Will digital journalism survive?


Old school journalism which concentrated on more of reportage and less of opinion is ceding ground to opinion centric journalism. Whether it is DailyO, Huffington Post India or The Wire, such websites are mostly feeding on opinion. (Image: Simon Fraser University)

Shortly after the arrival of the second decade of the 21st century, Indian newspapers and news channels started taking note of what was being said on the web by publishing small snippets from Twitter and Facebook. But the past twelve months have witnessed a gradual increase in the overall acceptance of digital journalism by some of the leading players in mainstream media.

The Times Group has consistently dominated both the print and television sphere in India through its newspaper Times of India, the world’s largest circulated English daily, and Times Now, a news channel best known for its weekday debate show ‘The Newshour’ anchored by the fiery Arnab Goswami. Towards the end of 2014, Times Group forayed into the online space by joining hands with Arianna Huffington and thus launching Huffington Post India. The website is an interesting mix of news reports and daily blogs written by people from varied walks of life including politicians, entrepreneurs, journalists, writers and students.

The Times Group is not the only mainstream media house which has acknowledged the necessity of digital visibility. DailyO, an opinion website run by India Today Group, a media house with stakes across print and television with its flagship product in the form of the weekly India Today magazine, is another interesting example. Following his exit from Network 18, media mogul Raghav Bahl (often referred to as India’s Rupert Murdoch) started a website called The Quint which was billed as “media for mobile consumption.”

Two more names have joined the league of digital journalism ie The Wire and Catch News. The Wire is edited by Siddharth Vardarajan and Sidharth Bhatia, the former having served as the first “professional” editor of The Hindu having been appointed from outside of the first family that controls the newspaper which began publishing in 1878. Catch News, a Rajasthan Patrika Group initiative is led by Shoma Chaudhury who was formerly associated with Tarun Tejpal’s Tehelka.

Add to that list the names of Madhu Trehan, Seema Mustafa and Chitra Subramaniam. Madhu Trehan, one of the co-founders of India Today magazine runs Newslaundry, a media watch website while Seema Mustafa and Chitra Subramaniam edit The Citizen and The News Minute, respectively. Also it would be a sin to not mention the digital daily Scroll.in and Firstpost, a news website which was acquired by the Network 18 group, a media conglomerate owned by India’s richest man Mukhesh Ambani!

The involvement of such a large number of senior editors, journalists and big media houses in digitally driven initiatives hints at the mainstreaming of online news. It is a phenomenon which can no longer be dismissed as a platform for youth websites and campus media or left to the mercy of part time individual bloggers. Secondly, old school journalism which concentrated on more of reportage and less of opinion is ceding ground to opinion centric journalism. Whether it is DailyO, Huffington Post India or The Wire, such websites are mostly feeding on opinion.

The reader is looking for and reading more of opinion and the trend doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. In fact this is the reason why Raghav Bahl has been arguing since quite some time now that journalists can no longer afford to be generalists who are tasked with covering different beats. They have to develop an area of expertise so as to present an informed opinion which the online reader is diligently scouting for every time he logs on the web.

Another very interesting development is that the reader is no longer interested in being merely a reader. He wants to contribute and be a part of the narrative. Earlier readers had the option of writing letters to the editor which would be no longer than 100 words (150 if you’re lucky!) and it would find space on the edit page of a newspaper. But now readers are in a position to contribute full-fledged opinion pieces to websites. What is ironical is that while readers’ opinion is being given primacy on the web (HuffPost blog crowdsources it content), many of the leading domestic newspapers like Times of India and Hindustan Times hardly publish letters to the editor anymore!

This dichotomy is mainly because the online medium does not suffer from shortage of space as the print medium does. Secondly, the print space was effectively monopolized by experts ie academics, bureaucrats, ministers and journalists. The edit pages only showcased expert opinion. But the online space values diversity as it has given a platform to the most ordinary people to write and publish their views.

However, this has also created a problem. Too much of opinion has resulted into an information overload on the web and more dangerously, lack of informed opinion or rather pure misinformation in some of the cases. This is not to say that print medium hasn’t had its fair share of biased opinion writers but the checks and balances in the case of organized newspapers ensured that factual inaccuracies were taken care of and the views published were representative of different sides. This appears to be lacking in the case of online medium as many portals are often ideologically motivated and crowdsourcing from a particular pool of contributors which effectively increase chances of ideological indoctrination at the cost of facts.

Despite its excesses, there is no denying of the fact that digital journalism is thriving but the question is: will it survive? The average internet user in India likes to read content free of cost. Subjecting him to a paywall might be cruel idea and could end up lowering the prospects of rapidly growing industry. This leaves online journalism with the option of raising revenues through advertisements. The bulk of advertisements are definitely being controlled by news channels and newspapers but they could move towards the online space with increasing internet penetration and virtual invasion by both newspapers and news channels.

