Year-End Special: Editors over algorithms
One evening, just over five years ago, I found myself in Delhi having a drink with two stalwarts of the newspaper world–the preferred nomenclature in the Indian media for the two would be “senior journalist”, just as once every politician of achievement had to be described as “tall”, even those who clocked in at little over 5ft. After a round or two, the discussion turned to Twitter. Both these gentlemen were rather dismissive of the possibilities of the medium, especially as an aggregator of news, the traditional role of the newspaper. They were shocked when I said that I found newspapers had become too cumbersome: too slow with news, ridden with advertisements and PR-led stories, without the rolling, engaging, subversive feedback that news on the internet offered. They were simultaneously amused and worried about my future when I said that I found no reason to page through the three-four newspapers I subscribed to every day, because now you had all the news of the world on your Twitter timeline—tailored to your interests, curated by minds you trusted, the news stories often garnished with key insights or ribald wit or a delicate layer of irony.
Despite my junior-journalist status (I had been in the field for about five years then), I ploughed on with my point, suggesting they both give Twitter a chance, because the value of newspapers was irrevocably changing beneath our feet—or, I suppose, up in the cloud. No longer could the newspaper do what was needed: bring us up to date with the happenings of the moment.
When media moves faster, the world seems to spin faster with it. For a while there, if you were plugged into the social media mainline and your job was news, the newspaper that arrived once a day began to seem like a quaint artefact, slow as the stagecoaches of Wild West lore. The final advantage the newspaper seemed to possess was the quality of journalists it already had: the deep, nationwide reporting bureaus, the editors on the desk who vetted and polished each story, the illustrators and page designers and fact-checkers. I was convinced that once the web publications caught up with the big boys of print in this regard, expensive newsprint would give way to the infinite scroll of dot-coms.
Five years later, I am less than sure. Twitter is still useful for breaking news and to find excellent things to read, but more and more, for the important business of keeping up to speed, I find nothing is as good as a newspaper. Social media has proved itself an eminently corruptible medium. I don’t mean simply the fake news, whether Vladimir Putin’s propaganda in America or Hindutva rumour-mongering here. Now the agenda on social media is set by the newsmakers, not the newsgatherers. The big political parties have huge social media cells that can turn any conversation in their favour. Corporations seem to have the same. If you are a large enough entity, it’s a tiny investment to make to shape the discourse about you.
Check out Twitter trends. Once, some teenage jokester sitting in his bedroom could start a hashtag about an ad on television and others would begin riffing off it, contributing their own jokes. The conversation would grow organically into a nationwide discussion. Now Twitter’s trends are full of phrases no one in their right mind would ever use in public: #RahulGandhiNo1, #ModiModernChandragupta. Two gems, on the morning of writing this, which were topping Twitter’s trends: #SalmanKaHungama and #HBDSuperStarRajnikanth. Going by what’s trending on Twitter, people seem to wish Rajinikanth happy birthday roughly seven-eight times a year.
My solution to this 280-character glut was to turn back to newspapers. Of course, they never dropped completely from my morning routine, just as I still feel the need to check what’s on my Twitter timeline soon after rising. But the balance has shifted decisively. After years on social media, I’ve learnt there is a deeper, systemic problem, when it comes to getting the news, than corruptibility. You start hearing the same things again and again. Because you tend to follow important voices who share your obsessions, you can sometimes encounter dozens of different takes on the same incident, and it starts to tower in your imagination, to feel as if this is the only thing that has happened in the world. An editor—that much-reviled figure—an accomplished, unbiased editor ensures balance, a judicious assortment of the news of the day, so you are not burrowing further and further down tunnels you chose years ago.
I was on the internet a few months ago when I came across a great offer for a weekly tabloid-size newspaper published by The Guardian. At a dollar an issue, it was too good a price to pass up, but I was sceptical I would actually pay the full price once the six-week offer period was over. It was only when I began reading it every week that I realized how deeply ignorant I had become about so much going on in the world. Judging by my Twitter timeline most days, the world is nothing but Trump and Modi, with a little bit of Arsenal Football Club thrown in. But here I began to read, once again, about things I would easily have ignored on Twitter: the ramifications of Brexit on Northern Ireland, the separatist problem in Ukraine, the Chinese mining companies in Brazil, the democratic struggles for the soul and ethos of Western Europe. The simple joy of being able to read something in its entirety without being bombarded with related topics and further reading. Apart from a slight problem with the delivery in the first weeks—easily sorted out via a call to the UK office—there has been nary a hiccup.
It is widely believed that web journalism will destroy print media, and perhaps that is true, but in fact internet journalism is much more like television news than the newspaper. The similarity stems from the 24-hour nature of both. There was a fantastic piece, not too long ago, about how the “mad, shameless chase to gain clicks through Facebook” had ravaged the wonderful old liberal media organ New Republic—written by its weary, embattled former editor Franklin Foer. When you are publishing on the internet, you need to respond to the discussions of the moment—to what’s trending on Twitter. Even the best Indian web outlets do this. If an unknown member of a political party’s media cell posts some biased fabrication that has gone viral, web outlets have to respond to that discussion instantly, without giving it the necessary context, or doing any reporting groundwork—giving the lie further oxygen. It is only later that they might recover their position, by which time the damage has been done.
This year, I learnt anew the virtue of that hoary term, the news cycle. Perhaps the reporting of news does need a cycle. Perhaps it should not roll towards you like the Jagannath of Puri, crushing all nuance and retort. I’m not asking for much: a few hours to reflect, to report, to further your understanding. Then inflict your opinion on the world. Unlike the shrieking heads of television news, for whom there is no hope, the rest of us have a chance.
The writer, a consultant with Mint, was previously deputy editor of the news website Scroll.in.