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.