What remains to be seen is what will be the impact of the infusion of corporate money into digital media. Will it remain the same or will it succumb to the whims and fancies of advertisers which will invariably affect the nature and diversity of opinion coming out from it? We’ll have to wait and watch.


(This article was originally published in The Citizen.)

Last evening proved media cares more about IPL than people dying


Geographical reach of news channels has to be expanded so that tragedies like the Andhra Pradesh stampede don’t go under-reported. (Image: The New Indian Express)

It’s nine PM! Just a few hours ago 27 people including four children and eleven women died following a stampede on the banks of the river Godavari during the first day of a religious festival in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh. News reports also suggested that more than 60 sustained serious injuries.

Significantly the same day saw the three-member Supreme Court appointed committee deliver the much awaited IPL verdict. The committee headed by former Chief Justice of India RM Lodha not only banned Chennai Super King’s Gurunath Meiyappan and Rajasthan Royal’s Raj Kundra for life because of their involvement in betting but it also banned their respective franchises Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals for two years from participating in the cash rich Indian Premier League.

The five English language news channels are gearing up for the all important nine O’clock show. Arnab Goswami’s The Newshour is slated to hold two debates. The first one is centred around the #IPLCleanUp whereas the second debate is on the struggle ensuing between Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav and IPS Amitabh Thakur. The relatively quieter Barkha Dutt is holding debates on the same two subjects on NDTV 24*7‘s The Buck Stops Here.

Nation At 9 on News X anchored by Athar Khan is also debating IPL with the hashtag #SaveOurCricket. Returning from a break after 45 minutes into the programme News Today At 9 which obviously debated the #IPLVerdict earlier, India Today‘s Consulting Editor Rajdeep Sardesai proclaims that “there is another big story” referring to the Andhra Pradesh stampede and terms it a “tragedy”. This is followed by a short news package on the same which eventually makes way for speed news.

CNN IBN‘s India At 9 presented by Palki Upadhyay followed the herd by debating IPL and devoting a short news package towards the end to the Andhra Pradesh stampede in which they ran bytes of Andhra Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu and Congress leader Chiranjeevi.

This was the news agenda of the five English language news channels. They were unanimous in their assessment of the #IPLVerdict as the biggest news story of the day. Channel after channel debated IPL during prime time and the stampede in Rajahmundry sadly became just “another big story”.

As media students we are often told how to determine the news worthiness of a particular news item. One of the determinants could be the number of people that the story affects. Hence, it was important for news channels to hold discussions in order to dissect the stampede in Andhra Pradesh. What caused the stampede? What precautions were in place? What do the victims have to say? How did the government respond? But these questions were surely left unanswered as the story was relegated to headlines and passing news packages.

Why did a tragedy of such a large scale lose out to the #IPLVerdict in terms of news value? The answer lies in the 3Cs ie Cricket, Cinema and Crime. IPL is an amalgamation of the 3Cs as also the “P” of politics. Together they trumped the other “C” which is the common man. Such lopsided news coverage seems to corroborate the words of former Press Council of India Chairman Justice Markandey Katju who argued that the Indian media was predominantly occupied with superficialities like Bollywood and Cricket.

Another important constituent of news worthiness is proximity. That’s where Andhra Pradesh clearly lost out. A stampede which occurs far away from Delhi or rather Sector 16 in Noida Film City where a large chunk of the domestic media stands is likely to be given a miss. The easiest way of running a news channel is to make it discussion-centric instead of revolving around reportage. Ground reports require extensive budgeting and hiring of media professionals to collate news from around the country and the globe. Indian channels clearly lack in terms of reportage coming in from the north eastern states or even a non-Hindi speaking state like Andhra Pradesh as they don’t have reporters at such places.

The reception to the Andhra Pradesh stampede would have been different had it happened in and around Delhi or if the loss of lives was a result of an act of terror. The chest thumping, ultra-nationalist elements within the media would have taken up the issue in a big way debating cross border terrorism on prime time. But it wasn’t a terror attack and thus, not much coverage.

Those who feel that the rot is limited to the electronic media need to think again. The front page of Hindustan Times (Lucknow edition) doesn’t even make a mention of the Andhra Pradesh stampede. They have rather decided to go with the #IPLVerdict, Prime minister Modi’s Ufa diplomacy and US-Iran nuclear deal. The front page of Times of India (Lucknow edition) has devoted a three-column news report to the stampede near the bottom of the page beneath IPL, nuclear deal, AAP’s plea for funds and Indo-Pak ties.

It’s high time for the domestic media to overcome hysteria. Stories revolving around the rich and the powerful are important. Court judgements and pronouncements ought to be covered. Foreign policy is news worthy and so is terrorism. But the people are most important. News has to be representative and not merely Delhi-centric. News channels and newspapers should invest more in reporting and increasing the headcount of reporting in areas like Rajahmundry where television cameras don’t reach that often. Geographical reach of news channels has to be expanded so that tragedies like the one in Rajahmundry don’t go under-reported.


(This article was originally published in DailyO.)