Grounded

The fact and fiction of news demand

By Abhishek Choudhary

3 May 2018

Questions about the creation and consumption of shoddy journalism go beyond equations of supply and demand.
Photo: lau rey / Flickr

Photo: lau rey / Flickr

Of all the myths about Indian media, probably the most pervasive is the one that concerns a supposed golden era of Indian journalism. You can read or hear the learned citizenry (journalists included) across political beliefs reminiscing about a time when the coverage and presentation of news was honest and objective; and how it’s all been irretrievably lost! According to this narrative, the Indian media is now besieged by a dangerous mix of shadowy capitalists and politicians leading to paid news, mediatisation of politics, and generally a gaudy sensationalism that passes every day in print and TV channels as news.

To be sure, the fears are genuine: with a growing concentration of ownership in the country’s already oligopolistic media markets, information risks being treated as if it is a private good, available only to the high and mighty. What must not be forgotten, though, is that the Indian media owes its growth to an advertisement-driven capitalist model: both Ramakrishna Dalmia, who acquired the Times of India in 1945 from its European owners, and Ramnath Goenka, who started the Indian Express in the 1930s, were primarily Marwari entrepreneurs who detected a growing hunger for information among people who were potential consumers as well as newspaper readers. Similarly, as Robin Jeffrey’s seminal book India’s Newspaper Revolution (2000) showed, towards the end of the Emergency, political awareness and a quest for information among the ordinary citizen, coupled with improved technology and a search for new consumers by advertisers, helped Indian-language newspapers, almost all of a sudden, take off.

The crucial difference is that in the early decades the businessmen-turned-media barons feared governments, and policies protected the government’s interests; in 2014, however, with the government tamed, the main concern of media owners is improving revenues which are often puny compared to the size of the market. It was expected that as India’s democracy matured, the advertisement-driven model would slowly give way to a subscription-driven model – as indeed is the case with some of the Western publications and channels – which would in turn increase the dependence of the media organisations on consumers, thereby enhancing the quality of news. On the contrary, in 1994, when the Times of India, India’s most widely read English newspaper, adopted the policy of minimum possible cover price to rout out rival Hindustan Times, the practice was quickly followed by all other players. The spread of digital media in the last few years has, if anything, only upped the confusion about revenue models: the most recent manifestation of this is Reliance India Limited acquiring the Network 18 group, and revealing its plans to maximise the benefits from the upcoming fourth-generation (4G) high-speed data transfer business.

Often a part of the blame for the sorry state of journalism falls on the consumers. In an opinion piece for Gaon Connection – a newly launched Hindi weekly newspaper which aims to expand into the rural areas in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar and Jharkhand by filling the information vacuum left by mainstream newspapers – the popular NDTV anchor Ravish Kumar urged the audience to transform themselves from passive consumers of media into active users, people who can think critically on important events of the day.

Indeed, for a competitive market, common sense suggests that consumer preferences might change – or at the least, influence – the market. The simple question is: why don’t people demand better journalism?

***

“Given how media is structured, the supply side gets to call the shots,” says Sandeep Bhushan, currently a fellow at the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia University. “The problem, however, is that even supply is not determined by the market half of the time.”

Bhushan spent two decades in the broadcast media, a major part of which he spent in NDTV in Bhopal and Delhi. When I meet him at Jamia in early June, I can see the disillusionment with broadcast journalism on his face: “Post 2008 financial crisis, no channel is making profits. And yet none of them have shut shop, even though some restructuring has happened. Nobody quite knows where the money is coming from.” The financial crisis threatened an already inefficient advertisement-based revenue model, and increased its dependence on the financial market, political parties and other financiers.

Indeed, for a competitive market, common sense suggests that consumer preferences might change – or at the least, influence – the market. The simple question is: why don’t people demand better journalism?

Here is how the industry works: the news channels across different languages compete with each other for advertising revenues which are determined by Television Rating Points (TRPs) published by the rating agency TAM, a joint venture of AC Nielsen and Kantar Media Research. Higher TRPs for a show means the broadcaster can demand a higher rate from the advertisers during that show. The most convenient way for the revenue-starved channels to maximise their share of the cake is to create content that would appeal – like advertising – to the base instincts of the consumers.

