Are we knocking on the wrong doors?

Daniel Defoe’s 1722 classic, A Journal of the Plague Year, is a prescient reading of both the mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis by various governments and of human distress and fortitude. At a time like this, one has to remember that for the media to remain free, it must first survive. I am petrified by a term that has been gaining currency: ‘new normal’. How can we call an uncertain future ‘normal’? Are there any policymakers who are sure of the contours of this ‘new normal’? The pandemic is being used as a pretext to empower a centralised executive and weaken the federal balance between the Union and State governments, which, at its best, was a quasi-federal arrangement in India. The government has acknowledged the economic downturn but is indifferent and insensitive to the hardships faced by many.

‘A bitter irony’

In this dire situation, the news industry is in an ironic situation. On the one hand, the pandemic has forced a large section of people to trust established news brands rather than the viral content on social media. A study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) on how institutions are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.K. revealed that “more than one-third (37%) think that the news media is doing a good job of responding to COVID-19, higher than the equivalent figure for technology companies (15%)”. But at the same time, the industry is in a crisis. Adam Gabbatt’s report for The Guardian in early April captured the situation well. He wrote: “As journalists across the US scramble to cover the impact of the coronavirus, they are grappling with a bitter irony: as demand for their stories soars, the decline of the business model that funds them is speeding up catastrophically.”

At a deeper level, the news industry is paying a price for its past folly of laying emphasis on reach over revenue. The cover price was kept low, and digital content was not monetised because of the faith that the reach would generate more advertising revenue. In November 2019, a study by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism revealed the uneasy relationship between the technology majors and news organisations. It said: “The most discernible difference between past findings and those of our most recent interviews is that any hope that scale-based platform products might deliver meaningful or consistent revenue for publishers has disappeared. This does not mean, however, that publishers will no longer work with platforms — an impossible scenario, as the latter are the gatekeepers of the online information ecosystem — but rather that any optimism about the ability of ad-based products to sustain journalism seems all but gone.”

BBC Media Action, the charity arm of the BBC, has come up with a feasibility study for an International Fund for Public Interest Media. It spells out the difficulties before the news media industry: “As advertising revenue to journalism organisation declines, political and other factional actors invest in their own media, and the costs of carrying out independent journalism escalate, the business models available to public interest media are disappearing. The evolution of digital advertising, in particular, has destroyed funding models for journalism — news media are on course to lose around $23.8 billion in annual advertising revenue between 2017 and 2021.” Media managers are in an elusive search for a viable revenue stream. The India-specific figures for the financial year ending March 2020, and the projections for the first quarter of 2021, are alarming.

Support from readers

For nearly a decade, the RISJ has been arguing that independent, professional journalism needs freedom, funding, and a future. While there is a near consensus about what constitutes media freedom, there are divergent views about funding and the future. One section feels that the government should come up with a bailout package for the news industry, a model which may seriously cripple the autonomy of the news organisation. Another section prefers a not-for-profit model, funded through philanthropy, without realising the pitfalls of constantly negotiating with the prescriptive agenda of various foundations. While I do not discount the value of timely help from various quarters to the beleaguered news industry, the political economy of the industry shows that only enhanced support from its principal supporters — readers — will endure and not hurt the core values of journalism. We need to identify, in a dispassionate manner, the right doors to knock on.

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 12:07:00 PM |

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