Friday, September 6, 2013

Inside Story: Who Controls the Media -- Part V


Ownership of Media: No Gains without pains

By Neeraj Mahajan

Media is a business of idealism, passion, commitment and involvement. In the early phase newspapers in India were largely owned by middle class or upper middle class intellectuals. They did not start the newspaper primarily to earn profits like businessmen. They were inspired by the spirit of social reforms and struggle for independence. The circulation of their newspapers was quite moderate and hardly any advertising, yet the news and articles were far from trivial or sensational like today. Even iconic media barons like Birlas (HT Delhi, Searchlight, Patna); Dalmia-Sahu Jains (Times of India, Economic Times); Tatas (Statesman, Calcutta) and Ramnath Goenka (Indian Express) were men of vision and left their mark on the profession. Those who followed them -- Ramnath Goenka, Aroon Purie, Indu Jain, Ronnie Screwvala, Prannoy and Radhika Roy, Samir Jain, Vineet Jain, Raghav Bahl, Aveek Sarkar, Shobhana Bhartia, Subhash Chandra and Rajat Sharma—atleast had the media as their main line of business.

The late 80’s and early 90s saw many media startups and takeovers by big business houses like Ambanis (Observer Group), Vijaypat Singhania (Indian Post), L.M. Thapar (Pioneer), Sanjay Dalmia (Sunday Mail), Lalit Suri (Delhi Midday). They were all successful in their own business domain but failed badly because media was not their primary business. They also lacked the patience and commitment. They were primarily dependent on a few advisors who were good journalists, managers or advertising professionals but had never done business themselves. As a result, after sinking in tons of money down the drain; the promoters decided that they had enough of losses. What this simply means is that you can’t deliver without labour pains.

The early 80s saw the emergence of a new generation of editors like—Arun Shourie, M.J. Akbar, Aroon Purie, Vinod Mehta and S.P. Singh. They were all heroes who laid the foundation of an investigative and a new brand of attractively packaged journalism. Akbar launched the Telegraph, Vinod Mehta’s magic was seen as the hand behind the success of Sunday Observer and later Outlook. Thanks to such stalwarts India today has more newspapers and TV news channels than any country in the world.

Most of the national media groups are owned by corporate houses who want them to run as profits centers. This is not withstanding the fact that when newspapers start covertly lobbing or tailoring news to suit corporate interests, the problems, concerns and interests of the weaker segment of society get swept under the carpet. It is one thing for a newspaper or magazine to have a political or economic point of view but quite another to overtly or covertly align with a political party, ideology or business interest. Every reader or viewer has a right to get unbiased, undiluted and unadulterated version of news or views and not what suits the political or business interest of the newspaper or TV channel promoter. Journalists are expected to stand up for the truth and democracy. But how is that possible where owners control the editors, who in turn influence the writers and content. This means media moguls ‘make politics’ not just profits

A basic nuance of the newspaper industry that most corporate owners fail to comprehend is that ‘news’ is not a commodity or product that sells directly bringing immediate return on investment. This is one reason why in many organizations advertising and sales personnel who bring in the money are treated as blue-eyed boys while the editorial staff who provide the content which drives everything from – visibility, readership, circulation, advertising, credibility and goodwill in the market are seen as unnecessary burden. This explains the reason for the vanishing tribe of sub-editors—who used to play a very useful role in the editorial team – were the first to be axed in the cost cutting measures as they did not bring a penny to the organization.

Fallout of this trend has been the devaluation of the position of Editor. Earlier, an editor used to control the whole newspaper, including advertisements. He used to decide what goes where on which page, if at all. Today, the post of editor has been marginalized and the advertising and sales teams first decide where to place the advertisement and the complimentary write-ups desired by the advertisers and the space left is left for the editor to display the news.