A bigger drawback with TRPs as the measure of a show’s popularity, however, is its small sample size, which is limited only to urban areas. This means the diversity of the country doesn’t get represented, except when there is something that exhibits drama, horror or sensation in places like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh or the Northeastern states. These areas grab headlines, Bhushan says, only when, say, a teenage girl in Guwahati is molested outside a bar by a group of men, or when Maoists kill police personnel or blow up a bridge. To top it all, there have been multiple allegations of corruption levelled against TAM regarding manipulation of the sample, which affects the veracity of data on TRPs.

It is the corruption on the demand side, however, that takes a toll on the broadcaster’s revenues: the cable operators, who collect the charges from the consumers, are known to massively under-report the number of homes. “If the numbers are 2000, he can simply say it’s 1000,” according to Bhushan. The extent of under-reporting could, in fact, be as high as 80 percent. Digitisation towards the end of the 2000s was expected to redress the revenue model in the cable industry, but the cable-wallahs “got around [it] by finding loopholes in the digital model as well, so things haven’t improved much.”

Due to monetary constraints on both the demand and the supply side, news-gathering has become centralised. The power has shifted from the editors and the reporters to the promoters and hand-picked editors of TV studios. As Bhushan puts it, “News is allied to power now; not a set of objective truths, but something you can document because you are on the privileged side of history.” It’s only natural then that news editors are drawn more to the power they yield in political circles than an attempt at providing nuanced reporting and analysis of issues: ‘Hey, I got an SMS from Chidambaram!’ he recalls a popular young anchor crying with joy after he received a congratulatory text from the former Finance Minister.

Of course, all of it is done in the name of “logon ko yahi chahiye, this is what people demand,” Bhushan says, even though so far there is no reliable yardstick to measure the demand of the people. Everyone says people’s attention span has become shorter and divided. But as received wisdom suggests: ‘It might just be true, but it still needs to be tested.’

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Vinay Singh, the stringer for Hindi news channel Aaj Tak from Ghazipur in eastern UP, uses the word ‘profile’ very frequently: a high-profile story is a visit by a bada neta, big politician; or murder (multiple – one wouldn’t do, he clarifies); or a gang war; or a gang rape – like the one in Badaun in western UP.

About the recent incident in Badaun district, in which two young girls of Katra Sadatganj village belonging to the backward caste Maurya Shakya were hanged from a tree after being raped and then killed, he says, “Agar aap visuals hata dein toh itna bada issue nahi hota.” In other words, the incident grabbed national headlines simply because the visuals were very disturbing.

A low-profile story – one that would never run on a national channel – then, is a sexual violation of a woman from a cycle rickshaw-wallah’s family. “To begin with this story wouldn’t be visually rich: the victim’s family wouldn’t have good clothes; they’d speak in Bhojpuri; wouldn’t be able to express themselves clearly. Why would a middle-class family in the Punjabi-speaking Jalandhar be interested in a story like this? It wouldn’t have masala.” He quickly adds, “But then if I manipulate the story a bit, if I present the family as Dalits, the story’s profile shoots up.”

Towards the end of the 1990s, cable television started making inroads into the tier-II and III Indian cities. Singh, the 47-year-old Rajput, had a hunch that the cable business in Purvanchal was going to grow exponentially. Sensing a business opportunity he jumped onto the cable bandwagon in 1998. At the same time, he also started creating news and other content for newly set-up local channels. When approached by Aaj Tak in 2002, Singh volunteered to become a stringer for the popular channel.

Presently Singh owns the City Cable franchise for Ghazipur; he also owns an advertising firm which does ‘indoor’ as well as ‘outdoor’ business in the neighbouring eastern UP districts. (By indoor advertising he means producing advertising content for the regional channels such as Eenadu, Sahara and Zee. Outdoor advertising includes billboards, point of sale displays, etc.) Journalism he does out of showk, hobby: “Even if I do five stories each for Aaj Tak and ANI (news agency) in a month, I can’t earn more than 15,000 rupees. You think one can maintain a family with that money?” He sees no contradiction in being a reporter and an ad-man at the same time: indeed, it is this mix that helps high-profile stringers like Singh exert a certain influence in small towns such as Ghazipur.

Few stringers across the thousands of small towns in India are as privileged as Singh. But, despite the privilege of caste and capital that helps him manage a career in media, he has complaints: “News channels don’t pay much attention to small towns like ours. For them mahanagars, metropolitan cities, are the ‘TRP Towns’. That’s where their advertisement business comes from.”

