Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Things that we should talk about.

Talking about debates, we still cherish it right? So I guess somebody should do a rational post on all these treaty deals. Some in the management think that some blogs and journalists don’t get it, myself included and some in the media fraternity thing that private treaties of any sort are ‘evil’, period. Over the past week or so, I’ve been trying to come to a sort of mean position on the deals, because like it or not they are reality today, and will be reality tomorrow, and journalists will not be able to wish them away. That said, some of the issues that have risen up in various media groups have been because of bluster – as was evident at Medianama – or possibly because management and journalists can’t seem to draw a line at what is what.
Some people in management in virtually every media company think that some journalists don’t get the idea of a business, that is to make money. Some journalists don’t think that managers get an idea of the news. But, having worked as a journalist for over seven years and having dealt with managers and journalists of all colours I’m surprised at the level of animosity that sometimes exists between the two groups. Very often they work at cross-purposes even though ostensibly they work for the some organisation. Much of that is because neither quite gets the other’s job or role. Some journalists are better than others and it is the same with managers, there are some I work for who aren’t bad in some areas (though can’t get others) and there have been absolute blunderbusses I have seen also.
While most managers deal with the editors, there is often no attempt, in any media group to let journalists at lower levels interact with their management. We are told ‘Editorial is sacred’, but apparently it isn’t and hasn’t been for a while. The better editors today are of two types according to me, realists and hyper-professionals. Again, I’ve worked for both types, and find myself, as usual, deliciously in the middle.
Back to the point, in the last few years or so salaries have gone through the roof in the media. People who were getting 30-40k a month are suddenly earning 200k a month, whether you think they deserve it or not. But ‘deserve’ or ‘not deserve’ is not my domain, and going there will open up a can of worms. Yes, there are some people whom I believe are extremely hard-working and yes, they do in certain cases deserve their money and yes, there are people who have risen to higher levels just by kissing the right asses.
But, at the end of the day, it isn’t just human resources costs that have risen in media groups, it is all costs. Heck, inflation affects everything and if you think oil prices have climbed, just look at newsprint. A32-page newspaper which spent Rs 8 producing a paper last year, is suddenly faced with an Rs 12 per paper. This has meant smaller papers, a skewing of the ad-edit ratio and other changes. But again, as the slowdown has kicked in and expensive paper stocks lie about, getting adverts has become tougher. You really wouldn’t want to be in ad-sales right now.
Sure, this might be a temporary phase and things might well get better once the country grows a collective brain and kicks out this government. I don’t believe we’ll end up with Mayawati as a Prime Minister, but that is venturing into the realm of politics and this is not a post about politics.
But, as usual, I digress. Even if the good times come back, the media is fragmenting tremendously. When Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister of India in 1984 and this country was invested with a new sense of hope, even a six-year old in Calcutta, we had one TV channel, and every city had its local paper. Only possibly The Economic Times was a ‘national paper’ and that was an eight-page rag back in those days according to those who worked there then. Yeah, the Times of India had a Delhi edition but Samir Jain was yet to start his inspired price game of the 1990’s which was to hurt Hindustan Times badly.
Those were slower days, journalists got subsidised housing and the fourth estate was generally seen as an instrument of the state and though Bofors changed that to an extent, the reforms of 1991 made media more than news and into a viable business proposition. And BCCL realised this before anyone else.
And here is the thing, there is a part of me which believes that what we are seeing in print is only a temporary upward ‘blip’ and despite the launch of several new magazines and papers, the widespread availability of access technologies such as 3G will change the way we consume media, if not in 2009, definitely by 2012. That is why made my pitch for integrated newsroom a short while ago, and again I think BCCL has realised this before any other media group.
Sure, the ‘integration’ process hasn’t exactly been smooth over there by all indications, but I have a sneaky feeling that maybe with ET-TV or whatever it is called they are on their way there. I’ve said before, BCCL is possibly the only group in the world which can pull off such a thing. OK, so I’m discounting News Corporation, but I’m not being a Times fanboy when I think BCCL can pull this off, they’ve not been successful so far, in fact, their websites suck big-time, but they’re getting there.
But, integration of various media resources is only one part of the story, the second part and this is a facet sometimes journalists tend to forget is one of making money. Advertising will get increasingly diffused by this dramatic change in media consumption patterns. And today while several TV channels claim that they have no more inventory to sell, so much so that some TV channels are showing more adverts than News, this is again a ‘blip’.
So how does someone secure revenues going forward? There are two answers. The first is subscription, which isn’t going to suddenly happen, not even on the internet. And the second is something different, which in this case is what we are all complaining about – private treaties. Sell some inventory today for a fixed sum aof money and secure revenues either in the form of exits or dividends in three-five-ten years time.
The idea of private treaties therefore is brilliant from a revenue point of view. The problem is that it is a ‘new’ thing and as usual, management and journalists are at loggerheads at several media groups, because what BCCL starts, everybody copies. Some journalists claim the sanctity of the news is in doubt thanks to private treaties and how can we trust what we read? But then again what is the name of this blog?
I don’t trust much of what I read, some stories in all newspapers, even that supposed virtue of paragon (right!) The Hindu are utter tripe. I usually like what I read in Mint, not much news, but usually nice stuff to while away time. Reuters, AP and the BBC aren’t selling out and the PTI despite making amazing attempts to murder English twice or thrice a day aren’t either and all that stuff comes onto my feedreader – Bloglines which I can access online or off my Nokia Nseries device. What else do I need?
Sure, every once in a while a newspaper article will be though provoking, as I mentioned in my last post, and I will scan the papers for them. But once I’m done with my number twos – where I scan the paper for something I’ve missed or something stupid, silly or vapid, which Reuters Odd News hasn’t yet picked up and laugh. Laughter helps with constipation, well it means that the face you make getting a turd out is better than usual.
But that is me, and back to the point of these private treaties deals. I think a lot of the trouble is because these are new and both ‘groups’ (and I call them groups) are pushing and pulling until they can work out some sort of compromise. I really believe, personally, that one way around could be a disclaimer – either in the form of a box somewhere in the paper (Something like: XXXXX the Private Equity arm of XXXXX, the parent company of this newspaper/magazine/website has a stake in the following companies mentioned in this newspaper). Try not to make it as small as the corrigendum box, maybe even bold. Some might think it is a waste of space but you get around ‘reader trust’ issues, something I don’t believe management usually takes seriously enough and something I believe journalists take too seriously.
Either that, or some kind of other middle ground, something will have to be found.
Anyway, these are just my two cents on the matter. Some of you might think I’m crazy for writing such a post, but then again, if people can bring up the fact of us giving up Kashmir, why can’t we talk about this?


