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.)