Options before mainstream mediaIt is in this chaotic ecology that an opportunity arises for some to cement their place as purveyors of credible news.
Mainstream Indian media has a lot on its plate. The social media phenomenon, accentuated by Covid-19 in recent months, has resulted in professional media having boxed itself into a corner. The content creation and presentation rubric it operates in across traditional/new media looks well past its sell-by date.
If, however, one accepts the premise that a free media is an essential component of societal progress perchance knowledge acquisition, the question arises: What is to be done?
First, professional media across platforms needs to reclaim its mojo as a source of credible news and informed opinion where the bar is expressly not set low to compete with social media. But Indian media, in the main, just hasn’t twigged. It’s like watching lemmings rush to the sea.
While the media is a business and has bills to pay like all businesses, it is not just any business. Unless content curators drive the company, the knowledge—as opposed to merely information—space which is up for grabs across the Indian media landscape cannot be occupied.
Ideally placed to do so, ironically, are those very battered and bruised traditional media houses of some vintage whose founding charter includes a well-defined public interest bias and where editorial-commercial convergence is limited to the organisational apex.
In a media environment where the resurgence of the nation-state as the primary unit of interaction between countries is—rightly or wrongly—in vogue, any worthwhile contribution to the public discourse needs urgently to be context-specific.
But it is one thing to identify pan-Indian themes, quite another to indulge in equalisation; that’s intellectually inept, conceptually clumsy and shows up in the content routinely dished out by major domestic and foreign media outlets.
At the other extreme, are media firms including some behemoths with a dual strategy of an excessively granular-India focus ensconced in an overarching theme of articulating what they perceive to be the national interest.
It is a model which combines the lowest common denominator of prurient interest with a meta understanding derived almost wholly from the state with virtually no free agency. Does it make money? Yes, for a few. But the law of diminishing returns is setting in even for them.
The third dimension an independent, contemporary media platform needs to be wary of apart from corporate and government lobbies are the increasingly powerful and rapidly proliferating special interest groups sans accountability. Some of them may well have started life as well-meaning civil society outfits but they have, over the past decade and powered by social media, become ideologically-driven, online mobs that brook no opposition and/or debate.
It is in this chaotic media ecology that an opportunity arises for those with the bandwidth to cement their place as purveyors of credible news and informed comment which the discerning few are ready, able, and willing to pay for. The next challenge is to convert the few into the many.
The value of a public interest charter, the importance of disruption and the urgency of implementing content and/or organisational restructuring cannot be wished away in this campaign.
It will, of course, spark the wrath of the mediocre—whether it’s the suits, the hacks or the self-serving trades unions. Not to mention various governments that exercise direct and/or indirect control on the media which comes in many forms, from the well-known advertisement squeeze to the hoary traditions of restricting access through denying accreditation and scaring off media houses via quasi-judicial industrial tribunals which lack the domain expertise to sit on judgment on media issues including those of employability.
Many genuine efforts to upgrade and expand media platforms in India came a cropper when the coronavirus struck in early 2020. On the other hand, many media owners and managers have cynically used the spread of Covid-19 to hack away at their wage bills with the bottom-line as the only focus.
But these depressing developments do not take away from the key learning of the past three decades, which is the centrality of the effort needed to develop and curate brand defining, platform-agnostic content, conceptualising strategy, and coordinating its implementation with editorial/ business leadership teams.
It’s also the most profound transformative challenge for core leadership teams in contemporary media. But to step up to it requires understanding what’s happening, and that’s still a far cry both in newsrooms and boardrooms.
The varied competencies media professionals of some quality have acquired ought to enable them to bring to the table an approach which is marked by an emphasis on creating and presenting traction-inducing, quality content which doesn’t need dumbing down.
Serious can still be sexy in the media. For that to come to fruition, though, media platforms’ financial/human resource allocation and focus ought unambiguously to be on leading the reader/consumer rather than following him/her. To turn a profit while doing so may not be as difficult as some have us believe.
If the media is a circus, the clowns at whose expense the laughs are being generated today are the readers/consumers. There is nothing wrong in a bit of comic relief if that’s your game. But investing in consumer education is the only survival strategy left for mainstream media.
This article was previously published in The Statesman, a part of Asia News Network.