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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The 'News' Business

I am unable to make up my mind on this issue. Whether ‘news’ is a product which is to be ‘sold’ by news sites or news channels or news papers etc or not?

Actually to my mind there are three ways to classify the ‘news’ business

Firstly you could classify ‘news’ is just a product like any other and the medium disseminating is concerned with making a profit. This is view with which I would like to be most comfortable with, but I am least comfortable with at present

Secondly you could classify 'news' business as a business of reporting facts and nothing but the fact - what is the difference between this option and the first one may ask - but there is which I shall elaborate later on

Thirdly, ‘news’ is a business of reporting/disseminating one's opinion on events that happen. Although I would like to be least comfortable with this view, it appears that this is the best we can get.

Let me consider each option one by one now and explore it in detail:

‘News’ as a product
If ‘news’ were a product just like any other, then it should be sold just like any other. And the basic rule of marketing is to sell what the customer wants – and customise the product as much as possible so that what you are selling is as close to what the customer wants to get (in this case – read & hear). Now what does that mean? Something like a CNN/BBC having multiple editions of their channels – one for their domestic audiences, one for middle-east region, one for Asia etc. And what about the content on these channels – customisation of the content implies not just more stories from that region/segment – but surely at some stage it implies broadcasting what the people their want to hear.

We already get customisation based on tastes, age, needs etc. So some 'news' is targeted at youth, some at businessmen, some at investors, some at housewives etc. What is to prevent the customisation to go to the next level and take editorial angle. Today that might be regarded as taboo, but in future it might not me. Further what is to say that some of that does not actually happen today? For what you need is not a diametrically opposite statements on different platforms – but slight nuancing of the messaging. I am convinced that some of it actually happens. Let me illustrate:

Imagine a ‘news’ organisation has two media outlets (be it news papers or news channels or websites or a mix of them) - one catering to investors (business) and other catering to 'desi' type of audience. The government does not cut food subsidies in the budget - in the business channel the focus is going to be how bad this is bad for the country and how the subsidies are increasing fiscal deficit etc. There will be ‘so called’ experts explaining why this is a bad move and how the country is paying a high price for ’mis-targeted subsidies’.
On your desi channel, the focus is going to be how government spared lower class consumers of price increases and how this is good news for the poor etc. You will have so called experts arguing why this was the right thing to do etc.

Think this does not happen? – just observe a business daily cover page and a normal vernacular daily cover page (from the same publication house) on the day after government raises kerosene or diesel or LGP prices. One would say 'govt finally bites the bullet' other would say 'kerosene becomes costly, lower sections to get hurt'. Isn't this a case of customising news based on what your readers want to read. The middle or lower class people do not want to read why raising these prices is a good/necessary thing nor are the business class readers interested in knowing how hardly this is potentially likely to hurt the lower sections of the society and hence why this could actually be a not such a good move after all.

Another off-shoot of this customisation business is creating the perception of being ‘fair’ or being ‘objective’ is creating of debates. So for any given topic you will inevitably have two people each of who surprisingly seems to have diametrically opposite views who will come to studios (or write columns) and speak for a minute for or against the topic and we get 'both sides' of the story. What the media creates is an 'illusion of debate'. This is their way of ensuring objectivity or fairness.

Well, if this is happening, why do I think this is wrong or why am I unhappy with this. The problem I have with this, is that this is happening without it being acknowledged as such. I would have no problems with it if 'news media' were to do this but openly acknowledge that this is what they do - after all they are in the business of making money and they make money by selling 'news' and they tend to make most money when they sell what people want. It’s simple business logic.

Another problem with this way of looking at media is that then we accord far more importance to media than it ought to be. Any given reporting from the media should not be taken at face value but rather discounted as that report is probably what I wanted to hear - and so not necessarily the truth (assuming there's something called as truth in the first place - which itself is debatable).

