To fix journalism’s business model

For Indian journalists, the year 2017 was ending as it began: in a spate of layoffs. In January, at the start of the year, Hindustan Times had announced the sudden “shelving” of four of its editions and three bureaus. Employees got barely four days’ notice. The Anandabazar Patrika group, which publishes a Bengali language daily by that name and The Telegraph in English, axed an estimated 300 employees.

They were kinder with their severance packages, giving old employees up to a year’s salary. Now, as the year winds to a close, NDTV has announced that it will lay off a quarter of its workforce. Early this year, in July, the channel laid off 100 employees.

Bad news about journalism jobs is now a routine story around the world. Newsrooms have been shrinking even in the most prestigious publications in the world. The New York Times and The Guardian have laid off people in recent years. What makes the Indian case different is that while in the west print media has been shrinking, that is not the case in India if official figures are to be believed.

The Audit Bureau of Circulation reported in May that the average number of copies of print media publications went up by over 23 million in the 10 years from 2006 to 2016. Average copies per day, which gives the count for daily newspapers, rose from 39.1 million in 2006 to 62.8 million in 2016.

The boom – for that is what such growth should be called in these hard times for media worldwide – is not one merely of circulation.

Quarter after quarter, prominent Indian publications also report rising profits. The biggest of them all, Bennett, Coleman and Company, which publishes The Times of India and the Economic Times, is not a listed company. Its numbers are therefore not public. However, there are occasional articles about its achievements and ambitions.

For instance, in 2015, it reported the highest-ever earnings of Rs 8,778.35 crore (Rs 87,783.5 million), and an increase in profits by 44 per cent over the previous year, according to a report in Business Standard that used data from the Registrar of Companies.

Other prominent newspapers, though less prosperous than the Times, are doing quite well too. DB Corp, which publishes the Hindi language daily Dainik Bhaskar, for instance, reported consolidated net profits of Rs 110.11 crore in the first quarter of 2017, up 5.92 per cent from the same period the previous year. HT Media, publisher of Hindustan Times, declared a jump of 85.4 per cent in its first-quarter profits. However, the rise in profits came from lower raw material and finance costs, meaning it may at least partly be a result of the closure of editions, which would have led to fewer copies being printed.

The situation in news television appears financially more difficult. NDTV, which is now laying off a large number of people, had reported losses of Rs 255 million in 2015 and Rs 216 million in 2016.

The company’s financial health was unsound, and forced a restructuring in which it claims to have decided to refocus on its core businesses while exiting ancillary ventures.

Newspapers, television channels and websites are privately-owned businesses. There are 7,871 paid publicationsin the country, according to a report in CNN, which is more than the total for the US, UK, France and Germany combined. There were 403 news channels in the country in 2016, and three new ones were launched in 2017. How they are run, what political positions they take, and their overall success or failure are determined in each case by their owners, editors, managers, and the market.

The thing is that the media is a somewhat unique business, which is why certain new terms have become globally popular in the past few years – such as fake news, paid news, and presstitutes.

What is it that we sell when we sell news? We sell what claim to be true facts about people and events in the world around us. There would not be very many buyers for fake news that markets itself as fake news, unless it is fake news as parody. The core value on which the media business is built is therefore trust. People used to buy newspapers because they wanted to know the truth. Seeing something reported in print assured them that they were well informed.

Unfortunately, the media globally has lost people’s trust. India is no exception.

The loss of trust happened on two accounts. First, there was a growing sense of partisanship and bias that politicians seized upon, in India as in Donald Trump’s America. The claims that prestigious media houses were heavily prejudiced against certain political parties, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party, took hold on their supporters’ imaginations. The respect those media houses had enjoyed was eroded.

Second, it became widely known that news reports could be bought. In other words what appeared to be a news report might in fact be an advertisement in disguise. This became something of a scandal with the Election Commission detecting hundreds of cases of political reports and interviews that had been paid for by politicians.

