Special Essay

Thirty years of progressive, upstanding journalism

Print edition : February 06, 2015

THIRTY years in the life of a serious magazine is a significant landmark, especially considering the big changes that have taken place during this period in India, in the South Asian neighbourhood, and in the world beyond. Despite some ideologically charged claims to the contrary (“the end of history” and all that), no clear patterns can yet be discerned behind these changes. “Making sense” or, rather, “helping to make sense” of what is happening around you is perhaps the heart of the job of intellectually serious journalism and one is tempted sometimes to echo this famous disclaimer by H.A.L. Fisher, the early-20th century English historian, educator, and Liberal politician:

 

Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another as wave follows upon wave, only one great fact with respect to which, since it is unique, there can be no generalisations; only one safe rule for the historian: that he should recognise in the development of human destinies the play of the contingent and the unforeseen.

(Preface to History of Europe, 1936,

Edward Arnold, London)

This is going too far, of course, from the standpoint of modern historiography, Marxist or otherwise, but Fisher’s “lament” (as it is sometimes termed) does seem to describe the situation of journalism as it strives to make sense of the present as well as the unfolding future: an awful lot of the time, what the contemporary journalist seems to be engaged with is “the play of the contingent and the unforeseen”. The need for an anchor, a conceptual framework, a professional method to deal, among other things, with the contingent and the unforeseen in play stands out.

I think we can claim that from the time it was launched, in November-December 1984, Frontline has had this anchor in terms of progressive intellectual values, a conceptual framework, and a professional method in covering, in a comprehensive way, what has been happening in India, in the South Asian neighbourhood, and in the world beyond. “Comprehensive” in the modern journalistic context is not to be confused with the idea of “All the News That’s Fit to Print”, The New York Times’ longstanding daily boast on its front page. What it means here is the sensible dictionary meaning of “large in content or scope”.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to state that Frontline is regarded by its committed readers in India and abroad as an unusual, if not unique, magazine. It takes its genre of professional journalism—and the intellectual, social, political, and ethical values behind it—seriously. It proceeds from the understanding that there is a place out there for a critical and progressive journalism that values freedom of expression and social responsibility equally, that on top of its credible-information function, seeks to make reasoned analysis, investigation, comment, and agenda-building its strong suit. It takes its educational function seriously. Acutely aware of the limitations of space in most forms of print journalism and the constraints they place on the presentation of deep-going analysis, investigation, argument, and comment, Frontline has consciously, from the start, offered space for long-form journalism, including picture features, on a variety of subjects. But it has sought to balance this with compactly written news analyses and opinion columns and attractive production values.

All this implies, especially for a fortnightly magazine, a strong concentration on key issues—political, economic, social, cultural, and intellectual issues that matter now and over the longer term. Frontline has made no secret of its secular, pro-people, and progressive orientation and its critical spirit. But within the journalistic framework it has worked out for itself, it also seeks to provide space for contrary views, arguments and criticisms, especially through interviews, opinion columns, and responses.

Frontline has been extremely fortunate in being able to attract contributions from some of the finest minds of our time. The list of distinguished contributors is too long to list here but let me mention some special names: R.K. Narayan, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Amartya Sen, Noam Chomsky, Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, M.F. Husain, R.K. Laxman, Prabhat Patnaik, Aijaz Ahmed, A.G. Noorani, V.K. Ramachandran, C.P. Chandrasekhar, Jayati Ghosh, Sashi Kumar, K. Satchidanandan, Vijay Prashad, and Mike Marqusee (who died recently).

Around the time the magazine celebrated its quarter century, a valued contributor, Professor Venkatesh Athreya, an economist, was requested to do a quick content analysis of Frontline issues from the time the magazine was launched. The analysis was revealing, bringing out some distinctive attributes of Frontline. Roughly one-fifth of the articles over the quarter-century related to international affairs, which generally receive poor coverage in the Indian press. The share of economic stories “remained steady at around 5.5 per cent to 6 per cent”, with the economist commenting that considering “the analytical character of Frontline stories on the economy, one can see that this is indeed a major contribution to public education”. We were particularly pleased to learn that close to 20 per cent of the articles published by Frontline over the quarter-century dealt with social and development issues, that the weight of this coverage had increased over the years, that the space allotted to cultural stories did not lag far behind, and that the coverage of the environment and science and technology had been quite reasonable.

