Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Outlook's peerless issue on the Indian media crisis

If you've an interest in the media (and every right-thinking person in our country should have an interest in the media), if you are a journalist, if you're an aspiring journalist, if you're a media student... rush to the nearest newsstand and grab a copy of Outlook's 312-page 15th anniversary issue.

In a brilliant section of essays, helmed by foreign editor Ajaz Ashraf, the magazine dissects what it refers to as the great Indian media crisis. For old fogeys like me some of the articles may have made for depressing reading but I take heart from the thought that Outlook has done Indian journalism a singular service by highlighting the ills that plague our newspapers, magazines, and television news channels. Younger journalists and would-be journalists, who will now understand better what is wrong with our media, thanks to Outlook, will be inspired to make an effort to put our house back in order. For that I am very grateful.

Here, to give you a flavour of this thought-provoking — and provocative — issue are excerpts from the stand-out essays:

1. The pen points to us, by Ajaz Ashraf

For Outlook’s 15th birthday, instead of cutting cakes, blowing out candles and printing inane power lists, we decided to tweak a popular cliche and say that journalists who live in glass houses must throw stones at others. Heck, we are journalists, taught to blow against the wind, even live dangerously.

The 15th anniversary issue you hold in your hands does precisely that: it throws stones at the giant media houses, their ambitious owners, their flamboyant editors and wily marketing honchos. We have chosen to defy the norm that dog won’t eat dog because the media is palpably in crisis. What’s worse, the deep gashes are all self-inflicted, by those like us in the media itself.

2. Why I quit the media, by Sumir Lal

I reported from Ayodhya in 1990 on a storming of the Babri Masjid, the police firing, the many deaths, the mayhem. After filing my story, I called my wife to let her know I was safe. While BCCL [the publishers of The Times of India] was raking in record profits, the accounts department refused to reimburse me the few rupees for that call. The expense statement went all the way up to the general manager, who did not approve. On another occasion, a colleague covering an election in a sprawling constituency had his taxi bill turned down on the ground that he could have used a rickshaw. That epitomised the contempt for the newsgathering process of a paper that the BBC mysteriously certified as one of the world’s six greatest.

3. Cut-rate democracy, by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

... corruption in the mass media in India and elsewhere is as old as the media itself. If there is corruption in society, it would be unrealistic to expect the media to be free of this affliction. In recent times, however, corruption in the Indian media has gone way beyond individuals and specific media organisations — from ‘planting’ information and spinning views in lieu of favours received in cash or kind — to institutionalised and organised forms of corruption wherein newspapers and TV channels receive funds for publishing or broadcasting information that is sought to be disguised as ‘news’ — but are actually designed to favour particular individuals, corporate entities, representatives of political parties or cash-rich candidates contesting elections.

4. Reading the reader, by Patrick French

Today, the media is in crisis; but that is not unusual, and it may not be a bad thing. The churning marks a moment of creativity. Anxiety about the state of the press indicates that people in India care about what newspapers, magazines, TV channels and websites are doing and thinking, which is not the case in countries with a less vigorous public debate. Now, Indians face further problems — trivialised reporting, predatory press owners and stories that are paid for by politicians and others.

5. "Our paper isn't for our editors. It's for people." Anjali Puri interviews the Times Group CEO, Ravi Dhariwal

Q: It was the Times that taught the Indian media that newspapers must pay for themselves. But readers have also seen walls collapsing between advertising and editorial. One question that comes up time and again is: is there a cap to greed? It seems like everything is on sale — the masthead, the front page, the editorial columns, the headlines....
A: Our editorial is priceless; it is never up for sale. I have worked here for 10 years now, not once have we ever influenced editorial decisions. We have no political agenda, our agenda is only reader engagement and relevance. We believe it is because of that that we get great advertising. Our editorial department and advertising department are totally separate. There is a Chinese wall. But if a client wants a particular design on the front page, why not? It does not upset what our editors write. To say that editors own that entire real estate, and nothing else should happen on it, is an old-fashioned formula.

6. What the hack!, by Shashi Tharoor

On the positive side, our newspapers are more readable, better edited and usually better written than they were. Every newspaper looks at the news more critically, with a clearly visible slant on the events it is reporting. Investigative stories are frequent and occasionally expose wrongdoing before any official institution does so. ... On the negative side, newspapers seem more conscious than ever that it is not they, but TV, that sets the pace.