Do I think this is how ‘news’ business should run – inevitably yes and do I think this is how news business is being run – its getting there, and do I think this is what people think of the way in which the news business is being run – absolutely NO.

‘News’ as a business of reporting facts
This is the more romantic version of the way we like to think news business is being run. Most of us like to think of ‘news’ business as a business of reporting facts – hard facts – straight into your face kind of reporting. But does I argue above, this is far from the truth. A lot of this has to do with the basic objective of a news organisation - which is to make profits (and nothing wrong with it - that's the measure we have adopted for deciding most things). So a news organisation wants to produce content which people will be ready to pay for and maximise the sum product of viewers x price.

Now, if you are publishing a single story globally – suppose (assume for the argument sake) that invading Iraq was the right thing – you tell this in middle east, no one is going to switch on your channel or read your news paper – but if you say one thing in middle east and other thing in US, you increase your profitability.

The other bigger problem with the notion of ‘news’ business as one of reporting facts is that its very rare that fact's can be reported in isolation. US invading Iraq is a fact - but that cannot be a news story. You need to tell the 'why, when, where, who and how' of facts and that's where the boundaries between facts and opinions get blurred. What is security for one is freedom for another, what is dictator for one is religion for another etc. there is hardly any middle line. How do you report what is happening in Kashmir and appeal or both sides of the borders – it’s incredibly difficult if not impossible.

Another problem with ‘news’ as a business of reporting facts is that news business is today in midst of sensationalism. Today’s all about creating sensation – its all about exposé’s. And what comes finally is fact all right – but fact that is distorted and blown out of proportion.

In a country like India, there are more than 365 rapes that take place every year. Now the media starts reporting every single rape that happens - so there's a rape story every day in the press and then we get debates on things crimes against women are increasing and blah blah blah... A person gets murdered on a highway - he happens to be from the IT industry, and news gets made and IT industry is on the spotlight - what the hell, people get murdered everyday in this country and given that a large number of people work in IT industry and they generally earn above average salaries - they are likely targets, what's the fuss?

A reporter goes to a minister and puts cash on his table and says its just a token – you don’t have to do anything – the minister accepts it (even I would, someone’s giving me free cash!) and the story then gets made – minister gets caught red handed accepting cash – he sure did, but that does not mean that he’s done any favours or he has promised to.

All these are examples of factual reporting – but of facts which are either blown out of proportion or facts which have been artificially created.

‘News’ as a business of reporting opinions
This is the ideal case and this is what I would want every media organisation to do – simply state its opinion and not bother about making lofty claims of reporting facts. And overseas this is actually what some newspapers do overseas – some newspapers openly back parties in elections etc. But most media is a mix of reporting facts and opinions. Reporting on government policies for example one has to specifically state whether it is good for the country or bad - so what the paper is reporting is its opinion. But that opinion has to go into the editorial pages - but it often slips into the cover pages.

But the bigger problem is that the opinion of the editor may not be what the reader would want to read (simply because he does not agree with it). What happens then? What happens when the marketing department and the editorial department clash? Should the opinions be modified to suit the reader's tastes or should the editor be changed or should the opinions of the editor stay as it is in the hope that in the long run, people will appreciate the quality of reporting? I am afraid what happens in India is the former.

And this is what makes me uncomfortable with this opinion way of looking at news. In this day and age of commercialism, it is very difficult for a news organisation to take a idealistic stance and report what it thinks is the right thing (when its own opinion is just an opinion and as likely to be incorrect). The marketing department would inevitably take over slowly but surely and the paper would get transformed into option 1 – customisation and segmentation – selling what the reader wants.

So in final analysis, what we are likely to get is a media business which reports/states what the reader wants to read/hear. So as a reader we ought to give considerably less importance to media than we do currently but this is unlikely to happen until people realise the true nature of this business. This business is not about reporting facts - its about reporting stories which most people want to read/hear (stories which appeal to the masses!)

That’s it for now…..

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