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.