Traditional news, anyone?

07 Jul,2020


By Ranjona Banerji


This is based purely on anecdotal evidence. I don’t even know if anyone has researched these patterns yet, since some of these changes have happened since the Covid-19 lockdowns.


Newspapers have not been delivered uniformly across the country. So, there is a fall in circulation and therefore readership. (This has had another terrible effect on the employees.) Many newspapers, because of the fall in revenue, have retreated behind paywalls. Television has also been affected by revenue losses and have reduced staff. The coverage of the virus itself has not helped. So several TV channels appear to have cemented themselves even further into the mire of government and party propaganda.


Social media however is booming, in the sense of public attention and engagement, not revenue. The reasons are obvious: nothing else to do, even as we are now in the partial lockdown and total confusion stage.


If newspapers do not get delivered and then want you to pay online for access to the best articles, then most readers will stay away. If they have subscribed to the physical form of the newspaper, regardless of whether it is delivered or not, they are wary of paying twice for something. So those readers are lost.


Most newspaper readers, especially in English, are older so the idea of paywalls is double anathema. Some banks, like ICICI, send PDF format newspapers to their customers. However downloading this massive file and then reading it is again somewhat troublesome.


And what newspaper managements have evidently not factored in is the enormous amount of information, fake and real, that is circulated via Whatsapp for free. All day, people send each other a wide variety of information and thus, willy-nilly, you get a summary of what’s happening around the world. The use of Whatsapp amongst older generations in India is worthy of a study of its own.


Then there’s TV subscription. I am sure TRAI meant well when they asked us to choose our own packages. But the end, the result was that many people realised the amount of rubbish that they had subscribed to. In the new system, you realise that even free-to-air channels just take up too much mind space. And this leads you to narrow your choices to what you believe in. Thus, the system allows or encourages you – perhaps not intentionally – to slip into your own ideological bubble.


The climate has ensured that some “news” channels have got even screechier and more propagandist, pushing the government line far better than any government agency. The removal of the smorgasbord of options suggests that a vast number of TV viewers watch only those news presentations that they agree with. I hear from friends that even NDTV 24×7, always seen as balanced compared its rivals, has become more pro-government than before.


Since the schedule for TV news remains the primetime screaming matches, that leaves reporters who work for these channels on the backfoot. They may do great work but that is lost in the abusive entertainment of the evening bouts. The fact that a retired army general can use choice Hindi abuses on Republic TV’s Hindi channel and people are just amused gives you a clue as to how much Indian society has changed. There was a time when Sushma Swaraj, as I&B minister, objected to Doordarshan newsreaders wearing sleeveless sari blouses! O tempora et cetera!


As an aside, there is therefore a building ideological divide between those who read and those who only watch these TV “debates”. Without a range of news, people get even more set in their ways.


And then, social media. I can spend the day on Twitter (and I have to confess, sometimes I have spent all day there) and find out what’s happening all over the world in “real time” as they say. I can watch bits of TV, read a selection of articles, interact with the writers themselves, and depending on who I follow, get specialist news. This makes all other forms of news almost redundant. I do read a couple of newspapers in the physical form. In my neck of the words, they only stopped for about a month.


Webinars, podcasts, Youtube videos, the future is already with us. And there’s traditional media, stuck in the past.


Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. Her views here are personal

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