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Now streaming: what readers want

Clockwise from top left: Sabyasachi with Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra-Jonas’ book, and stills from ‘Bombay Begums’ and ‘Tandav’  

Bollywood, sex, rich and famous weddings, controversy, Sabyasachi, royalty, saris, self-affirmation, what to buy, eat, where to go.

That’s what (Indian) readers want. From lifestyle magazines.

Broken down in different elements, of course. Celebrity curiosity will keep shifting. As it has from little Taimur Ali Khan (to the great relief of reporters on his beat) to Priyanka Chopra-Jonas’ book and beauty line. It will desert Kangana Ranaut’s theatrics for actor Sonu Sood’s new roles. When airport looks were grounded, Covid-19 masks took over. Currently, if sex is what Bombay Begums are having on Netflix, last month we had the Sex and The City reboot to fret about. A new controversy on tattered jeans replaces an old one on Tandav. Sprinkle some highly searched words like sustainability, depression, Mumbai police, TRP scam, race and religion, throw in spring/summer fashion trends and you have “content”.

A good story, unlike this one, does not start with answers. It first builds context. The reader, however, may not care. For, a decade into what is described as the news revolution — ever since our laurels were about page views, likes and “going viral” — unless we tumble out some magnetic words to noose you in less than 30 seconds, dear reader, we will lose you to the next click. The next bait.

Also read: Who killed the exclusive?

But this is sheer exaggeration, you argue. Right. That’s exactly the point. “Simplify, then exaggerate,” as Geoffrey Crowther, former editor of The Economist would tell his editorial team. Now we do this inadvertently because we have no idea what you may find “epic” tomorrow morning.

Last week, my article Who killed the exclusive in these pages, brought back a stack of feedback. Most came from the PR industry. Though a jewel of an observation from a reader raised the bar. “The algorithm that decodes what matters most (for readers presumably) is missing,” it said.

This piece attempts to go into the circuitry of daily “content” compared to stories that promise quality, depth, fairness and accuracy, the hallmarks of good journalism. Does the reader know or care for the difference?

Actor Priyanka Chopra-Jonas walks the ramp during the 2020 Blenders Pride Fashion Tour

Actor Priyanka Chopra-Jonas walks the ramp during the 2020 Blenders Pride Fashion Tour   | Photo Credit: PTI

The ‘not serious’ tag

The pervasive assumption is that most readers prefer Priyanka Chopra-Jonas’s starry frocks, to why it took two months for Nodeep Kaur of Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan to get bail after her arrest at the farmers’ protest in Delhi. Metaphorically and literally. Some of you also remind us lifestyle writers that we have no business comparing our work with serious stories. You expect us to stay in the “back of the book”.

On the other hand, social media analysis builds on the contention that followers swarm around a “Twitter faceoff” or a trending Facebook story. The journalist is completely incidental. People follow us if our ideas are “endorsed” by influencers and fashion is featured on filmstars. We must follow your digital instincts — which increasingly point towards click bait — for you to follow us. So instead of information, insight and analysis, we must toil over catchy, SEO-friendly headlines. This is creating Instagram-pro content for social media spectators. For those who do not read.

As a digital editor who pores over metrics (consumption data, reader analysis and the like) every week, I can tell you that this many fangled debate — whether readers determine the fate of journalism or whether proprietors of publications are the real culprits given falling revenues — is a chicken and egg one. Do you even care if what you read is PR mandated or an authentically reported story? Does it bother you that a shopping list in a fashion magazine is paid for by the brands being recommended? Probably not because it brings you well-curated information anyway.

Delhi Pradesh Mahila Congress members protest against Uttarakhand CM’s remarks regarding ripped jeans

Delhi Pradesh Mahila Congress members protest against Uttarakhand CM’s remarks regarding ripped jeans   | Photo Credit: PTI

Finding relevance

In the maddening spin between paid stories, “networked” content and Bollywood obsession, the digital reader (not the social media skater) is only partially understood. The lifestyle journalist even less.

While I have no statistics to counter that Bollywood drives attention, because it indeed does, there is enough data to prove that stories on Indian handlooms and crafts with photographs from the field perform equally well. This has been a consistent take back in my last two jobs. A photo story almost always does better than written pieces — says something about diminishing attention spans?

It surprises me that one of my stories, The Kalakshetra sari as a cultural destination, is the most read of all my work over the last three years at The Voice of Fashion. It is not a “trending” subject. But readers like stories on woven saris, wedding lehengas and new web series where clothes play big roles. Bridgerton, Queen’s Gambit, Masaba, Emily in Paris are instances. Data also supports that a majority engage with stories that concern the Northeast and Kashmir, including themes of strife, gender politics and resilience. This narrows the intellectual gap pointed out between print and digital readers.

Those who consume content that intersects between fashion, art, culture, art, society, dress and identity fall in the 25-35 age group. Hyderabad and Bengaluru are ahead of Delhi yet behind Mumbai in the consumption of unusual content around fashion. Men and women are almost equally interested in fashion and design writing. ‘Where can I buy this or that’ is a failsafe tactic especially if it is about a beauty product but so is anything to do with designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee as many editors will tell you.

A woman paints the traditional Sohrai art of Jharkhand

A woman paints the traditional Sohrai art of Jharkhand   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A lifestyle writer’s trap

To return to a sore issue, the reader bias against lifestyle journalists is perhaps disproportionate. First, most such writing is whittled down to fashion, celebrity lives, cars and restaurants. This gets labelled as elitist, which is true to some extent as we omit interviewing millennials among Dalit and OBC communities about dating, depression or shopping, We never ask adult children of artisans for their views on lipsticks, blue jeans, pre-wedding shoots or smart phones.

All the same, during the pandemic, lifestyle reporting brought out the underlying fragility of fashion retail in India. Of migrants employed in manufacturing units and export houses. Fashion journalism followed up promises of artisan funds. The cadence changed. The migrant, the rebel, the gender fluid influencer, the body positive model became our protagonists. Block chain technology, worker welfare, water and waste in manufacturing and circular fashion that optimises resources and innovation took the lead because readers respond to them.

That’s why when someone asks me who your reader is, I often say, the one who I can read.

Shefalee Vasudev is editor of The Voice of Fashion.

This is a follow-up to last week’s article on how lifestyle journalism has changed.

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 7:57:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/now-streaming-what-readers-want/article34169767.ece

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