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.


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.


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.

Another Father’s Day, another letter for my daughter

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote you a letter on Father’s Day. Because I enjoyed doing that so much and because you felt I’ve never done anything better for you, I thought I’d turn it into an annual affair. I know I’m a little late on it this year, but it’s worth doing anyway.

Last year, I handed out all kinds of advice (to much eye-rolling when I wasn’t looking, I’m sure). This year, I wanted a little more focus.

You turned 12 a month ago; by the time I write my next letter, you’ll be a teenager. It’ll be a time of great discovery – I hope you don’t discover everything I did – and change.

A mash-up of feelings you’ve never experienced before will confuse and frustrate you. People you liked earlier – such as me – will seem infuriating. Things you enjoyed till recently will seem childish and even somebody as social as you will crave time alone.

You will discover new relationships and find old ones changing – and that’s what I want to talk about.

Relationships are complex (that must be the most self-evident thing I’ve ever said, but then you claim to already know everything I tell you). But it’s these very bonds that sustain us. They comprise the raft on which we negotiate the tides of life.

There will be times you’ll want to give up on them. Abandoning ship is easier than finding the leak and plugging it. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a chance to clamber back aboard and somehow sail to the shore.

Relationships need work. When one of you slams the door shut, the other will need to quietly open it. Again and again, if need be. One of you will need to be more mature, even if they’re younger. One of you will need to be more patient.

Relationships don’t have to end when they end. If you can walk out, you can walk back in. True love will always leave the door open. Take a few steps back, then rush right back in. As Haruki Murakami wrote, “Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”

Relationships and regret don’t mix. I read this somewhere: “When in doubt, kiss the boy/girl.” (Your dad’s telling you this, can you believe it!) You’ll regret far more the things you don’t do than the things you do.

Relationships are about being a team. I met the Dalai Lama when you were only a dot on a sonogram. During that meeting, he told me – in a different context, but it applies to relationships too – that “all too often we forget that we’re in this together”. You and your partner aren’t on opposing sides. There is no single version of reality; the perspective differs from person to person, and each of you needs to accept that. You’ll never fix things if you don’t recognise your partner’s contribution.

I’ll end with a general observation. Time is precious – and, as you grow older, the least available. You’ll never regret investing large amounts of it in a person you truly care for.

Next year, I’ll think of something less serious to talk about. After all, you’ll be a teenager and taking me seriously is the last thing you’ll do.

PS: When I told the Dalai Lama of your impending arrival, he responded with his trademark guffaw and said: “When is the new human being expected?” He then wrote in Tibetan for you: “With good wishes and prayers – Tenzin Gyatso.” That note has been preserved for you. You’ll get it when you’re older.

PPS: I love you.

Why the rural Indian market matters

When it comes to rural markets in India, size, potential and geographical expanse have been discussed ad nauseum. But what about their ‘qualitative’ aspect? Are consumers moving up the value chain? Is their aspiration set evolving? And why?

According to the third edition of Accenture Research’s ‘Masters of Rural Markets: From Touchpoints to Trustpoints – Winning Over India’s Aspiring Rural Consumers’: “India’s rural consumers are changing fast. They are more aspirational, striving to be able to purchase branded, high-quality products. They are more networked, using mobile devices to connect with family, friends and companies. And they are more discerning, no longer willing to accept inferior products simply because they cost less than others.”

This is a decisive shift towards a concept of value that leaves behind price, combining instead features, quality, packaging and aesthetics.

This post was published on Linkedin on June 15, 2015. Read the complete post here

Let’s Talk About Sex–And The Differently-Abled–Baby

Shonali Bose’s tour de force, Margarita With A Straw, should be an interesting starting point for a debate on the sexual rights of the differently-abled. Interesting because the protagonist–played by Kalki Koechlin–shakes off social barriers by actually doing something about her desires.

Not every person with disabilities is able to break through; social pressure to be asexual generally triumphs. There is little recognition of–or thought invested in–the sexual rights of the differently-abled. And, as with most social tragedies, it’s the women who suffer the most.

