Some unsolicited thoughts on newspapers

by sidin in

Note 1.: Long-ish.

Note 2.: Not at all funny. But naive.

I work with an Indian business daily newspaper. I work with, I believe sincerely, a rather good newspaper. I am proud of my job on most days. But, more importantly, I am extremely proud of the paper I work for. I don't agree with everything all my editors do on a day to day basis. In fact I don't think everybody agrees on everything ever. A good newsroom bristles with tension and awkwardness. But by and large, on the average morning, I wake up confident that we've put out a paper that we are all editorially and ethically satisfied with. (Even if I live many miles away from the newsroom.)

Now over the years, especially since I've started interacting with people on Twitter, I've seen the dismissive, often insulting way in which people refer to Indian print and television media. Some of this criticism is entirely valid. But a lot of it, I feel, reflects misinformation and a lack of nuance and awareness of our newspaper market.

So I want to tell you a little about some issues and experiences I have been thinking about lately. Most of it has to do with my experience in the Mint newsroom. (How I operate now, as a foreign correspondent, is not particularly relevant to our discussion.) However do keep in mind that I am not a media expert. I have only worked in media for five years, all of it for one newspaper. However in this period I have worked across levels, including briefly as a managing editor and as part of the paper's leadership team. Yet I may come across as overly naive and under-informed. You have been warned.

If you think you know better about our newspapers you are probably right.

You will have to take my word here, but I will be entirely sincere in my musings.

Note: I have not read the New Yorker piece on TOI.

1. The people

Many journalists are often accused of having a left-liberal agenda. In my experience this seems untrue. However it is quite possible that they have a left-liberal bias. The two things are different.

(But what does 'left-liberal' mean? We can talk about this all day. But I am assuming you mean someone who is NOT right-wing, and also perhaps tends to support ideas like pacifism, human rights, secularism, minority rights, believes in things like the Arab Spring, the power of the people, and so on. Some might even say that anyone who gives Muslims the benefit of doubt on anything is a left-liberal. So be it.)

I've seen three or four fresh batches of interns and journalists join Mint. You could broadly split them into two groups of people. The first have a vague notion of wanting to tell stories but otherwise are mostly raw and aimless. They want to eventually become New Yorker staff writers, but right now have neither the process or, in many cases, the bent of mind to dive into a story the way Cordelia Jenkins, Supriya Nair, Samanth Subbu and other Mint superstars do/have done. The second are people who want to change the country and the world. They want to question the status quo. They want to do stories about corruption, the homeless, the poor, farmers, pollution, evil corporation, evil political parties and so on. But, like the first group, they too need help, guidance and editorial supervision.

So they either have no bias at all. Or have what some of my senior journalists call a "bleeding heart", a somewhat naive need to make things better. People like that are usually a little left of centre, and liberal to the extent that they like change and question society. Much like any college student with a conscience.

Then there are the growing minority who did not go to journalism school in India or abroad, but choose the long hours and relatively low pay of media because of a hatred for regular office jobs, a bleeding heart, a need for creativity, or a mix of all three.

But almost none of them come in with an agenda. They are mostly people like you and me. They are the products of our society with all its inherent collective and individual quirks. When they start as journalists, and I include myself here, they are, like anybody else, prone to hearsay and anecdote. They too tend to believe passed on wisdom rather than check for facts or resort to first principles, as it were. They too are wary of questioning people in position of authority. They too choose the ease of popular opinion over the inconvenience and disappointments of seeking out nuance.

This is where editors come in. And a newspaper can only ever be as good as its editors. More on that later.

2. The Economics

This is, in my opinion, the single largest problem facing our newspapers today. Let me explain as well as I can.

As I understand it the average newspaper in India costs at least approximately 3-4 times the cover price to print and deliver to your home. Every major newspaper in India loses money because it prices newspapers at these ridiculously low prices. But it makes up for this gulf through advertising. Think about it. The pages on which you read news are loss-leaders for the pages on which you see advertising.

How is this a bad thing? The temptation is to think "paid news!" Paid news is a problem. But to me that is a minor one.

The real problem is this: the current economics of our newspaper business writes the reader completely out of the picture. He simply does not factor in at all in the economic equation except as a measure of circulation. And circulation numbers are laughably easy to game. Everybody knows this. And everybody, including advertisers, play along. So let us ignore that bit. And let me focus, instead, on how and why this writing off of the reader is a tragedy.

