This is an edited version of the IPSMF Panel Discussion on The Future of News Media & The Role Of Independent Media on October 25, 2019, at BIC, Bengaluru, moderated by Rohini Nilekani.
The panellists included Anya Schiffrin, Professor, Columbia University; Govind Ethiraj, Founder, IndiaSpend; Jagannathan R, Editorial Director, Swarajya; Seema Singh, Founding Editor, The Ken; Shekhar Gupta, Founder, The Print; and Siddharth Varadarajan, Founding Editor, The Wire.
Journalism in India is going through a complex and difficult time, in terms of the shifting digital landscape, public trust in the media, and an increasingly antagonistic relationship with the state. So it bears thinking about the question of how the media and journalists can survive and adapt, without compromising their integrity.
One of the issues with mainstream journalism today, as R. Jagannathan points out, is that it stays away from certain topics or questions and has become a part of the establishment in many ways. However, with experienced journalists stepping away or defecting from mainstream media to start online platforms dedicated to reporting responsibly and deeply about issues that are ignored, the business models for media houses are being disrupted.
The Business of Journalism
Funding from sources like IPSMF have given publications like IndiaSpend, The Print, and many others, the ability to address areas that are not being covered by mainstream media including expanding regional language sections and coverage of issues in the Northeast and tribal communities. However, the goal for most of these publications is to depend less on this kind of seed money and instead shift to a subscriber model, where readers pay for online news.
This challenge to mainstream reporting is a consequence, as Siddharth Varadarajan notes, of a collective distaste and disenchantment with what big media has become in India. There is a link between the decline in editorial standards and change in editorial priorities, and the dominant business model that drives these media organisations. Varadarajan is hopefully that the future is one where readers fund and support the publications that deserve their trust, and that there is a public willingness to give money for this cause. However, the question then becomes whether this kind of model will be sustainable or whether big philanthropy or big government will have to spend to keep the media sector alive.
While reader support might cover a certain percentage of the cost, Google and Facebook eat into many publications’ advertising revenue. The draw of the subscription model for Seema Singh at The Ken, is that it allows them the independence to ask tough questions. People do see merit in this and The Ken is steadily growing year-on-year, despite being a niche platform. It’s this definition of their audience, Singh says, that allows a deeper engagement with the readers and makes journalists accountable to them. Patronage has also allowed them to take their journalism to students and NGOs, so that their work is more widespread despite the subscription barrier. Most crucially, this business model allows reporters at The Ken to take 15 days on each story, investigating and writing a first draft, which no mainstream publication could afford to do on a regular basis.Places like IndiaSpend, with a more B2B product and think tank elements, are able to market their own original research. It has one of the highest number of original citations of any media organisation, not just by other journalists but also in the world of academia and policy research. By tying up with comedians, for example, who are launching a Netflix-grade production on fact checking, there are a lot of opportunities in the B2B space in terms of revenue, along with the earnings from people who republish their articles.
Advertisers are also changing the game, in terms of the kind of reach they are willing to pay for, which does not solely depend on numbers anymore. Shekhar Gupta believes that these commercial models will change, and that the future of digital news media lies in its potential for targeted advertising. Companies are realising that they need not reach millions of people to sell a particular product or idea. There is value in reaching people through a platform that they trust, at less than 1% of the cost of big media houses. So as online platforms build reader loyalty and are known for their accuracy and lack of bias, garnering a readership that believes in the work they do, advertisers will recognise this and start turning towards those platforms.
The challenge of overcoming subscription fatigue then becomes a real one, if readers are going to have to subscribe and check on multiple platforms for news. Especially when the cost of newspapers is negligible and Indian readers are not used to paying for print products. Varadarajan argues that readers will pay if they see value, not necessarily “value for money” but in the form of a media organization that represents the kind of values that they believe in or subscribe to. This is where the digital media space has the opportunity, because big media has a tendency to avoid asking important questions. For example, Varadarajan notes that no major newspaper or news channel reported anything about the son of the Home Minister becoming Secretary of the BCCI while his father has been railing against dynasticism for decades. So when online publications do address things like this, readers notice. On the other hand, the government also notices.
As Varadarajan mentions, the atmosphere in the country’s media circles is one of fear – of censorship and regulations that clamp down on the freedom of the press. He points to this fear as one of the reasons why companies or individuals are also reluctant to advertise or sponsor places that speak out about government policies or big businesses. An example is the recent regulations on FDI in digital media, which was presented as a great reform, however approval will only be granted on a case-by-case basis. This means that government-friendly media companies might have a much better chance of their approval coming through than ones who question and cover the news in an unbiased way.
The Fear Factor
Napoleon Bonaparte said that four hostile newspapers are to be feared more than a thousand bayonets. We know that there are going to be cases where public interest and the government interest diverge, so it’s a tricky question of how journalists are able to make that separation, especially given the factor of deep fear and uncertainty in 2019.
Of course, as Ethiraj notes, it’s not always a sense of critiquing the government as it is critiquing a system that isn’t working for the people. IndiaSpend is concerned with data gaps, and it is those gaps that imply a certain amount of withholding or lack of information from the government, so the pursuit of those gaps may perhaps ruffle some feathers. For example, Ethiraj points to certain aspects of crime that have not been addressed in the NCRB report such as hate crimes, while there is a section for ‘anti-national’ crime. The solution here would either be to use technology to address those gaps, or find alternate sources that fill in the information. This information might not necessarily be what people want to hear, but that makes reporting it perhaps more important. Ethiraj confesses an assumption that many others have also been guilty of, that India’s democracy and the freedom of press will continue to be as it always was. However this has changed, not just in India but in other countries as well, and the media is now internalising it and beginning the process of coming up with solutions to respond to this.
