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Updated: July 22, 2013 12:06 IST

‘Synergise or perish’

Prashant Jha
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'Journalists need to be ‘incentivised’ rather than ‘threatened’; otherwise there will be an exodus.'
AP 'Journalists need to be ‘incentivised’ rather than ‘threatened’; otherwise there will be an exodus.'

Media houses are increasingly moving towards integrated newsrooms, with journalists reporting across platforms, languages, themes, in real time. But this may not be smooth and uncontested  

It has been in the offing for a while, but the idea of ‘integrated newsrooms’ is picking momentum in an unprecedented manner.

Major networks are in the middle of a major overhaul. Newspapers and channels, belonging to the same network, have been brought together in common office spaces for greater ‘synergy’. There has been a spurt in investment in online platforms, with the ‘web-first’ philosophy – whereby reporters are first told to file a story for the net, before sending a longer one for the print edition or TV – gaining traction across the industry. And the lines between being a TV, print, digital reporter or photographer is blurring rapidly, with journalists expected to perform a range of responsibilities, and possess skills across mediums, languages, beats, and platforms.

Two factors are driving the change.

The first, all industry veterans admit, is ‘cost-cutting’ at a time when media houses are feeling the pressure in an ultra-competitive environment, a sluggish economy, and with many networks facing severe financial crises. The second is technological, and recognition that people are already shifting to consuming news online. The fact that the future is digital is now a truism. This has resulted in pressure to streamline operations to deliver news ‘as it happens’, across platforms.

‘I-newsroom’

Akash Banerjee, author of Tales from Shining and Sinking India, a book on the news television business, explains the various ways in which the concept of an ‘integrated newsroom’ is taking shape.

He gives the example of the Living Media group, which owns India Today and TV Today network, and where he worked in the past. “Across platforms, different news categories, and languages, reporters first feed in the news to a wire service. This is manned by an assignment desk, which flashes the news on an internal wire. Any of the group’s media platforms can then run with it. It is called technological synergies of resources.”

Then, there is ‘physical proximity’ where reporters, editors, desk and production hands share a common office space, enabling greater interaction and exchange of information. A common OB van, with skeletal staff, goes out for an assignment instead of multiple vans for each platform of the same media house.

“The greatest impact on journalists, of course, is they have to be multi-faceted. You do a piece-to-camera in English and Hindi, write for the group’s publications, tweet in real-time, post short video-blogs, and may even need to do your own camera-work,” says Mr Banerjee.

New pressures

All of this has meant new pressures on editors and reporters.

Smita Sharma, the associate foreign editor and anchor with IBN7 channel, is among the most productive TV journalists in the business. In the past few months, besides her regular reporting and anchoring duties in Delhi, she has reported on elections in Karnataka, protests in Bangladesh, elections in Pakistan, natural disaster in Uttarakhand. And she has often done so for both the Hindi and English channels of Network 18, besides live web-blogging for Firstpost.com, their digital platform.

She has no doubts that journalists will have to ‘reinvent’ themselves to stay relevant, or otherwise face the real prospect of losing jobs.

When asked whether it takes a toll, she said, “It offers us an opportunity to work across mediums, but is physically and mentally taxing. Besides, one has to be in step with new age media to check news that is breaking.” She adds that this does result in erosion in the quality of the work. “My video quality will obviously not be as good as that of a professional cameraperson.”

Mr Banerjee adds such wide-ranging responsibilities leave the reporter with little time to specialise. “If you are joining the TV news profession now, where is the space to cultivate expertise and sources? One is expected to track the big story of the day and deliver on an hourly basis preferably.”

R Sukumar, editor of Mint, which was an early pioneer in the concept of integrated newsrooms, has written that besides traditional skills, such newsrooms make new demands of editors. “The first one is the ability to understand what kind of story works online – and online, what story works with a video and which one doesn’t need one – and what works in print.”

The second, he noted, was having the ‘sensory bandwidth’ to deal with all that was happening around and information coming in from 24/7 news channels, Twitter live-feeds, and ‘respond selectively’. The third was ‘considerable physical and mental stamina’. And the fourth, Mr Sukumar pointed out, is an understanding of the digital medium, “not so much in terms of technology…but what it can do for content and readers.”

Structural challenges

A senior media practitioner, familiar with this transition underway, spoke to The Hindu on the condition of anonymity. While acknowledging that cost-cutting and technological considerations were key drivers, he felt that India’s media owners were acting hastily. “They are worried about the crisis a lot before the crisis has actually hit us. Foreign consultants have made extraordinary amounts of money spouting wisdom about integrated newsrooms. This needs to be more carefully thought-out.”

The haste, he argued, had resulted in major problems. “Forcing and threatening print and TV reporters – who were hired with different job descriptions, ensconced in particular ways in an organisation – to suddenly do multiple jobs, beyond their skills, is not working.” So a TV reporter used to writing a script does not necessarily know how to structure print copy, and this had to be substantially re-edited. Or a print person did a raw job of a piece-to-camera for TV news. Desk editors in some major media houses which have experimented with the trend confirmed this pattern, and called it ‘messy’.

The other issue, the senior media source suggested, was the absence of product differentiation. “The idea is that a magazine, a newspaper, channels of one media house will all have distinct elements, and capture their own market share. If a consumer is getting the same information, from the same set of people, across the platforms, why should he pay for all products?”

He added that this was not to suggest that integrated newsrooms should not happen at all, but it needed to be started with a clean slate. “People should be hired with the job description they are meant to perform. There should be adequate training and retraining of staff.”

Most importantly, he said, journalists need to be ‘incentivised’ rather than ‘threatened’; otherwise there will be an exodus. “Encourage and enable them to build skills, don’t tell them they would become dinosaurs.”

But in the ruthless and competitive media world, that is not how the message is being relayed. It is blunter – synergise or perish.

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