Ranjona Banerji: Owners and managements to blame if & when newspapers die

20 Jan,2017

By Ranjona Banerji


The past few weeks have been consumed by a family tragedy and no time to spend on news, news flow and traditional forms of the news media. Whatever news I have received is through the most traditional form of information-sharing — word of mouth. And most of that has come via other people’s mobile phones.


I have not been able to delve into the nitty-gritty of news, I haven’t seen Barack Obama’s tearful farewell from the US presidency and I have not paid attention to Donald Trump’s ascension. And the effects of the Government of India’s various demonic demonetisation schemes I have felt deeply on a personal level as my mother battled an illness which ultimately killed her.


Reading MXM editor-in-chief Pradyuman Maheshwari’s comments on the Indian newspaper industry’s bleating excuses laid bare in a Times of India editorial, one cannot but agree. The possible demise of the Indian newspaper industry may be imminent but the fault will lie with the newspaper owners and managements themselves. Demonetisation has after all set the Indian economy itself back, not just the newspaper industry. The lesson here is for newspaper managements to be careful about sucking up to governments in the future. The rank and abysmal prostration that we saw after the Modi government came to power has come back to bite everyone where it hurts.


Meanwhile, the younger generation has moved on to other sources of news, all digital. This news may be immediate and current, but it is also carefully curated and aggregated, based on the lowest common denominator. Algorithms check your internet activity and then decide which news items best suit your interests.


Wonderful as this sounds, it also makes you ignorant of other matters and instead of broadening your world as a newspaper in the traditional format might, it narrows you down to your immediate interests as reflected by your internet activity. Google is a wonderful browser and system but ultimately you are ruled by sets of numbers which read your emails and log your searches.


“Because you have shown interest in the BJP,” many Google news items on my phone tell me. Google also gets it wrong. It sometimes says, “Because you have shown interest in Novak Djokovic,” which almost never happens because my interest is in tennis and Roger Federer. Ah well, I always knew that the worship of numbers alone would limit the human experience.


I myself have no doubt however that the future of a newspaper printed on paper is limited and on its way out. I also agree that there is no such thing as a “print” journalist any more. There are journalists who write, journalists who speak and a small section who do both. The phrase used in the Times of India is “platform agnostic” which is ugly in the extreme but one can understand what they are trying to say.


Meanwhile, one notices that newspaper owners are still upset that drivers and peons hired by them get fair wages. The Times of India especially has this problem since its senior management has long complained about it on its edit pages. Someone needs to tell them how much Uber drivers earn compared to drivers who work for companies or private citizens. The wage board as Pradyuman Maheshwari has pointed out is the creation of unfair newspaper managements and having let the government in themselves, who can ever get it out?


The bigger challenge for journalists however is to deal with narrowly curated news, internet companies deciding on the importance of news events, the spread of fake news and the various schisms of the “post-truth” world. These problems are already upon us. Journalism itself can either be a broad spectrum of news from local council issues to space travel or it can be a narrow combination of celebrity events with some melodramatic political behaviour thrown in. The challenge also applies in a different way to television journalism which has also become predictable and set in its ways.


If the internet is the answer, it is also the problem. Whining and sacking employees is the accountant’s view of life. In the long run, we need inspired thought.  Instead we are stuck in fear and moaning.


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