Cobrapost sting is a reality check, but Indian journalism is not doomed yet.

A sting operation by a news organisation called Cobrapost exposed the rot in sections of the Indian media.

The sting “claims to have revealed a deeply engrained bias towards the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) within many of India’s leading media groups, as well as a willingness among some of the country’s most senior media executives and journalists to take money in return for pushing a political agenda,” the BBC reported.

Cobrapost’s website says its recordings show that some of the country’s leading news organisations are willing to “not only cause communal disharmony among citizens, but also tilt the electoral outcome in favour of a particular party” — and all in return for cash.”

You can read more about the incident here.

The expose is significant as it erodes trust in the institution of journalism. And it comes at a time when journalism is more important than ever.

“Delegitimising the media is now a part of the strategic toolkit of politicians, who then exploit the trust vacuum to give way to conspiracy theories, to appeal to our emotions and downplay facts — ultimately, to strengthen their power and further their propaganda,” I wrote in an earlier post.

Media critique is crucial. But often, the criticism reflects a lack of understanding of how journalism works. And no one but journalists are to be blamed: we do a bad job of telling our readers how we do the work we do. Neither do we communicate the challenges our industry is facing in the digital age.

Source: The Daily Beast

To be sure, this is not an India centric problem. According to the 2018 Reuters Digital News Report released last week, more than two-thirds of the survey respondents across 27 countries are “either unaware of the problems of the news industry or believe that most news organisations are making a profit from digital news. In reality, most digital news sites are operating at a loss, subsidised by investors, alternative revenue streams, or historic profits from broadcast or print.”

I have long wanted to have an informed discussion about journalism with readers who care. The reaction to the Cobrapost story just reinforced why it matters to me, as I grapple to figure out the purpose of my own work in a crowded information landscape.

This blog is a first in a series of articles I intend to write discussing various threads of the media landscape. In this post, I set the tone for the series by highlighting some of the macro issues confronting my profession.

1. First things first: Not everyone agreed to publish paid news

“25 of the 27 news organisations agreed to publish paid news” — if that’s your takeaway from the Cobrapost operations, you are mistaken and you’re not alone. As Newslaundry’s Manisha Pande pointed out:

“There is an important distinction to keep in mind. In the sting operation, we saw some media organisations agreeing to run ads and marketing campaigns. Others agreed to publish paid news or news content for fee. That’s a clear ethical violation. Cobrapost wrongly muddles the two issues here.”

**What this means: **On one hand, the Cobrapost sting tells us about the unethical practices in Indian journalism. How the story was reported conveys another: nuance is often lost when we talk about complicated topics.

  1. “Good journalism is not dying; it is getting better and bigger.”

For citizens who are concerned about the decline of free press and corruption in the media, I hear you. And trust me, journalists are even more concerned about the state of our profession — after all, that’s what we do for a living. Journalists are a bunch of cynics. Still, I want to say this out loud: Indian media is not doomed yet.

As Raj Kamal Jha, the Editor in Chief of the Indian Express said a couple of years ago in a speech:

“Good journalism is not dying; it is getting better and bigger. It’s just bad journalism makes lot more noise than it used to do five years ago.”

3. If so, where is good journalism?

A lot of what I consider great reporting doesn’t make a splash online. That is one of the areas I think about a lot: how information flows in an increasingly digital networked society. There is a lot I can say about this, but in gist, I think that reflects the failed (ongoing) digital transition of Indian mainstream media: we rely on platforms to get traffic; we still have blog-style homepages; we haven’t built robust infrastructure to collect data about our readers; we mostly just put print stories online — making limited or no use of the interactivity that the web platform provides us; audience engagement is hardly a priority. Let’s not even talk about the lack of podcasts and newsletters, the two mediums witnessing a significant growth — and innovation — in the West.

In the digital age, news organisations need to be extremely tech-savvy and be committed to core values of journalism. Both need to go together to make a mark. We are not doing that enough.

  1. Why do tech and news delivery formats matter?

Because we are living in an attention economy: tech platforms are fighting for people’s attention. Information about public affairs competes with cute cat videos on Facebook and false, divisive WhatsApp forwards masquerading as genuine news.

