Thursday, 21 July 2011

Is the News Agency Model of Management Viable Today?

By K G Suresh
A Chief Executive Officer without an MBA? A General Manager with no background in sales, marketing or HRD? State Managers and Regional Managers without any business targets to meet? Welcome to the world of Indian news agencies, where even a simple graduate can aspire to become the head of a transnational wire service employing thousands of people including senior journalists across the world and handling budgets running into crores of rupees.
It may sound totally unbelievable for the practitioners of modern schools of management but the news agency concept was not conceived or implemented by some trade union or Gandhian leaders in the days of yore. These agencies – particularly the big two – Press Trust of India (PTI) and United News of India (UNI) - are owned by none other than owners of leading newspaper chains, who themselves employ highly qualified and foreign educated Managers to preserve and nurture their business.
Unlike news papers, which may or may not have an editorial policy or a political line to toe, news agencies have so far been immune to political bias, except during the Emergency, when the Government took them over and clubbed them together to function as Samachar, a one stop agency to carry censored news.
This objectivity is vital for the agency to maintain its credibility as newspapers and magazines with tilt towards diverse political ideologies and socio-economic interests subscribe to its services. More than anything else, compulsions of the market or market forces, as is popularly described, leave news agencies with little option but to maintain balance in its news coverage and ensure that there is no editorialisation of news.
Moreover, news agencies were never established as purely corporate entities with the objective of making money. The first and foremost objective was to provide a reliable, indigenous service that would disseminate information with an Indian perspective as against a Western one, as was the case prior to Independence. For example, a Western wire service would always describe Jammu and Kashmir as Indian-held or Indian-controlled Kashmir whereas the Indian news agencies would refer to them as Indian territory both in its domestic and external news service. These agencies would also highlight the Indian angle of any international development as also the Indian version or India’s stand at multilateral fora such as the United Nations, WTO, SAARC, NSG etc;
Another key objective behind the establishment of these news agencies was to provide small and medium Indian newspapers credible and affordable news service from across the country and the world. It was but natural, therefore, that the founders of the two news agencies deemed it appropriate to establish Trusts comprising a Board of Trustees with a Chairperson to be elected annually on rotation basis, rather than a corporate set-up.
With dissemination of news rather than earning profits as its primary objective, the founders rightly felt that creation of a separate management cadre to supervise the journalists would only serve to hinder the very objectives with which these organizations were created in the first place.
Hence, it was felt that the journalists themselves would be entrusted with the responsibility of running the organization depending on their seniority and experience.
Thus, after putting in some decades either in the Editorial section or Reporting, the journalists were appointed as Managers, Regional Managers, Assistant General Managers, Deputy General Managers, Joint General Managers and General Managers to look after the administration of these agencies, which over the years have come to acquire prime land and infrastructure in several parts of the country.
Being primarily media organizations, the staff journalists, who later graduated to managerial levels, knew the set up inside out, its strengths and weaknesses. Besides, their equations as journalists with the authorities – political and administrative – helped them resolve many a problem pertaining to infrastructure and amenities. Moreover, the Government too continued to be the major source of income of these agencies with several ministries, Government media and other related institutions such as airports etc constituting majority of subscribers.
As journalists, these Managers were also able to identify and recognize the genuine problems faced by their fellow non-journalist employees and take appropriate remedial measures.
However, with the passage of time, media became more competitive and in the era of faster media such as television and websites, news agency management required a greater amount of managerial ability and competence.
Not aware of principles such as Human Resources Management, internal communication, employee motivation, financial management etc, these organizations suddenly faced large-scale attrition leading to a virtual collapse of their middle order. Unable to invest heavily in high-end technology, these agencies failed miserably in the delivery aspect, which enabled foreign agencies and their Indian affiliates to make deep forays into the Indian information bazaar, cashing in on the television and dotcom boom.
That today the UNI is facing imminent closure and is unable to even regularly pay salary to its employees is an open secret. Some visionary people at the helm of affairs in PTI were able to foresee the danger and took steps such as inducting fresh blood, convincing trade unions to allow lateral inductions, streamlining finances, appointing professionals to manage accounts and entering into mutually beneficial tie-ups with foreign agencies besides drawing substantial income from rentals.
Yet, despite their virtual monopoly of the media for several decades, having an unparalleled network across the country with experienced journalists and being pioneers in television software production, these organizations watched helplessly as bystanders as a television boom swept the country. Instead of taking the lead to launch their own channels or even a video news service, these agencies ended up miserably following up the stories broken by television networks.
Breaking news was once the privilege of news agencies. Today, except in rarest of rare occasions, it is the television channels which take the cake. Television channels subscribe to news agencies only as a back up service so as not to miss any important story, particularly from the far flung and remote areas where they do not have much strength to boast of.
While there cannot be any compromise on editorial independence and the need to maintain the neutrality and credibility of the national news agencies, the perpetuation of the system of journalist managers is an anachronism in today’s era of competition and professionalism. Journalists are not trained to be good managers, their knowledge stems purely from common sense and human experience, which alone are not sufficient to run modern organizations successfully.
Can any Tom, Dick or Harry become a good journalist? No. Then, how can the same logic not apply to managing news agencies? While the Editor or Editor-in-Chief should be the final authority in matters pertaining to news; administration, finance, human resources and marketing are areas better left to trained managers in the larger interests of these organizations. And journalists too can aspire to become managers, provided they equip themselves with the requisite qualifications and experience.
We wish to see our national news agencies as vibrant and successful models of management. Let the journalists provide the inputs and let the managers deliver the output.
(The author is a senior Delhi-based journalist and was Chief Political Correspondent with PTI)