MediaNama turns 9 today, and honestly, we weren’t sure of whether we’d see this day, given how dramatically things changed over the past year. That we’re around today, and still doing what we love doing, and that things appear to be improving, gives us reason to celebrate. For the past few years, every year, we’ve taken this as an opportunity to look at ourselves and the environment in which we operate, instead of looking at how digital is shaping your business or your lives. Last year I’d looked at the funding ecosystem for media publications like our (and as always, been sceptical about the colour of money). The year before, I’d highlighted operational challenges that media publications face.
This year I’m going to look at things from a slightly more existential perspective, given the media (and digital media) environment that we currently inhabit, and why we’re still here.
1. Our environment
1.1 Platforms and aggregators are eating media: Social, for most of us, is the primary source for news and content. Instant Articles and AMP are making things worse, since platforms are executing the final bait-and-switch of adding a distribution cost to media delivery. There are publishers who are willing to go where the consumption is, not fighting the shift in patterns, but in the end, they will be at the mercy of platforms. Remember platforms operate on the idea of increasing fragmentation and monetization aggregation, whether it is media, cars or groceries. Aggregation at scale reduces the ability of individual suppliers to negotiate.
1.2 Journalism is fighting content, but it’s about audience: It’s cheaper to do content than to report. It’s cheaper to aggregate than send someone in the field. It’s cheaper to rewrite than to provide context and give an opinion. With advertisers targeting people and not content, it doesn’t matter whether they’re listening to a song or reading a news story, advertising follows them across the web. Algorithms place bids, optimised for where they’ll be able to get a user for the least amount of advertising. Low yields mean more advertising.
1.3. Audience is fighting advertising: Ad blockers are here to stay, because advertisers overplayed their hand, and advertising became intrusive. To protect their privacy, users are right to use ad blockers. Sites like ours, which don’t work with networks for this reason (and low yields), face the collateral damage of these decisions.
1.4. Trust is at an all time low: There’s a concerted global trend of discrediting the media, and support for the fourth estate isn’t being helped by activities of some of its own. Much of this is driven by the economics (the digital issues highlighted earlier, and traditional media with its own issues).
1.5. Competition is at an all time high: With money moving towards digital, every other publication (and journalist) is looking at the digital ecosystem. Some of them are reporting, some are aggregating, others are investigating and/or gossiping, while some are just confused and doing anything (including doing Yoga Day posts to get pageviews). That is not to say that there aren’t journalists who aren’t doing great work.
1.6 The advertising environment is tougher: The signs that rough weather was upon us last year was easy to spot: funding was drying up in the startup ecosystem, advertisers began asking about whether we’re white-listed on ad blockers, and once demonetization hit, budgets dried up.
2. Why we’re still here
There’s more happening in digital than ever before: When we began, I could run this site alone, doing 4-5 posts a day. Now just the decision regarding what to cover each day can overwhelm: prioritisation is among our biggest challenges. There are more important developments in digital on most days than it did in a week nine years ago. More doesn’t mean better. With some publications dedicating reporters to individual companies, and telling them to get a story a day on that company, it’s not surprising that puffery and false information is everywhere. In many cases, from what we’ve seen, the implications of developments – especially on the policy front – is being lost. As a reader said to me last year, length isn’t indicative of depth either.
The opportunity still exists to make sense of digital for all of you, and most publications haven’t even scratched the surface: we’re all focused on digital businesses and policies. Digital isn’t an industry: it is infrastructure. The scale lies covering and explaining not digital businesses, but in businesses going digital, and the impact it has on this country, and this world.
But it’s not easy. On the 30th of December last year, the founder of a company called me up, furious. Sitting in the same room was the head of a think tank, who had alleged that this founder had paid me Rs 1 crore, to write a particular point of view. This was false, remains false, and will never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever happen, but that apparently hasn’t stopped a whisper (and troll) campaign against me and MediaNama until a few months ago.
All because of this post.
There’s a reason why this is an important post. It’s existence explains why we’re here: We’re here because want to do our bit to help build an open, fair and competitive digital ecosystem in India. This is our agenda. Whether you agree or disagree with this post, what it does is hold the mirror to our businesses, our society, our country, our world. This is what we did when we covered what drivers were going through, or the fact that the startup life is not all that it’s made out to be. It’s why we questioned the governance of a quasi regulator, or warned an existing regulator of a potential danger. It’s also why, unlike other publications, we actually participate in regulatory consultations (here’s one from 2010). We’ve done documentation from the PAN-Aadhaar case in great detail, and corrected false mainstream media reports.
Taking a stand makes our work more meaningful, and it’s not something that we shy away from or are ashamed of. There’s journalism in activism – think of James Wilson’s tweets on demometisation, and Anand Venkatanarayanan’s posts for us on Aadhaar – and there has always been activism in journalism.
Where I’m finding most meaning in our work, frankly, is in our events. Over the past year, we’ve done events on things that impact the digital ecosystem, without really taking sides. We’ve brought together stakeholders from across diverse fields – techies, entrepreneurs, business heads, product managers, lawyers, government officials, policy wonks and journalists (and the odd MP), to discuss and debate a wide variety of issues, including Internet Shutdowns, the licensing of VoIP, Fake News, Indic Language content, Cloud Security, rollout of WiFi, and the monetization of video content. What we’ve found interesting, especially in the recent past, is that everyone comes into these events from their own perspectives, and needless to say, their own opinion on what’s the right way of dealing with an issue, or the way forward for a sector.
The beauty and the meaningfulness in these discussions lies in someone realising that there’s another way of looking at things.
This is why we’re here, and why I feel it’s important for us to sustain and thrive: to drive conversations, question choices (and lack of choices), bring stakeholders together and get them to debate and discuss, and when needed, push back. I keep going back to that mission statement: we’re here to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair and competitive.
I keep thinking about how, when we covered the issue of cab drivers becoming suicidal, Shashidhar suggested that we include links for suicide helplines (which we did). It emphasised for me that we’re a team that, above all, cares. These are things that, as I mentioned in the year end post, I wish more people in this ecosystem did. Because it isn’t about you or me. It’s about us. As I said when we turned one: We’re in this together.
If you’ve supported us, advertised with us, sponsored our events, read us, written for us, told people to read us, or just been there to help when we needed it: thank you for doing so. We’re around today because of the support we’ve gotten. Here’s hoping we get to be 10.