Before the reforms of 1991 prised open the doors of Indian journalism (and the minds and wallets of publishers and promoters), “Gulf” was the El Dorado journalists and editors chased. In Bombay and Bangalore and Delhi, dozens of journalists and editors attended road shows and group-interviews in the banquet halls of five-star hotels.
Khaleej Times, Gulf News, The Peninsula… would eventually be the ports of call that beckoned some of India’s bigget and brightest names, from S. Nihal Singh to Pranay Gupte, Bikram Vohra to Khalid A.H. Ansari.
Khaleej Times turned 35 years old this week and like the rest of its dead-tree brethren across the globe is coming to terms with the realities of the modern world. Ramesh Prabhu who left Mid Day, Bombay, to join the Dubai paper, writes in the anniversary issue on the what the next 35 years holds for newspaper journalism.
Eight years ago, while addressing college students at a media seminar in Bangalore, the editor-in-chief of The Indian Express group had bemoaned the fact that television news was chipping away at the raisons d’être of newspapers.
Television channels had expropriated from the dailies, Shekhar Gupta said, the who, what, when, and where of news. “Of the five W’s and one H,” he told the audience, “we are now left with only the why and the how.”
Shades of “Video killed the radio star”?
At the time, in 2005, when Gupta was dwelling on a topic that would resonate with newspaper journalists everywhere, it had not yet become clear that Google was well on its way to eating the newspaper industry’s lunch and dinner, having already chomped down its breakfast.
Quite a few people, especially young adults, were going online to get the who, what, when, and where of news. And when there were no compelling reasons to look for, or to understand, the why and the how, what did they have to read a newspaper for?
Cut to 2013. Already, the iconic Newsweek has gone “all-digital”, while other print publications, including daily newspapers, especially in the West, are in the doldrums, pondering a future without a physical presence, as in the case of Newsweek, or any presence at all, as in the case of the Chicago Daily News and the Baltimore Examiner (visit NewspaperDeathWatch.com for all the gory details).
What to do?
Speaking at a local media college’s annual seminar in February, Menon referred to the economic problems plaguing the industry but she asserted that the principles of journalism have not changed and do not need to change; it is only the medium that is changing.
She also spoke about the urgent need for newspapers to figure out how to make money off their Web offerings. The underlying message: Newspapers are not going to survive, leave alone thrive, unless they come up with a sound online strategy.
But what constitutes a sound online strategy?
The New York Times, one of the world’s great newspapers, has been thinking hard about the answer to this question for some years now.
As far back as July 2008, responding to a reader’s question on the newspaper’s website, Marc Frons, the executive in charge of digital operations, had written that the goal was to enable “our readers to have the best of both worlds — technology that allows them to personalize aspects of their experience while at the same time highlighting the editorial judgment that’s unique to The Times”.
In other words, the aim at The Times was, and is, to engage with its audience not just once a day at the breakfast table but throughout the day with a continually updated, reader-friendly website.
Closer home, in India, the respected business paper, Mint, last year adopted what it calls a Web-first philosophy. What does this mean for the reader?
The editor, R. Sukumar, explained in a note in the paper that stories would now be broken first on the website, and updated continuously if they merit updates. The note continued (bear with me here for reproducing the longish excerpt below, but this will help us to understand the manifold changes newspapers need to think about making):
“It means opinion and analysis pieces, too, appear first on the Web, soon after a big event, so that the readers can understand what it means. It means the extensive use of social media to amplify stories, engage with readers, and also, in some cases, to constantly provide updates on developing-by-the-minute stories. It means the extensive use of multimedia, including video. It means reaching out to people on a variety of devices (phones, tablets) through apps and a dynamic website.
“It means producing a paper that factors in everything we have done in the past 12 hours and understanding what makes most sense for readers, sometimes a full 18 hours after the original news has broken. And it means doing all this without compromising our integrity or high journalistic standards.”
There is no better way to chart out what should be the priorities of every newspaper today.
Note the emphasis on reaching out to people on a variety of devices. Most young people I know do not subscribe to a daily newspaper. And they will not read a newspaper, if they can help it. If at all they make an attempt to glean the day’s news, they do it by firing up an app on their mobile phones or using their mobiles to surf online.
Note, too, the emphasis on editorial judgment in The Times executive’s quote, and on journalistic standards in the Mint editor’s note.
The zillions of bloggers out there offer news of a sort, sure, but the writing on most blogs, apart from being of poor quality, is often slanted and ill-informed, making it difficult to comprehend what one is reading. Only trained and experienced journalists can provide editorial judgment and be expected to uphold high journalistic standards.
(Yes, and this is sad but true, some publications have justly earned a reputation for being on the make. However, I believe that the greater number of newspapers — and journalists — take very seriously their role as watchdogs of society. This is a discussion, though, for another occasion.)
But are editorial judgment and high journalistic standards enough to attract the next generation of readers, the people who will form the bulk of the readership 35 years from now? The answer appears to be “No”, going by the indifference to newspapers of young people today.
If we want them to read news on handheld devices and if we want newspapers to become the go-to sites on their screens, we need, as journalists, to focus on what I term the three E’s of journalism: engage, entertain, enlighten.
Given that the basic values and disciplines of journalism have been imbibed and are being practised, the writing has to be top-notch, above all. There was a time when the No. 1 quality sought in journalists was their nose for news, their ability to judge newsworthiness; if their writing skills were, at best, adequate, it was considered good enough.
But adequate writing skills are not good enough today. And they won’t be any good in 2050.
Indifferent writing breeds indifferent readers.
Quality writing attracts readers of all kinds.
In a topical book I am reading just now, The Imperfectionists by journalist-turned-novelist Tom Rachman, published in 2010, the editor of a Rome-based newspaper tells the mediator at an industry conference that news will survive and quality coverage will always earn a premium.
“Whatever you want to call it,” she says, “news, text, content — someone has to report it, someone has to write it, someone has to edit it.”
Rachman’s fictional editor, Kathleen Solson, also discusses living in an era when technology is moving at an unheralded pace. “I can’t tell you if in fifty years we’ll be publishing in the same format,” she tells the mediator. “Actually I can probably tell you we won’t be publishing in the same way, that we’ll be innovating then, just as we are now.”
On that promising note, I am going to go out on a limb and predict that 35 years from now when Khaleej Times sets out to hire journalists for its expanded web-print empire, it will be looking for tech-proficient reporters and editors who have not only been trained in Journalism 101 but also have exceptional writing skills, even new writing skills that we are missing out on now.
They will be able to speedily compose and edit articles that will engage, entertain, and enlighten readers. Articles that will be read from first word to last. Articles that will give readers compelling reasons to stay glued to their screens.
The five W’s and one H of news will be buttressed by two additional, crucial elements: “So what?” and “What next?”
There will be an incentive to care about the news again. And a well-known television journalist, speaking at a media seminar in 2050 in Dubai, will then lament how TV news channels are losing out to newspapers.
What is it they say about just deserts?
(Ramesh Prabhu has worked as a journalist in Mumbai, Dubai, and Bangalore, having begun his career with Mid Day in 1981. He is now professor of journalism at Commits Institute of Journalism & Mass Communication, Bangalore.)