Monday, 9 February 2015

The future of English journalism in India

What is needed to succeed in journalism is passion and commitment on a continuing basis,  especially when the going is tough. A fundamental principle to follow is to control costs while providing good, high quality content that fills a valuable community need.

By Abhay Vaidya
Editor, The Golden Sparrow on Saturday

In January 2014, Frederic Pages, a senior journalist from the iconic French newspaper Le Canard Enchaine addressed a gathering at the Patrakar Bhavan, Pune. The event was a rather unusual exposure for all present, be it journalism students, working journalists or the lay public. Le Canard Enchaine is a 90-year-old weekly newspaper published by a public trust in Paris. It is extremely popular with a circulation of about 3.5 lakh and week after week the French public looks forward to this newspaper. Investigative journalism, cartoons and biting satire are the forte of this publication.
Now here’s what’s most interesting about this paper: It has no advertisements. It does not accept a single Euro worth of advertisement as a policy because it does not wish to be influenced by advertisers and their interests of any kind. Inspite of this, this newspaper manages to run its operations smoothly, print week after week and pay its journalists well.

The newspaper has just eight pages, it is printed on cheap newsprint and to control costs, carries only black-and-white pictures. There is no heavy design and layout, no glossy supplements and high-quality four-colour printing and no half-naked, bikini-clad stars to boost circulation. It’s hard to believe in this day and age, but here’s a newspaper that is driven purely by the strength of its content. This newspaper, in a sense, has not been affected by change.

Which newspaper do you read? And why?
Let’s look at some other aspects of journalism today. When I began my career 27 years ago, and many years after that, one of my favourite questions to people I met was: “Which newspaper do you read?” I would get unexpected, thought-provoking replies. Like this reply from one professor who said that he subscribed to a small, English local daily from Pune (now defunct), and not a national daily, because “it gave ample space to municipal news such as ‘No water today’.”
This piece of news was important for his wife, he said, and therefore subscribed to that newspaper which had a staunchly loyal base of readers. Even in the 1980s, it had a circulation of 25,000 copies, which was quite commendable.
There is no mathematical formula, or a set of ingredients, that can guarantee the success of a newspaper. A restaurant can become popular on the basis of a few dishes that it masters. In the case of newspapers, it is still a mystery as to what precisely are these ingredients. However, replies, such as the one by the professor, would reinforce the point that there is an opportunity in local, community news. Let us return to this point later.

We don’t read newspapers
I interact closely with journalism students in the various journalism institutes of Pune and get to learn a lot from them about the new trends that are impacting journalism today. Internet is one of the biggest forces that is re-shaping the world of journalism. It is now very common to expect at least 80% of the class to say that they don’t get their news from newspapers. This is the young generation and they are all hooked on to smartphones. They get their entertaining news and gossip at the speed of light from social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter; from Internet news sites and from TV- which will soon become available on our mobile phones via 4G connectivity.

Many people today, including the young, don’t necessarily begin their day with a newspaper in hand as we and previous generations did. The Internet and its impact on journalism is something that we need to reflect upon.

Difficult times
Let’s now look at the example of a major Mumbai-based media house which launched an English-language newspaper in Pune in 2008 and closed publication after seven years, in 2014. Why did this edition fail? Were the costs of production so overwhelming and the advertising revenue so unsatisfactory that the Pune edition became commercially unviable?

This is indeed one of the grim realities of the business. In the stiff competition for advertising revenues, newspapers in India have not hesitated to embrace unethical and professionally reprehensible practices like ‘paid news’. Even this tainted revenue has been inadequate to ensure the survival of newspapers. What is most unfortunate is that even publications which are in a leadership role and flush with advertising and circulation revenues, have been unabashedly indulging in ‘paid news’.
There is absolutely no doubt that these are challenging times for Indian journalism, full of new directions and new opportunities. Here are some thoughts to ponder on:  

Will new newspapers survive in the market?
In the last 10 years, just two new broadsheet English dailies entered the Mumbai market, one of which is struggling and the other is doing a little better because of strong support from a sister edition in Delhi. Around the same time, an English tabloid was launched strategically by a leading media group which, because of support from its parent group, stood insulated from many of the challenges of new newspapers. As noted earlier, the Pune edition of a Mumbai newspaper ceased publication after seven years because of acute revenue pressures.

Readers today have a variety of options to get their news from; they also have a variety of distractions in the form of social media which is interactive. There is no pressing reason for them to pick up and read newspapers, some of which begin with four full pages of advertisements, putting off many readers and making them angry in the process.

Producing a newspaper is an expensive proposition today when one considers the cost of newsprint and printing; the cost of distribution, advertising and marketing, the long gestation period and the cost of personnel and staff salaries. Reader preferences are very difficult to change unless something very different and original is put on the table. Because of these factors, one does not find new newspapers entering the market.

