Largely because of the low road it has taken in the last couple of decades, and directly as a result of the challenges thrown up by the COVID pandemic, the time has come for Indian news media to press the reset button once again.
A hard reset actually. Force-Quit.
No one knows what is in store in the immediate future but a couple of possibilities are easy to guess.
One, as organisations slash jobs and salaries to balance the books and keep enterprises afloat, already-bare newsrooms will get further hollowed out, chipping away at their core journalistic functions.
There will be fewer foreign correspondents, fewer specialists, fewer deep dives, fewer older heads, as companies sacrifice institutional memory and seek younger people with a lower cost to company, whose skills can be utilised across platforms.
And after two months of working from home, managers and bosses will elevate telephone reporting into a virtue to save money on travel and other expenses.
The second possibility is that the distinction between serious and frivolous journalism, between the important and the inane, between news and advertisement, will diminish even further.
In the quest for numbers, in the chase for the lowest common denominator, Indian news media had to fiddle with the holy grail of the profession.
Now, post-COVID, with the digital threat getting bigger, with advertising tight, with consolidation on the cards, organisations will find newer ways of milking the old cow.
The wall between Church and State, barely visible in many organisations today, will blur even further to the point of vanishing.
Because consumers have grown used in the last few weeks to receiving news digitally, where the distinction is nearly absent, the lockdown will provide the rationale for shorter, snappier, tactile content.
Original journalism will take a backseat as rehashing and repackaging take over. Deep dives and investigations will get increasingly scarce.
The end-result of all this is that we are most likely looking at a very weakened news media ecosystem, beholden to the government of the day for sustenance and survival, with deep and long term implications for Indian democracy.
On this episode of J-POD, a podcast on journalists and journalism, we are joined by a man with an enviable 360-degree resume: Sashi Kumar.
Old timers will remember Sashi as the suave, dignified face of Doordarshan with a voice to match. But he has many more arrows in his quiver.
He has been a foreign correspondent of The Hindu in the Gulf. He set up India’s first private news channel Asianet News. He has been the chairman of the foundation which runs the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ). And he has set up a portal called Asiaville in multiple languages to explore what the digital future holds.
In other words, Sashi Kumar has seen the print, television, digital and movie worlds, and from either side of the fence.
In J-POD, Sashi argues that in the post-COVID world, the time may have come to stop looking at news media as the holy cow, separate and distinct from the rest of media.
5.05: “Disruption is a term you associated with new media. Paradoxically, there has been continuity in digital media. The actual disruption has taken place in our physical lives, through social distancing, in interacting socially.
“We will see a spurt in continuity in the media, an intensification of engagement, in terms of becoming viciously digital. We will be connected more than ever before.
8.40: “The virtue of enclosing news media as a holy cow is not likely to pass muster given the way it is being technologically determined. A lot of social media is news media, straddling both worlds. There is a lot of segueing from news media proper to social media.
“One of the paradigm shifts we are seeing is that our definition of news media is going to get more diffused. We are looking at information and knowledge which makes a difference to our lives, which provides context and meaning to what is happening around us.
“If that is news, so be it. If that is information, so be it. If that is entertainment, so be it. These differences are something we may want to keep strongly in place. I am not so sure it is necessary any more.
11.30: “Pulitzer Prize is named after Joseph Pulitzer who was the yellow journalist par excellence of his time. I wonder if it is not a middle-class puritanical squeamishness the defines news the way we have looked at it.
“One of the useful functions of social media has been to dilute that blinkered, strait-jacketed idea of news. The news media ecology has become amorphous. News has become a subset of the media. You cannot isolate news and see it in an artificial showcased sort of way.
15.30: “The biggest news platforms are Google and Facebook. They pretend to be technology platforms but they are actually media platforms. In India it is not a coincidence that at this time when the economy is in the doldrums and we do not know how deep the pit is, FB buys into Reliance Jio. And there are others.
“There are super competitors in the media space and the media space includes news willy-nilly. The medium being the message, as Marshall McLuhan said, is acquiring a new sense during this whole transition.
22.06: “An editorial in The Hindu has greater value than a WhatsApp meme, but I don’t think I should scorn at those who think having a healthy WhatsApp debate is more important than reading a ‘Hindu’ editorial. That is the essence of democracy.
“If you say democracy, you must say say free media in the same breath, otherwise that democracy is a sham. At the same time, it should be a freewheeling democracy, not just a free democracy. There must be licence, If there is a consequence it must come from the law, not from a lynch mob or puritanical thoughts. In the age of social media, the anarchy, the dystopia, the heterodoxy, the iconoclasm out there is a given.
23.27: “We have reconsider the valorisation of news media. After all it is a 400 or 500-year-old activity. Maybe it has come to a juncture, a watershed moment, where it is going through a churn and you are seeing a more democratised awakening of the public sphere.
26.10: “P. Sainath raised this important point that when 18 people were run over on a railway track, how many newspapers listed their names? Imagine two people who die in an air crash. One has to look at the media as a composition of a variety of treatments, demographics, tastes, patterns. The sum total of that makes for a healthy democracy. I don’t think we should privilege one over the other too much.
35.00: “The agenda-setting function of The New York Times, The Times of India or The Hindu is far less powerful than it was in a liberal, more responsive kind of political regime. It takes all types. It is no longer a simple world of great journalism and not so great journalism, it is different kinds of journalism.
37.45: “In the post-COVID phase, opinion and considered opinion have become the mainstay of newspapers. Pure information is available in plenty. You read a newspaper for a point of view.
40.11: “Media freedom is lower than before the pandemic began. The media has either been intimidated or intimidated itself. India is 142 on the World Press Freedom index.
“When COVID broke, it was suggested that these are emergency times and the media must tail the government viewpoint. We have a strong fifth column in the fourth estate. They are neutralising the media which is critical. And there was the suggestion that this is not the time for investigative journalism.
“Handout journalism has become the norm. But this is the time for the media to be vigilant and investigative. Let us not forget that Amartya Sen’s investigation of China belongs to an emergency situation like this when there was a huge famine.
48.16: “It is too early to say trust in the news media has gone up. Public continues to be critical and cynical of the media. There is just greater curiosity about COVID at the moment.
50.30: “Journalism students are feeling nervous and unsettled because of the current situation. Young journalists who are digitally equipped and have the capacity to understand news, and have the skillsets to handle news across media will be in huge demand because the industry is using the moment to make the big shift more fully to the digital realm
53.04: “The cardinal principles and core values of journalism, the raison d’être, are going to be a big challenge in journalism education from here on. Teachers with traditional skillsets will have to make adjustments.
55.52: “My advice to working journalists is: be heterodox; think out of the box; reimagine this whole thing called journalism; don’t be afraid of pushing the frontiers; do things others are not doing; set yourself apart. Unless you differentiate yourself, you are going to be lost in the crowd. Brinkmanship is the mantra.