The content profile of any publication changes—and must necessarily change—over the years in response to various considerations and factors. We are proud of the sustained nature of the coverage of issues, movements, and tendencies and the improvements in Frontline’s story profile. But following the 25-year review, we also became aware of the deficits and the shortcomings in the magazine’s content, for example, the declining attention and space given to quality picture features, especially those relating to nature and wildlife, which had disappointed a section of readers, and the slackening of journalistic efforts needed to produce first-rate investigative stories relating to livelihood issues, which had been a strong point of Frontline.

The present Editor, R. Vijaya Sankar, and the editorial team have responded to the challenge by successfully carrying out Relaunch 2012, which has, among other things, aimed to “reach wider sections of readers and increase coverage of relatively weak areas such as cinema, music, literature, and the visual arts”. The first Relaunch, in 2006, when I was Editor-in-Chief, was based on a major design change conceptualised and operationalised by Garcia Media headed by Mario Garcia, one of the world’s leading newspaper designers. The purpose of that redesign was to offer readers “a more modern, disciplined, structured, accessible, newsy, interesting and elegant magazine” and the subtle changes that have come since then have been within the framework of the pure design framework created by Mario Garcia.

Let me now deal with some wider issues that define the industry, the society, and the world in which Frontline intends to play a relevant and meaningful role as a secular, progressive, pro-people voice, from time to time sailing against the current.

The first is the global media world, of which the Indian news media world is a vital, interesting, and increasingly important part. In a December 2011 address to the Contemporary India Section of the Indian History Congress, I dealt in some detail with the changing role of the news media in contemporary India. I subsequently elaborated on the theme of the Indian news media “sharing the best and the worst” of the global media scene in my James Cameron Memorial Lecture 2012 in London. I mention these lectures because I draw on them here for summing up my thinking on what is happening in the Indian media world, set in the global context.

The news media are visibly in crisis across the developed world. In this digital age, there is gloom in most developed country, or “mature”, media markets over the future of newspapers and also broadcast television. In the World Newspaper Congress and World Editors Forum convened by WAN-IFRA in Vienna in October 2011, in which I was a participant, there was a clear sense that a historical era for the news media was coming to an end and they had entered, even if differentially across the world, an indeterminate period of uncertainty. With the changes in audience behaviour and news consumption accompanying the migration to the Web and to the mobile platforms gathering pace, the big challenge for the traditional news business was identified as engagement of the audience that was getting away, with deadly financial implications. These industry-wide trends, and the accompanying stresses, pessimism, and disarray, have already taken a big toll of independent and resourceful journalism in the developed world. According to a contemporary report titled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism”, commissioned and published by my alma mater, the Journalism School of Columbia University, newspapers, “the country’s chief source of independent reporting, are shrinking—literally”, with fewer journalists “reporting less news in fewer pages”.

The contrast with the overall state of the Indian news media, which are still growing, is certainly striking. But we need critically to reflect on, and rethink, the implications of our buoyant growth story. I won’t bother too much with the statistics; they are readily available elsewhere. What they reveal is that “India is one of the few places on earth where newspapers still thrive”, as Ken Auletta put it in a 2012 article in The New Yorker, and plenty of professional opportunities are available for journalists, especially young journalists.

The Indian press, especially Indian-language newspapers, and satellite news television continue to be in growth mode. Some of that story has been splendidly researched, analysed, and told by the political scientist Robin Jeffrey in his book, India’s Newspaper Revolution, published 15 years ago, and in a series of articles in Economic & Political Weekly (1987, 1993, 1997). The key factors behind India’s newspaper revolution, Jeffrey points out, are improved technology, steadily expanding literacy, better purchasing power, aggressive publishing, and, last but not least, political excitement. There is a huge appetite out there for news and what masquerades as news, for analysis, for comment, and, of course, for entertainment and also for that hybrid creature, “infotainment”. All this has spawned tens of influential Indian-language daily newspapers, many of them with large circulations and huge readerships.