The fact that paid news was not a survival strategy of fly-by-night operators but a business strategy proudly adopted even by the richest media conglomerate in India, The Times of India group, cannot have done the media’s reputation any good. In fact, it was the Times which pioneered paid news in India, although its focus, at least initially, was in covering entertainment and lifestyle events for a price. However, the idea of easy money has rarely lacked enthusiastic proponents, and very soon almost every news publication in the country was following the leader. The consequence of this is that no one really believes anything they read anymore.

Television could have escaped this fate – after all, seeing is believing – but serious ground reportage is a rarity. Over the years, I have seen breaking news tickers on Hindi news channels announce events such as Hanumanji levitating (with images of what appeared to be a man in a monkey suit) and the impending end of the world in three days – an event still awaited – in 2008 (with clips from disaster films).

Prannoy Roy in his book More News is Good News recalled an anchor twirling her hair with her forefinger and saying “break ke baad aap ko ek rape dikhayenge” (we will show you a rape after the break).

The English language ones, which cater to a more upmarket audience, don’t go quite that far, but the antics on display at daily prime-time are more reality television than news. Information and entertainment have been collapsed into a single category, called infotainment. We can see breaking news and laugh, or weep, but we can no longer be sure what we are seeing has any relation to reality.

This sad state of affairs might have been avoided if editors had been allowed to do their jobs. However, the business model of news in India changed in such a way in the early 1990s that the editorial heads lost all power, and editors gave way to managers of various sorts. Money at any cost became the overwhelming concern. It started with a price war kicked off by The Times of India in 1992 which dropped prices of newspapers to around half. The money lost was more than compensated for via advertising revenue riding on increased circulation numbers.

The news became the stuff that was put around the ads. Vineet Jain, one of the two brothers who run Bennett Coleman and Co Ltd, which owns the Times, was quoted in an article in the New Yorker in 2012 as saying, “We are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business.” He explained his statement saying, “if 90 per cent of your revenues come from advertising, you’re in the advertising business.” It was a revenue model that they had successfully pioneered.

The Times has the size and heft to grow from strength to strength – for now. I wonder whether it will eventually remain unaffected by the loss of trust in news media in general, which has flowed from its actions in both print and television. A rising tide, it is said, lifts all boats. A falling tide does the opposite.

The tide of trust on which news media brands floated is falling. The Times of India and Times Now are BCCL’s flagships. Those who read the newspaper or watch the TV channel presumably do so primarily for the news. They probably harbour the illusion, one perhaps shared by many good journalists who work for the group, that these organisations are in the news business, not the advertising business.

Advertisement brochures do not generally find millions of enthusiastic paying subscribers. Nor does rumour, unless it has at least some basis in fact. The internet and social media are the places where journalism’s future appears at present to be, but what passes for news online is often what Shashi Tharoor might describe as an “exasperating farrago of distortions, misrepresentations and outright lies”.

In other words, it’s bullshit. The thing is, it’s also free. I don’t think too many people would pay anything for it. The online game right now is about racking up more and more hits, so quality does not enter into the equation. The only measures are quantitative. However, this may not work for publishers in the slightly longer term.

The bulk of online advertising revenue is cornered by Google and Facebook, which between them account for more than half of all internet ad revenue worldwide. No one else on earth at present seems able to challenge this duopoly…certainly not any publisher. Their share of the Indian digital ad market is even higher than the global average, accounting for over 70 per cent of the total. They also account for around 70 per cent of traffic that publishers here receive.

A move to video and mobile will probably not affect at least Google’s dominance since it owns YouTube. It will, however, affect publishers. It already is. Now that there’s a screen in every hand, the competition for attention and screen space is not restricted to any segment or location. This article is up against everything from porn videos to Salman Khan’s latest offering to some carefully curated generator of outrage, all of which, like this article, can pop up on the same screen via WhatsApp or Facebook.

The only glimmer of hope for this article, its writer, and perhaps its publisher, is that it might be read by a more discerning and thoughtful cohort than those who would only be interested in the other options