The INMA South Asia Conference that took place on the afternoons and evenings of 12 and 13 August was, in the most part, beneficial. It presented some excellent expert presentations together with mostly solid panels of Indian news media talkers and doers. Earl Wilkinsons opening round-up recited the pandemic era accomplishments of an organization that has had to reinvent itself to remain relevant and has done that remarkably well.
From his recitation, you get a feeling of the tremendous energy expended by INMA to continue discussing most of the relevant, transformative issues of an industry besieged by long-term decline and the need for reinvention. It is not easy to do this globally for an industry whose very raison d’etre is the real-time tension of local geography, politics, and social issues. Nevertheless, Wilkinson is always concerned by the industry’s economic survival or adaptability, and INMA’s work on monetizing digital and digital subscriptions in the pandemic has likely helped its varied and far-flung members.
We hope to write more in detail about the event in the coming days, but I would only like to comment on some of the sessions briefly. The review session by Robert Whitehead of INMA on the news media’s fight for compensation for content from Google was excellent, highlighting the cases in process worldwide and the strategies adopted. The Australian settlement, more or less forced by the Australian government, used the method of imposing a forced time-bound agreement to terms and has been the most lucrative so far for that country’s media. Significantly, Google has been trying to sell its Google Showcase around the world to get as many media brands in each country to agree to terms. This campaign can easily be seen as a way of pleading that there is no need for government intervention which, as in Australia, could wind up being more costly for the tech giant.
Artificial intelligence is created by humans too
The session by Rishad Tobaccowala was also outstanding. It suggested that we need to be people-centric, have some self-belief and creativity in our products – that human intelligence will generally, if not always, trump artificial intelligence. Saying that artificial intelligence mainly relies on historical data, he asserted that an individual or organization could decode and deconstruct technology sufficiently to empower herself or itself.
The people-centric and demystified data science technology theme was echoed over the two afternoons by some expert and Indian news media panels. Ritu Kapur said that there had been an attrition of young resources cultivated and nurtured by The Quint in the pandemic. Still, she has discovered that the more ordinary folk can do extraordinary work. Expensive and unaffordable software licenses have lapsed and been replaced by more straightforward and cheaper options. She expressed concern about the emotional anguish of the pandemic and the well-being of our resources as we endure and emerge from the pandemic.
The human learnings and the concern for journalists’ well-being were echoed and reinforced by other senior new media leadership panelists. Another excellent panel shared the experience of The Hindu group and the Indian Express group in building their subscription models.
In the tech discussions that touched on the privacy laws in Europe, there was no formal discussion of the recent Pegasus hacks against journalists, citizens, and others. However, when questioned by one of the several hundred (perhaps as many as 800) participants, the expert speaker on the Google negotiations suggested it may be a valid topic – ’a good question.’
The praised by its member speakers, INMA somewhat ingenuously says it is not a lobbying organization (particularly about the Google compensation discussions). However, it should have the courage to discuss journalist’s and citizens’ privacy and protection of sources.
Another takeaway from the INMA South Asia conference was the optimism of several news media owners or senior management that circulations and advertising would return to pre-Covid pandemic levels. However, one only hopes that this optimism does not blind them to the need for qualitative improvement and content differentiation that could drive digital revenues.
In this context, the strategic understanding of the technical speaker from The Hindu who has led its digital subscription efforts was remarkable. He said something like, “Even if we (The Hindu) can monetize just 2% to 5% of the millions of visitors to our website, we will be in a good place.”