The only way out is a business model that relies for funding on readers rather than on advertisers.
Three years ago, I bid farewell to my content writing job. I had had enough of writing material that hardly anybody read and only served as a tool to increase the website’s traffic and, thus, the ranking. I wanted to do something meaningful. I wanted to tell stories that were not being told. Stories that would be read by hundreds of people, if not thousands. Journalism caught my attention and I succeeded in landing a job with a news website in Delhi. It wasn’t the kind of position I wanted but good enough to get me started in doing the news.
After three years in the media industry, I can safely say the work is not much different than what I did previously. At even credible newspapers, if you were to remove the editors manning the “main desk” and a select group of staffers, everything is about traffic. You write copies with the express purpose of getting clicks on the website.
There is a specific set of topics that will surely rank you high on Google, and you are expected to stick to it. It doesn’t matter whether there’s anything worth reporting on such subjects. I also find myself employing the search engine optimisation, or SEO, techniques for news copies that I did for during my content writing days.
In this race for traffic, you hardly have time to work on stories that matter. If you want to write a story that you think needs to be told, you have to either work overtime or after getting home, provided the race hasn’t worn you out and you still feel energetic after finishing household chores.
In the online newsroom, each team head has a traffic target and if it's not achieved, say goodbye to the time you would steal in between writing two nonsense articles to work on stories that matter. Editorial meetings hardly ever discuss the quality of work, they are instead focused on how we need to adopt new techniques to increase that super sweet traffic.
I have made many friends in the media fraternity and they all tell the same story. The hunger for traffic is everywhere but the degree varies. Some places you need to spend 75 percent of your time working on routine news pieces and SEO stories, and barely any time on actual reporting or features. At other places, they divided people within a team between those who work on reported stories and features and those who work on SEO copies and routine news. There are editors who will tell you to work on “quality stories” on your days off because apparently that’s why they give us weekly offs.
I wouldn’t blame journalists for this, however. It’s not the people but the business model that is flawed.
When advertisements are paying for your job, you are bound to work to land advertisements. If there is no traffic, there are no advertisements and, in turn, no money.
Thanks to some changes at Google that have pushed content from media houses down the traffic ladder, big names in the Indian news industry are moving towards the subscription model. Some have started implementing it while others are pushing their writers to do at least one feature story a day in order to build a loyal audience that would eventually pay for the work.
The shift in the media’s business model will come about gradually but when it does happen, news consumers should be ready with their support. The digital news space needs to be like the magazine, for which you pay each month. This will not only make media houses independent of pressure from political and corporate entities whose ad money funds them, but also enable journalists to do what they are supposed to do. If people in the newsroom remain slaves to traffic, they will be reduced to content writers. There will be nobody to tell your story if it doesn’t have the potential to grab eyeballs.
Mohammad Faisal works with a newspaper in Delhi.