MSM undergoes fast-paced adjustment

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By Akash Tiwary

If a bridge were to fall, the blame would usually be put on the civil engineers, and contractors who were involved in building it.

If a patient were to die, it is usually the doctor-in-charge who receives the larger share of the blame.

Surprisingly, the media, print especially, miraculously skirted such scrutiny. Up until now. For the last few years, the country has seen stalwarts of Indian journalism fall from grace. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the Indian media is facing a credibility crisis.

Events that should have made for great news, instead brought to fore a black mass at the center of journalism in our country.

What does it mean to be a journalist? Nothing much really. It is as monotonous a job as any. Press conferences, coverage of events that seem important to a few, reporting on crimes, deaths of important people, lack of urban facilities, strikes and economic blockades, and the occasional academic whiz-kid constitutes most part of a daily newspaper.

Business hours for journalists overlap with the party hours of other professionals. It is rare to find a journalist who takes his family out for dinner every week. The glamour quotient is almost non-existential. Even vehicle stickers with ‘PRESS’ on them are passé now.

Press ID cards lose their charm after the first few weeks of work. It can get you nothing in any Tier I or Tier II city. Thankfully, journalists still command some respect in smaller towns.

Then there is the odd day when a lowly, over-worked journalist can bring down the skies with a single article. These are the days that every journalist dreams to live for.

Think about it. Who does a bureaucrat turn to when he wants to part with vital information that needs to be released? Who do aggrieved citizens court when nobody in the administration or society lends them an ear? Yes, journalists do play a quintessential role from time to time.

So, what does it mean to be a journalist? Nothing much. Just that we are capable of being the voice of a few dozens to a few thousands. Not many professionals can boast of such outreach.

The largest sufferers of the global Internet revolution have been small scale newspaper houses. Unable to catch up, and compete with the rest of the fraternity, these newspaper houses are disappearing in droves. There is absolutely no funding for them. Why would there be any? Their customer base has dwindled exponentially. Information is accessible to everyone with an internet connection or a cellular data pack.

All lamenting and ruminating aside, it is crucial for the fraternity of journalists to accept that there is no returning to the good ol’ days. It is time to play catch-up and reinvent in the face of an existential and credibility crisis.

Most of the MSM is struggling to keep afloat in the wake of changing scenario where people are showing inclination in getting their usual quota of information and entertainment from the social media.

Facebook and Twitter give readers an instantaneous and convenient access to real time happenings around the world along with the entire ecosystem of reactions that each incident, each statement, each press conference or each accusation evokes around us.

MSM is hardly in a position to compete with the social media. It can’t be quicker or more varied than social media.

However, it has the advantage of more reliability, reasoned and balanced thinking and less emotional approach.

However, it cannot impress readers unless it also acquires more credibility and expertise compared to social media.

On social media hundreds of economists can tell you and debate whether RBI policies are right for the country. MSM to stay relevant has to find better economists and give out better opinions than what is available on social media.

Not just this, the readers’ interaction with the newspaper employees have also become real-time. Gone are the days when letters were written to the Editor, with hopes of it appearing sometime next week. Today, journalists face criticism within seconds of uploading an item on the website.

Every year, thousands of Indian students join full-time academic courses on mass-communication and journalism. Is the future bleak for them? Would it have been better to opt for some other rewarding profession?

The ground reality is that a fresh journalist’s salary is laughable. There is stiff competition as the best performing media houses have high standards for selecting their employees. Students who graduated with honors degrees in journalism and mass-communication are settling for jobs that require employees with a sound grasp of English not journalism. For these students, opportunities are galore in the advertising, copy-writing and creative writing industries. While the ones who wanted to seriously pursue journalism get served the final helpings.

The magnitude of this problem is directly proportional to what active journalists achieve on the job today. To restore the promise that a career in journalism holds, it is essential to restore the credibility of the professionals.

Which brings us to the credibility crisis that Indian journalists are facing. The phrase ‘Mainstream Media’ has almost become a pejorative one like ‘hack writers’. What could be so wrong with being part of the mainstream?
If that question is posed on Twitter, the answers will be uncomfortable and crude.

