sense, and the idea is being bandied about as the ultimate winner in the business of purveying news.

The dangers seem to be obvious to anyone except those who want to live by a new, untested and unexamined idea. News by definition should not be customized. The consumer – the reader in this instance – should not be choosing what he wants and ignoring the rest. For that he can walk through the libraries and go for the books he wants to read or even browse through racks of DVDs to get the sub-genre of films he or she is interested in. A similar exercise can be carried through on the iInternet as well, where you can Google and Yahoo the subject or theme you are interested in. You will not have to know anything about anything else.

The idea of news is that a person gets to know things which one is not necessarily interested in. The Greek economic crisis is indeed of no interest to anyone but the Greeks themselves, and thanks to the overvaulting ambition of Eurozone, it has become the nightmare of rest of the European Union as well. News is all about something that has happened which may or may not impact you either in the immediate or in the distant future. The fact that it has happened needs to be noted – the word recorded sounds a little too pompous – for whatever it is worth and relegated to the archives. Someone interested in it will retrieve it sometime somewhere.

So, those in the business of news cannot afford to package things for the consumers. That is a retail exercise that can take place lower down the supply chain as it were. The basic issue is that news – whatever has happened or said – has to be collected and gathered. Newsgathering is the primary function. The choices come much later. Customization of news cannot be made the basic premise.


The writer works with the DNA newspaper at its Delhi office.

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