Digitisation and Dumbing Down

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Why the Indian broadcast news industry is staring at an abyss

The recent sacking of 300-odd employees by the TV18 Group has again triggered panic in India’s TV broadcast industry. The fear being: ‘What next?’ And ‘Will it be me?’ From cameramen and video editors to producers (in charge of both news features and shows) and journalists, all have been shown the door by the media behemoth. Those in the know say they saw it coming. A senior editor who protested against the presence of certain names on the retrenchment list was asked to either lump it or leave. At least two prominent primetime anchors have saved their jobs by settling for a 30-40 per cent salary cut. A senior cameraman tasked with forwarding a list of people to be retrenched chose to step down instead of succumbing to the whims of an axe-wielding management.

This is not the first time it has happened. In 2009, an identical number of people had been sacked in the wake of the crippling blow of the financial meltdown. The significance this time round is that ‘load shedding’ has come close on the heels of Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Group ploughing nearly Rs 4,800 crore into the beleaguered company. The move to downsize was initiated by Reliance, and Ernst & Young was appointed to advise the company on restructuring itself.

But the TV18 group is not alone. NDTV, which has been intermittently chopping and changing its staff over the past few years, went through a similar exercise last year when nearly 50 of its Mumbai bureau employees were laid off. Around the same time, the India Today Group also retrenched a large number of people in Mail Today and Headlines Today. In the former, there were a large number of sackings, right from the editor downwards. In the latter, virtually all senior desk hands and reporters were fired—some of whom had served the channel since its inception.

The carnage in this industry, which has been underway in fits and starts since 2009, is explained broadly by two factors. Its existence at the cutting edge of an emerging—digital—technology, coupled with the continuing aftershocks of the global meltdown, both feeding each other. While the latter forces companies to ‘shed flab’, the former is making it happen. In a classic replay of Luddism, people watch in horror as technology replaces labour—though it is a far cry from the sweep already experienced by the Western media.

However, unlike that nineteenth century phase of technology adoption, which ushered in superior technology and productivity in its wake, today’s digitisation at best remains a mixed blessing for the news industry since almost everybody concurs that ‘news’ is simply not just another product.

‘Integrated Newsroom’

The latest elephant in the TV newsroom is the ‘integrated newsroom’, a concept which is in an advanced stage of implementation in Europe and the US. In India, it is still taking baby steps. As Ashish Pherwani of Ernst & Young told The Economic Times on the TV18 Group’s downsizing measures, “There will be a common newsroom to make the processes more efficient. Focus will be on increasing the width of news coverage.”

What an ‘integrated newsroom’ does is flatten the newsroom hierarchy by putting every single operation online, which in turn makes it possible to measure output per head, and reorder work flow in a manner that vastly boosts the ability of the editor/promoter (often the same) to closely monitor news content even sitting at home. The larger aim is to make news delivery quick (which explains the ‘breaking news’ phenomenon), even while maintaining tight editorial control over content, 24x7. More critically, it simplifies tasks. Which means everyone can do the same job. For example, reporters of most news channels are expected to know how to edit raw video footage (done earlier by a specialised video editor) and wield a camera. Their core job of news gathering has been reduced to shooting soundbites and uplinking them, something that even a cameraman can do.

This process of integration begins with the physical sharing of work space, especially within channels that are bilingual or have multiple media interests like CNBC-TV18 or the India Today Group, by large groups of workers. It ends up with reporters and editors simultaneously delivering content for several platforms: from the immediate news platforms (print or electronic) to the digital edition to even mobiles, iPhones and sundry other gadgets like tablets. For instance, reporters of NDTV nowadays file reports even for its web edition because this will count in their annual appraisals.

As the process evolves, newsroom integration in both the print and electronic media is likely to get structured around separate ‘hubs’, each serving a specific platform that requires tailormade content. For instance, recently, Britain’s The Guardian reported the growing popularity of ‘listicles’, basically news articles structured like a list (pointwise, that is) designed for mobile digital platforms. These are seen as ‘news snacks’ that are easy to digest ‘during short sharp bursts of attention’, as the report puts it.

In India, the impact of digitisation is still at a very early stage in our news industry, but standardisation of job skills has created conditions that render everyone dispensable. Especially technical hands and journalists on ‘softer’ beats such as education, health, the environment and development in general. Most retrenchments over the past few years, including those by TV18, have seen this lot lose their jobs (its environment and foreign affairs editor has been shown the door). The ‘beat’ system has been diluted with reporters often expected to fill in for colleagues as well as handle several issues simultaneously. Needless to say, news gathering operations are heavily compromised this way.

Also, bureaus located in ‘marginal India’ (Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, the Northeast) have been disbanded and replaced by stringers.

The buzzword now is ‘multi-tasking’, a direct outgrowth of skill devaluation. As Aroon Purie, India’s original media baron, recently stated: “What I look forward to is to create a news turbine that will then grow on to multiple platforms. We would hire specialists who are domain experts. They can then generate content across media, whether it is an article or a TV story or an internet one. There will be one floor with only 450 journalists (though we have a total of 1,200). There will be a synergy in the way we generate content, in advertising, in our approach to events.” Not exactly comforting for his thousand plus employees, is it?

Hollowing out News: The US Experience

Since there are virtually no resource repositories that map the impact of digital media in India, the US experience can give us an idea of which way the Indian media is headed, though the experience is unlikely to be identical. But broadly, the growth of digital media and platforms is a double-edged sword. While it empowers the ordinary citizen (blogs, social networking sites and so on) and creates a surfeit of information at the click of a mouse, its gains for the news-gathering industry are in serious doubt.

One need go no further than a report compiled by the American media regulatory body, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), two years ago. The results are ominous, in fact chilling. The FCC report, while lauding the digitisation of media space, warns, ‘Newspapers are innovating rapidly and reaching new audiences through digital platforms but most are operating with smaller reporting staffs. And as a result are often offering less in-depth coverage of critical topics such as health, education and local government.’ In the US, there has been a spending cut of $1.6 billion per year on reporting operations between 2006 and 2009, which has led to a situation where ‘there are about as many journalists working today as there were before Watergate.’ Investigative stories have suffered a precipitous decline. According to the report, between 1984 and 2010, submissions for the Pulitzer Prize ‘public service’ category (mainly investigating reporting) dropped by 43 per cent. The report also notes that ‘a minority are exhibiting alarming tendencies to allow advertisers to dictate content’.

Meanwhile, a Pew research study has concluded that ‘as news is posted faster often with little enterprise reporting added, the official version of events is becoming more important’. Nearly ‘63 per cent of the stories were initiated by government officials,’ it adds. This has ended up strengthening the government’s version of events.

There is also an alarming increase, almost to the tune of 60 per cent, in what the FCC calls, ‘One-man Bands’ in the television news business. That is, journalists who do it all: ‘conduct interviews, shoot video and edit their own stories’. Needless to say, this has adversely impacted the quality of news. By the time we realise that the impact in India is likely to be similar, it will probably be too late to do anything about it.