They will also have some truth to it. Dissecting all that is wrong in the profession will be exhausting. Unnecessary, too. Instead, it will be more fruitful to focus on the solutions.

When in doubt, it is best to go back to the basics. How does an entire body of individuals restore its credibility? Simple. They start small.

One massive problem with journalism, be it in big metros or small townships, is the familiarity with the newsmakers. Journos are too familiar and close to the newsmakers to be able to make an objective assessment or reporting. All the distortions that we see in the MSM is due to this familiarity. Social media is different.

It is too passionate and partial to care about familiarity. It takes sides openly and the readers are free to choose their own sides.

Then, there is the issue of mixing of opinions with news and facts. For some time now, opinionated write-ups are being passed off as news items. Faulty editorial teams, and biased newspaper houses add to the problem. It is stupid if a journalist tries to play the role of a social crusader.

Benefits to the society are a byproduct of our real job. Reporting. Readers don’t pick up the newspaper looking for by-lines and opinions. They want to guage the state of the society they live in and want to obtain data, hard, realtime data from the ground.

The Internet can be the greatest ally of journalists. If newspaper houses were to fully migrate to the web, they could cut printing costs, end-to-end delivery costs, etcetera. There will be more pay for the employees. This would attract talent. Monetization of internet media is one area of concern. But, issues would get sorted out as the technology develops further and as the fast developing digital media space reaches a stable state.

Then, there is the issue of media houses serving their vested interests openly. We have heard of media houses getting fed by defence manufacturers, middlemen and a coterie of wheeler-dealers. Media outlets will have to find a way to not be vindictive or preachy according to a pattern for short-term benefits.

Mainstream media, MSM as we call it, needs an infusion of expertise. The media has knowingly been serving the usual generalized fare. It does not seem to work anymore.

Think about it! Should Raghuram Rajan have been given an extension as RBI governor? This is a question that a lay reader today might be interested in knowing.

The journalist has to provide all the data and info to its readers to enable them to reach a conclusion on the issue and draw their own judgement.

The problem is that the issue is complex and is not only political in impact. It has a complex financial side to it too. You need to have a fair idea about the macroeconomics involved, his performance during the last three years at RBI and the success or the failure, as you see it, that he met while managing the monetary policies.

How many journalists in the MSM are in a position to do that? Not too many. And that is why unless a newspaper has an expert in economics on its roll, it will be difficult for it to serve the needs of its readership. Same goes for any other domain.

While generalists will always dominate the MSM, the demand for domain experts too would continue increasing and the boundary lines will continue getting merged.

MSM needs people with backgrounds in medicine, economics, mathematics, money market, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, petroleum and several other fields which interest the common readers and about which they are eager to know.

Lack of knowledge shows in the quality of fare being served by the MSM. That is why see a plethora of articles on religious occasions or subjects. All pretty regressive and backward in approach and all intended to cater to the lowest common denominator among the readers.

Especially so in vernacular media. There are very few articles that question religion or raise issues which promote rationality and reasoning.

It is stupid to argue that they serve what the readers demand. Readers are demanding good, intelligent, modern, rational data, information and analyses too. MSM is unable to address their needs due to its own limitations. It should not blame the readers.

Then there is the excuse often given for peddling half-truths.If newspapers did incite mobs and riots, the country would have been razed to the ground a long time ago. The average Indian reader is well-informed and aware of the ground reality.

Peddling half-truths in the garb of news is an insult to their discretionary abilities. Media should refrain from doing so. This is the only way MSM can win back the trust of our fellow country-men.

The good work of journalists of the yesteryears won’t run the vehicles for too long. MSM is already running on fumes. It is necessary to infuse MSM ranks with young, vibrant individuals who have fresh ideas but remain true to old principles.

A free and unbiased media has an essential part to play in the development of a democracy.

The Fourth Estate in India might have a few uphill tasks to achieve. However, for now, MSM is not heading towards irrelevance.

It is only changing and readjusting cleverly to the emerging technological and social milieu.

Akash Tiwary

Akash Tiwary is a freelance writer and a keen blogger. He has been writing regularly for newspapers and has been a columnist.

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