Topsy-turvy journalism

Print edition : June 10, 2016

A Google data centre in Dalles, U.S. The age of the algorithm-driven news is well underway. Photo: Connie Zhou/AP

Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian. Though the newspaper embraced digital media successfully under his editorship, it failed to monetise the resulting reach. Photo: Dan Chung/Guardian Picture Desk

A billboard for Facebook's Free Basics in Mumbai. Even apparently benign endeavours can be a neocolonial enterprise. Photo: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

The Marxist concept of the free press, as enunciated forcefully and at length by Marx himself, is not to be confused with the vitiated role of a nominal or a notional press as experienced in socialist regimes.

KARL MARX said the first business of the free press is not to be a business. He was speaking of a different paradigm in which he saw the role of the press, to be meaningful, to be to break free of its bourgeois moorings and become an instrument of and by the people; to become what he called the “volk” press. It was a press which steered clear and stayed free of corporate control. Communist and socialist governments may have done little to realise that ideal vision of a free press, which was at once autonomous, uncensored and served a critical mediatory role between the citizen and the state. The way the press was used by different socialist regimes made it a propaganda arm, a cat’s paw, of state ideology and hierarchy, and deprived it of any independent agency.

The Marxist concept of the free press, as enunciated forcefully and at length by Marx himself, is not to be confused with the vitiated role of a nominal or a notional press as experienced in socialist regimes. It was the ideal of an alternative trajectory for the news media that was not given a chance even by the political orders that espoused Marxism, and, of course, would find no purchase in the capitalist model of the press that took shape in England, France and some other European countries since the dawn of the 17th century and was consolidated in the political ferment and the process of Constitution-making across the colonies in America.

Something akin to the original Marxian free press was hinted at in the proto-Habermasian public sphere and the idea of publics spawned by the Internet. But a few digital capitalist ventures that soon took over the netscape, and stride it like leviathans, have already pushed these online communities to the margins so they become so many tiny voices in so many nooks and corners, pitted and railing against the humungous power of corporate entities such as Google and Facebook which have the run of the Net. They are, as we are fast realising, leviathans without a human face, with algorithmic logic and imperative, instead, as their driving force.

In the market-led and -driven world, in the era of fierce liberalisation and globalisation, the idea of a press which has no business to be a business is, admittedly, laughable. But then, journalism itself is becoming a laughable proposition in the new-age media. The disingenuous terms they come up with to legitimise what they are doing is supposed to give us pause or solace: native advertising, content marketing and sponsored content. All of it boils down to using journalism to sell a product or service. And it’s among the finest and the best in international journalism, like The New York Times and The Guardian, who are leading the way. They have set up what are like workshops specialising in content-marketing, with journalists sugar-coating the sales pitch in the manner and languaging of news. Once they diffuse and eventually erase the line between journalism and marketing, it’s a matter of time, a function of when not if, that the better couched and styled journalism veers to what could become the better paying part of the operation—of corporate brand-building by putting journalistic skills to subtle use.

What, we are forced to begin to wonder, was all that recent fuss in India about “paid news”? The kind of indignation and outrage it occasioned—when it was discovered that the market leader, The Times of India, blithely transacted news in forms and guises that were seen as unethical, non-transparent and plain misrepresentation, with commercial space-selling masquerading as news—seems nowhere in evidence when it comes to these heavyweight legacy media worthies. On the contrary, we have a narrative of victimhood and struggle for survival. In a predominantly advertisement revenue dependent news media, and in a recessionary market to boot, with explicit display or banner advertising subject to diminishing returns because readers and viewers, more often than not, choose to skip them, the promotion has to be imbricated, embedded in, or itself take the form of, the news story itself.