But the buoyancy and implications of this print media development must not be romanticised. The Indian press has a long way to go before its social reach can be said to do justice to the scale, diversities, and needs of India, and especially rural and female India. This obviously has implications for editorial coverage.

The audience for television in India is huge and still growing. However, this mass audience is largely for the entertainment channels. The dozens of 24 x 7 satellite television news channels that compete with the print media in English and various Indian languages account only for a small proportion of the total TV market.

There are other reasons why the buoyancy of the Indian news media should not be exaggerated. For newspapers, the huge circulation numbers ride on the back of extreme underpricing of cover prices and the printing and dumping of hundreds of thousands of copies that go straight to the raddhi or used paper market for recycling. The latter, a sharp practice to inflate circulation for advertising gain, has become systemic. As though this were not enough, the Television Audience Measurement (TAM) system has come under widespread criticism and even frontal legal attack.

What is now clear is that the economics of both the print and broadcast sectors has been hardening, gradually. The advertising market has tightened in the last few years. Growth in the print sector as a whole has slowed down. The catalyst seems to have been the 2008-2009 global economic slowdown: it has taken its toll of the Indian media growth story, leading some industry experts to rule out any return to the pre-crisis situation, especially in the crucial matter of advertising revenues.

And how does India fare in the digital age paradox? Let me first try and define this paradox, which is central to this transformational age. On the one hand, more and more people are reading newspapers digitally; you have for the first time in history a live global audience for the best publications; there are excellent newspaper and news websites offering rich, many-sided, multimedia content; and the sky seems to be the limit to what you can offer in this exciting space. On the other hand, the existential crisis of the old news media has not been resolved and it continues to take a heavy toll; the discussions of the “future of journalism” have not ceased; and poor morale and low spirits continue to haunt the journalistic profession as well as the news media industry—for the simple reason that all this wonderful development has not yet yielded a viable revenue and business model for Internet or digital journalism.

There can be little doubt that within this digital age paradox, both the print and broadcast media in India continue to benefit from the country’s relative backwardness in Internet use and broadband access—and from the digital divides that stand out. China’s development in this respect has been quite spectacular: at the end of July 2014, it had an estimated 632 million Internet users (according to the 34th Survey of Internet Development in China, CNNIC), most of them served by broadband. No annual scientific surveys are done on Internet development in India, but it is roughly estimated that there are about 240 million Internet users in India, most of them poorly served by bandwidth. The most revealing indicator in the comparison is the Internet’s penetration of the comparable populations: China’s 47 per cent is more than double of India’s.

What this means is that the real impact of the digital revolution on the print press and on news television is yet to come. It also means that while virtually every Indian newspaper has a website and some major ones offer informative and attractive digital content to readers in India and abroad, this is secondary to print content by a long chalk. Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian, has been quoted as saying that “journalism is changing at the speed of light” (that is, nearly 300,000 km per second) and that “virtually every week we are learning new techniques and fresh truths about the way digital technologies are transforming the media”. Within the Indian newspaper industry, there seems to be a sense that the field is changing at the speed of sound (which is 342.29 metres per second).

This situation has bred complacency, so there is no real push to learn these new techniques and fresh truths that are so vital to the digital age. It has been reported that some studies in India have predicted that, by 2040, the Indian print industry would meet the fate of the American print media industry but by then Indian media publishers would be well prepared and in a position to get a good share of the advertising revenue and so forth. It seems to me that such predictions and the assumptions behind them reflect a widespread attitude of denial of the proximity, if not the immediacy, of the digital impact. It seems highly improbable that India has until 2040 for the tipping point to arrive.

The critical challenge here is the need to come to terms with the convergences observed worldwide, make nuanced assessments of the pace of change, and prepare for the future, including possibly hard times.

