Daily Archives: 18 July 2007

DEBATE: Is excellent journalism bad business?

Is excellent journalism bad business?

A provocative question, coming minutes after 24 journalists were applauded receiving the second Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards on Monday evening, was the subject of a debate held after the awards ceremony.

And as a panel of editors and publishers tried to come up with their answers, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who was in the audience, leaned across the stage, half-sitting on it, and asked his own question:

“You will all have to ask each other if the media can be a partner in nation-building and can promote value systems,” Kalam said. “The media has to promote economic development and reduce the number of people living below the poverty line. You have to become a media for one billion people.”

That, in essence, was what the debate was about: aspirations versus reality, the tyranny of the TRP versus integrity and ethics in journalism, excellence versus populism. And the consensus after a gripping hour was: there are forces at work that undermine good journalism but these forces aren’t larger than life, these can and need to be harnessed so that a news media organisation today remains committed to public trust and credibility, two of its strongest values. And while “excellent journalism” doesn’t have to mean “ponderous talking-down journalism,” it is more relevant than ever.

Among the panelists were Shobhana Bhartia of the Hindustan Times, N. Ram of The Hindu, Shekhar Gupta of The Indian Express, Ravi Dhariwal of Bennett and Coleman, publishers of The Times of India, and Pankaj Pachauri of NDTV India. Barkha Dutt of NDTV and Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN were the moderators.

The debate picked pace as politicians and other members in the audience joined in. Leader of the Opposition L.K. Advani intervened to blame television for the sensationalism that happens in the print media. If TV had to pull down someone, he says, “it chooses a particular angle because it makes him seem like a villain”.

To loud applause, Advani explained how TV was debasing the media discourse, how anchors of some shows were chosen because “they looked like criminals,” an apparent reference to the ratings-driven crime shows that are passed off as news on TV channels.

When Dutt asked Advani if TV hasn’t got anything right, if it hadn’t brought in vitality and energy into the media, Advani said, “Even tabloids do that to newspapers. That doesn’t mean all newspapers should be tabloids.”

N. Ram said that he “agreed” with Advani on his observation and remarked whether the word “popular” used to describe a section of the media was a “code word” for something else.

Taking issue with Kalam on “nation-building,” Ram said:

“How do we define what is in the interest of the nation? While you are for nuclear deal (with the US), I am dead against it…while Advani is for the temple at the Ramjanambhoomi site as a national project, I think it is a divisive project.”

To which Kalam clarified that while these two could be his agenda, what he was talking about was whether the media can and has a role to play in the coverage of the almost 250 million people who live below the poverty line.

Arguing that print doesn’t exist in a vacuum, Bhartia talked of how newspapers often ended up playing up undeserving stories only because they had been on TV all day long. She said the newsroom has to adapt to modern technology, so if a story breaks on SMS, gets posted onto the web and beamed on TV, it’s the newspaper’s job to “digest” that story and publish its essence the next morning.

As panel members sought to find the elusive balance between popular journalism and excellent journalism, they asked themselves if the media had lost its way in the race for better circulation and TRPs.

Ram said the challenge lay in “combining the pursuit of excellence with popular appeal,” and admitted that excellence does not always guarantee market success. He cited the recent takeover attempt of The Wall Street Journal by Rupert Murdoch as an example of “excellent journalism” being forced to be subservient to market forces.

Ravi Dhariwal agreed that his paper was market-driven but underlined that it’s only a “good product” that can be sold. He said the philosophy of his organisation was that the “intelligent reader” be made to feel that he can aspire to a better deal and that “relevance” in journalism was the key word.

When Rajdeep Sardesai asked if smartly packaged, “fast food news” had changed the way we looked at news, Shekhar Gupta said: “There is now an overload of news. That’s where we need journalists to make sense of it and that’s where we need excellent journalists.”

Gupta said the trusted definition of good journalism was what The New York Times says every day: “All the News that’s Fit to Print.” And what is fit to print is an editiorial call that media organizations make.

As the debate veered towards the broadcast media, Barkha Dutt wanted to know if the media had its own class assumptions, if it had different standards for its Hindi-speaking audience and its English audience.

The bhoot-pret obsession of Hindi news channels came in for much criticism—and ridicule. Pankaj Pachauri agreed that some channels resorted to irresponsible journalism and propagated superstitions to boost ratings. “But TRPs,” he said, “can’t buy excellence”.

Economist Meghnad Desai stood to ask the panelists why the media in India wasn’t playing a more aggressive role. “The media has to go after politicians…criticise them and hound them out of public life,” he said.

While talking of how the media often gets its priorities wrong, Sitaram Yechury of the CPM talked of how during Bill Clinton’s visit to India, newspapers talked of his dog and his food on their front pages but pushed the killing of Dalits in Bangalore into their deep, inside pages.

To this, Dhariwal said, “Trivia and titillation can work for a moment. But news is about building a long-term relationship. People now want serious news.”

While seeking to find answers on whether the media adheres to its core values of honesty and integrity, Ram said that in the West, young readers were steadily abandoning the traditional newspaper and newsmagazine, preferring instead to access information on the Internet. “But in India,” he said, “newspapers are in growth mode. We have to avoid making the mistakes the West made”.

