Two media meets took place last week. Owners from the West went to Beijing to engage with the Chinese in the hope that they will open up their media markets. And their editors went to Berlin to talk about the changes in journalism currently taking place. Thanks to shrinking newspaper markets and the relentless march of tablets and mobiles, some things are set to change forever.
One was the presidium of the World Media Summit (WMS), which the Chinese started a couple of years ago to assert their media presence. “The WMS aims to build an efficient platform for the global media to communicate with one another and pool collective wisdom,” says Xinhua. Fuzzy speak that says nothing about the state of press freedom in China.
But News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch and The New York Times’ (NYT’s) Arthur Sulzberger were happy to attend, as were others: the Associated Press, Reuters, ITAR-TASS News Agency, Kyodo News, British Broadcasting Corp., Turner Broadcasting, Google, Al Jazeera, NBC News, and, of course, our Kasturi and Sons Ltd.
The Chinese proposed global journalism awards, their guests concurred despite the implicit irony. The size of the market China offers is enough to have the free press everywhere eating out of its hands. NYT offered to host the next summit, Al Jazeera the one thereafter. Foreign investment in media may be restricted in China, its media may be largely state-controlled, but pragmatism wins the day.
The host for the presidium was Xinhua, whose many news releases on the occasion conveyed rather less than The Hindu correspondent’s two despatches. The latter reported Murdoch calling on the Chinese government to follow India’s example and open up the country’s restricted media sector, as well as urging the Chinese government “to open its digital door”.
Why Western markets need the Chinese more than ever before was in evidence at the second summit taking place around the same time, the Newsroom Summit organized by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers in Berlin. Between shrinking markets and changes in the way news is accessed, newspapers face an increasingly digital future. News organizations are spending hugely in developing new digital products, which will have global potential.
Editors and nerdy innovators, who gathered there, heard stories like the following: Canada’s French language daily La Presse spent four years and $40 million developing a daily iPad edition which is free, and is now attracting 800 new viewers a day. US publishing company Advance Publications Inc. is getting its newspapers to move to a four-days-in-the-week home delivery schedule. The rest of the days there will be a newstand edition for readers to pick up. The Evening Standard of the Independent Group has multiplied its circulation manifold by simply handing it out free at the tube station and hiking advertising rates.
Globally, print advertising has seen a 39% decline over the last six years. The news model has to change. No wonder Sulzberger in China was announcing an NYT website for the Chinese.
The summit then was about what this changing model will do to journalists and journalism. Thirty-three percent of news traffic worldwide now comes from mobile phones. What are the implications of that?
It heard Raju Narisetti*, senior vice-president and deputy head of strategy for News Corp., say that The Wall Street Journal now has 37% of its news accessed through mobile phones, but only eight people are assigned to mobile news. The profound challenge for 2013-14, he said, was in combining the journalism and technology teams. What happens to the important journalism you do, was a question asked aloud at a session where other panellists were makers of mobile news apps such as Circa and Liquid Newsroom. How will a terrific newspaper story written with an anecdotal lead fare when accessed on a smartphone? Poorly, because it could take as many as seven screens of a BlackBerry to get to what the story is about.
Checking out the Indian angle on this, post-summit, one found that news services here offering mobile news have to get used to being just one part of a value-added service package for telecom operators. As Indo-Asian News Service chief executive officer Mahesh Daga puts it, the approach to the news is by telecom circle, which means that it is local. It is for the mobile audience, which is the 15-25 age group and tailored to their interests. Both the audience and the telecom operator prefer the news to be non-political. And visual.
Meanwhile, journalists will become part of a new order. The Independent and Evening Standard now have a group content director Chris Blackhurst who said his job was to make sure that journalists get out of the “tribal mindset” of just working for one publication. “The days when a specialist writer wrote his story and went home are gone. You need guys at top with titles like mine to pull them out of their tribal mindset.”
If that scenario has not come to India yet, it will.
*Raju Narisetti is Mint’s founding editor.
Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.