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The News Business, Part I: The battle for time

By Vanita Kohli-Khandekar , NA, NA | In Media | July 28, 2008
For the first time in its history, India is experiencing a truly free market for news. It is changing the way we live, work and vote

If you & #BANNER1 & # are over 35, stretch your mind to your teenage years. Do you remember thinking that Russia and India were the best of friends, that the non-aligned movement was the biggest summit in the world? Many of those beliefs and ideas seem foolish now. Yet they came to our head and we lived by them. We accepted an ideology, a government and decades of economic inactivity since we believed that our mixed economy, non-aligned, left leaning way of life was the best option. If you think India should have snapped out of the Russian bear hug faster and switched affections to Uncle Sam, you're doing it again. You are reacting to what you read, hear and watch on news.

News is to the mind what infrastructure is to the economy - a crucial network of information, analyses, opinions, discussions, arguments and visuals. These ostensibly form the backdrop of our lives, but are actually active ingredients in everything we do. If the network of roads, railways or electric supply is weak, it will hamper your ability to work efficiently. If it is good, you will hardly have an opinion on it.

Similarly, if a democracy does not have a free news market with lots of debate and discussion, the state of everything from institutions to government suffers. The way we think, live, work, the choices we make, could destroy us. All it takes is a look at our past or that of the former communist countries or current dictatorial regimes to realise that.

That is why a free news market is important. It is a non-negotiable fact of a working democracy. Coming as we do from a controlled news environment, a free news market is a concept alien to us. More often than not, it is equated with the freedom of expression. But there is more to a free news market than that. It is also about the freedom to do business - without capital, technology or other constraints. In a sense, the Indian news media has been freed only over the last three to five years, though technically, it has been 'free' since independence.

Time spent on news
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Partial press freedom came in 2002 when FDI was allowed. It became completely open in 2005, when foreign institutional investment was permitted. Though TV was given a free hand in 1992, capital and other controls meant that we did not really see a free news market till 2003. The Internet is largely free and so is the mobile phone. Radio is still hamstrung by regulations that forbid news broadcasting, but if a pending Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) paper becomes policy, that should change soon.

The effect of this freedom is resonating across the country as news media options go through the roof - 67 news channels in 11 languages, 99 million copies of newspapers sold daily and hundreds of websites vying just for the privilege of giving us news. And they are battling for a scarce commodity - our time.

This, in turn, has made information, opinion and analysis available to everybody, not just a few English speaking people. More importantly, it has given a voice to large tracts of India. Notice the ease with which Indians face TV cameras now, whether to show their anger at something or to take part in reality shows. As the prime accused in the murder of his daughter, Dr Talwar and his family have been using the news outlets to tell their side of the story. That is exactly what his compounder Krishna's family did when he was arrested. Ten years ago, we would never have seen or heard of them after they had been arrested. "What you are seeing is years of repression coming out in aggression," says Anurradha Prasad, managing director, BAG Films and Media (the company's first 24 hour news channel was launched last year).

This freedom has come with its own set of problems - that of tabloidisation, sensationalism, of selling out to advertisers and the blurring of ethical boundaries long held sacrosanct in the media business. Does that mean that it should be regulated? That we need a content code with committees and sub-committees? No, we don't. What we see is a phase in the evolution of a free news market and reacting to it at one point in time and locking ourselves into regulation will be disastrous. "Right now, the situation is chaotic, this will eventually balance out, maturity will come," says Prasad.

Sanjay Gupta
"I don't think that any punitive action is needed against news channels. The government would like to control them because they show government shortcomings," says Sanjay Gupta, editor and chief executive officer, Jagran Prakashan (it is part owner of IBN7, a Hindi news channel). Jawaharlal Nehru had once famously remarked that even a bad press was acceptable, but that it should be free and self-regulated. The UK is a great example of a country where the tabloid and the serious survive and make money and each operates within the same regulatory framework. In India, there is already a good programming code in place; all the news media industry needs to do is apply it well.

The thing is, the industry is too busy coping, enjoying, moping or freaking out on the growth and so are consumers. This, then, is the perfect time to ask where it is all headed. This is the right time to look at the future of news.

Time spent on various genres on TV
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After more than a month of research, about 40 interviews and reading tomes on the news business worldwide, one thing is clear. The biggest debates in the Indian news market currently are about the amount of news, its ability to bring in fair returns for investors and the quality of it.

Two facts need to be hardwired into our minds before we begin the discussion. One, mass media dominates in India, a high volume market. The focus of this survey will, largely, be mass media vehicles for news. The online world is limited to 55 million people, even if it is the world you and I occupy. TV reaches 575 million people, whereas newspapers are read by more than 300 million. So, for those looking for buzzwords like user generated content or WAP and VAS, this survey will disappoint. It sticks to India's reality.

Two, for too long, the dialogue in policy matters has been limited to the middle class English speaking population. The Centre for Media Studies (CMS) data shows that in August 2007, a whopping 57 per cent of the stories in national newspapers originated from Delhi.

Some of the top newspapers and channels are based in New Delhi, so the city is the de facto lens through which any event is viewed. There is a joke among most analysts that there is a Delhi-Mumbai corridor of English speakers, beyond which any discussion on India barely matters.

The fact is that only 100 million Indians speak English, while 500 million speak Hindi and its various dialects. The other 500 million or so are split between several languages. Just as a free news market is a democratic axiom, so too is a heterogeneous one that reflects the pulls and pushes of all interest groups. The news market now evolving is pushing the business of news to a point where the debate on national issues is truly national.

If it manages to do that, the free news market we see now would have achieved something that decades of control could not - involve all Indians in any discussion of their future.

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar is an independent media consultant and writer.

The Brand Reporter Special Report on The Future of News is available in pdf format, which can be downloaded here.

afaqs! is also organising an event on The Future of News on Friday, August 1, at The Oberoi in New Delhi. To register, click here.