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Who killed the exclusive?

A selection of Insta launches by fashion designers  

What an irony that an elegy of the media exclusive is being explored less than two weeks after one of the most talked about television exclusives of recent times. Of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s racy confessional to talk show matriarch Oprah Winfrey.

That is the epitaph.

Now the funeral.

It starts in the backroom of a content platform. “We are offering you an exclusive,” says an email. Details waffle in of a brand campaign or a person whose name carries familiarity, even fame, a creative or business head. Sometimes you are promised photographs from a show or a clip from a fashion film. For most journalists, the reflex response to a potential “exclusive” is piqued interest. Your fuzzy head oscillates between self-importance and the value of the publication you work for. The adrenaline surge of a feisty (imaginary) headline riding on a tricky little tag — exclusive — is too much to resist.

Oprah Winfrey with the Sussexes

Oprah Winfrey with the Sussexes  

It is funnily unfunny though when you scrutinise such offers, if not the very notion, and realise that the exclusive media story from the age of journalism gone by, is dead. When information was not authored and controlled by a posse of image managers. When news was broken by us hacks as bread and not as free fine dine hosted by our subjects.

Also read: Now streaming: what readers want

The primacy of the written word in newspapers gave way to fast and easily consumable television. Television opened other visually mesmerising doors, the video for instance. Social media became the protagonist (villain?) of the news revolution. The phone camera chased away the photo journalist. The armchair blogger beat the field reporter. And as Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian argues in the introduction of his book Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now, “Some thought we were drowning in too much news, others feared the danger of becoming newsless. Some believed we had too much free news; others, that paid-for news was leaving behind a long caravan of ignorance.”

Stuck in a loop

Today, digging for information and verifying its veracity by questioning the prettily packaged, glossy versions of fashion brands and designers handed out to us is not something we can be proud of. Certainly not in lifestyle journalism, even as the exclusive in daily television news, business reports, politics and sports is equally threatened.

Photos from Jasprit Bumrah’s wedding and reception

Photos from Jasprit Bumrah’s wedding and reception  

Even a quick internet search throws up a dozen “exclusive” interviews with couturier Sabyasachi Mukherjee for instance. Perhaps as many with top league designers Manish Malhotra and Anita Dongre. Milind Soman, our middle-aged model, runner and stunner has been exclusively interviewed tens of times. As are actors Sonam Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Kareena Kapoor even Jacqueline Fernandes in similar “exclusives” on fashion, film roles, relationships, airport looks and troll stalking. Scores of exclusives on Deepika Padukone’s battle with depression wait to be discovered. Everyday “exclusives” dance on our attention spans — from cricketer Jasprit Bumrah’s wardrobe for his Goa wedding just a few days back to how Queen’s Gambit star Anna Taylor-Joy almost did not wear the breathtaking green Dior gown recently at the Emmys.

When you read these articles, it is hard to detect anything that is exclusively revelatory. Most stories wheeze under repetitive quotes. So overexposed are the views of beauty entrepreneur Huda Kattan for instance, or pop stars like Lady Gaga and Rihanna, the sustainability arguments of designer Rahul Mishra, the enervation and excitement of Manish Malhotra’s 30 years in Indian fashion, the manner in which Sabyasachi Mukherjee controls the narrative of all news that leaves his headquarters, that you know the story before you have written it.

Sometimes, you fall for the exclusive tag with your eyes wide open. Case in point, the stories around the death of French couturier Pierre Cardin, 98, in December. Well-known design guru Rajeev Sethi who had worked under Cardin in Paris and was familiar with the late designer’s insights on Indian fashion sent messages to a number of Indian journalists offering to speak on Cardin’s work with valuable insights. Sethi undoubtedly had an “exclusive” India angle to Cardin, yet every story that appeared in Indian publications over the next few days had similar quotes, all from Sethi. “Before we can rush to Sethi’s Asian Heritage Foundation for a “conversation”, elements of the “exclusive” have been broken down and shared among journalists of a certain flock. Now, we must return to our writing desks and spin the same story in different ways,” I wrote for The Voice of Fashion.

Who killed the exclusive?

Breaking down content

This is an age of intense public exfoliation, over-documented Instagram lives, journalists managed by social media agencies, the confusion and conflict between bloggers projecting themselves as brands and brands positing as institutions. Content is deliberately trivialised in the name of democratisation and “reach” through influencers.

PR teams of fashion designers send journalists ready-to-uplink posts for Instagram complete with captions, images, tags and hashtags, even a specific release time, all programmed to create strategic persistence. So why plead the cause of the exclusive?

For media stories, we are offered a tiny piece of a pie cut into thin slices by a smart publicity manager. Then, each collection, campaign, celebrity face of the brand and announcement is portioned out. One is exclusive to a digital platform. Another to a print magazine. One interview with a business head is restricted to retail expansion, another with the same brand head must be only around marketing. Exclusive use of photography is granted a few days after a film or show has been sighted digitally across the world but is peddled as an “India Exclusive”.

Indian brands politely remind that you are among the select few offered the story “before others”. All through, bloggers, vloggers and Instagram influencers are invited to post, tag and hashtag.

That’s the nature of the beast, we have willingly signed up for. Happier to be a part of a tribe, than the lone hunter in the woods.

Screen grabs from CNN Freedom Project’s documentary, ‘Silk Slaves of India’

Screen grabs from CNN Freedom Project’s documentary, ‘Silk Slaves of India’  

Power of the untold story

This lament doesn’t have any moral play or job leverage. But if we do want an exclusive, we can chase one. Far from pre-packaged formulas handed out by PR representatives, the trail of the untold story has not vanished. It can be sniffed out. Though with photographers and reporters fired from many news outlets, the question of who will walk these deserted trails is difficult to answer.

However, if Oprah’s interview with the Sussexes had an exclusive air, the recently televised CNN Freedom Project documentary Silk Slaves of India that investigates bonded labour inside Karnataka’s silk weaving industry is without doubt an exclusive story.

The real exclusive perhaps lives in the way we search for and choose our stories, ask questions, report, write, and reject cloning, promotional tones. It takes years of newsroom training to write a story that becomes an exclusive read for its narration and research. At least three people must be committed to such a pursuit—the proprietor, editor and the reporter.

“Ultimately, the reader will pay to read your original and better reporting. You cannot reduce the resources required for original reporting,” the legendary journalist Marty Baron, till recently the executive editor of The Washington Post told The Indian Express’ Anant Goenka in an interview this February. He was responding to Goenka’s question if the Post’s support of fair journalism by billionaires is a model that can be adopted worldwide.

It may also be worthwhile to look beyond the PR-networked, often incestuous, English lifestyle media for a masterclass on exclusives. An instance is Anwesha Banerjee from EI Samay, a Bengali language digital news portal, who won the Ramnath Goenka award in 2020 for regional language reporting for her stories on human trafficking told through the lives of the women of a nomadic tribe.

While you are at it, The State of Journalism 2021, a Muck Rack study, released earlier this week offers some clues. It focuses on “reporting, social media habits and preferences for working with PR in the year of Covid-19.”

The exclusive is dead. Long live the story.

Shefalee Vasudev is editor of The Voice of Fashion

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 12:43:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/who-killed-the-exclusive/article34112625.ece

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