What incentive does a newspaper have to bring out a genuinely world-class newspaper? Will writing better stories bring it more readers? Perhaps. But then why is the newspaper most lampooned for its journalism the largest selling english title by far? 

Will writing better stories convince readers to pay more for the paper? Just suggest the idea of increasing cover price to any paper's CEO. And see the blood drain out of his face. The fear is that readers will immediately drop the title for a cheaper one. Thereby leading to plummeting circulation. And fewer ads. 

Perhaps, you say, advertisers will see the merit in supporting a high-quality publication? Let us take the case of the excellent Caravan magazine. I think most people will agree that they are a good magazine. Look at the ads they have on their homepage on the right side in the form of a little slideshow. National Jute Board. Orissa Tourism Board. And two kitchen appliances companies I have never heard off. These are the companies willing to pay to advertise on the website of a truly exceptional magazine.

Think about it.

Step back a little. What does this mean for the newsroom?

Newsrooms are expensive. Good newsrooms are exorbitantly expensive. Yet, as I mentioned above, investing in it actually makes little economic sense. Because the only person willing to pay for it, i.e. the advertiser, actually has little interest in what comes out of it. 

Newsrooms are expensive. Someone has to pay for it. And that someone, according to me, HAS to be the reader. But I feel right now our nation values original content very very poorly. Let me illustrate. Today subscribing to the Financial Times in London costs me £2 / day. Which is a little more than the cost of a minimum ride on the London Underground. The minimum fare for a ticket on the Delhi Metro is Rs.8. I don't think any newspaper in India costs even half as much. (Of course not that anybody pays cover price, what with the annual offers and discounts.) Think of those families that refuse to order newspaper on weekends because the weekend edition costs a few rupees more.

This equation has several other implications besides crippling newsroom budgets and isolating readers. It makes it impossible for smaller titles to scale up. Advertisers rarely pay for intentions, but they always pay for circulation. "We'll wait till you reach a million copies. Best of luck."

If mainstream media is so biased why aren't there any clutter-breaking right-wing/left-wing blogs, newspapers or magazines? If we are such a mature, growing media market where is our Indian equivalents of Daily Kos, Little Green Footballs, Spectator or New Statesman? Where are the truly partisan yet genuinely well produced media vehicles?

Good question. Who will pay for the writers? Who will pay for the production, the upkeep and the admin staff? Passion is great. But your reporters can't go home and serve his family plates of passion for dinner.

This also has implications for the editorial leadership. Who is a good editor? The one who edits and puts out great content? Or the now who knows how to keep circulation up and advertisers happy?

The point of saying all this is that if you want to improve your newspapers then tweeting the mistakes in it won't help. Sending letters to your editor may help, but it possibly won't. Jokes about them on your blog most certainly won't help. Instead vote with your feet. Stop subscribing. That is not enough though. Then go and subscribe to another paper that is better. Want to pass on a real message? Go and subscribe to an international paper or magazine at higher prices. Convey the message that you are willing to put your money where your sensibilities.

Get back into the equation. Get back into the newsroom.

Everything else is hot air.

3. The Perspectives

Let me talk about two things here. First of all there is the issue of topic: 'Why don't newspapers talk about the things I want them to? Why did they never talk about Irom Sharmila? Or coal blocks? Or Russians taking over Goa? Or Mullaperiyar?' I think this is because most newspapers in India are designed to be reactive. This is actually much, much cheaper than being proactive. Being proactive usually means sending out reporters to explore stories and regions and hunches. Mostly without fixed deliverables.

Reporters without stories to file, and copy to submit by 4PM? Blasphemy!

What you normally see is that each newspaper or magazine tends to be exploratory about a few topics: agriculture, cricket fixing etc. They create a network of contacts and then keep milking this for insider scoops. Mint, for instance, is really good at Corporate Tax issues.

Personally I am more bothered about the quality of our reactive journalism. So we've uncovered coal block scams. Now what? What does this mean for our natural resources policy? What are the short and long term implications? Newspaper have a huge role in explaining and analysing this. This is what, I think, they should do well. TV, on the other hand, maybe better at breaking and revealing. 

Just my point of view.

