Media and big business: Happily ever after or nasty break-up in the offing?

As night crept across the winter sky a few weeks ago, the discussion on the Express Tower lawns warmed up. Steve Coll – two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, book author and dean of Columbia Journalism School – was the picture of pragmatism as he spoke about challenges journalists face in this age and what the future will look like for them.

While Coll dissected several issues, including the changing nature of audiences, his views on journalists’ relationship with corporations were particularly illuminating.

coll

Steve Coll was erudite and incisive. As dean of Columbia Journalism School, he has an interesting view of the media and their relationship with corporations. Copyright: Ashraf Engineer

“Corporations are trying to adapt to the digital age the same way journalists are. They have discovered they can tell their own stories. They can ignore journalists and still achieve their goals,” said Coll to the very involved audience comprising media students, veteran journalists and corporate executives. Having been a journalist for nearly 17 years and in marketing communication for five years, I can testify that Coll got it spot on.
There is little doubt that the technology-driven change in media consumption is rapidly transforming journalism – and I believe this is essential. If audiences are changing, so must newsrooms. They need to adopt, for instance, analytics to spot and understand audience conversations, where they are taking place and the issues that are hotting up. The findings can help editors decide where to focus resources.

Coll was bang on when he said: “Technology is not neutral. It’s changed the nature of journalism and the relationship between journalists and audiences.”

But this technology is available to corporations too.

express towers

Express Towers, which hosted the interaction. The building is the headquarters of the Indian Express group and occupies an important place in Indian media history. Copyright: Ashraf Engineer

In his column ‘Unstoppable rise of corporate media’ Tom Foremski wrote: “Every organization is a media company – not because they want to be, but because they have to be. They have to be seen in the world or they cease to exist, which is why organizations are ramping up their output of corporate media and they are just at the start of this trend… Organizations know that the value of high quality media content is essential to bottomlines…

As they increasingly invest in and operate ‘owned’ media, as Coll pointed out, corporations are realising that they need not depend on the media for getting their messages out. Journalism, on the other hand, needs corporate support to survive. For, if audiences don’t pay for quality journalism, who will? So far, the media you consume has been offseting its costs by carrying advertisements.

Foremski believes that special interest groups would pay for what they want you to read since you won’t pay for what you should read. The more ignorant you are of an issue, the worse your decision about it. This includes the way you form opinions about corporations.

oberoi

The view from the Express Towers lawn. That’s the iconic Oberoi Hotel, which was, incidentally, the site of one of the bloodiest massacres during the 26/11 attacks. Copyright: Ashraf Engineer

As the perception grows that the media is buckling to corporate pressure, audience trust is shrinking. A Gallup poll released in September 2015 asked more than 1,000 Americans whether they trusted the mass media when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately and fairly. Less than half said yes. Only 33% said they have a “fair amount” of trust in the media. A mere 7% had a “great deal” of trust in the media?

According to Gallup, which has been polling media perceptions since 1972, trust in the media has been falling since peaking at 55% in 1998 and 1999. Since 2007, a majority of Americans have distrusted the media.

While this is a poll of American audiences only, chances are journalists in India will face a similar situation sooner than most believe.

Media houses must introspect. As Coll said, “For serious, independent journalism to thrive it has to have an independent commercial base. Otherwise, it can’t stand up to pressure.”

Now’s the time to experiment with new tools, new delivery mechanisms and revenue streams. Pointing out that the new generation of journalists is well equipped to do this, Coll said the “second generation of data use” – measuring reader engagement, time spent, usage patterns, etc – can be used to good effect, even to attract advertisers. “Engagement should count,” he said.
For me, the biggest asset is the sheer drive and commitment that most journalists still display. “ ‘Change the world’ is still the driver for journalists,” said Coll. He was referring also to journalism students, who he meets all the time at Columbia. I sensed a similar drive in my students at media schools.

Coll was right when he said: “Every generation gets to invent its own narratives and journalism.” I believe that narrative will centre on high-quality journalism in the face of increasing pressure from corporations and diminishing revenues from them.

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6 thoughts on “Media and big business: Happily ever after or nasty break-up in the offing?

  1. Ashraf, this is very insightful. I particularly liked your suggestion of newsrooms adopting analytics, which I don’t know if the media house owners will do since they are blinded by the belief that Bollywood will sell their products, save the day so to speak.
    Also, I dont know how soon high-quality journalism will dominate the narrative in India given the manner in which at the ground level electronic and digital media write and operate. I mean, i’ve actually seen young, straight-outta-college ‘journalists’ behave like star struck fans, begging for selfies with celebrities, both entertainment and political. I guess the media owners need to be shaken up from their Bollywood-induced trance.

  2. Thanks, Anil. Yes, what you say about young journalists is true in some cases but I believe that the vast majority of them are serious and committed. I think part of the problem lies in newsroom leadership; we just don’t have good enough editors anymore. There’s also the lack of management interest to invest consistently in new-age tools and good journalism.

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