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So, what's news?

June 17, 2014 14:21 IST

Some 800 million or more Indians gaze at their mobile phones all day. Whoever can crack what’s news on the mobile phone for them and their families, for a nominal payment of Rs 10 a month, is a winner, says Ajit Balakrishnan.

At no time in recent history have journalists and journalism been as much of a threatened species as they are today. This is true irrespective of whether they work for a daily newspaper or a magazine, a news radio station or a news TV channel, or even a news website -- in New York, London, Paris, Mumbai or Delhi.

Among private equity and venture capital investors, news businesses are nowadays referred to as "vanity businesses" -- something that men who have made their money in some other business buy for social prestige or to have the ears of powerful politicians.

But all this must sadden those of us who look to the media to be that institution of society that "the people" depend on to safeguard their interests against the transgressions of society's powerful actors such as politicians, bureaucrats and businesspersons or even sports stars.

This must also sadden young entrants into journalism, who are drawn to the idealism that the young protagonist of Orson Welles’s classic film Citizen Kane portrayed: to pursue a news story doggedly till the truth is finally revealed.

But today's questions are: what are these truths, and to whose benefit will the revelation of these truths be?

And, most importantly, why does the sincere pursuit of such truths not make the news organisation financially successful?

It was Joseph Pulitzer, an Austrian Jewish immigrant newspaper owner, remembered now through the Pulitzer prizes, who invented the business model that practically all newspapers in the world follow to this day. He arrived in America at the age of 17 in 1864, got his first job as a soldier in the Civil War, moved to being a reporter and then an editor and publisher and, finally, a newspaper owner.

In 1883, Pulitzer bought the ailing New York World in New York, dropped its price to a penny (one cent) a copy when his competitors were pricing their newspapers at six cents and, to make up for this loss, initiated the practice of selling advertising space at prices fixed in relation to actual circulation: thus the newspaper business model was born, in which circulation was the driver of profitability.

Pulitzer's model worked wonderfully till the audience started wandering away to other devices for news consumption such as the TV, the personal computer and the mobile phone.

Indian journalism may be hobbled by an additional factor: Indian journalists imagine themselves to be the audience and produce content that they think they and their families would like, according to Somnath Batabyal of the Centre for Media and Film Studies at the University of London and a former journalist, in his recent book, Making News in India, an ethnographic account of Indian TV news practices.

This worked as long as advertisers were also seeking the same audience, the so-called SEC A (socio-economic class A), which was made up of families whose chief wage earner had a college degree and worked as a junior, middle or senior officer or executive, or as a self-employed professional or business owner.

Unfortunately, if there is one group that has fallen behind economically and socially in the post-liberalisation period, it is this group, whose members are largely in occupations with fixed incomes. Skyrocketing real estate prices in city centres (which is where SEC A-type jobs are mostly available) have made housing unaffordable for them; prohibitively expensive private medical care darkens their retirement; and hyper-competition makes higher education institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management a long shot for their children.

India's news media -- print and TV -- particularly the English-language versions of it, has tried its best to reflect the anxieties of the SEC A group, hoping that this will resonate. It worked up until the end of the 1990s, when the newly liberated Indian industry was satisfied with the minuscule audience that the SEC A group provided (according to How India Earns, Spends and Saves, a book by the National Council of Applied Economic Research, less than a sixth of Indian households are headed by a college graduate).

However, today's advertisers -- financial services, consumer durables or automobile companies -- need to go far beyond the SEC A audience if they are to meet their sales goals. Therefore, they bypass news organisations that still stay focused on the SEC A group, whether in print or TV or even the internet.

But wait, look: a new dawn is breaking and, in the early morning light, a new world is starting to be revealed, one in which 800 million or more Indians gaze at their mobile phones all day. This "audience" barely has a school education and the head of the household is more often than not employed as an unskilled or skilled worker, or is in a sales or clerical position in a small shop, or is a small-scale trader in the unorganised sector of the economy.

Whoever decodes what's news for them and their children and convinces them that it is value for their money to pay, say, Rs 10 a month for it on their mobile phones could be the next winner in news.

Image: A newspaper rolling out of the printing press. Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters.

Ajit Balakrishnan, founder and CEO of rediff.com, is the author of The Wave Rider: A Chronicle of the Information Age.

Ajit Balakrishnan
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