The second, and I think more prevalent complaint, is: 'Newspapers are not taking the stand or arriving at the conclusions that I want them to. Why isn't a single paper calling Robert Vadra a crook? Why isn't it calling KP Singh a crook?' 

The main reason for this I think is: Good newspapers don't put out their opinion on anything or anybody without due process. The public may have the freedom to outrage with gay abandon. Newspapers don't have that freedom. Instead they have the privilege of taking their time, preparing their case, and then descending on their victims with data-laden thunderclaps of ball-busting outrage. This takes time and can't happen frequently. To have any impact, newspapers must pick their battles.

Sadly many readers want these battles to be picked on the basis of gut feel or hunch. Take, for instance, the case of Vadra-DLF. Does it feel like a scam? Yes. Does it smell like a scam? Yes. Do the facts add up to a scam that would make for legal action? Frankly, not yet. This is infuriating. For you and, I am certain of it, for people in many newsrooms all over this country. All they can do right now is write comment pieces on how it LOOKS like a scam. Which I think is a waste of time. Especially if editors are doing this to make it look as if they are following up on the story. Instead they should be digging up motives.

So don't assume that silence is always a cover-up. In fact it often amuses me when people put out a link to a news item "that media is trying to hide from you" which points to the website of a newspaper or magazine.

But the more fundamental point, I think, is this: it is not your newspaper's job to agree with you. Or to conform with society's opinion. In fact if you find yourself agreeing with your newspaper all the time you might want to rethink the breadth of your reading. One of a good newspaper's jobs, I think, is to frequently slap the readership and society across its face and tell it how ill-informed and ill-opined it is. (In a nice way of course. We love our readers.)

4. Neutrality and Narendra Modi

On the face of it a "free and fair" media that maintains strict neutrality sounds like a great thing. However this is an ideal that few newspapers ever meet. For instance Mint unabashedly favours free markets, small government, fiscal prudence, targeted social security and civil liberties. (Among many other things.) We state our support for free markets on our masthead. Other newspapers also explicitly and implicitly have biases.

Many people are upset by this.

I am not. What bothers me more is that newspapers don't state their biases or partisanship explicitly enough. If newspapers actually began to state clearly that their biases or convictions this would dramatically peel back all real and perceived hypocrisy. Why not just say that we are a "conservative", "nationalist", "pro-free markets", "left-wing" or "whatever-combination-of-the-above" title?

The more I think about this the more I am convinced that this would blow a breath of fresh air into our print content. It would replace thinly veiled hypocrisy with narrative focus and perhaps even improve our levels of debate, infusing them with more data and less emotion. (Because even our worst editors, I think, are more articulate than the best party spokespeople.)

People are scandalised when I tell them this. They think biased newspapers will begin to lie or fabricate facts. They won't. Instead they might selectively interpret data. Which is a fantastic thing. Because then another title from the opposite camp will counter them with more data. And this will continue till every ounce of reliable data is brought out and we finally know if Gujarat is doing better than Maharashtra economically, or if black-money numbers are accurate, or FDI in retail is good for us, and so on and so forth. Instead right now I fear there is too much waffling in the name of balance. Several pundits have already written about this problem in the US. About how forced balance simply dilutes dominant, obvious ideas and truths.

I'd like to know what you think about this.

Now we come to the notion that there is a liberal media agenda against Narendra Modi. If there is one, I haven't got the memo. There might be a bias. And maybe that goes back to the point I made earlier about the kind of people who work for newspapers. If you're the kind of left-liberal I described before chances are that you deeply dislike Narendra Modi's performance as chief minister during the Godhra riots. And find it hard to rationalise that irrespective of the quality of government or administration he espouses. 

But does that mean there is some kind of monthly quota of anti-Modi stories we need to file in exchange for rewards? Not that I know of. Definitely not in my paper. We've published articles both critical and adulatory. Especially in the form of columns on our Op-Ed pages. (Which, I suppose, is the function of oped pages and columnists. To offer a counterpoint to the newspaper's stated position.)

The logical question then is: Shouldn't this need to seem unbiased therefore makes papers publish as many critical articles of Modi as there are adulatory ones?

This is worth thinking about. I think I know why this number is unequal. And I am not going into Modi's culpability here. Let us set that aside.

