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The Future of News 2009: Internet is potential competition to traditional media

By Sangeeta Tanwar and Chhavi Tyagi , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Media | August 03, 2009
New media, with free content, has a cost advantage over traditional media such as print and TV, which have to make heavy investments in infrastructure to create news

The second edition of The Future of News, organised at The Oberoi, New Delhi on July 31 began with opening comments by Sreekant Khandekar, director, afaqs!.

His remarks set the tone for the day as he recalled how much news has changed from his early days as a journalist.

When we think of technology, the common things that come to our mind are online, mobile and satellite television, but we often tend to forget how technology has changed the print business in India. Recalling the '70s and '80s, Khandekar spoke about how the magazine business thrived then because newspapers couldn't satisfactorily print colour as the economies didn't allow it.

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He also spoke on how technology has helped the print industry to get hyper local or publish facsimile editions.

He elaborated how technology has influenced every aspect of news, beginning from the change of periodicity to availability of multiple platforms for news delivery. He observed that today, news is played very much like music - 24 hours a day.

These interesting comments gave way to an animated discussion in the opening session of the day, titled 'The changing Face of News. What should traditional media do?' The panellists for the session were Chintamani Rao, chief executive officer, Times Now; Ravi Kiran, CEO, Starcom MediaVest Group; John Dayal, political columnist; and Sudheendra Kulkarni, political figure and writer-columnist. The session was moderated by Manisha Natarajan, editor, special programmes, NDTV.

Natarajan initiated the discussion on a humorous note when she commented that 10 years ago, the news of her joining NDTV as an anchor had her family overjoyed. She turned into a star overnight amongst her immediate family and friends. However, in the matter of a decade, she was in a panel discussing the imminent danger to her job from the fast emerging new media and the potential threat that it poses to traditional media such as print and TV.

She shared some figures from a business news survey conducted by afaqs!, where respondents were asked to list their preferred source in the case of breaking news. TV and newspaper emerged as the frontrunners (with 46 per cent and 27 per cent votes respectively) as the first and second preferred sources for breaking news. News websites and blogs were placed third and fourth, with 20 per cent and 4 per cent votes respectively.

The figures validated the fact that the swing towards new media in India is comparatively less as compared to the West, where new media was fast overshadowing traditional media.

Natarajan turned towards Rao for an opinion on the survey findings. Rao began by emphasising that news has to be heard, read or heard and seen. He added that delivery platforms could vary, but even today, more people read the news in newspapers rather than on a computer screen.

He stated that though the media scenario had changed considerably, he did not see media as traditional and non-traditional because, at the end of the day, consumers do not make this distinction when they consume news. The story of the emergence and spread of new media is a slow one in the country because of factors such as limited access of people to technology and what they can do with it, as well as high hardware costs.

He pointed out that having a computer is one thing, but having access to the Internet is a different story altogether.

Rao suggested that while making statements on traditional media and new emerging media, one needs to make the distinction between whether one is talking about traditional media, or examining traditional ways of doing business.

The moderator again cited recent findings in the latest PWC report, which estimates traditional media to be worth US$400 million, in comparison to new media, which is a mere US$4 million industry. The Internet has made information and content available for free, which is not the case with traditional media. She questioned whether news on all platforms could be made free and whether this free model of news delivery was sustainable.

Kiran addressed the query by drawing attention to the fact that in the anxiety to know whether we are ready to pay for content in x, y, z media, we overlook the fact that in reality, we are not even paying for the newspapers that we read. The truth is that newspapers are highly subsidised by advertisers. "Essentially, the question today is not about paying. Rather, it is about what I want to do with the news that I have - do I even want to read it?" he asked.

Talking about free and easy availability of news, Dayal drew attention to the fact that one must not believe Wikipedia, from where the younger generation is found lifting most of its facts and figures, which are, on more than one occasion, incorrect. "How believable and trustworthy can news be at a place where whatever one individual has posted a few seconds earlier gets replaced by another user, in accordance with his or her whims and fancies?" he questioned.