Tharoor does not spare some of the media bigwigs, including Outlook, in his critique, citing the example of the hyper-coverage (most of it, including the Outlook article, was distasteful, in my opinion) given to his soon-to-be wife:

Part of the problem is a genuine disinclination to take the trouble to research a story, and a disregard for the need to verify it. Outlook ran an appalling piece on my wife Sunanda, in which every second statement was provably false or inaccurate, without consulting either her or her friends about their veracity. (To the magazine’s credit, it also ran a flood of letters pillorying it for the piece.) The Times of India got taken in by one of the many fake Facebook sites purporting to be Sunanda’s (she is not on any social networking site) and ran an entire article quoting her supposed views, without ever checking as to whether the site was genuine. Mid-Day placed words and sentiments in the mouth of one of my sons at my wedding that he would never have thought and did not utter. Perhaps it is our country’s weak libel protections that lead publications to feel they can print anything with complete disregard to the fact that it could amount to character assassination. But it is a sad commentary on how low our print standards have fallen that the very notion of what is “fit to print” has ceased to have any meaning in India today (and in India Today as well, but that’s another matter).

7. Pow! Thud! Diss!, by Mark Tully

The most obvious place where the editor is missing from is the Breaking News slot, which usually deteriorates into a desperate struggle to fill airtime. After the BBC’s early encounter with 24-hour radio news during the first Gulf War, an old veteran of the newsroom said to his editor, “I reckon we’ve been broadcasting untreated sewage.” Apart from the lack of content, Breaking News consistently ignores two basic lessons I was taught. It was drummed into my head that film should never be used as wallpaper. But that is exactly what film is, or at least is for most of the time, in Breaking News.

8. Mainland discourse, by Sanjoy Hazarika

It could be argued ... that poor basic services and slothful, insensitive and corrupt administration have aggravated the political crisis both in the Northeast and Kashmir. This is often where the media fails to make the connection — insurgency and bad governance are part of the same coin, the same story — and often misses the point that lack of services exacerbates alienation. These are the kind of stories that must be leadership-driven, by editors of vision and perspective. For that, you need the kind of determined editors represented by the ilk of B.G. Verghese and P. Sainath. There aren’t many of them around.

9. Just bite, don't chew, by Dipankar Gupta

To a large extent, the poor quality of TV debates is largely because our broadcasters have little faith in their viewers. They believe the ordinary person wants to see only blood, gore and spittle. They’re probably right. The masses are like potatoes, true, but in different sacks of potatoes. They are switched on to their favourite channels, but with their minds switched off. Where TV anchors go wrong, very wrong, is when they disrespect their own, quite awesome, talents. Given their backgrounds and training, they should want to be tested by the best worldwide. TRPs are mere fig leaves. Why not go for the whole tree, figs and all?

10. Slips, a silly point, by Peter Roebuck

You can see why it isn’t easy for reporters to keep the BCCI on its toes. N. Srinivasan and company resent the critique provided by Cricinfo so much that they refuse to give them passes to Test matches. It is pettiness on the grand scale. It is also a warning to other scribes. Cricinfo has one million readers and is the second most important institution in cricket behind the BCCI. And still it can be ostracised.

And you must especially read, and try to answer, the questions Outlook editor Krishna Prasad has for readers (and viewers). "This isn’t about us, it’s about you," he writes. "While you, as a consumer, have the power to read, watch and listen to what you like, you, as a citizen, also have a responsibility that goes beyond paying for what you buy. Question is, how often do you exercise that right, since it’s in your name that a multitude of sins are committed?"

Go to "A manifesto for readers"

There is more, much more to read, absorb, and act upon. This is a veritable collector's issue — why won't you want to own it?


  1. Will buy it today... what a list of writers and journalists... wow!

  2. Our group in office has a few of these stories doing the rounds in conversations. Also, a colleague of mine has been going on and on and on about the issue. I need to pick it up, but it is nice to know, hear, and read something on the media for once.
    We were the second largest industry, in terms of percentage growth in 2007 (after IT), and now the figure stands at 12.4 percent. I see more foreign interns coming in YOY as print is declining in the West and opportunity is here. The question is what sort of opportunity...

  3. It's the greatest of ironies that TOI should have such humongous amount of procedure to even meet the minimum requirements of its journalists. The story hasn't changed after 20 years. Only now the offices are swankier and the staff-parties take place in night-clubs. But still you've to account for every stapler pin(literally). Nothing personal, but I guess the scenario is more or less same everywhere. When I's interning at TOI,my desk was right beside the business desk. I'm not exaggerating but the reporters used to discuss what to write and what not to with the concerned parties! I don't know if that's usual in business-journalism but somehow it didn't feel right...

    The OUTLOOK issue must be a good read, though I hope it doesn't demystify the profession too much... :P

  4. The list and the comments are very interesting. The fact that everyone has an opinion different from others is definitely worth at least one read. We as media students should surely grab our copy.

  5. It's simply amazing how the team came up with this mammoth issue, carrying writings by some of the great minds from the industry.

    The essays give much food for thought especially for us, media students.Times Group CEO's futile attempts to defend and justify Medianet is worth reading.

    The latest issue of Outlook is something that I'll preserve.Happy 15th, Outlook!

  6. I never expected that a media giant like TOI, who thrive on money, will behave in this manner with its staffs. I think journalists like Sumir Lal, who risk their lives for their profession should not be left to complaining about basic facilities like phone call.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.