The industry is thriving in an era of media without journalism. But the profession that underpins it is in decline, under assault from political ownership, censorship and other threats…
It is possible for the business side of an industry to be feeling chirpy while the profession that underpins it is not. If you were to leaf through recent issues of the media and marketing magazine AFaqs! Reporter you would think the media industry is in great shape. Lots of upbeat advertising leaps out at you. The Rajasthan Patrika claiming it is now No. 1 in Madhya Pradesh. (In another issue of the same magazine it claims it is no. 1 in growth.) Zee News claiming it is No. 1 in prime time across Hindi-speaking markets. Mint claiming that 79 per cent of its 1.99 lakh leadership is unduplicated. Prajavani telling you that it grew faster than all the other South Indian dailies put together. Businessworld announcing that it has clocked 24 per cent growth in readership. A story on the new daily Namaste Telangana hitting the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh in June with a multi-edition circulation of over 7 lakh. Announcements of more new newspapers, new editions of old ones, and of new territorial conquests. Not counting the chest thumping from the TV channels.
Doesn't sound like an industry in trouble. It isn't. What is not thriving is the profession but that will not show up in a magazine aimed at media planners and advertisers. Nor will it show up in media reporting itself unless it is really dramatic news such as the Mumbai gangland killing of a crime reporter. When Arindam Chaudhuri of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management sued Caravan magazine last fortnight, it made far more news on the Internet than in the mainstream media. It was a lawsuit claiming Rs. 50 crore in damages for a cover story on Mr. Chaudhuri, a piece of long form journalism by a New York-based writer. Also though both the magazine and IIPM have headquarters in Delhi, the suit was filed in Silchar, Assam.
Other developments in the profession over the same three-month period that the upbeat media industry ads appeared: the gangland killing mentioned above, a reporter from Mid-Day Mumbai was arrested under the Official Secrets Act, Mr. Omar Abdullah in Kashmir announced that he would not allow cable channels in the state to resume telecasting news, something suspended since 2009. The top management honchos in the companies which publish Times of India and India Today used their publications to rubbish the Government-appointed wage board's recommendations on salaries in the print media, calling them an infringement of the freedom of the press. A top police official in Chhattisgarh leaned on a newspaper to withhold a column criticising him and the paper obliged. In Kolkata, the media is in a tizzy over who will be given access and who will not, by the new regime. And the Telangana newspaper mentioned above was launched by a political entity, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and its president K. Chandrasekhara Rao.
As a capsule bulletin on the state of journalism in India it isn't great news. Political ownership of the media, censorship by government fiat or by not so subtle pressure, physical attacks on journalists, and their arrest in some cases, have become regular occurrences. Multi-crore lawsuits are less common but have great value as deterrents.
And as for salaries, media houses are reluctant to pay well in the case of regular employment, not when the employment is on contract basis.
At a meeting organised in Delhi last fortnight by the Foundation for Media Professionals, the Raipur reporter for a national daily described what the daily constraints to professional functioning are like for journalists in Chhattisgarh. Another two reporters from other publications stood up to describe cases slapped on them by the police which have not been withdrawn, one dating back to 2002. In the country's districts a number of incidents of intimidation take place regularly as reporters and stringers attempt to go about their daily functioning.
The question to ask is whether media owners are inclined to nurture journalism with the same care that they nurture the health and expansion of their businesses. Are journalists offered insurance and legal protection? Are they given refresher training? If the best Hindi newspapers (the publications with the largest readership figures in the country) start their journalists even in metropolitan cities at salaries averaging Rs. 8-10,000 a month, are they inviting the best and the brightest to enter the profession? In the capital of Haryana, a leading local daily recently offered a starting monthly salary of Rs. 2,000.
Meanwhile, it is clear that media consumers are not shedding any tears over mutating journalism. India TV, the Hindi news channel which experimented with stretching the definition of news the furthest to include all manner of reality TV, has been so successful in its efforts that it is now getting ready to launch an English news channel. And when that begins to get ratings, watch the others scramble to compete. Zee News has been running an advertising campaign on putting news first and inviting marketing and advertising professionals to endorse the sentiment. Is it out of conviction or out of an instinct for self-preservation?
Media without journalism is increasingly possible. Just content will do nicely, thank you. The Rs. 50 crore question is, if the profession is inclined to fight back how many in the media business will back it?