Changes driven by Internet, technology
In sharp contrast to print publications, a dozen or more Internet-driven news portals have made an impact in the last 10 years. is a leading example, on the lines of the immensely successful Huffington Post, which became very popular. There was before that and the latest news site to be noticed is There are many more, each with their distinctive appeal. In Pune itself, we have a popular Internet and SMS-based news site called which received an award for the creative use of the Internet.
The advantages of the Internet are low cost of production, massive reach across the world, immediacy of news delivery and special appeal to the Indian diaspora. This is clearly one of the strongest trends of the future.

Internet will give reach, but will it give revenues?
This is a matter of challenge and there is hope that revenues will start coming in once a publication is able to reach an adequate number of people, establish a niche identity, consistency and credibility. For example, we know of a number of service-related websites, such as a property-related portal, which is generating revenue from additional consultancy services because it is found reliable and credible. Promoters of Internet-based news operations will have to think of creative ways to generate revenues and be sustainable.

How about strong community content along with a print + Internet version?
New publications will need new approaches to win readership, and thereby advertising revenue. New publications can score by focusing heavily on local content and community issues- area which cannot be covered adequately by the big papers. How about combining a limited print edition along with an Internet edition? A number of small, community newspapers in the United States have been able to break big, national stories and win the Pulitzer prize for excellence in journalism on the strength of their local, community coverage. This is a very viable model to follow for Indian journalism.

New publications must control costs while giving high quality content
High, unsustainable costs are the primary reason for the failure of most new publications. Just as journalism students should not aspire to become star anchors and journalism celebrities overnight, promoters of new publications should not dream of becoming news barons overnight. Whether you are a journalism student, a promoter or an established journalist, what is needed to succeed is passion and commitment on a continuing basis- especially when the going is tough. A fundamental principle to follow is to control costs while providing good, high quality content that fills a valuable community need.

‘Positive news’ has a future
Early this year, the writer-philosopher Alain de Botton published his book The News: A User’s Manual in which he questioned the state of journalism today. In his view, the media around the world continues to focus on negativity and sensationalism. Everything that is sensational and negative is prime time news for the media. Instead of this, says Botton, the media as a powerful and highly influential vehicle of mass communication should play a role in helping shape the future that we desire. This is possible if the media gives up its focus on negativity and instead highlights what is positive, extraordinary, inspiring and insightful.

This is not to say that the media should not perform its role as a watchdog on the government and as a mirror to society; but at the same time, shouldn't the media promote the values of kindness, tolerance, harmony and cooperation among the people? Shouldn’t the media be constructive instead of destructive? There is an opportunity waiting to be tapped in the pursuit of positive news.

Draw strength from the fundamentals
Journalism is one of the essential pillars of democracy because it is on behalf of the people of the country that journalists question the government, expose irregularities, applaud positive developments, report on successes, failures, achievements and tragedies and in general, hold a mirror to society. Such is the importance of the freedom of the press that the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has observed that famines do not occur in countries with a free press.
More than two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, observed that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers” and “newspapers without a government”,  he would have no hesitation in choosing the latter. In 1791, this spirit found an echo in the American Constitution in which the very first amendment states  unambiguously that  no law shall be made abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.
Eminent jurists from across the world have spoken eloquently on the significance of press freedom. As one judge observed, “A free press stands as one of the great interpreters between the government and the people. To allow it to be fettered is to fetter ourselves.”
 For a robust and flourishing mass media environment, it is important to have as many outlets for the dissemination of news rather than a few monopolistic behemoths. Because then, suppressing news from the people becomes as much difficult even if some news organisations decide that that is what they want to do.

The path ahead
Journalism needs to be practised while keeping in mind these fundamentals and cardinal principles. The principles of journalism won’t change even if the medium and the technology undergo a change. News operations can survive in a changing environment provided they adapt well to changing technology, control cost of operations and win the trust of their readers.
Journalists should necessarily be paid well; but under no circumstances should they demand and command corporate salaries- paid to executives of companies who manufacture soaps, chocolates and cigarettes.
Journalism is a social cause and this ought to be at the heart of a journalistic operation.

 A publication- be it in print or the Internet needs to be mass-circulated because its survival depends on a healthy circulation. However, maximising profits ought not to be the single most-important goal for a publication – as this would then lead to many compromises with the ethics and values of journalism- as can be seen around us today.
There will always be a future for a publication which follows sound practices and wins the trust of its readers.

(Abhay Vaidya has worked from Pune, Delhi and Washington previously for The Indian Post, The Times of India, Asia Pacific Communication Associates and DNA. He is currently editor, The Golden Sparrow on Saturday, a weekly newspaper from Pune.
This paper was written for the Pune Union of Working Journalists’ (PUWJ) 75th anniversary souvenir.)

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