November 12, 2005

Blog More

I know I had promised not to write about the mainstream media versus blogs controversy anymore, but since today is an unexpected holiday that has brought forth a very welcome break from the madness in office, I have the time to sit and collect my thoughts and present them in a sensible way than to fight meaningless street fights in the confines of the comment window. But be warned, this is going to be a very long read.

First up, I’ll present you a little bit of a primer about where I come from. The need to know has always been a huge thing for me. I have, from the time I could remember, been an information junkie, watching all the news bulletins on the only television channel then – Dooordarshan and reading newspapers and magazines, both English and Malayalam ones, from the first page to last. It did help that I was no good with studies and then Delhi happened under the pretext of “studying journalism”.

I started working here in 2000, fresh out of the journalism course, all ready and willing to change the world. Strangely, I had not grown up wanting to be a journalist; it was one of those things that happen mostly due to your having no idea of what you really want to do. My choice of the first job was a bit dicey, since I turned down a better paid and respectable desk job with these guys and decided to go with the famous dotcom industry, which was already showing signs that it was about to go bust.

In the five years that followed, I worked with a variety of news publications – some of which were just online extensions of traditional print houses, while the others have been pure-play internet firms or television channels – and it has been a wonderful learning experience. In all these years, I have somehow managed to stay clear of belonging to just one camp or the other and being completely dismissive of any of them, which, as you will see, is the basis for my belief that we need all the pieces of the puzzle than just one or two, to complete the picture.

What all this is essentially about is information and how it is communicated between people. The equation for which is written in terms of the need to inform and the need to be informed. Till recently, this used to be a very well defined dichotomy that kept the informant and informed in two distinct camps. As you can guess, the general public used to be the ones who would be informed by the media, the informant, in its various forms through the years.

At its core, the mainstream media is nothing but a huge filter, which transforms the enormous amount of information it receives into tiny chunks that would make sense to you. You have to work in a news environment to understand the scale I am talking about here. Left unattended, the emails from the department that coordinates what finally goes on air can overwhelm my inbox at the rate of at least a 100 per hour. What you see on the screen for a couple of minutes is something that often takes more than a couple of hours of hard work to put together. It is similar to mining an entire mountain to finally discover a stone that can fit into your hand.

This is something that bloggers probably don’t understand. They can’t see the process that finally culminates in the finished product and by its nature most blogs are specific to a single topic or a couple of them, which results in complaints of the nature where the mainstream media is accused of ‘ignoring’ big blog events or controversies. And then there is scale and perspective. Blogging is big for the bloggers, but the uncomfortable, yet true, fact is that more people would be interested in reading or knowing about what is happening in a famous actor’s love life than the news that an educational institution has threatened to sue a prominent blogger for what he wrote, simply because blogging is still a very niche activity. For that matter, even being on the internet is a niche activity in India.

Ironically, this is exactly where blogs fit in perfectly into the picture. It is awesome in its form as a collective and a filter of these niches. By tracking a properly done blog on technology, sex or politics, I can track a multitude of sources without having to go through these sources everyday. But for the main news I would still stick to the mainstream media since the degree of bias there is lesser. After having worked with and helped build at least one of them, I can assure you that bloggers don’t do half as much fact or tone checking as news desks do.

The problem is that too many people these days believe that they can either replace the mainstream media or do a better job than them, which is a classic case of believing grass being greener on my side of the fence. Only once when a blog becomes very popular and reaches the same scale like, let us say, a newspaper website, can you assume a level playing field. Doing one good blog entry a day is one thing, but being actually out on the field and doing 70 of them is a different thing – on the basis of quantity, quality and logistics. Once you reach that stage, you will end up looking more like the mainstream than as a blog.

Personally, I would rather not have to choose between the three forms – print, internet and broadcast – as mutually exclusive choices for my sources of information. All three are tremendously valuable and important for me. Print with its in-between states of having too much space and too little space gives me perspective, internet with its ease to publish and ease of access gives me an unrivalled breadth of opinion and information, while television gives me immediacy. Why should I have to pick between the three, when I can’t replace one with the other?

And I do believe that it is possible for everyone to co-exist. The mainstream cannot afford to ignore the voices on the internet under any circumstances, especially under the pretext of it being too nerdy or geeky. They need to track the internet and blogs to see what is relevant to the general public, even if the number of those influencers is a tiny one now. Having been an active blogger – as a writer, reader and commenter – for close to some five years now I would only love to see it growing larger and better.

Blogs, if they can get their tone right, should be tremendously effective in adding to the mainstream agenda. A year back, I was pushing for the implementation of such a product, which did not go anywhere due to various reasons. This time round, with a little bit of luck and patience, it should be possible. Even if it does not, I am sure Google has some secret product up its sleeve which will hit us and mow us down one day!

P.S: Is Blogger now sending automated trackbacks?