While a few local newspapers (and the local edition of the national Hindi newspapers) might have a permanent reporter, most of the reporting from Ghazipur and surrounding districts depends on stringers, almost a dozen in number, most of them upper-caste male. There are no women stringers or reporters, and gender issues, like maternal health and sexual violence, remain mostly unreported. “Some young women worked with me for a year or two and then left after they got married. A reporter’s job involves too much running around for very little money. For them, journalism is not a preferred career choice,” says Singh. Similarly, there are barely any stringers from among Dalit communities, and caste-related issues – which, it would be fair to say, are galore in UP and neighbouring state Bihar – go mostly unreported. When I enquire, Singh, not surprisingly, is unable to articulate what these failures mean.

The citizenry that cries about paid news involving puny amounts happily accepts a newspaper or magazine that comes subsidised many more times over. Every privileged resident of this country is a beggar: reading newspaper and watching television is an act of beggary.

Ghazipur has been infamous for the gang wars between the feudal caste of Bhumihars and Muslims: the most prominent of these, in 2005, led to the assassination of Bharitya Janata Party politician Krishnanand Rai by assailants working at the behest of criminal-turned-politician Mukhtar Ansari. Has Singh ever faced issues with safety? “Multiple times,” he says matter-of-factly. “Par yahaan humse bada koi gunda hi nahi hai,” he jokes. “I’m the biggest gunda here.” On one occasion while covering a riot in Mau, his team was threatened by Mukhtar Ansari’s men. But he called up Mukhtar and ‘fixed’ the hassle. “He is my age. We played cricket together in our youth. Then he became mafia; I became a patrakar. But there are no animosities.”

It was while researching for Let’s Call Him Vasu, a book on the Maoist guerrillas of Chhattisgarh, that journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary saw the hatred that common Adivasis had for the media. With time he started making sense of the rage: in a piece titled ‘The Art of Not Writing’, he explained that the journalists in the state were “paid not to report stories that are critical of the powers-that-be, whether they are industrial lobbies or state authorities.”

In mineral-rich states such as Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand, the nexus between the political parties and corporate houses frequently robs the Adivasi farmers of their land and other livelihoods. The newspapers and channels operating in the state are often too dependent on both politicians and corporates for advertisements, and, as with Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar, sometimes have their own mining interests. There is barely any reporting that objectively analyses the issues facing the people, a majority of whom happen to be hopelessly poor. Choudhary believes that Adivasis who have turned into Maoists have done so mostly because of the failure of the governments to communicate with them.

During his research Choudhary realised that the Adivasis are more comfortable with oral forms. “Ever wondered why,” he tells me, “while casting a vote, there is always an option of pressing a button or a thumb-print. The logic is aakhiri vyakti ki sahuliyat, ease for the person at the bottom of the hierarchy.” Therefore, facilitating a democratic media doesn’t necessarily mean worsening of content, but to ensure that the medium is within the reach of the ones at the bottom of the social and economic ladder, namely Dalits and Adivasis.

While the Internet has a very limited reach in India, in the last decade or so mobile phones have become conspicuous even among the poorest segment. Choudhary came up with an idea: he calls it a tor-jor (assemblage) of radio, Internet and mobile phones, to create an alternate media space called CGnet Swara. (CG is for Central Gondwana region in central India, and Swara means voice.)

This is how CGNet Swara functions: if an Adivasi in a distant village has something to report, she can call Swara. She’d be immediately connected to a computer which would record her voice message. A team of trained people will confirm the news, and then help edit and translate her grievance before it’s put on Swara’s website and elsewhere on social media, allowing anyone with an Internet connection to hear the news. The same can also be heard by dialling Swara’s number and then pressing the ‘two’ button (pressing ‘one’ is used to record the message).

But while technology helped Choudhary create a useful model, Swara will remain incomplete as long as the government doesn’t allow news on shortwave radio – radio being the most popular medium of communication among the Adivasis. “The rich can buy TV and newspapers. For the poor, radio is still the cheapest medium. That airing news on the radio, with the exception of All India Radio, is criminalised, shows how Brahmanised Indian media is.” He adds that “One of the reasons the communist parties have failed to connect with the Adivasis is because they think like Brahmins.”

Choudhary believes there can be no free media without financial contribution from common people. At the same time, though, it has to be cost-effective. As of now, in the absence of a radio broadcast, if an Adivasi wants to hear the news about his region, he will – assuming he doesn’t have Internet at home – have to call up Swara, which, as an everyday affair, can be very costly.