According to the 2011 Census, the differently-abled account for 2.21% of the population that is approximately 26.8 million people. Of these, 11.8 million are women.

These numbers have been contested. The World Health Organization, using a broader definition of disability to include conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, estimates that 70 million Indians suffer from disabilities.

No matter which estimate you accept, the fact is that this is a sexually invisible group. In fact, their sexual rights have been systematically throttled. They have been subjected to segregation, confinement and even forced sterilisation.

This is an excerpt from a blog that I wrote for the Huffington Post. Read the complete post here:

India needs to pull off a ‘class’ act for its girls

Education levels offer one of the starkest examples of gender discrimination in India – effective literacy rates (age 7 and above) in 2011 were 82.14% for men and 65.46% for women.

Women’s empowerment cannot be achieved without commitment to the education of the girl child. UNICEF points out that even basic education can empower greatly, enabling girls to exercise greater choice over their lives – for instance, educated women are likely to marry at a later age and have fewer children. Importantly, the children of an educated mother are more likely to survive. In India, the infant mortality rate for mothers with a primary education is half that of children whose mothers are illiterate. This is a critical statistic in a country where the girl child aged 1 to 5 years is 75% more likely to die than a boy, making it the deadliest place in the world for the former.

UNICEF data shows that between 1970 and 1992, primary and secondary enrollment for girls in developing countries rose from 38% to 68%, with East Asia (83%) and Latin America (87%) leading the charge. In the least developed countries, however, enrollment rates average 47% at the primary level and 12% at the secondary level.

While India can boast of significantly ramping up primary school enrollment, the fact is that a large number of students drop out. This is particularly true of girls. In my home state of Maharashtra, in 2013 more than 14% of female students between the ages of 7 and 16 dropped out of school; in 2012, the number was 11.7%.

India, it seems, has legislated education as a right but doesn’t have the ability to deliver where it counts.

This is an excerpt from a blog written for United Way Kolkata. Read the complete blog here.

Want growth? Focus on women, Mr FM

Every year as Budget season creeps in, familiar discussions on the fiscal deficit, taxes and reforms begin, reach a crescendo as the government tables the Finance Bill and then fade away.

It wasn’t different this year. And, like every year, the most critical priority area that needs structural reform — the economic empowerment of women–was ignored.

This was surprising given Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s stated aim to push growth into double digits. It’s unlikely that India will get there without expanding economic opportunities for women. The allocations to security funds and colleges in Budget 2015 will not be enough.

Read my entire blog for the Huffington Post here:

Do read and share.

Ghalib-level epic-ness on the backs of trucks

As I posted a while ago, the best philosophy in India can be found on the backs of trucks. Here are a few truths I spotted whiled driving on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway a few days ago. Your favourite?

This is pretty much untranslatable (does such a word exist?). No arguments with it - envy is a sin.

This is pretty much untranslatable (does such a word exist?). No arguments with it – envy is a sin.

Sound advice. It roughly translates as: "I know I'm pretty; don't cast an evil eye on me. I'll stay with you forever; just don't drink and drive." Lost in translation, sadly, but it's pretty funny in Hindi.

Sound advice. It roughly translates as: “I know I’m pretty; don’t cast an evil eye on me. I’ll stay with you forever; just don’t drink and drive.”
Lost in translation, sadly, but it’s pretty funny in Hindi.

Ghalib-level epic-ness.  It translates as: "Learn driving; your fate is sealed. You'll be able to earn a meal only sometimes, and gold only in the next birth." Cheesy, I know, but it's meant to be. Glad I know driving.

It translates as: “Learn driving; your fate is sealed. You’ll be able to earn a meal only sometimes, and gold only in the next birth.”
Cheesy, I know, but it’s meant to be.
Glad I know driving.

I know this one's tough to read. It says: 'Ghodon ki race mein gadhe nahi daudte." (Donkeys don't run in horse races.) True that.

I know this one’s tough to read. It says: ‘Ghodon ki race mein gadhe nahi daudte.” (Donkeys don’t run in horse races.) True that.