August 02, 2003

Printline Pontifications

For the very few regular visitors here who also know me on a personal level must have noticed that I almost never write about work or things related to it. For those who do not know me, I earn my daily bread working as a journalist, but I am not your typical microphone/dictaphone toting in-your-face kind of journalist. The profile is more or less of what my former boss is fond of defining as a "Swiss Knife" and those who have worked in the murky world of online journalism would easily understand why it is defined so.

The problem with writing about your profession as a journalist are two-fold: The first is that it is a very thin line that you have to stick to when it comes to maintaining professional integrity and the second is that it is too complicated a beast to get even a mild grasp of, even with many years of experience backing you. Why integrity matters is quite simple, more than any other profession, appearances matter the most in journalism. Even if the majority of the industry treat the "Fourth Pillar" concept as a joke, with huge helpings of cynicism added in, the average bloke on the street still believes in it.

If you are looking for me to state the obvious, I would gladly admit that the image of a journalist is quite very much a lie and an elaborate one at that, since most of our value judgements are made from sitting on our high horses, when we even do not have the moral or ethical authority to ride even a lowly snail. Which, incidentally is also the reason why it amuses me to death when people start campaigns to boycott certain publications, because they openly place stories for a tidy sum. What I wonder is how much of the regular news media would escape such a ban boycott if the same criterion is applied to them?

But why should the others be banned boycotted? It is because they too do the same thing stupid! You are just too blinded by the fine livery of idealism that appears on top to see what actually goes on beneath the sheets. Placing news for money is nothing new. Any journalist worth his name should have at some point or the other done his share of spade work to get that coveted junket. More covert ones take the form of official, but undeclared, policy of giving undue coverage to companies with whom you have tied up in other sectors. It then becomes laughable when the same publications are cited as examples of ideal behaviour. If only they knew better!

So why don't I do the whistle blower act and go riding out in a blaze of glory? Simple reason is that I do not give a damn about the idealism bit. The first baggage that you discard after you get acclimatised to the media industry is the one relating to ideals. It does not exist, swallow it the easy way or the hard way, but you are not going to change the world through this, better sweat it out in NGO if you are keen on that. You will get used to ignoring a greater wrong and write miles worth of text on some inconsequential moronic thing as time passes by. It is just another profession that operates on the principle of margins.

Four years back, when I first set foot in this industry it was around the time the dotcom boom was bottoming out, still I decided to give it a shot after chucking the relative security offered by a deskie job with one of the major newspapers. It was one of the most miserable conditions that I have ever worked in, the peak of summer, 40 degree celsius plus temperatures in a stinking room and an average of eleven hours of work, six days a week. The money was not great either, it got me a paltry Rs. 4000 in a month for all that effort. But the important thing was that I learnt a lot there.

At the same time, the boom boys were rollicking on, it would be a good 8-12 months before the attack of the pink slips would start and stories of wild office parties where they would order 70 large pizzas from Pizza Hut for a staff of barely 100 people was still quite commonplace. But there is another side to this story, one that was set in the years from early to late 90s. It was a time when hiring was practically non-existent in the mainstream media. Very few publications were doing well, circulation was rock bottom and it was next to impossible to retain your subscribers and yes, cable television was everyone's new favourite poison.

Of course, there were exceptions like The Hindu. But it snugly fits the definition of a niche and not everyone can have a hyper-rich private trust running the show and still manage to sell a copy at over Rs 3. Meanwhile, "the others" still had to contend with astronomically high rates of newsprint, turf wars between territory managers that often bordered on behaviour normally seen in ghettos and paltry late city print runs that would not even cover the expenses incurred in running the printing facilities each night. It was literally do or die for the print media and something had to give.

The traditional dailies were in a spot of real bother as far its brand placement was concerned by now. The instant version of news was the monopoly of the television channels and the long winding analysis was firmly the domain of the weekly and the fortnightly. The brunt of this downturn was borne by the newcomers to the industry around that time and it was not uncommon for people to start their careers as print journalists for Rs 2000 or less. Compare this to what a trainee gets to earn these days, Rs 6000 - Rs 8000, and that tells a story in itself.

And then there was colour. Not for showing gore, not for showing pain, but for showing skin. That "Times of India killed the news in the daily" is an absolute fact. But all they have done is to create an opportunity from a point of real desperation. They went back to the basics and hit at what is the most basic of our vices - titillation. The corollary is also that it is idiotic to assume that Times of India is a newspaper anymore. It is a daily entertainment magazine, one that appeals to the masses that rush to the movie halls to "detach" themselves from the reality of the real world with the regulation Govinda flick.

It is by no means ideal, it is by no means right, but you do have to give some credit where it is due and admit that they did turn the situation around and made the traditional news media worthy of the effort and attention that goes into it these days. The age where pure idealism gets you places is gone, it is history, finito. You have to first survive these days to even start thinking of any ideals and ideals certainly does not get the Seth to sell you more newsprint on credit the next time he comes to meet you. And if it was such a bad idea, why would it be selling so much and why would every Tom, Dick and Harry follow them too?

What we are seeing is a huge transitional phase. Most of the industry is still run by people who belong to the era of The National Herald and the disconnect shows in most places. The Statesman still uses language that would make dear old Queen Elizabeth squirm in her seat at Buckingham Palace, it is that archaic. It has an audience now, but what happens 10 years on when most of the same would have died? And right now the only thing that gets the attention of everyone from the bloke on the street to the executive being chauffeured to work in his E Class is the barely covered babe on the front page of the Delhi Times.

Around the time when I started working, it was assured that you would be skinned alive if the obviously American words like kids, cop or movie ever showed up in your copy. To understand how much things have changed, grab a copy of the latest edition of The Indian Express and you can see the same being used in aplenty. And what is even funnier is that they are trying to sell what is "proper news" to an audience that would belong to The Hindu with language that ideally belongs in The Times of India, while The Times of India itself uses pretty unfancy language to push news to an increasingly yuppie audience. Confusion!

Like I mentioned earlier, it is a huge transitional phase. It would be hard to believe, but most editorial desks in print media still run computers based on the ancient 486 DX and the mentality towards pushing their product is sort of based on the same era. And on the other hand we have the new media crowd who push things to the other extreme. And mind you, it sells. I have personally done and seen how quoting something out of context or creatively slanting a headline to make it more sensational or titillating gets a crowd, that comprises mainly of Non-Resident Indians, to click on a story that they would have ignored otherwise.

It is very important to not take our eyes off the ball in this game. Ten years down the line we would most probably use portable holographic displays to do most of our reading and it is absolutely imperative that journalism as it used to exist is redefined to find a role in that age. And that lies somewhere between what The Times of India and The Statesman is doing today, but both are equally important and both need to survive. What we see today is not where we will be. The industry is still struggling to find its feet and it will be a while before that happens. And for a change I will have to be optimistic as to where things would end up.