Will journalism survive digital disruption?

A conversation with Sukumar Muralidharan

Sukumar Muralidharan, associate professor of journalism practice and associate dean (research) at the Jindal School of Journalism and Communication
Sukumar Muralidharan, associate professor of journalism practice and associate dean (research) at the Jindal School of Journalism and Communication

Sukumar Muralidharan, a veteran of the print media industry, left The Hindu in 2004. Currently an associate professor of journalism practice and associate dean (research) at the Jindal School of Journalism and Communication, he shares his insights with Indian Printer and Publisher’s correspondent Akanksha Meena on the changing role of journalists and what is in store for them today.

In times when a newspaper enjoyed the golden role of painting the real picture of society and being its integral part, journalism was among the most prestigious career paths. However, the rapid change in the way we communicate with each other – in a fraction of seconds – has disrupted the news business to the extent that newspapers today are barely making ends meet. Once the only source of authentic news, newspapers have now been dethroned by social media. With Facebook and Google wolfing down ad revenues and leaving only scraps for the news industry, is there any future for journalists?

Akanksha Meena – How is the life of a journalist different today in comparison to the past?

Sukumar Muralidharan – The underlying technology is changing continuously and in ways that cannot be predicted. News priorities, too, are changing. There used to be at one time an easily identified audience for journalism, with known interests and preferences. Today, there are multiple audiences with different demands. News gathering and reporting at one time used to be a regularized and almost routinized affair. A recognized number of newsmakers had to be tracked through the day, or a week, or whatever the reporting period was. The newsmakers had their own settled routine of news dissemination, involving processes such as press conferences, releases, and one-to-one interviews. Both the priorities and methods have changed in recent times. There are few journalists today who rely on press conferences or in-depth meetings or interviews to report on the news. Changes have occurred very rapidly, between the arrival of TV, to the 24-hour news channels, to the internet. And then the advent of social media has brought what seems to be the decisive change.

AM – What, according to you, is the current situation of journalists in light of the declining newspaper industry?

SM – The newspaper industry is the cradle of the profession called journalism. We tend to forget that journalism began not as a profession, but as an advocacy activity, involving the contest between different constructs of citizenship rights in a nation. Industrialization, urbanization and the emergence of a middle class claiming nationalistic legitimacy made it possible for the media to become an industry. As media became an industry, it created the possibility of journalism as a profession, while also enjoining on professionals a commitment to basic ethical norms.

The change was induced by TV news that appeared with its multiple news updates throughout the day. Television news media still involved a reasonable lag between news gathering, understanding it and reporting it. The 24-hour news channel signaled a more substantial change since newsmakers – as understood by older journalistic practices – could speak directly to audiences to convey what they thought should be at the top of the news agenda.

News gathering and dissemination became a real-time activity. This change eliminated the role of the journalist as a witness to the news as it develops. The sole function s/he was left with was as an interpreter of news. S/he had to function under the handicap that much of the interpretative function would already be pre-empted at the moment of reporting since there never was a process of reporting ‘news’ without imparting a particular inflection to it.

And then came the internet, which provided possibilities of communication – one-to-one through eMail, one-to-many through the home pages of recognized political, social and corporate actors, one-to-several through eMail groups, and many-to-many through social media.

Journalism survived these transformations while the profession remained privileged with internet access that others could not gain. It will probably not survive the last-named change when internet access has become broad and generalized, and the privileges of the journalist in being gatekeepers into the news universe are seriously undermined.

AM – What does the life of a journalist, who no longer works in a newsroom, look like now?

SM — Most are trying to leverage their first-hand experience of various kinds of events of the recent past and current times, creating a new niche – either as instructors and trainers, think-tank specialists, or commentators in the rapidly changing news universe. A few who have stayed abreast of the rapidly evolving philosophy of media organizations have risen to corporate management roles.

AM – What are the future career prospects in journalism?

SM – Uncertain. After losing their claim to a unique professional status, I would say that journalists are looking for a new role. At one time, they were arbiters of how the news universe should be constituted. Now they are an embattled participant in the social media universe, often subject to vile abuse and threats when they seek to set right common misperceptions about developing events.

Several, like the prime-time TV anchors who preside over shout-matches between competing political camps, have chosen to be servitors of power. There is a serious risk that these toadies will define the future identity of the profession. That is sure to spell the death of journalism as a profession with social respect or relevance.

AM – What is the purpose and relevance of journalism schools and courses today, given the lack of jobs and motivation to work in journalism?

SM – Many among the new journalism schools are captive establishments of media houses, which have been using them to recruit talent into their organizations. Journalism training at one time used to be imparted within media houses after an employee was recruited as a trainee or probationer. Media houses incurred a cost (though modest) in the training process. Now they regard training as a revenue source.

Captive journalism schools are also a means through which media houses seek to induct personnel who are more attuned to their evolving revenue calculations and relatively innocent of older practices of the trade.

Students graduating from these journalism schools have reasonable assurance of gaining employment since media houses are eager to substitute young blood for old. How relevant the skills they acquire in journalism school will remain, though, is another question.

More than ever before, journalism needs skills that are both wide and deep, to stay relevant. Unfortunately, this compelling need is at variance with the commercial calculations of media houses, which have not yet found a way of graduating out of the older advertisement-driven model into one assuring information of such quality that subscribers would not hesitate to pay for.

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