According to some estimates, Americans spend around 12 minutes a month on the average news site, versus seven hours per month on Facebook. (I couldn’t find India centric figures.)

“I think that this is because existing journalism formats are not very good at engaging curiosity,” Jonathan Stray of Columbia University wrote in an article.

Purists won’t agree, but let’s face it: To many people, news is boring. Making it relevant and interesting — without killing nuance — is our job.

Consider this striking statistic: In a study looking at how people read news online, researchers began with data from 1.2 million internet users and examined their web browsing history (using the Bing toolbar). They had set a criteria to shortlist their sample: users should have read 10 articles and two opinion pieces over three months. Read that again. That’s just four articles a month, meaning one per week. Guess how many qualified that hurdle? 50,000 readers. Just 4 per cent of the sample. It is highly likely that this is an underestimate due to methodological caveats, but you get the point.

In a piece for the Financial Times, the economist Tim Harford referred to this study and said:

Many commentators worry that we’re segregating ourselves in ideological bubbles, exposed only to the views of those who think the same way we do. There’s something in that concern. But for 96 per cent of these web surfers the bubble that mattered wasn’t liberal or conservative, it was: “Don’t bother with the news.”

There will always be a huge chunk of the population which will never care about the news and public affairs. A one-minute funny video will get a zillion times more views than a well-researched ten minute explainer about how automation will affect the Indian labour market. But that’s how it is. On our part, we should strive to make that ten-minute video more engaging.

5. Take a step back: There is no such things as the “Indian Media”

Yes. There is no blanket entity like that. Facebook posts which read “Indian media is dead” or “How can we trust what the Indian media is reporting?” mean nothing.

Paul Farhi, The Washington Post’s media reporter, wrote in a column:

“There are hundreds of broadcast and cable TV networks, a thousand or so local TV stations, a few thousand magazines and newspapers, several thousand radio stations and roughly a gazillion websites, blogs, newsletters and podcasts. There’s also Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and who knows what new digital thing. All of these, collectively, now constitute the media.”

Cobrapost is part of the media. You’d have read about their expose in The Wire, Scroll, The Quint, Indian Express or in a post at some random Facebook page. All of these, collectively, constitute the Indian media.

If you are thinking these are exceptions, read the next point.

6. Don’t underestimate the power of the Internet

So what if these are exceptions? The information exists, it is out there. The press is facing challenges, but it has not fallen apart yet. We are in the internet era. No powerful authority — politicians, government officials, crony capitalists, media moguls — can conceal information from you. But…

7. ..there are problems with the Internet.

As I wrote this in my previous blog post:

Digital media has created a conundrum. On the one hand, information has become democratised. There is more information than ever before, and anyone with an Internet connection can reach out to people across continents and publish what the powerful want concealed. But on the other hand, thanks to information overload, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find authoritative information that one can trust.

“Information glut is the new censorship,” says Zeynep Tufecki, a researcher.

8. So what does this mean? The onus is on you.

In the book Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and ‎Tom Rosenstiel argued that given the variety of information sources in the digital age, the “responsibility for proportionality and comprehensiveness shifts from the news provider to the individual. To the degree that we now rely on these self styled systems and less on gatekeepers, we become both consumers and editors of our own news — and to an even greater degree, captains of our own civic awareness.”

Over the past two years, I have made conscious efforts to curate my information diet. My ten-month social media break — I deleted my Twitter profile and deactivated Facebook — significantly aided that process. (I will discuss strategies in a future post, read NYT’s Farhad Manjoo to get a perspective on this.)

9. But is media literacy really the solution?

Well, the previous point is primarily about media literacy. Want to be informed and avoid the trap of misinformation? Then make an effort to find credible sources, read/watch/listen intelligently: figure it for yourself.

