April 03, 2006

Carol on front page

Wrote a short piece for Sunday DNA on changes in the print media; you can read it here.

Only, when I sent it to them it had four more paragraphs at the start. Those were lopped off. Here is the original version, which I called "News Flash: Carol on Front Page!"

***

At a journalism college I sometimes visit, a faculty member told me of a lecture by a well-known newspaper publisher a few years ago. What, he asked the students, is the role of a newspaper? He got the answers you would expect from idealistic young students: expose injustice, give readers the news, excellence in journalism.

He stood there shaking his head. Finally, he told them: The role of a newspaper is to deliver an audience, and the right audience, to its advertisers. Period. So if I find, he went on, that my business paper is being read in Dharavi, I would be annoyed. Because people who live in Dharavi are not the kind of audience my advertisers want.

Admirably honest. News is incidental; design the newspaper so that it will home in on the target its advertisers want. If that's the model, this man's publications followed it to a T. And if you look around at the ever-expanding print media in this country, so does much of the rest.

Which may explain how Carol Gracias and Gauhar Khan grace front pages because their dresses fall off.

Was a time, and it wasn't so long ago, when the focus of newspapers was news. (Though, really, who's to say that Carol and Gauhar don't constitute news?) The calculation must have gone like this: we offer the most comprehensive news, we'll get readers, and that will bring in advertising to pay the bills. And so if you're looking for how the print media has changed over the last several years, look at how this calculation has changed. Today, it must go something like this: The advertisers pay the bills, they want a certain kind of reader, and so we must package our product to attract that kind of reader.

Newspaper as product, reader as consumer. Like with other products -- think shampoo -- it doesn't much matter what's inside. What matters is how you sell it, who buys. To understand the print media today, we have to understand this idea of a product, of marketing.

Is there something to be mourned in all this? Well, not really.

For one thing, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with seeing a newspaper as a product. After all, it's only the weight of our expectations that says it should give us the news. For another, there still are papers that doggedly deliver news as we have always known it. For a third, there are more news sources available today than there used to be. In a sense newspapers don't need to be vehicles of news. They can evolve. For a fourth, think of how the product itself has improved. No more the stodgy black-and-white look, the shabby print, the smudged pictures of even 15 years ago. Most of today's publications are slick creations, and those that are not will fade away quickly.

So yes, it's likely newspapers carry less news than they once did. But they are better products that work harder than ever to woo you. That's good news for a consumer.

Which leaves two questions. What about the reader? What about journalism?

Less encouraging news there. Good journalism -- check sources, follow up stories, write to provoke thought in readers -- has suffered. Partly this is because of the number of new publications. Naturally, they cannot all staff themselves with good journalists. But partly, this is because of the lesser premium on solid journalism in the first place. If you see your readers as consumers, that very shift in focus affects what you give them to read.

This is not to say there is a sea of mediocrity out there. There are plenty of excellent journalists -- I can think of several names off the top of my head. Fine journalism is hardly dead. But the space for it is increasingly contested.

Then again, that only stiffens the challenge every journalist faces: how do I get my stories read? The good ones will be up for that challenge. Again, I can think of several who have made space for their work purely by its worth.

In a time of churning in the print media, that's the silver lining for journalism.

10 comments:

rama said...

Hi Dilip,

just some questions..
1.Why should the advertiser not want his product read/sold in Dharavi? Why should he not want a larger audience?

2.Why is it assumed that any kind of reader (whether he purchases a soap or not) will be interested in news of Carols dress/undress? Even if they are ...why assume that this is want they are looking for in a newspaper

BBC said...

Dear Mr D'Souza,

My name is Paul from the BBC in London. We are doing a radio discussion programme called World Have Your Say on the media and political reaction to the Gracias/Choli business.

Are you interested in taking part?

My number is +44 2075571130.

Thank you

Paul

Charu said...

Dear Mr. D'Souza, are you sure the post was not titled 'Carol on my mind'? considering how often the lady has appeared on the blog in recent times

Mridula said...

Dilip, have you read Chomski's 'Manufacturing Consent?' Very similar thoughts there. After reading that book for the first time I could understand what was happening to the Slimes of India of the world.

I of course prefer your unedited version. How do you cope with such cuts, or by now they must be the norm?

PS. What did you say to the BBC guy? :)

Anonymous said...

Dilip,

The main reason, which many have overlooked, is that our publications are heavily subsidised by the advertisers. I understand that, nowhere in the world, consumers get to buy newspapers at such a ridiculously low rates.

Can you sell a product below its manufacturing cost? Newspapers do.
(Tamil politico Vaiko the other day on TV said: 'In US, under law, you can't sell a product below certain cost. But, DMK people are selling their newly launched paper at One rupee, trying to kill the publication industry. Readers should shun such a product.')

