Not too long ago, editors would sit every evening with a list of stories sent by journalists from across the country and select those they believed their reader should read. The lead story would, they believed, set the national agenda, and as for the rest of the news pages, the editors were obliged to present a balanced view of the news and issues of the day. In the Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton election, for instance, a reader would be offered content that argued against as well as content that agreed with the choice of either candidate.
That scenario has changed.
Today, despite a growing circulation base, The Indian Express—like many other newspapers around the world—reaches far many more readers in digital form than it does in print.
And when our readers consume news from social media, we lose the ability to ensure they are getting a balanced view. Automated social media feeds suggest news stories to readers based on what the reader has read in the past. So if you are reading a pro-Trump story, while an editor’s instinct would be to suggest a pro-Clinton story next, an algorithm would suggest one pro-Trump story after the other. This is why Jon von Tetzchner, co-founder of the popular Web browser Opera, says it is up to readers now to ensure that they get their news from multiple sources and don’t fall prey to a single algorithm.
In my view, this is the primary reason so many countries around the world are getting frighteningly polarized. And in this polarized world, the challenge for us publishers will be to ensure that we give our readers an accurate representation of reality—more grey than black and white.
In reality, almost all journalism stems from deep liberal values. If you think of some of the world’s best journalists, you would notice that they are intelligent, impassioned idealists and many are perfectly suited to auditing democratic governments and playing the role of the watchdog. But they too have the potential to polarize. Over the years, liberalism in mainstream media has left a large portion of the right-wing without a voice and they have spoken loud and clear in elections in many countries, including ours, the Philippines, Turkey, the US, England and possibly even France. The success of Fox News in the US and of Arnab Goswami in India shows the existence of this right-wing audience that news media hasn’t catered to for many years.
In being committed to our neutrality, we have to also recognize that definitions of left-wing and right-wing are also getting far more nuanced. Five years ago, who could have imagined that right-wing Republicans in the US would be campaigning for friendship with Russia and isolationist trade policies? And that the left-of-centre Democrats would be going on about how Americans should never trust the Russians?
The distinctions between the left and the right are far more complicated in India and certainly not as easy as equating the Democrats and Republicans to the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Over the next decade, I see three distinct types of news media emerging in India. The first is similar to some of the 405 news channels in our country: players that are in the business for the clout, their ultimate motivation being in businesses like real estate, infrastructure or natural resources. The second will be highly opinionated news media aligned to a party and with the clear objective of pushing an ideology. Such ideology-led, openly partisan publications are today party mouthpieces but this format of content will evolve, get more subtle, be embellished and positioned as “balanced”, and go more mainstream. We are already seeing this in the US, with an entire battery of charged-up young people so horrified with Trump’s election that they are joining journalism just to create content that strongly disagrees with Trump’s message.
And the third type are the stand-alone news media businesses that are essentially neutral—as is the tradition—reporting first and opining later. Of these, I would imagine, many will be publicly traded or private equity-backed and run as business-first organizations. These will significantly expand their content offering to go beyond traditional definitions of news to include food, health, gossip, architecture, design, entertainment, education, science and technology and be present in multiple languages. The most robust among them will ensure that their investors leave their newsrooms alone so that they can assure their readers that their business interests do not affect the veracity or credibility of their journalism.
Because the ultimate challenge in all this will be to maintain public trust. The future of the news business will be one of credibility rather than of news.
A few bad eggs have soured the public’s trust and faith in journalism in India, as is the case in other countries as well. This is unfortunate because over 60 years, with the exception of a few hiccups here and there (indeed we are hiccuping today as well), journalism has only become more professional, balanced, transparent and cleaner over time.
To crystal-gaze at the future of any industry, we must look at the business models. Over the next 10 years, there will have to be consolidation because many players in our industry are losing a lot of money, and are just in the business for individual egos. They are messing up the market for everyone and an industry can only thrive when bad business models fail fast. So it bodes well for us as an industry if a lot of this ego-funded journalism shuts shop soon.
I see a lot of editorial introspection among the players who have been in the business for years, and it makes me confident that readers will distinguish between news brands like they distinguish between a gourmet store and a fast-food joint. With 1.2 billion potential readers to reach, the Indian news media can never be a homogeneous bunch. Readers will have to make their choices not only with the brands they want to consume but also the stories they should consume.
It’s wishful thinking, but it is imperative for democracy that our readers recognize this responsibility, their responsibility.
Barack Obama put it best in his farewell address when he said we are increasingly becoming “secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there”. The former US president added, “Without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point...we’re going to keep talking past each other, and we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible.”
If I am thinking wishfully, please do join me today so that we are all responsible, discerning consumers of news well before Mint’s 20th anniversary. That common baseline of facts, that ability to listen to each other, is the mandate of good journalism.
Anant Goenka is executive director, Express Group.
This is part of a series of articles in Mint’s 10th anniversary special issue that look at India 10 years from now. The entire list of articles can be found here