I think it has to do with the lack of formal nationalist/right-wing/pro-Modi media vehicles. Vehicles like that would create an environment for insightful, articulate right-wing journalists and writers to train and flourish. And then these people could start being published on oped pages. Or even being syndicated. (I would imagine that a syndicate service of tightly edited and fact checked articles by right-wing writers and authors would get lapped up by papers.)

But the few times I've tried sourcing articles from right-wing readers or bloggers the quality hasn't been particularly great. The vast majority of the submission are terribly cliched, enraged articles of protest. And most of the best articles I get come from the same handful of people. (Many of whom write for Niti Central right now.)

On the other hand articulate writers critical of the right-wing establishment are much easier to find.

In a nutshell what I am saying is that the media you read is biased. In many micro and macro ways. Titles may be better of saying that upfront. The only way to deal with this bias is to create respectable, partisan media that can provide counter-points.

(The danger here, however, is that these new partisan media vehicles will end up talking to supporters and no one else. Which would be self-defeating.)

5. Editors

Disclaimer: If I know little about the first four topics, I know even less about this one. Beware. I've only ever been a real editor for around a year or so. Before moving to London.

Reporters, journalists, designers and photographers form the superstructure of a newspaper. But editors give it life-force and soul. And there aren't many editors around. And it is easy to see why from my previous points. If you don't have enough exciting, rewarding places for editors to work in they will simply hang around where they are and never leave. Which makes it even harder for younger people to move up and about and rejuvenate editorial perspectives. Also because newsrooms are cost centres, and Indian companies are obsessed with hierarchy and seniority, they don't like making too many people editors too soon. So while there might be tremendous churning and turbulence at the lower and middle levels, the top levels in most places remain quite static.

Where is the new thinking going to come from? Who is going to recalibrate the biases and partisanship? Who will question these entrenched leaders? Even assuming an editor is biased towards a certain political party, he/she sits on such an acute organisational pyramid that questioning him or her is impossible. Most newspapers, like our political parties, religions and families, tolerate very little dissent.

Again it all goes back to the point about economics. We need more titles and more newsrooms and more people who want to pay for their news. This could well stir up things.

6. The Future

The two most recent quarters of IRS figures showed that print circulation in India for the top 10 newspapers is dropping. This includes drops for both english and vernacular language papers. Many people are happy about this. Because they think it signifies the end of print's hegemony and the onset of digital news.

Perhaps. Though this means even more trouble for newsrooms. There simple isn't enough advertising in digital right now to pay for our newsrooms. Nobody pays for digital news. For now. And we all know the kind of content the most popular Indian news websites revel in. (See my point about lack of independent media vehicles above.)

But what about an alternate scenario? What if people stop reading newspapers altogether? What if digital does not make up for the drop in print? And what if everybody decides to switch to social networks and television for their news? Where, so far, we have seen immediacy entirely dominate concerns such as analysis or debate. Unless news television improves substantially this may not be a good thing.

Over the last few years I have had a chance to look at newspapers from all over the world. Indian papers are by no means the worst. In fact they may well be the best papers in the broader geographic region. They are also some of the freest. And some of the best produced. (Sri Lanka has the worst newspapers in the world. Remind me tell you about this later.) 

I am still a believer in the print product. I think that we have the people, especially on the front lines and in the middle of the pyramid, the processes and the ethical framework to create great papers. Perhaps we will need many more great editors, better equipped newsrooms and the re-establishment of the reader as stakeholder in the newsroom. This also means that readers need to stop thinking of themselves as victims. They need to step and ask for their money's worth. They clearly need to pay a little more.

As a consumer I try to do my bit by subscribing to a number of titles each month. I can never read all of them of course. But it is not merely a question of how much I can read. I like to think that my little contribution to Caravan, The Economic and Political Weekly, the New Yorker, the Paris Review etc. goes towards maintaining a good newsroom somewhere.

As a journalist I have been lucky so far. I work with a good, honest newspaper led by good, honest editors. I have never, ever in the last five years been asked to change or drop a story because of political or financial implications. Currently I edit a monthly luxury lifestyle magazine. It is not the most substantial of editorial products. But I try to do a good job and make some advertising income that can then go on to support my newsroom. Which is staffed by a lot of really nice hardworking people.

If I could leave you with one parting thought it will be this: for the love of god and country please do not subscribe to a newspaper that you do not like or respect.

Thank you.

P.S. You will see the phrase "I think" a lot in this post. This is because I am not sure.