It is inevitable, we are given to understand, that a degree of market friendliness, and all that it implies, must henceforth inform the most prestigious of journalism. For a business which was raking in the moolah for a few decades and is now faced with declining profits or losses, it is time to shed adamant thoughts about the uncompromising values of journalism to stay as buoyantly afloat as possible in these troubled waters, and explore newer modes of revenue by tapping into advertiser interest in more novel ways. Hobson’s choice or Faustian bargain, the die is cast and we are into a new era of merchandising journalism.

This was, of course, coming ever since the acquisitions and mergers from the beginning of this century in the United States, when huge corporations in the media or unrelated business took over relatively smaller and, purely in terms of their revenues, insignificant news media properties, so that these became strategic investments for influence and power rather than for the revenues they yielded. The revenues posted by these news media entities constituted, in each of these landmark acquisitions, something like less than 3 or 4 per cent of the overall revenues of the holding company. A parallel is now available in India in the diverse media investments made by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance. A tension is straightaway set up, in such cases, between the media interests of the corporate buyer and the journalism in professional practice in the acquired media entity. The tension ceases to exist when the journalistic part readjusts to the realities of the strategic and extra journalistic interests and expectations of the corporate part.

Digital tsunami

The digital tsunami that has hit journalism comes like a double whammy. The known business model and privileged hierarchy of the legacy media are being rendered asunder as news gets widely dispersed and strongly personalised; as social media comingles with the formal media and reinvents, redefines, journalism; as media organisations leap—a leap of faith really because there are no proven revenue models yet—into the digital maelstrom, hoping to emerge intact and better off through it. In the process, the pendulum has swung the other extreme and instead of the earlier problem of homogenisation and standardisation of news, of being subject to more and more of the same, we have a spread that caters to different demographic groups and subgroups, and stretches from the consumer-friendly to the consumer-generated. Almost all of it is online and much of it passes the traditional media by. The groundswell of support in the millennial generation for Bernie Sanders in the U.S. presidential elections, for example, has been mobilised and sustained by this kind of, invisible in the conventional sense but potent, niche online journalism.

For the standalone digital news portals in the field, it helps that there is no baggage to carry into this brave new world, that they can discover or invent a new culture and idiom and mix of journalism. For the big traditional news media, saddled with its inventory of news practice and production, going online and digital is a big gambit. Continuity becomes a liability on change. Even where online and digital are embraced as boldly as by The Guardian under the stewardship of its former Editor-in-Chief, Alan Rusbridger, so that there is a huge surge of readership internationally, the tricky part of monetising that readership, of translating it into revenues, catches up with the policy decision sooner or later. As we saw in the instant case, the initial enthusiasm in the paper and the Guardian Media Group for the course set by Rusbridger somewhat soured with it continuing to tote up losses, resulting in Rusbridger deciding not to take up the chair of the Scott Trust which oversees the running of the paper, and to which he was named over a year back. This is, of course, not to suggest that Rusbridger’s digital-first, free reader access strategy itself was wrong. Maybe The Guardian should have stayed the course until the tipping point when the size and scale of the readership turned into an advertising bonanza. But even if there were that kind of staying power, there is no surety of making good at the end of it. Maybe paywalls, which Rusbridger resisted, will now rise on The Guardian site and help mitigate the losses. Or maybe it will not and, unfortunately, the prospect of a big changeover in revenue streams in the longer run will have been forfeited.

The worrying question is whether journalism as we have known and valued it will survive these changed circumstances. In the scale-is-king scheme of things, Facebook is the new in-your-face, wall-to-wall variety of journalism, where algorithms make the trending decisions. The agenda-building function of journalism now happens on the supra-platform of Facebook, guided and directed and censored in very subtle ways, and not as a process of persuasion and argument and consensus built on the myriad news locations on the Internet. Acceding such power to a single digital mega corporation is frightening in itself. Not least because even when it thinks it is being benign and philanthropic, like the recent Facebook scheme to initiate the digitally alienated millions in India into its own limited Internet fold and, as it sought to make out, empower them, it is a neocolonial enterprise.

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