‘Community’ and ‘engagement’ are not enough to save the legacy print media
At the recent INMA South Asia conference in New Delhi, a number of issues were skirted, mentioned peripherally or in passing without the substantial discussion that perhaps has to take place within news organizations themselves or ‘offline.’ However, this discussion is in danger of not happening because the legacy print media has had an easy run, particularly for the last 40 years, and suffers from various ailments, of which a general description could be that of entitlement.
Legacy media has uniquely benefitted from a combination of three things: a burgeoning democracy and economy in a complex demographic; the pampering and support of the state as a ‘pillar’ of democracy; and, lastly, from technology—the web offset presses produced by the country’s own entrepreneurs and the advent of personal computers and PostScript software that truly democratized the publishing of vernacular dailies in the 1970s and 1980s.
Now one of the most vibrant news media industries is in danger of stagnation because of the changing dynamic of the same three pillars that have built it—a burgeoning democracy and economy; a government obsessed with growth over social development and which is a master of both post truth and new media; and, lastly, another new technology—digital video and cellphones—that have made reach less relevant for both readers and advertisers than personalization and precision.
What are the discussions that are being avoided?
The most important discussion is the threat to news products that are constantly searching for numbers by diluting their perspective or point of view. As Arnab Goswami threw in the face of the assembled and largely silent legacy media at the INMA South Asia conference recently, the reader is looking for a perspective, a point of view and help in distinguishing right from wrong. Goswami also said without irony that facts are sacred. Who can deny that this combination of facts, truth-seeking and considered opinion presents the greatest opportunity for the renewal of legacy newspapers in a chaotic and diverse society? Not to even mention a dollop of rationalism and science.
On the other hand, one must admit that Earl Wilkinson’s concluding presentation at INMA had many relevant ideas that the legacy media will have difficulty in parsing and digesting. Although advocating many technology solutions, he mentioned that good journalism is difficult and costly. He pointed to the Trump bump benefitting several publications including The New York Times that added 276,000 digital subscriptions in just three post-Trump months—a number higher than the subscriptions it got in all of 2015. As an indication of The New York Time’s desire to be taken seriously in a post-truth environment, he pointed to its strategy to withstand even zero print advertising revenue in the future by relying more on reader revenue, including digital subscriptions. While digital subscriptions are moving from simple to complex, he said that readers don’t pay for articles; they pay for great access to brands they like.
Can there be a Modi bump for Indian newspapers?
It is not clear if there can be a Modi bump for Indian legacy print media and even news channels as they are mostly politically docile and overly dependent on government advertising and patronage apart from being in the slow lane for change. The new environment pits legacy news media not just against digital but also in competition with platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
It really seems likely that many legacy media will miss the opportunity. Already there are signs that although we are in a massively disruptive and transformational period of communication change, we are more dazzled by social media and new technologies than in the necessity and power of traditional and professional journalism.
There are of course positive signs from some newspapers, television news anchors and in digital news websites that retain their objectivity and understand that freedom of expression and freedom itself are not a given—even with a largely benign and democratic constitution. There is so much left to be done and independence is something worth fighting for again and again.