But danah boyd (she spells her name in lowercase), founder of Data & Society, a think tank, argues that doesn’t solve the problem. I strongly recommend you read her insightful piece titled “Did Media Literacy backfire?”, where she writes:

“As a huge proponent for media literacy for over a decade, I’m struggling with the ways in which I missed the mark. The reality is that my assumptions and beliefs do not align with most Americans. Because of my privilege as a scholar, I get to see how expert knowledge and information is produced and have a deep respect for the strengths and limitations of scientific inquiry. Surrounded by journalists and people working to distribute information, I get to see how incentives shape information production and dissemination and the fault lines of that process.** I believe that information intermediaries are important, that honed expertise matters, and that no one can ever be fully informed. **As a result, I have long believed that we have to outsource certain matters and to trust others to do right by us as individuals and society as a whole. This is what it means to live in a democracy, but, more importantly, it’s what it means to live in a society.”

This is a such a profound argument. I am sure many would dispute this, but I side with danah’s argument. It asks us to think about the social contract between citizens and journalists, especially in the digital age where there is no scarcity of choice and misinformation/partisanship are big challenges.

So is the onus really on you? For now, yes. But I hope we find a better solution in the long term.

10. Coming back to Cobrapost: What does this sting really tell us?

For most journalists, nothing new. As a colleague of mine said, it just reinforces what we already know: that the media revenue model is broken, and if good journalism is happening in the big media, that is despite the broken business model rather than because of the model.

11. What’s the broken business model of news?

In brief: The internet disrupted the news industry just as it has disrupted others. Traditional print newspapers were financed by advertising and subscriber revenue. Mass media (television, newspapers) had mass audiences — advertisers loved it.

With the advent of the internet, we gave up on subscriber revenue — information wants to be free, they said. Simultaneously, the ad dollars that migrated to the internet didn’t go to publishers, but mostly to two companies, Google and Facebook.

And so, to generate revenue, online publishers fell for the “crap trap” (hence clickbait). And declining monetary sources meant fewer resources to invest in high quality journalism.

This is a broad generalisation of the state of the global news industry. Indian media organisations face another unique problem: the reliance on government advertisements. You disappoint government officials and they will pull ads off your newspaper, undercutting revenues. Just think about the misaligned incentives such a structure creates and how it opens up avenues for indirect censorship.

Which is why we need new revenue models to sustain and produce independent high-quality journalism in the digital age. “No one has really figured out how to make money in digital journalism, especially in markets like India,” an analyst who looks after media investments told me recently.

And while many journalists pretend as if this is new, sorry, no: We have known this since the 1990s. It’s just that we have ignored the revenue side of our profession for too long — but that won’t work anymore. Thinking about our business is as important as our focus on editorial quality.

What’s next? Hope!

What I have listed above are just few of the many problems with Indian journalism. (I have a long list in my notes!)

Interesting developments are taking place in the digital sphere. The Wire is taking on investigative reporting and publishing critical commentary on issues that the big media avoids. *Scroll *appears to have adapted what we call the product mindset for news — they have by far the best homepage across all Indian news sites (though you can question the relevance of the homepage in the social media age). The Ken is pioneering in India with its subscription only model for news. Kahabar Lahariya is building India’s only women-run rural digital media organisation. The list goes on.

In an interview, P Sainath, the former Rural Affairs Editor of *The Hindu, *said:

“Between fake optimism and cynical pessimism, there is a region called hope. And I like to live there.”

I am hopeful, too. Editorial leadership in big newsrooms and new media entrepreneurs who are committed to journalistic values—and understand business—will build and reform institutions to take on these challenges. While continuing to focus on great reporting, which is the core of what we do, I hope people in the community will think deeply about technology aspects (especially the distribution challenge) and revenue sources. The most exciting stuff will happen at the intersection of journalism, technology and business.

There are massive opportunities, and it’s a great time to be a journalist.

And when I say this, I place a huge bet on citizens. Sooner or later, I hope, they will realise that news is an expensive product. That good journalism is difficult to produce. That investigative reporting requires massive resources. And so, the most promising way forward is for citizens to support independent journalism, meaning they will have to pay to keep news free.

What do you think? What problems do you find in Indian journalism? What do you think journalists should do better? Are there some specific aspect of news production you’d like to know more about? Let’s chat: I would love to hear from you. Please write to me at samarthbansal42@gmail.com and I will respond to you at the earliest.

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Samarth Bansal

Alfred Friendly Fellow (data/investigations) at the Wall Street Journal. Ideas geek. Interested in politics, policy, economics and anything that is news.