Given the current political climate, Paul Graham writes that in order to get people to read or subscribe, journalists must now pick a side rather than relying on any kind of ‘neutral’ journalism. The key here, as Singh explains, is to back those stances and viewpoints with facts. We all have human biases and there is always the potential of fact-checking errors, which is why it’s important to have honest media platforms that are also able to hold each other accountable. Being neutral, Jagannathan argues, is never going to get us to the truth.
But Anya Schiffrin states that whether journalists take a strong position or stick to the ‘he said, she said’ method of reporting, there’s no one solution that will be effective for society right now. That’s because we’re facing a global problem of polarisation and a deep distrust of the media. Journalists often feel as if this is their responsibility to correct, however solutions such as going to communities, engaging with readers, and being very transparent about their processes are expensive and hard to scale. She points to a sort of counter-speech argument, that if journalists can just keep up with good quality, reliable information, audiences will learn to seek it out. But the reality is that there are so many entrants and so many options, that it is incredibly difficult to be heard and trusted through this throng of voices.
Trusting the Media
In India, as Varadarajan mentions, we are losing the ability to have a discussion with differing viewpoints. He gives the example of news channels with a ‘Ravan’ type discussion model of 10 heads with the anchor in the middle, shouting arguments at each other. What journalism needs to do is have these conversations without lowering the level of public discussion, but instead, these displays have perhaps meant a dip in the respect and trust people place in news organisations. It is also because of a few big marquee broadsheet dailies engaging in corrupt practices and paid news, which has been fairly well-documented now. So public trust is low, and as a consequence of this, attacks on the media are responded to with a kind of social apathy, if not social sanction, argues Varadarajan. This creates a really dangerous environment for journalists, in a country where we know journalists’ deaths are already quite high.
What journalists need to keep in mind is that the news does not have to be what they want it to be. Shaping the facts to suit what you want to say is not what good journalism is about, and it’s the editor’s job to be able to see through those arguments and maintain a commitment to the truth, despite their personal feelings or biases. There are certain stories, like the Rafale scandal, where Gupta knew that they could report it and gain a lot of traction, but held back because they could not adequately verify the facts. In this way, digital platforms still function under the principles of conventional journalism.
Even so, public trust in Indian media is low, and lower today than it has ever been in the past. Perhaps one of the reasons is also the increased difficulty in speaking truth to power. During the Emergency, unfortunately, the Indian media was supposed to have genuflected more than it needed to. It’s easy to wonder whether something similar is happening now.
As both Schiffrin and Varadarajan mention, investigative journalism is successful when there are public institutions that are able to respond to it. However, the situation at present is that a large number of institutions whose job it is to respond to information that comes in the public domain do not wish to respond, and discharge their constitutional duty. This is perhaps a bigger worry, since the media leading without the other institutions backing it actually exposes the media even more.
As Gupta says, we’re seeing an emergence of right wing alpha males, like Trump, Putin, Abe, Xi Jinping, Modi, Erdogan, Netanyahu, Bolsonaro, Orban, and Boris Johnson. All these figures have realised that the biggest pressure you can put on journalists is to deny them access. It is something that film stars had figured out first, then cricket stars followed suit. The attitude is “If you write a line against me, I’ll never speak with you,” and now the government has started following this as well. Sources for information are clamping down, and many civil servants who would usually answer phone calls, or hold meetings in their offices, are now refusing to talk to journalists. Especially with digital media, the government views these freedoms as a wild animal that they need to control through laws and regulations. I was also reading Krishna Kumar in EPW, who said, “In the chamber of echoes we are in, silence alone can speak.” Just yesterday, in Kashmir, the newspapers ran blank front pages. It’s a powerful move as well, because censorship and control is not just about what people write, but what people are made to leave out. As Jagannathan states, we talk a lot about freedom of press in Delhi or other metro cities, but the real threats to media freedom in India are in the state capitals where journalists have been killed for as little as filing an RTI application.
Social Media and the Future of Journalism
Today, we see world leaders like Trump or Modi communicating directly to the public via social media platforms, and the next generation also referring directly to Facebook or Instagram for updates rather than news platforms. In a way, this explosion of information is a good thing, Jagannathan says, for the simple reason that the news is not just a top down institution anymore but that there is a kind of democratisation that has happened.
However, Ethiraj argues that it also poses new problems. We are in an era of manufactured truth, and one of the biggest challenges that we are already facing stems from the danger of misinformation. This affects everyone, including individuals, brands, products, and services because people have stopped believing the message that is given to them, whether it comes through a media platform or social media. It’s becoming a disease that we have to address and if we don’t, a lot of work that journalists have put into creating public trust will be infructuous.
On the other hand, Varadarajan is hopeful about the next generation using Instagram or Snapchat to consume news, because of their levels of interest and engagement with deep and serious stories. As publications like The Wire move to distributing content through social media, they are seeing positive reflections from their readers, especially younger ones. Gupta agrees, saying that young people are curious, intelligent, and will not buy into propaganda very easily. Regardless of where they get their information from, they are able to separate the truth from the sensational with far more ease than older generations.
Joseph Pulitzer said, “The power to mold the future of the republic, will be in the hands of journalists of the future generation and in the hands of this generation.” We are certainly seeing this in practice now, more than ever before.