Three key issues face us all in the context of news; I am not going to discuss solutions here, just points that I would be concerned about, even as an average citizen. I am just more aware of them due to my profession and feel they are of critical importance to all of us in society.
Human society is a gigantic mind. We hear about the approaching singularity of machines. I think that singularity already exists. The inter-connected social system that pervades all we do is, in reality, a gigantic mind. And everything it experiences is news. News connects the component individual minds and creates the essential homogeneity that is required for the universal mind to function. While education prepares the blank child mind to bring it on par with other component minds, news does the lifelong function of bringing us all up to speed with each other.
News enables us to participate, collaborate and innovate. No progress is possible without news. What is not news to you does not exist for you. And the corollary to that - what is made news for you becomes valuable. News as you can see is as important as air and water. I am stating the obvious here because I worry that it is not obvious to many of us in society. News is left to a very narrow bunch of us news professionals. There is little discourse about the news itself, even as there is an explosion of discourses on our channels and platforms about everything else in the name of daily news.
After a fairly long stable environment of almost 200 years, wherein news was centrally broadcast – as newspapers and then as radio and television, the last couple of decades saw a paradigm change.
I visualize traditional broadcasting as similar to a city’s water supply system. A central source and pumping system that pushes similar content to all households on the grid. Digital distribution, however, has a different mechanism. It operates more like an organic jungle system of watering holes – the data servers. Thirsty animals come to the source and drink what they want. There is no push. That’s replaced by ‘search and find’. So far, so good. It’s a new mechanism. News players could adapt quite easily. All of us have. And it works. Traditional broadcast brands such as CNN, The Economist, Washington Post, Times of India, Times Now and NDTV continue to dominate the digital news space as they did in the past, proving that consumers reward dependable brands with their loyalty irrespective of medium.
The real challenge to the ecosystem, however, comes from other collateral changes this new mechanism has unleashed. And these constitute two of the three elephants in the room that I am going to talk about. These changes, I must concede, are not entirely negative. All that is needed is to understand their ramifications and view them through new lenses.
1. The Internet converts every device on it into a potential server. And without realizing, each one of us became a watering hole. With advances in cameras, speech and text software, editing and presentation software, our watering holes became interesting. And social media gave us a whole new set of wings. The positive side of this ability to publish is the opportunity it offers individuals to directly reach out to others, without the cumbersome and sometimes limiting filter of media platforms. Mass outreach is today possible without courting major media platforms. Donald Trump has 55 million followers on Twitter, which gives him the strength to brush aside global news brands. Narendra Modi’s social media reach is larger than the social media reach of the top three Indian digital English news platforms – TOI, NDTV and Times Now put together. This obviously is a great source of power for these leaders. This strengthens democracy as it offers individuals immense potential. While the new medium comes with this major potential, there is a dark side to this. Most of us use this new power without complex intentions. The power, however, can be misused by vested interests. To manipulate or simply subvert. Fake news, deliberate and unintended, has grave consequences. It’s all the more dangerous when we realise that the news consumer is still driven by an almost 200-yearold habit of trusting the published word. While publishing technology has leap-frogged, the same cannot be expected of the consumer brain. Branded media could lose its business, net worth and the shirt off its back if they did a hoax piece and got caught. What do anonymous social media jockeys have to lose? Worse still is the propagation by message apps, with no address of source. Regulation and consumer education has to urgently adapt. This is an elephant in the room that has been spotted and called out and hopefully will be corralled.
2. In the context of Digital news, the most critical issue besides fake news that needs to be confronted is the concentration of power and therefore potential threat that Search and Social intermediaries can pose. This probably is the biggest of the elephants in any room that discusses news. And it is not yet called out in the way it should be. As a news practitioner, I can tell you one thing. Ensuring that my news gets to your screen and not my competitor’s is not as simple as it looks. Behind your seemingly ‘in control’ act of choosing my channel and staying tuned, is a highly complex big data-driven activity. Your choice is always influenced by a series of invisible steps that broadcasters take in placement, distribution, visibility, etc. And I am talking about traditional broadcast. We call it reach optimization. This power gets magnified when the medium through which you access my stories, the algorithms that decide which story to place in front of you when you search, is owned and operated by monolithic, multinational corporations that may not be easily regulated by local laws. I am not blaming them for wilful subversion at all. They have robust systems to ensure fair play. But concentrating power of this nature can have unintended disastrous consequences. Today, search rules on such platforms can overnight change which news brand gets watched over others. A third-party platform that wields such absolute power that determines survival itself for news players can be dangerous to democracy.
3. The last point that I think needs examination is the excessive reliance of this business on ad revenue. This obviously matters only for what is called paid media – probably the most trustworthy and agendaless amongst news operators. Ad revenue has been a traditional source of revenue for all media and has worked quite well at the social level too. But in the current highly fragmented and hyper-competitive environment, excessive reliance on ad sales for news poses some serious problems. This is more pronounced in the Indian context as Western and more developed markets have a sizeable component of subscription revenue as news consumers are in the habit for paying for content. Advertisers always spend on what they consider important to their business. Their target groups are most times younger (for higher lifetime value) and economically capable (for obvious reasons). There is thus a young and rich bias in their selection. The corollary to this is no content manager pursues TGs that are old and poor. This can over time lead to the exclusion of their interests in news media and disenfranchise large portions of population, specially in countries such as ours. While public broadcasters do work towards filling this gap, we need to develop a culture of paid subscriptions for news. Consumers need to become aware that news paid for by others may not be in their interest in the long term.
To circle back on the key issues that need thought and deliberation by all and not just us news professionals:
1. Fake news is a social problem. While a lot is being done, this will pose serious threats for a long time as the consumer habit of trusting the published word is strong. We need to start providing consumers with mechanisms to cope.
2. Search and Social monopolies could pose risks to the industry as a whole. This is an evolving situation. We hope technology itself will provide the solution to this. The industry also needs to come together and approach this as a common problem.
3. Subscription culture needs to be developed for news products. This is in the larger interests of all constituents. News needs to be recognized as far more important and strategically impacting than it currently is. Marketing in this area is lacking and could be a solution.