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'The media should not allow the market to dictate its agenda'
Unlike in the west, the print media in India is growing in reach and technology adoption in many languages in the country. The emerging digital media is competing with both print and television in speed of news reporting, variety of news analysis, and cost of news dissemination. The Editor of the prestigious Press Institute of India, Sashi Nair, told this citizen journalist that he doesn't see the printed newspaper disappearing in a hurry. Nair says that the Indian media shouldn't 'overkill' in news reporting.

While the people of India are enjoying the benefits of a free press, competition and cost pressures are affecting how news is being reported and moulding state decision-making. In this highly competitive media environment, the Press Institute of India, a leading Chennai-based research institute for newspaper development, and the publisher of Vidura, the RIND Survey, and Grassroots print magazines, has an important role to deepen journalistic commitment in Indian media.

In this interview, Nair, an experienced journalist, and a consulting editor of WAN-IFRA (World Association of Newspapers & News Publishers), having worked for The Times of India, Economic Times and The New Indian Express, says that print publishers will continue to be profitable if they learn to co-exist with digital.
Print-based news publications are facing high operating costs. They are also competing against the benefits of economy of scope and scale provided by the Internet and computerized gadgets. How long will print-based news publications survive in India?

Nair: India is still a developing country. How many people own a computer? Even if you have a computer, how good is the broadband connection? Can you pay electricity and telephone charges when there’s not enough food, shelter and clothing? So, the Internet and the gizmos have limitations in India. For the common person here, it’s still the daily newspaper or weekly magazine that matters. No wonder vernacular newspapers are doing so well - The Times of India is the only English newspaper in India’s Top Ten. New editions are being added all the time. So too are new machines and presses. I don’t see the printed newspaper disappearing in a hurry. It will continue to do well in the years ahead, if publishing houses adapt well to change. Print has to learn to coexist with digital. ‘Co-exist’ is the key word, not survival – in the Indian context. And it’s happening.

Of course, it’s the age of tablets and multimedia content and the number of people using online tools is growing every day. It’s the high degree of interactivity provided by new or social media that is driving activity. For publishers, handling print, online, mobile and tablets all together is not easy. Thankfully, technology has developed so much that there are multi-channel publishing systems that can help integrate digital publishing into existing environments.

Today, in many cases, citizens are the first to report breaking news. Their participation and mobilization on social media is keenly watched by the mainstream media. Do you think both are developing a symbiotic relationship?

Nair: Citizen journalism has been alive for quite a few years now. Breaking news is now no longer for the people, it is by the people. Some of the world’s most dramatic events in recent times were broken to the world by citizen journalists . The point is, unlike an accredited reporter or a  correspondent, a citizen journalist does not have the skills necessary, especially in terms of being objective, etc. The reliability factor comes into play and a casual decision by an editor can be dangerous at times. The onus is on editors (at the desk) really to engage citizen journalists in a constructive way.

The objective is to integrate readers’ participation into the multimedia publishing platform and to create communities involving readers in the generation of content. There is, however, the issue of credibility associated with user-generated content. While on the one side, readers tend to trust traditional media, on the other, there is need for greater transparency and more inputs from the citizen. Several other questions arise: Is citizen journalism influencing the way journalists work today? Does it encourage new thinking in the newsroom? Are journalists losing their monopoly as opinion leaders? Will readers take a more active role in the future? Is the rise of citizen journalism affecting the editorial process?

In India, there are very few examples of mainstream media organizations that have a business model, which is independent of the pressure resulting from financial stakes and investment. The Internet is one medium where such a model is beginning to be adopted. How important is it to keep financial interests at a distance from editorial within the understanding that running a news venture is also a venture?  

Nair: In the news publishing business credibility matters more than anything else, as do truth, honesty, neutrality, etc. This is the reason why The Hindu, for example, is highly regarded. The Hindu has also been one of the best commercially-run newspapers in India. It has kept pace with technology on almost every front. I think there was a time when they refused condom advertisements. Even today, readers of the paper ask questions when there is a headline that sounds risqué.

At the same time, I am reminded of what a veteran journalist and columnist said recently. He was speaking about the Samir Jain school of journalism that has made The Times of India the leading English language newspaper in the world. Jain introduced the concept of marketing a newspaper as a commodity. But for a commodity to be successfully marketed, the product has to meet the test of quality. And the quality standards he has set are based on what he thinks the reader wants and not what intellectual editors sitting in ivory towers think the buyers of their papers should read! And if The Times of India is today the largest circulated broadsheet in the world, surely it must have many things going for it.

At the end of the day, when you talk about responsible journalism, I think the editorial department should be given room and space to do its job fearlessly and without favour. Self-regulation is all about discipline really.

