July 21, 2006

Apparently noble purpose

One question to ask is, do newspapers have an obligation to deliver you the news? Tradition built up over the last couple of centuries tells us that the answer is "yes", and in fact it's mildly shocking to even consider that there might be another answer. And yet some newspapers in India are raising that very question and forcing us to answer it.

What's happened is that the managements now look at their newspapers from an entirely different perspective. They see the paper as a product, one that earns money for its manufacturer like any other product. Being what it is, a newspaper, it will earn money most efficiently when it is best able to deliver an audience to its advertisers. Therefore that delivery itself becomes the raison d'etre of the newspaper.

You consider a newspaper in that stark light, and everything about it starts making sense, or some kind of sense. What goes into the paper is what will draw and keep an audience. Simple. The news? That's incidental, maybe even irrelevant.

This seems to offend some people, but strictly, why? There's no god-given law that says newspapers must supply news. If I decide to print a pamphlet filled entirely with lies, and call it a newspaper, and there are people out there willing to buy it, why should I not do it? And then, what if I comfortably outsell more "respectable" newspapers that focus on news?

Some papers have discovered a formula that makes money by the bucketful. If news is an unimportant variable in that formula, why should their management lose sleep over that? Only because some of us are offended?

You think this is a cynical view of the press? You think the press has a "duty" to the public, a role to play in a vibrant democracy? You think the press is fundamentally about the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press itself?

Well, I think so too. But the success of new formulae forces me to understand that my notion of this role is hardly universally held. The more "natural" idea, in some sense, is that a paper exists, like any other product, to make money.

Not for some apparently noble purpose like giving you the news.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

what you said is totally true, but i don't think there is anything wrong with this apporach as long as newspapers don't maliciously misreport anything.

What it means is that the mass market for tabloid is far bigger than real news. But then you can create a niche where you report news for the people who really want to read it charge a premium for that.

Take for example - WSJ, FT are far more expensive than Chicago tribune or Onion or tabloids. But then WSJ and the serious newspapaers have there own market where they make a lot of money.

In India, unfortunately, the segmentation is weak and thats what is forcing TOI etc. to become more of a tabloid than real newspaper. (Not the only reason but one of the reasons. others might be lack of talent etc etc..)But then I'm sure it will evolve into a model where you'll find space for "real" news distribution as well.

The same thing is true about the 24 hr. news channels. They by and large produce junk but then the viewer can filter out things or just shut off the TV.

The alternative to that, which is to regulate what newspapers deliver would be a plain horrible thing. Let market decide what newspapers should publish.

haricane said...

"The more "natural" idea, in some sense, is that a paper exists, like any other product, to make money"
Ah, but the problem arises precisely because the newspaper itself (or the news it contains) has ceased to be the 'product' that the reader is paying for. Because the newspaper is paid for not by the reader, but by the advertiser, the real 'product' here is that which is being sold by the advertiser. The news then becomes merely the shopping bag in which the advertiser's message is wrapped. (Small wonder then that the ads are becoming more engaging than our news, and most 'news' that's published is frequently less relevant than the ads are)
To reverse this balance, either you need to reverse the economics of the situation (ie., the reader must pay more), or you need an alernative medium that shatters the distribution-cost-economics of the traditional model . The internet offers this alternative, and at least a small number of readers have begun to migrate in this direction.

Shashikant said...

Heard about peanuts and monkeys? Same applies here. You pay 50 paise per copy, you will get trash in the name of newspaper. To add to what you said, newspapers are not seen just as products but as FMCG products like soap,shampoo and cola drinks, which can only be differentiated by price and persons endorsing them.

The 50 paise newspaper is just good to check the movie schedule. For this, too refer the ads of respective movie halls and not plain listing which is bound to be wrong.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Shashikant, not that it makes a whole lot of difference to your argument, but the days of the 50 paise paper are firmly in the past. HT costs Rs 2.50, MidDay Rs 3, some Sunday papers are Rs 5 (I think one's Rs 9) ...

Shashikant said...

Few weeks back, I blogged about subscription offer from DNA/HT. It costs Rs 199 per year. Just last week, I came across salesperson from HT who offered a 2 year subscription for Rs. 350.

Yes. 50 paise per copy!

Anonymous said...

Dilip,
Whether it costs 2.5Rs, or 5Rs. is not a question. Newspaper will sell at the price which maximises the profit and will deliver the content to do the same.
Currently newspapers make money out of advertisers. So there is an argument to be made that its for advertisers. But advertisers in turn want maximum viewership. Again, the problem with Indian market currently is that there isn't enough segmentation.
Once you get that, mass advertisers would go towards tabloids which has high circulation but low prices because of effectiveness while the niche advertisers will seek out specialized and "quality" content. I think we should see this as the media market develops in india.

You need to change the economics. That means charging a lot more. I am sure there will be a small market for expensive paper with good content.

As I said before WSJ, FT, Economist follow that model and most of the times the content is far better that most other tabloids.

The internet economics are even worse. The revenue genration is only through advertisement except a few.

MichaelBains said...

None of the logistics matter to what I really think is the most important part of the question at hand:

Is an unfettered and reliable Press worth whatever it costs the supplier, regardless of the immediate size of the demand?

Ie, should the Press give people what they want, or what they need in order to factually know about their world.

It's an unavoidable question of Conscious societal engineering, vs the Free Market justification of classical Liberal Economics.

If the answer is "yes" because of the benefit to society provided, then the Press, like Public Education and Health Care, can only superficially and incidentally be managed via Market principles.

It's not impossible to do. It's just not even remotely easy.

MichaelBains said...

Meant to add:

I obviously think it's worth it.

One voice. One opinion. The facts are unchanged.

If it's worth it, we'll figure out how to do it. If not, then we won't.

Oh, and that's no matter what the medium, which will constantly change depending upon technology.

Kishor Cariappa said...

These days, newspapers provide more of entertainment and less of news. I wouldn’t blame the newspaper owners for inclination towards ‘Page 3’ culture –– after all they invested their monies to make some profit. I find some newspapers which had ‘journalistic ethics’ till sometime back, throw their values down the drain, and join the rat race for revenues. The advent of FM, TV channels, Internet have made the life even more tougher.

barbarindian said...

This is the classical communist world view that there is some "noble" purpose to existence other than serving ones self-interest.

One huge problem of this world view is that it allows one to indulge in politicking and agenda pushing in the most grossest of manners yet demanding that others be "noble".