How the news ecosystem is changing in India

By Suvojit Bagchi

KOLKATA: Traditional journalism disseminated by newspaper has witnessed many highs and lows in India since the first English language newspaper — the Bengal Gazette — by James Hickey was published in 1779 or Indian language press started publishing in the first half of the 19th century. Besides, governmental restrictions, economic slowdown and growth of television had shaken the newspaper industry but never before it was asked if print would survive in India or not. Over last four months, since the lockdown began, Indian newspaper industry — which was running at a snail’s pace — collapsed. The immediate impact was on many of the employees who were asked to step down. The reason is an outstanding loss of revenue.

Indian Newspaper Society, which represents around 1,000 publishers, expects that the industry may lose around USD 2 billion by the year-end, which is almost half of its 2019 revenue. The revenue may come back to the print to an extent once the economy recovers but it is difficult to predict the size of the return as the economy is contracting. Naturally, the companies will cut publicity budget damaging the print further. This is worrying as newspapers are still credible because of the format, which is “fixed”, as the editor of The Guardian, Katharine Viner explained.

“A newspaper is complete. It is finished, sure of itself, certain. By contrast, digital news is constantly updated, improved upon, change,” Viner said. This “complete” ness is newspapers’ strength. Once something is published, it cannot be changed unlike in television or digital platforms. But challenges for fixed format are growing.

The most critical factor is the growth of the news carriers — Google, Facebook and others. On one hand they carry news produced by someone else and on the other they suck the lifeblood — the revenue — of the newspapers. Newspapers, or even television channels, will have to bypass Google and Facebook to survive. Question is — how do they do that? Many feel, by producing high value content with subscription from readers on digital platforms, is the way forward.

One of the biggest turnaround stories is that of The New York Times (NYT), which was reducing jobs about a decade back, and now posting serious profit in 2017-18. The NYT has managed to bring back what belongs to them, the revenue, by ensuring a smooth roll out — from free to non-free content — with the help of a cutting edge technical team. Indian papers ought to follow, but are divided about the model and not without a reason. The big dilemma is: are Indian readers interested in high value content paying a price, when free content is widely available? It is not easy to answer this question.

Newspapers biggest asset, its infrastructure, is also its problem. It is huge, as the industry is labour intensive with large editorial teams, printing press, circulation and marketing networks. Most of the papers subsidise the cost of production, with advertising revenue. That source was drying up, even before Covid-19 hit the world, while it was growing on digital.

“Digital advertising in 2019 witnessed a 26% increase over 2018 to reach Rs 13,683 crore, even as overall advertising witnessed a sober 9.4% growth,” concluded a January 2020 report. In comparison, print grew by 4.5% in 2019, indicating that the gap between print and digital is narrowing, with digital having a relatively small operation. Digital has one small centralised unit to commission and run the platform while catering to consumers with audio, text and video content. They source content from contributors with a fee and far less overhead cost.

The other ‘problem’ of newspapers is, howsoever biased, a paper has a legacy to establish that it does not take sides; it is objective and unbiased. The readers, on the other hand, often love to read biased stories, they like campaigns for or against candidates. Large section of digital is designed to excite and polarise people, which is exactly the opposite of what newspapers tend to practice.

The public demand for biased information has created organisations such as Cambridge Analytica (CA), which studies and modifies behavior of users for political parties. CA, which is now defunct, and similar organisations, use psychographics to create stories, often to swing elections.

“These stories and incendiary posts bounce between social networks, including Facebook, its subsidiary Instagram and Twitter. They often perform better than content from real people and media companies. Bots generated one out of every five political messages posted on Twitter in America’s presidential campaign [2016],” noted The Economist in 2017. Campaigns, often targeted and personal, on social media are often made to look like news using range of social-media tools, texts, videos, documents — a practice described as ‘doxing’. Doxing, a parallel news industry, is a premier threat to serious news.

In this context, some very high-end journalism is evolving which has already taken shape in the West. For example, the editor of The Economist Zanny Minton Beddoes has highlighted that a team of medical professionals, and not just journalists or writers has managed the newspaper’s non-stop Covid-19 coverage.

In India, specialised news portals such as like Live Law, are gaining momentum. A partly funded and partly subscription-based model, Live Law covers courts with about two dozen staffers, freelancers and few contributors. All of the writers have a legal background and the specialised legal news platform is growing steadily. Increasingly, newspapers are facing challenges from specialised platforms such as Live Law.

Finally, individual driven video blogs, social media platforms, messaging groups and applications are scoring huge traction as well, driving away traffic from newspapers’ portals as consumers realise that their messages on social media can act faster. Thus consumers are arguably moving away from traditional media, globally.

The serious news business can still survive by providing high value content, as it still has a robust reporting team, curated by solid, old school editors who are not averse to technology and ready to work with the fast paced and upcoming generation. Newspapers or serious news business just cannot do one thing — that is newsgathering — anymore, but engage with everything from embracing technology to working with multiple small outlets and individuals with a better understanding of digital ecosystems, from telling stories in multiple formats to exploring alternative marketing strategies. Hopefully, papers would focus on these realities before it is too late.

(This article first appeared in orfonline.org. It is being reproduced here with the permission of the author).