Minority Report

Will newsgathering survive the proliferation of online media?

01 December, 2014

DURING THIS SUMMER’S NATIONAL ELECTIONS, I spent a month travelling from Guwahati to Srinagar. Journeying by train through seven states, I filed regular dispatches for Scroll, the digital news outlet where I work. The reports used conversations with locals to explore the junctions between politics, everyday life, and people’s hopes and anxieties. The work seemed to strike a chord with readers. It was also noticed abroad; after the series, the American radio broadcaster NPR interviewed me for its popular “Weekend Edition.” But this modest success underscored a more measurable failure. In all, my 25 reports generated fewer page views than about three hundred words of hastily written opinion that I filed soon afterwards. That piece—about some controversially leaked photographs of a male politician and a female news anchor—was published in the early morning, and had clocked more than one lakh page views by afternoon. The final tally was much higher.

Writ large, this is the story of journalism today. Across media, opinion—often highly popular and relatively cheap to produce—is ascendant. Digital media executives understandably favour pieces—humour, photo features, listicles and provocative commentary—that garner page views and court advertising revenues at little cost. Opinion’s financial advantages over reportage have already driven television news channels to reduce reporting staffs and convert primetime news shows into the sort of tamashas that pass for debate. Something similar is happening in print. Newspapers, which once confined opinion to the edit pages, now carry snippets of comment next to news reports (“Times View” in the Times of India) or get reporters to produce commentary (“Semi Column” in the Indian Express). Whatever one thinks about the desegregation of shoe-leather reporting from armchair commentating, the rise of opinion has consequences that go beyond concerns over objectivity or neutrality. The real danger now is the devaluation of newsgathering—the process of acquiring information from primary sources—which remains the foundation on which other kinds of journalism, including commentary, can be built.

Critiques of the Indian media have often focused on the general inadequacy of our newspapers and news channels: reporters rarely look beyond official sources for information; and coverage leaves out vital areas of our national life, both geographic (the North East, rural hinterlands, the tribal belt) and socioeconomic (the lives of the poor and working-class get far less attention than the lifestyles of the rich and famous). Valid as such criticisms may be, they prevent us from recognising the institutional strength of the traditional media—particularly newspapers, the biggest of which have vast information-gathering networks. The Times of India, for instance, might not offer much depth—most of its stories are no longer than three hundred words—but on any single day it publishes roughly a thousand new reports in fifty editions across the country.

These reports may often appear insignificant, adding only small bits of information to what is already known, but the careful aggregation of minor facts is what allows reporters, commentators and readers to discern larger patterns. The steady, uncelebrated process of newsgathering also makes the media an essential invigilator of power. In an ideal newsroom, beat reporters—the primary information-gatherers—slowly acquire enough expertise to become specialists. A journalist reporting regularly on a government ministry is well placed to ask the right questions of it, and to raise the alarm over decisions that might not serve the public interest. It’s true that reporters often fail to do this, either blinded by an unhealthy proximity to their sources or simply out of complacency. (Coalgate is a case in point: although the system for allocating coal blocks was rigged for more than a decade, only a single report—in Mint, in October 2008—drew attention to this fact before a government audit was leaked to the press in 2012.) But the failures of India’s traditional media organisations demand a reinvigoration of our newsrooms—not their dismantling.

Unfortunately, the enervation of reporting is exactly what we are likely to see as news moves online. While readers have begun to migrate to the internet, advertising revenues are yet to follow. Until now, most Indian media companies have expanded their digital footprints by dipping into content and revenues from their print and television properties. But those seeking a larger slice of the internet audience will eventually have to customise their content to suit the preferences of readers; and given the uncertainty of digital advertising revenues, that content will almost certainly be generated in low-cost ways. Some of this is already happening. In August, for example, the Times of India announced that it was partnering with the Huffington Post—primarily a news aggregator—to launch a website by the end of the year. A month later, the India Today Group—which began life four decades ago with a fortnightly magazine and expanded into satellite television in the 1990s—started a digital outlet called the DailyO. The website defines itself as “an online opinion platform” that will, in the words of its promoters, “isolate opinion, the big O, from the oohs, and aahs, and ouches of daily news.”