After the incident of the beheading of an Indian soldier at the LoC, much of the news reporting and analysis tended to be angry and provocative. At the same time, it was reflective of the mood of millions of people of India - fed up with consistent betrayal by Pakistan. Is the concept of neutrality and balance lost on the Indian media?

Nair: We haven’t lost it yet. But there is certainly a great deal of overkill. Many would say Indian television is all about promoting consumerism to maximize returns. Is it TRPs every week that decide content priorities, including for news bulletins. It might appear so. Prof Bhaskara Rao of the Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi, is convinced that the ratings are all a sham; he says the damages TRPs have caused India over the years is not inconsequential and is comparable to the Bhopal gas leak tragedy. I would tend to agree with him. Maturity and balance on the ground and off it are not easy to find when we read newspaper and other reports. Sensitivity, too. Even in matters relating to women and children, for instance – do journalists have the sensitivity required. In most cases, I would think not. All they care about is a story and a byline.

The production of a newspaper is dependent on technology and complicated logistics for delivery. Do you foresee technological advances that reduce cost and increase productivity to keep paper-based media alive? If yes, for how long?

Nair: How can you reduce the price of a newspaper further! India is possibly the only country where you pay Rs. 2 on average for a paper. The price of Colgate toothpaste today is not what it was years ago. But the price of the newspaper has remained almost the same – from 50 paise to Rs. 2 is no great leap. It has contributed to falling revenues, and it’s also perhaps a reason why newspaper houses - except the top ones - pay poor salaries (relatively speaking) or do not recruit enough skilled and competent people. So, technology does not work here.

Today, print and digital are spoken about in the same breath even as innovations continue to change the news publishing landscape. The WAN-IFRA Expo last year saw more than 260 exhibitors from 30 countries showcasing the technology to publish news in print, on tablets, mobiles and online. More than 7,000 visitors from 83 countries attended. What does it all say? That those in the news publishing business are keen to embrace new technology. Technology works here. To offer the customer the best.

Do you think the absence of radio news production, especially at the grassroots, is harming democracy and empowerment? Or does consumption of media depends on whether the consumer can afford to buy a radio, television, computer, and a mobile phone?

Nair: Community radio is doing wonders in small patches in India, definitely in terms of empowerment, especially of women and the underprivileged. It can play a major role in the uplift of weaker sections if handled with care and sensitivity and given a fair dose of energy. As a community-driven, volunteer-run, not-for-profit set up, the community radio sector in India must position itself differently in its process, approach, style, and substance in comparison to the state-owned and commercial broadcasters. It is possible for community radio stations to challenge the hegemony of the mainstream media and its programming methods only by developing rigorous and appropriate codes of conduct and practice in the spirit of self-regulation. Most families in India have radio, TV, and mobile phones. It’s not about purchasing power (except for computers); the fact is radio has not been given the importance it deserves after the advent of television.

Is media in India a hindrance to state decisions or is it a positive catalyst?

Nair: Responsible media is always a positive influence and a catalyst. However, if the media allows the market to dictate its agenda, then it isn’t.

A political party can take a particular stand on say FDI in retail. Should a media outlet lean to the right, left or center on issues and events as and when confronted by them?

Nair: Responsible media has to be unbiased, neutral. A newspaper has the editorial page to voice its opinion - and a website can have an opinion section. Indeed, it must. In many ways a newspaper is a sort of signpost to the reader, even as it informs, educates and entertains. But it must not allow opinion to seep into news reports.

Many journalists in the country are trained in mass communication, in a language or in arts and management. Do Indian local and English media lack specialist education in its bench-strength?

Nair: I would think so. It is evident from many news stories and even features that lack perspective or depth. Reporters covering the legal beat must now have a basic degree in law. Beyond that I presume it’s the individual’s choice, to study and equip himself and herself better. Let me give you the example of child rights since I was associated with framing a resource kit for editors and reporters.

Children in India are exposed to some of the most inhuman cruelties and endure the worst forms of abuse. Since they are provided special protection under the law, violation of children’s rights is often newsworthy. The media can play an important role in protecting and promoting children’s rights in many instances, in exposing their abuse and also reporting about their triumphs. Many journalists consider reporting on children challenging, something that requires too much effort, with too many legal risks.

Therefore, informed, sensitive and professional journalism will ensure promotion and protection of child rights. Journalists must know how to report without violating children’s rights, Indian laws, or international norms and standards. They must have easy access to guidelines and laws during news production.

(The Press Institute of India was founded in 1963, and was the first of its kind institute in Asia. It's a non-profit trust, and an independent organization with a mandate to develop quality and responsible journalism as needed in a developing and functioning democracy.)

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