The recent kerfuffle over online news portal The Quint’s story “confirming” Kulbhushan Jadhav as a RAW spy, and its subsequent retraction is a canary in the coal mine for Indian news media business grappling with digital disruption. Pardon my pessimism, but if this symptom of a larger malaise isn’t attended to now, there may soon not be a news business to run.
In an early 2015 piece, I argued that most — if not all — new age digital media organisations were trying to mimic a business model perfected by global fast food chains. The restaurant chains got rid of elaborate kitchens. It helped save on space, labour cost and a host of other overheads. Pioneered by Taco Bell, this was called the K-minus or “kitchen-minus” model.
Today it is standard practice at digital media firms to have newsrooms (content sweatshops, actually) without journalists — “J-minus” — comprising inexpensive interns and poorly trained freshmen. This is now increasingly true of several struggling traditional media organisations too who want “win” in digital.
It is quite tempting to portray the noise emanating out of the flatulence of India’s digital media as a sign of a throbbing clickbait-eat-listicle vibrancy. Our Quint moment is a consequence of flatulence.
It might be useful to consider how we got here.
Proper journalism, to use an Indianism, is a properly expensive business. It requires a high degree of skill, rigour and commitment, like any other profession. Being an amateur news “enthusiast” or a politics “junkie” alone cannot make one a professional journalist. Perhaps journalists themselves are to blame for making theirs appear a craftless vocation of the unskilled, or at best one where the essential task is that of stringing together a few sentences.
Journalism once used to be a business where what you got wrong or the stories that were missed mattered a lot more than the stuff that turned out to be right. This called for prudence, diligence, the ability to vigorously question competing claims, decode competing interests, never losing contact with the context and consulting the experts. Childlike curiosity and scepticism were valuable currency for journalists. They now seem to have been demonetised.
As newsrooms go J-minus, they no longer have the institutional capacity nor the institutional muscle memory to interrogate claims made by governments, businesses or their lobbyists who are often sources.
Since today everyone is in the “content” business, the source or the quality of “content” is significantly less important than the clicks and the social “conversations” it generates.
The Quint story on Jadhav was Big by any measure. Let us for a minute, without getting into the debate about national interest and honour or speculating about the motives of the publication, look at the story in isolation. Reporters, even those who are fairly experienced, can often get excited by juicy cocktail gossip. An off-the-record comment from even those who have been at the “top” echelons of RAW (as the retracted story claimed) can be a great lead.
Leads, especially for a story that has far-reaching implications, ought to be corroborated through multiple sources (“double-digit preferable; less than five, disqualify”, used to be an old newsroom maxim on Big stories that were not accompanied by documentary buttress). This writer found such due diligence completely absent in the story in question. To ask writers and reporters probing questions is an essential editorial skill. Editors, after all, are paid to be the border guards who prevent the infiltration of faff and fiction into news.
Digital newsrooms such as The Quint tailored to generate listicles, opinions that come virtually free of cost and gimmicky videos on the lines of analysing electoral verdicts using a box of laddoos cannot overnight acquire the skills to do Big stories that stand up to scrutiny. Which is perhaps why The Quint had to “check the story’s facts” after it had been published.
A journalist friend who is fairly senior in the trade with a respectable track record and body of work, including “proper” investigative stories, recently wrote to the editor of a “hot” digital news organisation exploring employment opportunities. The email response from the editor they shared with me was heartbreaking if not entirely surprising.
I reproduce here the key passage with their permission. “So could you pick 2 quite varied topics that are of interest these days… and send us a 300-word piece on each of these? That would really help us. If you would like to write a satirical piece in either Hindi or English, that would work as well. We are keen for you to record a short video for us… 45 Secs-60 Secs (or less) where you tell us about that ONE thing about yourself.. that truly makes you, you. Or that ONE thing that totally upsets you… Or that ONE thing that totally makes your day… A SUBJECTIVE Short Video. Whatsapp it…”, it read.
This is not to make a nostalgic case for Indian journalism’s gilded pre-digital age. Mistakes happen. This writer has contributed in some. Shocking lapses have occurred. Several have gone unaccounted and unpunished. Let me share one that I personally found pretty funny.
A large business daily ran a front-page story in 2007 — when Indian firms acquiring storied foreign businesses was the rage — about Tata Tea buying up a “specialty” tea brand called Liberty that was quite “popular” across Europe.
The story went into great detail about Liberty’s tradition, its market share and the strategic fit with Tata Tea. The report was picked up by the venerable Reuters and sent UK journalists scurrying for more information on the deal. Not only was no such deal in the offing, there was no “popular” tea company in the UK called Liberty. The incident provoked The Financial Times enough to write an unusually snarky rebuttal.
“You can take high tea in the Tea Room at Liberty. The department store’s signature Liberty Tea will set you back £21 and includes a glass of bubbly, finger sandwiches, cream cakes and of course, scones. Delicious. But not we think what Tata are after. The search continues…in the meantime, someone put the kettle on,” said FT.
Here is the vital difference. Today more than ever you can hear all manner of media organisations claiming to be “speaking truth to power”. Young journalists and editors alike, at digital media organisations that live by baiting clicks spend enormous amounts of time sharing NYT, Salon, Atlantic Monthly pieces on the theory and practice of great journalism in the “post-truth” world.
Speaking-truth-to-power cannot be a seasonal fashion statement like a Burberry winter scarf or oversized Gucci goggles for the summer. It’s a hard-won skill and privilege.
Can theory meet practice? Can journalism make a comeback in newsrooms that will sooner-than-later be completely digital? The canaries are collapsing. Miners are busy virtue signalling.