He added that these forums are not Encyclopedia Britannica, which can be trusted and believed. He suggested that even open-ended forums should have some checks and balances. The new emerging media lacks posterity, unlike traditional media, where a thing once written is there for years to come.

Kulkarni began his arguments by giving two diverse, yet equally powerful, examples of the promise for both development and destruction held by the Internet. During his association with the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he recalled that the Internet was utilised effectively for mobilising almost 15,000 volunteers for the party's election campaign. He also cited how, in this year's United States presidential election, Barack Obama effectively used the medium to his advantage. "There is no doubt that in the years to come, the Internet is going to play a major role in political campaigns," he said.

Subsequently, he cited the recent incidents of ethnic riots in China, which started when a website in one of the Southern Chinese cities flashed the news of a Han woman being in trouble, while the culprits responsible for her misery were roaming free. This piece of news led to the loss of two lives in the city.

The anger generated by this development travelled to faraway Xinjang in the country, leading to the death of more than 1,000 people in a clash involving Hans (the largest ethnic group in China) and Uyghurs (predominantly Muslim ethnic group in China). Later, it was discovered that the news carried on the website was based on rumours and there was no truth in it.

Thus, Kulkarni argued that reliability was a requirement in all media; and in all the cases, the responsibility has to be shouldered by the editor. He brought home the established truth that news is considered sacred as it is believed to be fair, reliable, trustworthy, accurate and authenticated. Thus, reliability becomes critical in the case of news spotted on websites and blogs as well.

Kulkarni questioned how anyone could be held accountable in the context of the revolutionary and disruptive character of a media such as the Internet. The medium has democratised the business of news. When power is concentrated in the hands of a few, there is a greater chance of it being misused; but today, this power is getting decentralised, with the media becoming 'by the people' and 'for the people', where individuals independently create news for public consumption.

To prove his point, Kulkarni quoted American media critic and scholar, Herbert Schiller, who detested monopolistic ownership of media by single individuals, instead of ownership being vested in the masses, to whom the mass media belongs.

Rao expressed strong views on this perennial debate of keeping the media under check. He stated that that there is a difference between democracy and anarchy. He added that there is a thin line between the two, and it is difficult to ascertain who decides the difference between control and regulation. There are stringent laws with provisions under which websites, if need be, may be pulled off within 24 hours. The crucial question is what could be dangerous and in whose opinion - which offers no easy answer.

Dayal, pitching into the discussion, said that checks and balances do not work beyond a point. In the past, too, both Press Council of India and Editors Guild existed, one proving to be more toothless than the other.

According to Dayal, control amounts to censorship, which never works, as was proved in case of the national emergency fiasco during the time of the former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

The panel also discussed at length the inflow of advertising money in the case of new media. Kiran of the Starcom MediaVest Group began by saying that the growth of new media was inevitable - the media landscape is fundamentally undergoing a change and it would be unwise to tone down its effect.

Today, be it NDTV.com or The Times of India, they all are in the news business. Thus, the question is not whether money would flow from print to the Internet. The money will flow as people simultaneously continue to read, listen and watch. Unlike India, the transition from traditional media to new media is happening fast in the West. In the United States, the Internet commands a share of 10-12 per cent in the US$160 billion media industry.

Kiran pointed out that when it comes to creating content, traditional media needs strong infrastructure to create it, whereas costs are lower in the case of new media. Here, too, the question is about investment and not about absolute investment. The new media is infinitely more profitable because of its cost-effectiveness.

Kulkarni ended the discussion by commenting that the fundamental change brought in by the Internet is that today, people are not just disseminating views, they are also creating news which is relevant to them. He said that this move is highly welcome, especially when the traditional media has been largely neglecting public service narrow casting.

The enriching session came to an end with the acknowledgement that emerging media is a reality in the days to come. However, it may be that it will witness a slow growth in competing with traditional media, which is finding its own ways of getting online, capturing the business and exploiting the potential that new media holds.

The event was organised by afaqs! and sponsored by STAR News, Hindustan Times and Mint.

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