There can be little question about the democratic role that has been played over the long term by influential sections of the Indian news media in the sphere of politics. Unfortunately, when it comes to economic issues and policies, the mainstream media’s contribution turns out to be anything but democratic. This was not always the case. Amartya Sen has commended the historical role of Indian newspapers in exposing hunger-related facts on the ground in extreme cases and, in concert with other democratic institutions, preventing the government from pursuing disastrous policies and thus guaranteeing “the avoidance of acute starvation and famine”.

Today a number of factors operating in the Indian media industry have virtually shut out news, analysis, and comment that challenge the neoliberal economic policies that have held sway over the last two decades. Mainstream press and broadcast media coverage has tended to adopt a laudatory tone, keep out or underplay the criticisms and objections, censor the negative socio-economic effects, especially among the poor, and provide little space to the voices of robust criticism and opposition, including those raised from the ranks of professional economists.

Critics point out that Indian journalism is facing increasing pressure from proprietors, advertisers, marketing personnel, corporate managers, and even senior journalists to present and prioritise “feel good” factors —rather than highlight the reality of mass deprivations and what to do about them. In several frank conversations with Indian newspaper executives, Auletta learnt why poverty, especially rural poverty, was not a fit subject for news and editorial coverage, why this coverage had to cater to the “aspirational” among young readers (because poverty was “not a condition to which one aspires”), and why a newspaper’s editorial philosophy, which was derived from its business philosophy, had to be one of optimism.

In “Markets, Morals and the Media”, a convocation address given in 2002 to the students of the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, the economist Prabhat Patnaik addressed the subject in an original and unusually perceptive way. The argument can be read in the text, which is online. It is the conclusion I wish to draw attention to here.

We can call it Patnaik’s Law on media power in relation to economic issues: “Where the media are on the same side as international finance capital, they appear powerful; but in fields where they strike out on their own, upholding humane values and expressing concern for the poor and the suffering, they appear powerless.” Such powerlessness, he proposes, is the outcome of a process, “the process of ascendancy of international financial capital over the economy, which the media, paradoxically, with a few honourable exceptions, have avidly supported”.

Poverty and mass deprivation, basic livelihood issues, the impact of policies on these issues, the state of agriculture and the countryside remain massively undercovered in Indian newspapers and the broadcast media. The good thing is that the honourable exceptions Patnaik mentions have been significant. P. Sainath’s investigations of rural distress, farmers’ suicides, and mass migrations are in the finest traditions of people-oriented, investigative, agenda-building journalism. Such influential and iconic work, along with the lively contributions of young idealistic reporters on these subjects in various Indian languages, suggests a way out of this bind—provided a public culture of valuing such journalism can be built up.

This brings me to a critical point that is often overlooked in discussions of the Indian news media: the two states—the fortunes of the news industry and the state of journalism—ought not to be conflated. Manipulation of news, analysis, and comment to suit the owners’ financial or political interests; the downgrading and devaluing of editorial functions and content in some leading newspaper and news television organisations; systematic dumbing down, led by the nose by certain types of market research; the growing willingness within newspapers and news channels to tailor the editorial product to subserve advertising and marketing goals set by owners and senior management personnel; advertorials where the paid-for aspect of the news-like content is not properly disclosed or disclosed at all; private treaties; rogue practices like paid election campaign news and bribe-taking for favourable coverage. If this is what it takes to have thriving newspapers and other news media, then there is something seriously wrong with this growth path.

Against this backdrop, Frontline’s next phase of development is well marked out. Aside from responding progressively to the journalistic and media industry challenges, aside from capitalising on the digital media opportunities, it needs to play an investigative, critical, educative, agenda-building role in relation to two central challenges facing contemporary India—(a) the challenge to pluralist and secular India posed by communalism as a political mobilisation strategy, and in particular by the ascendancy of the Hindu Right and the long reach of jehadism; and (b) the challenge of mass deprivations and growing inequalities and injustices in Indian society. Frontline’s journalists and writers will surely step up to meet these challenges with confidence and hope for a better future.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

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