The emerging crisis in newsgathering is not confined to India. In the West, digital platforms have denuded dead-tree publications of readers, but have not replaced the revenues siphoned away from print. And this has dealt a decisive blow to primary reporting. In 2010, the American journalist Jonathan Stray examined the coverage of a single big news story—about two Chinese students who hacked Google—for the media think tank Neiman Lab. Of the eight hundred reports that showed up on Google News, he found that only 121 were unique stories, only 13 contained at least one original quote, and just seven were based primarily on original reporting. “What were those other 100 reporters doing?” Stray asked. “When I think of how much human effort went into re-writing those hundred other unique stories that contained no original reporting, I cringe.” Strikingly, the majority of original stories came from print organisations and wire services. Only one started life at an online outlet. (Taking Stray’s lead, I analysed one recent Indian story—this November’s introduction of compulsory voting in Gujarat. Of the 131 pieces that appeared on Google News, only 64 were unique, and just 16 contained at least one original quote. Nine of these 16 came from newspapers, four from news agencies, two from television channels and just one from an online outlet.)

Is it premature to agonise over the transition to digital news in India? Unlike in the West, where the growth of online journalism has coincided with the economic collapse of newspapers, many papers in India are not only viable, they’re strong, and unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Young metropolitan readers may depend for news on their social media feeds, but print circulation in smaller towns is growing, and newspapers continue to hire reporters. In this landscape, digital outlets could add value by acting as counterpoints to the mainstream media. Freed from printing presses, satellite transponders, and all the other paraphernalia that weigh down traditional news sources, they can be nimble and independent. But if online platforms are to consistently pursue original stories, they will also need sustainable revenues. Otherwise, they will not be able to support the sorts of newsgathering networks once typical of traditional media.

Those mourning the death of newspapers in the West have pinned their hopes on the possibility that the internet itself will ultimately resuscitate journalism, albeit in a completely different form. A report from the TOW centre for online journalism at Columbia University imagines a brave new world in which citizens post pictures of newsworthy events, algorithms assemble and analyse data, and the journalist moves “higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation.” The potential of the internet is undeniable. A vast amount of public data, available through government websites, awaits mining for insights that anecdotal reporting cannot reveal. Journalists no longer have to comb tediously through telephone directories to get in touch with sources; often, a quick search on the internet suffices. In the four years since Stray’s analysis, however, not much has changed in the United States, despite digital news outlets adding more staff and publicly committing resources to newsgathering. In March 2014, the Pew Research Centre’s State of the Media report found that despite “roughly 5,000 full-time professional jobs at nearly 500 digital news outlets” in the country, the “vast majority” of original reporting “still comes from the newspaper industry.”

The Indian media faces even greater challenges. This is still a country where the majority of citizens can neither speak nor be heard on the internet. When communal clashes broke out this October in east Delhi’s Trilokpuri neighbourhood, Scroll used social media to source pictures. But it was the reports that we published from the freelancer Nishita Jha, a former reporter at Tehelka magazine, that brought the scale of the social rift home. Jha visited the neighbourhood and wrote, among other things, about the experiences of women who had been assaulted by policemen or threatened with sexual violence by hostile mobs—information that could only have come to light through on-the-ground reporting. Around the same time, Hindutva groups were reportedly instigating attacks on church-going adivasis in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, where there was no possibility of crowd-sourced pictures. A Times of India correspondent in the state capital broke the news by speaking with local activists over the phone. A more complete picture of the violence could only have come from travelling to Bastar. We may live in the age of the internet—but reporting on the lives of most Indians, and the conduct of the authorities who administer them, still requires going out, observing, and speaking with people.