Anonymous said...

TOI and ET does carry disclaimer only when an IPO of a pvt treaty client is in the offing. And that is due to regulatory issues. In cooler times, no one is allowed to write any negative news about the company. A few years ago, the fact that Air Deccan had made huge losses was pulled off page 1 and buried in the inside pages. I saw this first hand.
Or for that matter the Provogue case was also not extensively reported in any TOI publication.
Where does one draw the line. And how? Will ever ET or TOI go the Mint way? As a journo, like the way Mint reports on its competitors. It even attributes a rival if they break a story. Way to go Raju N.
Pvt treaty is a monster... you never know what it will gobble up.

Web Monkey said...

Hi K
A few points...

1. Journalists take themselves too seriously.Most of them are upper class twits from St Stephens with good families( IAS officers etc) and limited intelligence. Thats is true of most print and tv journalist-especially at Undie TV. I see journalism as entertainment -there is only a thin line dividing TOI and Balaji Telefilms

2. I think the banias at Times House also believe this . Thats why they do not believe in the sacred ness of news etc. Once you have got past that point then there is little to stop you from doing whatever legal means are available to increase revenue -and hence private treaties etc

3. My only problem with the press is the hypocrisy-on one hand they talk about national interest etc when the issue of foreign ownership is concerned. The argument is the media is a special business which needs protection, however the media owners do not seem to any such problems when it comes to foreign ownership-as long as they get their pound of flesh. TOI sold off the magazine brands to a foreign hand through WWM, and all the media groups are following suit.

On an unrelated note -I would like to know how many dalits/OBCs are there in the newsrooms of the English press. Most seem to be Brahmin/Bania etc...So much for representing the readers

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Well.. you said right about PTI... but it seems that some major changes are happening out there... find out if u can.. also write something on newswires and their future