Readers should start paying reasonable prices for newspapers; then they can expect good journalism and you can expect the media to truly play the role of a fifth esate.

Why no big publication has talked about IIPM issue? why no publication has conducted any worthwhile investigation on the pesticide issue of soft drinks?

They are silent 'cos they can't talk against someone who pay their bills.

So, who's affected at the end of the day? It is the reader himself; he is happy that he gets his paper at Rs. 1.50 a day but the real costs could be much much higher.


Another thing is the dumbing down of journalism; newspaper editors feel no one reads serious stuff these days.

That's probably why mos mainstream publishers tend to view journalists as 'cost centres' and marketing guys 'as revenue centres'. And the dumbing down of journalism continues, in the belief that the 'Rs.1.50 riff-raff reader' is not capable of appreciating good journalistic stuff.

Presently, the media baron follow the policy of 'low cover price and high ad tariff'; actually, the reverse should be the way to go about it.

btw, I'm a small publisher trying to buck the trend..
PS: As David Ogilvy* once famously said, "If you pay peanuts, then you'll get only peanuts, not cashewnuts."

*I don't know if really said that, but he could well have, considering the number of quotes floating in the Net.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: On the contrary, do not assume that since you are charging peanuts only monkeys are reading your publication.

There was a time when newspapers would print blank pages to make a statement and people would still buy them. Gone are those good old days.

>>Why no big publication has talked about IIPM issue?
Atleast IIPM issue got some awarness. How many are even aware about Outlook Mehta faux pas? Or was it a case of media covering for one of it's own?

BBC withdraws Offending Article on Shankaracharya

BBC apologises and withdraws article against Kanchi Shankaracharya

Anonymous said...

It's not my assumption, but this is what the big media houses definitely do believe in.

Take Outlook example: In the Sankaracharye episode, there was so much 'slant' in reporting. Mr Anand, their correspondent, was given a free run in Outlook -his prejudice was clearly showing whenever he wrote. In fact, the entire media -print and TV - either were incompetent or biased in reporting this. Headlines Today even ran a caption "Noose tightens around Jayendra". NDTV gleefully asked a panelist, 'Do you say that there should be one law for a religious leader and another for a common man? Say yes or no because we are running out of time!'

Take for example the recent 'Spice' supplement of India Today. Who would want to give it a second look? Will it make any sense to a reader in Kolhapur or Kakinada?
But the people who produce it cater it to one percent of one percent of the population ...knowing that their audience do not read more than 20 percent of content.

Now, it is firmly entrenched in everyone's mind that you can't generate revenue from the sales of magazine and you've got to get it only from the advertisers.

We readers, have allowed this to come to such a pass. Media treats as 'Re.1/50 customer' the same way no-frills airline look at Rs.500 air passengers.. (if the flight gets cancelled, you've to cop it..that's why the prices are cheap.)

btw, MAD is the only magazine in the world that does not carry any ads..that's why they're able to poke fun at everyone..

I long for magazines like 'Himmat' or 'Shankers Weekly' or 'JS'...maybe, i will start a similar publication soon...

ganesh

Anonymous said...

Good luck Ganesh.

Some in media business raise funds from amateur fly-by-night journos (a la Dilip-have-a-lakh-to-spare-for-Tehelka) who always seem to have spare change to get published.

Or there'll always be those sickular types with their "foreign funding" to spin political ads as genuine news reports.

Must be a very lucrative business to collect from both parties.

SloganMurugan said...

I'm no expert but the quality of english newspapers in mumbai has improved since the entry of DNA and HT.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Rama, you ask good questions, but somehow advertisers see it differently. If someone is advertising in a big business paper, I suppose he thinks it is delivering him the more affluent consumer. Therefore Dharavi would be a no-no.

As for Carol's dress, those kinds of news items sell. Like it or not.

Dear Ms Charu, I'm considering changing the name of this whole blog to "Carol on my mind." I'm currently consulting a PR service on what I need to do if I find it being read in Dharavi.

Mridula, I've read a lot about "Manufacturing Consent", not the thing itself. The cuts ... well, mostly I'm used to it happening now and again. I've made a big fuss at times, other times I let it go. I have an idea why it happened this time.

Anon, did you know newspapers in Pak are expensive? Plus I think they are far more critical of the establishment there than our newspapers are of ours. Perhaps your theory is right, after all! Tell me more about your publishing, won't you?

Ganesh, the big consumer magazine in the US ("Consumer Reports", I think it's called?) also does not take ads. Which is why its reports on all kinds of things are so trusted.

Sloganmurugan, I think you're broadly right.