CGNetSwara is presently being funded by a grant from the United Nations Democracy Fund. For the project to be self-sustainable, though, the government will have to allow shortwave transmission: “Even in neighbouring countries whose record on democracy is poorer than ours – Pakistan, Nepal – shortwave radio is allowed,” Choudhary says. “Imposing such a harsh restriction on a centuries-old medium in some way shows that they are scared of the poor raising their voice.”

The talk about capability to pay brings the conversation back to the consumers of the mainstream media, with which Choudhary was earlier associated. “The rich don’t care for news because to them it doesn’t make much difference,” he says, adding, “Earlier religion was the opium of masses. Now media is the opium of masses: keep watching IPL, saas-bahu soaps (popular soap operas), and go off to sleep. There isn’t a need to know
the issues.”

The recent hullabaloo about paid media, Choudhary says, is quite sanctimonious. He goes on to quote a bewildering figure: “Did you know the total production cost of a copy of India Today magazine used to be rupees 283 ten years ago?” With an increase in printing and other costs, “it must be somewhere around 400 rupees now.” Even though it’s hard to establish the veracity of his figures, it’s easy enough to understand that the largest-selling magazines get heavily subsidised on account of the advertisements they carry, and are sold at far less than the production cost incurred on them: “All that has changed is earlier the nexus was lukka-chhipi, a game of hide-and-seek; now it’s blatant. The citizenry that cries about paid news involving puny amounts happily accepts a newspaper or magazine that comes subsidised many more times over. Every privileged resident of this country is a beggar: reading newspaper and watching television is an act of beggary.”

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One of the ways to improve the quality and diversity of information is to find ways to make the newsrooms more inclusive. Since both print and electronic formats have failed to provide even a bare minimum inclusion for Dalits, could the digital media – with its unique architecture known for flattening hierarchies – do the job?

“The media representation for Dalits in 2014,” says Robin Jeffrey, “is worse than it was for African Americans even in the 1920s.” Dalits are more profoundly divided internally by caste; they are spread across the country and speak different languages; they have no equivalent of the African-American commercial classes who ran stores that sold goods to Black people and could buy advertisements.

According to Jeffrey, “The BSP won the 2007 UP assembly elections in part because Kanshi Ram’s old BAMCEF (Backward and Minority Communities Employees’ Federation) cadre of believers had mobile phones for the first time, and they could organise and mobilise as Kanshi Ram, with his bicycle and the telegraph office, never could.” Jeffrey’s most recent book, The Great Indian Phone Book (2013), investigated the social changes unleashed by mobile phones in the last decade. But none of this, he says, could be a substitute for having Dalit faces reading the main bulletin on NDTV, or being the lead characters in popular soaps or editing the Hindu.

The media representation for Dalits in 2014 is worse than it was for African Americans even in the 1920s.

In his 1998 paper ‘Advertising, Politics and the Sentimental Education of the Indian Customers’, Arvind Rajagopal, who teaches media studies at New York University, concluded that until the 1980s, the advertising culture in India was “marked by the absence, by and large, of a popular aesthetic for the majority of the consuming population.” Could there be a similar problem in the news industry as well? “I would not assume that a news culture that is valid for the general Indian population is within reach,” he replies, “unlike the problem of popular aesthetics, which has for the moment arrived at a solution of sorts: Hindutva minus overt caste assertion.”

But then why are even the urban Indian consumers, who are apparently better educated and who can afford to pay more, unable to differentiate the good news from the bad? “The aesthetics for information,” according to Choudhary, “has been bent in a way that the news – apart from providing some provocative and tantalising details that can only be termed ‘infotainment’ – serves no educative purpose.”

I asked Rajagopal how one can make sense of the demand-supply conundrum: “As far as empirical inquiry goes, it is largely a supply-side story; supply shapes demand, and re-adapts so that it can continue shaping demand in accord with supply-side agendas,” he says. “Trying to formulate hypotheses about the ‘demand side’ independently always has to presume a putative supply in relation to the demand.” One could look at different supply points, he suggested: Bhojpuri films and music, regional Hindi print media, cable and satellite television, Internet sites. “It’s the ‘observer affects the observed’. No independent data about the observed are valid in the absence of accompanying data about the observer.”

This, then, shows why apprehensions about the country’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, becoming the biggest media baron aren’t completely misplaced. The only bit of hope in what appears to be India’s own version of a Gilded Age comes, ironically, from the rivals, the fellow media-owning “capitalist players who genuinely loath the Reliance empire,” says Jeffrey. One wonders if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

~Abhishek Choudhary is a journalist and researcher, presently based in Delhi.

~This article was first published in June 2014.

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