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On New Media startups and media independence – Prem Panicker

Prem Panicker

One group of editors announces a new media project. A day before the project’s debut, another editor issues a pre-emptive pooh-pooh that manages to confuse and amuse at the same time.

None of this would matter if the launch were an isolated instance, but it is not. The media runway is currently clogged with a long line of start-ups led by accredited – and occasionally, discredited – editors revving for take-off.

These recently announced start-ups and the ones jostling for take-off have one thing in common – they are all “independent”.

But independent of what? The answer is inferred but rarely articulated. The messaging is subtle – when I declare I am “independent”, I suggest that established, or traditional, media (of which I was a part until recently) is dependent.

It is a marketing message that plugs neatly into the mood of our times. Thanks to multiple acts of corruption and malfeasance – some documented, more inferred, and even more concocted by conspiracy theorists and interest groups intent on damning the messenger – media credibility is lower than it has ever been in living memory.

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It’s a good time to be “independent”, to provide “unbiased coverage”. (Ironically, at least some editors who tout their independence of mind equally proclaim that they lean to the left or right of center, and flaunt the label of ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ – never pausing to consider that these avowed leanings are themselves indicative of bias.)

This is not to diss media independence – if you can create and sustain a media operation without needing to rely on money with strings attached, may your tribe, like Abou Ben Adhem’s, increase.

Conversations around “media independence” are necessary – more so today than ever before. But why is this conversation focused entirely on independence from external – read monetary – pressures? Why do such conversations never touch on an entirely different kind of pressure – that of the “news cycle”? Why do we never question our collective compulsion to march to the drumbeat of “breaking news” and its more recent cousin, “trending topics”?

A personal experience led to this question. A few months into my stint in Yahoo, the edit team felt the need to go beyond “news”, to create space for narrative that would examine in depth and detail issues, stories, that had nothing to do with what was “breaking” and everything to do with what was important but increasingly ignored in the rush to stay on top of the day’s news cycle.

That thought was the genesis for Grist Media – a company formed by editors Nisha Susan and Gaurav Jain to commission and produce narratives under the Originals banner that explored the wider, richer terrain outside the straitjacket of the day’s headlines.

To revert for a moment to the question of external pressures, no one in the Yahoo management ever had a problem with the stories that were told through this partnership, though at times our narratives explored various political and societal holy cows.

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No one told us that a particular story was injurious to company interests; no one dictated what a story could, or could not, say. And when Grist stories began winning a slew of awards and nominations at Red Ink, there was company-wide enthusiasm and a flood of congratulatory messages in internal forums.

The Grist model led us to think of a related lack. While a narrative could explore one ‘story’ from start to finish without worrying about length and related considerations, there are too many stories, too many themes, that merit more than one-shot narratives, and demand consistent, ongoing, deep coverage. This is not an original thought, by the way – it is the underlying principle behind the old-media role of the ‘beat reporter’. We thought of reviving that culture, of having specific storytellers dig deep, wide, and consistently into specific themes, beats.

Thus, back in 2013, photographer/journalist Arati Kumar-Rao discussed Water as the ticking time-bomb under us all, and of her felt need to explore this one single theme in all its dimensions over an extended period of time, sequentially deepening and widening the individual storylines.

The merit in this approach was underlined when, during a recce trip to the Sundarbans, Arati drew attention to large ships plying through a section of the mangroves and the underlying danger therein. Sure enough, disaster struck – and while reporting on a devastating oil-spill in the Sundarbans and the resulting human cost, she pointed at the reasons why this was no isolated instance but merely the canary in the coal-mine. Within months, the Sundarbans witnessed another catastrophe, exactly along the lines she had foretold – an instance where deep reporting could predict tomorrow’s headlines, rather than chase after them.

On similar lines, back in November-December 2014 Rahul Bhatia began reporting on the acquisition of a massive chunk of land outside Panvel, New Bombay. That reportage foreshadowed the headlines of today that speak of new/amended laws the government will harness to acquire your land.

Grist, as also the Arati and Rahul led reporting projects, taught us a lesson: that while it was necessary to accurately reflect the major events of the day, it was equally necessary to create a body of work that was independent of the ticks of present time.

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Within weeks of my exit from Yahoo, all three projects were terminated – partly because there was ‘no RoI’, in larger part because newsroom managements believe that resources – time, money, people – should be focused on ‘staying on top of news’. That, the belief runs, is how you “stay relevant for the reader”.

Every media house, from the aging to the new-born, feels this pressure to ‘stay in touch’, to be – or at least to claim to be – the first to ‘break’ news. The pressure at times pushes us into startling acts of insensitivity – as when media houses compete to claim credit for having been the first to break the news of some calamity.

At the same time, media companies (including, but not limited to, Yahoo) have ‘deepened investment’ in social media, with ludicrous results:

Some news ‘goes viral’ on social media. Therefore, if we monitor social media, filter for what most people are talking about right now, and make sure our headlines and stories are ‘on point’, we will gain ‘social media traction’ and deepen the engagement of our audience.

Sounds brilliant, when the ‘theory’ is presented in power-point form by the newly hired Social Media Editor. Now try putting that in plain language: News is not news unless people already are aware of it and preoccupied by it. In other words, the media no longer sees its role as reporting on what is happening in the world, but merely as amplifying what people are talking about. Snake, meet your tail.

These seminal shifts in focus have altered the way a newsroom works. Not so long ago, conversations were all about the story. Today, the ‘story’ is merely a peg on which other calculations are hung: What kind of click through rate will this get us, and what is the ad-to-content click ratio for this particular type of news? If the latter is low, does the story merit “prime real-estate”, since not enough ad-clicks equals low revenue? And, related, how did the story “perform” on social media?

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These metrics are rigorously monitored in real time and extensively reviewed in daily/weekly post-mortems. Almost without our noticing it, we have gone from using metrics as one several measures of the viability of a story, to installing it as the holy grail of all newsroom activity.

This sets up the question in my mind: Is it time conversations around “independence” widened to include independence from the straitjacket of “breaking news”, “trending topics” and “performance metrics”?

Is it time to revive the appetite for telling stories simply because they are there to be told?

*

Prem Panicker is a journalist and editor

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More tellingly, staffers said their willingness to experiment was dampened by pressure to feed the numbers. As one editor told Petre, sticking to stories that have worked in the past, like “cute things that kids did,” or “unhinged letters,” from sorority girls or “douchebags,” is a surer method of attracting traffic than exploring a new idea. And writers felt the need for quantity always hanging over them. Since traffic numbers varied wildly per post, writers pursued an approach similar to that for playing the lottery – to increase your odds, buy lots of tickets. None of this rewards creativity, or the thoughtful reporting and think pieces that Gawker’s sites have become known for. With traffic as the complete arbiter of merit, reporters responded rationally.

When Metrics Drive Newsroom Culture

Report: The Traffic Factories: Metrics at Chartbeat, Gawker and The New York Times

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