With time running out, the panelists agreed that the media cannot afford to ignore credibility and accuracy in its race to boost TRPs and circulation.

Gupta rounded off the debate by saying that in the year 2007, there was a considerable amount of professionalism in the media and “there can be no excuse for (journalists) not following the standards of honesty and integrity.” He said that as in all serious, prosperous and educated markets abroad where there is a demand for excellence in journalism, the future, in India, too, belonged to a media that goes beyond the obvious, explains what happens next and helps the reader make sense of an increasingly complex reality.

The rise of Thomas Friedman as a voice that’s taken seriously across the world, Gupta said, was a testament to the growing hunger for credibility and trust. Advani, too, cited Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree as a book that explained globalisation to him more effectively than any work by a traditional economist.

Text courtesy: The Indian Express

Also see: ‘Media should become partner in nation-buiding’ 


News report sparked Kalam’s wings on fire

Outgoing Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam spoke at the Excellence in Journalism Awards show organised by The Indian Express in New Delhi on Monday. These are edited extracts from the president’s speech.



Ramnath Goenka is remembered for his journalistic professionalism and promoting freedom of the media, even during the difficult days of press censorship. He was a multi-faceted personality—a freedom fighter, a doyen of Indian journalism and a relentless crusader for democratic values. He launched The Indian Express in 1932, which soon became a multi-lingual newspaper under his able guidance.

During World War II, I was 13, and my eldest brother worked as a sub-agent for some newspapers, including Swadesha Mitran and Dinamani. I would be very excited to open the first copy of Dinamani (published by The Indian Express group) to see how the Spitfire aircraft was performing against the German fighters from Luffwaffe. In fact, my interest in aeronautics became deep-rooted through the news in Dinamani. There may be many inspiring events taking place every day throughout the world. Journalists can lock on and present such events as important news.

In 1999, I was in Tel-Aviv. Hamas had inflicted heavy damage on the Lebanese border. The next day, when I opened the newspaper, this was not front page news. Instead, there was an item about a farmer from Russia who had settled in a desert zone in Israel. He had managed to cultivate vegetables and fruits in the area with very high yield. The newspaper was celebrating his success, probably because people look for such news. I consider this excellence in journalism.

I have a suggestion for the media. It is essential for every newspaper to have research wings for developing media personnel in reporting and event analysis. The research wing has to be linked to academic institutions. This will enable our journalists to carry out original research on topics of national interest and provide solutions to medium and long term problems.

When outsourcing to India was big news, a US journalist stayed in India and studied these issues. He found that the equipment used in companies engaged in Business Process Outsourcing (BPOs) were mostly imported from the US and Europe, therefore creating an indirect market for hardware industries in those countries. This was big news in India. Similarly, after Thomas Friedman spent a month in India, he wrote his book, The World is Flat, which became an international bestseller. Such is the power of research. I would suggest that our Indian newspaper agencies encourage research carried out by our young journalists.

After discussions with farmers and specialists in drought affected areas in Vidarbha district recently, I believe there is a need to take an overall view of the cotton farming operation in the region. This should include provision of quality input, training the farmers on improved methods of farming or cultivation, marketing of the produce and action to be taken when there is failure of rain. For preventing severe drought, there is a need to create a large number of water bodies to harvest rain water. In addition, there is a need for local textile industry to work with the farmer and provide them marketing support for their produce without going through the process of middle men. Also, the banking system should reach every village in the Vidarbha district so that the farmers are not exploited by the money lenders.

Journalists, particularly editorial teams, may like to study the problem in detail and suggest methods to help the state government for finding lasting solution.

Everyday, road accidents and other emergencies lead to loss of life and property which is much higher than the loss due to war or terrorists’ attacks. A method to save over a million lives every year and prevent the associated damages has been put into practice in Andhra Pradesh. The Emergency Management and Research System in Hyderabad integrates multiple agencies to provide a quick and comprehensive emergency response. People can call a toll free number — 108 — either from a fixed or a mobile phone. This enables the timely arrival of an ambulance. This programme has been launched in all the 23 districts of Andhra Pradesh including rural areas, and is equipped with 380 ambulances. To date over 11,500 precious lives have been saved and the average response time has been reduced to 36 minutes.

India needs a national emergency service mission to save the lives of over one million people a year. Journalists can play a very important role in realising this mission by effectively articulating all aspects suitably to all the possible stake holders of the programme and quantifying the benefits which can accrue to society.

Journalism can be an effective tool for economic and political development of the nation. The media have a tremendous impact on the minds of the younger generation and anything other than courageous, truthful and positive journalism would strike at the very root of the future of a healthy younger generation on whom the future of the nation depends.


In the picture above, Kalam takes part in a panel discussion on whether good journalism makes good business. From left, Rajdeep Sardesai (CNN-IBN), Barkha Dutt (NDTV), Shobana Bharatiya (Hindustan Times), N. Ram (The Hindu), Shekhar Gupta (Indian Express), and Pankaj Pachauri (NDTV).


Text and photo courtesy: The Indian Express