The J-Minus Model: Can Digital-Media Outfits Survive Without Journalists in Their Newsrooms?

David Sim/Creative Commons
21 January, 2015

In the late 1980s, Taco Bell, a fast-food chain then owned by the beverage giant PepsiCo, hit upon a supply-chain strategy that would have a profound impact on the global Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) industry.

Under what was dubbed the K-Minus programme, Taco Bell eliminated the kitchen from its restaurants. The food, normally at the core of a restaurant business, was outsourced to vendors so that Taco Bell could save on labour cost, overheads and retail space, to focus fully on delighting the customers by serving them re-heated fajitas. Today, most fast food chains around the world and in India employ the K-Minus model.

This pollen from the fast-food business has fertilised a new breed of digital-media products that have eagerly embraced newsrooms without journalists as part of the J-minus model.

In the conventional world of print media, opinions are still considered to be useful at the third or fourth stage of current affairs coverage. First comes the immediate “what happened,” followed by the surrounding facts and relevant data, and then the opinion or column, which is ideally an analytical piece of writing—a writer’s opinion is important, but that opinion needs to be based on qualitative analysis and insight.

The emerging digital-content model, however, is a simple marriage between new age tweets and old letters to the editor, with the resultant product providing outrage ammunition for the barrackers on social media. Such opinion by its nature is free, and such opinion writers take the sweat out of editing and planning—you calendarise the pipeline, with X’s column due at Y hour on Z date. There is no need for editors who are capable of spotting interesting leads, commissioning them, and working with field reporters and photographers to chase down the more unwieldy stories.

But even in western markets, there is little indication that money is shifting to digital journalism in sufficient quantity any time soon. The online ad spend numbers look staggering, but the advertising money that is shifting from TV and print is largely parked not in media outlets, but in e-commerce.

A “business-oriented” digital-media firm, then, is sustained on hope. Before long, the argument goes, the shift of advertising dollars to online journalism will snowball and it is best to enter early, poised to reap the benefits of a captive audience. The bind is that while this may make sense, it still rests on the belief that revenue will fall into place miraculously at some indeterminate point in future.

Enter the spreadsheet. What seems to make the most logical business sense, when you consider all of the above, is to create a lean organisation. An organisation, that is armed with a strong technology backbone and algorithms that can do most of the heavy-lifting. Implement a business model where content is created cheap and in large volumes. Layer in “social media” to create the buzz and amplify your content.

But this business model is so simplistic that anyone with an excel sheet will arrive at the exact same formula. It is highly replicable, and is in fact being replicated by a host of sites flooding the space. As Prem Panicker, the former editor of Rediff and until recently the managing editor of Yahoo India, said to me, “That is the real reason we pay lip service to the ‘amateur spirit’—by selling citizens the notion that they are at the cutting edge of a revolution as violent as the French, with the idea of guillotining the traditional publisher, you get them to contribute content for no pay. Joe Citizen doesn't see himself as a journalist, and therefore does not expect money.  Seeing his name in lights ‘on a prominent media platform’ gives him the jollies, and cachet among his peers.”

I had the opportunity to experience the consequences of this model up close as an editor at an avowedly right-wing digital-media start-up. There was of course no need for a newsroom. The generation of content was to be almost entirely outsourced to members of the community or people from different walks of life who broadly subscribed to the promoters’ worldview. The hatred towards certain journalists perceived as “compromised” had turned into contempt for the very craft of journalism. In effect, what we were trying to palm off as journalism was nothing other than the opinions of friends, reheated on hobs of self-righteousness, fired by anger and garnished with a generous dash of our in-house sauce of ideology.

Every second piece that came to our desks for publication—be it on cricket, cinema or civic pride—would inevitably be an evisceration of Nehruvian socialism, written by someone not yet twenty-five. In one such instance, an irate community correspondent, when asked to substantiate a passage bordering on the perfidious, argued that since there would be a statutory disclaimer at the end of his piece, the editors should confine themselves to issues of grammar and syntax.

The risk of upsetting such writers, I was told, was two-fold. One, the supply of content would dry up and two, there could be a potential loss of subscription revenues and readership. The disgruntled authors who happened to be Twitter titans could influence their followers—who ran in the thousands—into believing we were yet another mainstream media mimic.

In the fifteen years that I spent at more than half a dozen newsrooms, I had not heard the articulation of the fears of losing revenues because of alienating constituency X or Y, nearly as often as I did in three months that I spent at a place that prided itself on being an alternative to the corrupt mainstream.

Such outcomes embody the problem of digital media’s current conception of what such an alternative amounts to. In a recent interview with, Shekhar Gupta, the former editor-in-chief of the Indian Express, commenting on compensation for journalists, said, “I don’t believe in citizen journalists. I say give me citizen doctors and citizen lawyers and I’ll give you citizen journalists. We learn the journalistic skill, we come with bullshit detectors, which gets better with age and experience.”

Gupta may not have been referring to online journalism, but his argument is relevant in this context nonetheless. He would be wrong if citizen journalism existed within a combination of skilled reporters, smart desks and citizens offered their rightful share of the spotlight through a rigorously edited mix of opinions and comments. But if “citizen journalism,” as it seems to be currently practised by many online outlets, simply means creating a platform, inviting all and sundry to write about anything and everything, and hoping that the long-tail effect will bulk up readership metrics, then Gupta has got it right.

TR Vivek  has worked with the Economic TimesOpen and Outlook. He was associated with as a co-founder. He is the co-author of IPLCricket and Commerce: An Inside story. He is currently based in Hyderabad.