Future of Media and other related thoughts
From a Q&A session for a journalism student’s project, not edited much for language or clarity and a bit rambling.
1. As the newspaper industry in India is a growing one, do you think there is a need for integration, as in the West it is mostly done to prevent the death of newspapers.
I am not quite sure what exactly does “integration” stand for here. If it means cross-publication integration, as seen in the case of Times of India and Hindustan Times, there is an absolute need for it. Granted, that traditional media is still growing at a rapid pace in India, mainly because we are still a fair bit away from market saturation (more readers/viewers being added to the group and a growing number of English-speaking and newly literate junta) and also because we are about five to seven years behind the curve in the internet penetration game in relation to the West. But it is a given that the scenario won’t be the same forever.
The closer you get to such a situation, the more pressure publications and their managements would feel to increase efficiencies and cut costs. And one of the ways to get something like that done is to integrate across organizations, especially in emerging market segments and niches that don’t justify the cost or the expense of two or more players going at each other just because the other one is getting into that market. I also think we would soon see publications pooling resources on commonplace reporting and coverage, like press conferences and industry events, to cut out the agencies in the longer run.
Within organizations, there is already an increased thrust on integration within themselves. For instance, one of the interesting things we had done with CNN-IBN was to have a deeply-integrated online operation with the channel and while we have been successful, arguably, more than anyone else, there is still a huge distance to go for us. For newspapers, the primary issue is technology, followed by mindsets. It is easier for a television channel to invest in a decent online publishing system than it is for a print publication. There are decent automated publishing solutions available for print publications to push out online content without much additional effort from the existing teams, but they cost a hell of a lot of cash and often involves upgrades to existing print software, thus scaring off a lot of cost-conscious organizations.
In any case, being online, by itself cannot save the print organizations. There are decent revenues coming in from the online operations, but not enough by any means to cover the existing cost structures of print media. There are also issues with scaling. After a certain point, it costs a whole lot more of money to support huge levels of traffic on these websites and the support personnel to keep them going. Thus, the need to integrate is very much there, but how it should be done is a question to which the answer is not clear yet.
2. You stated that HT as an organisation is one of the least change-friendly places in Indian media. Do you think integration in HT will be successful?
HT has a reputation for being a very “babu” joint. But it is a problem that is not limited just to HT, it is probably visible to a much greater extent there than anywhere else. But they are trying to turn a new leaf, with their new initiatives, though the degree of success they have achieved is something that is not very visible right now. Given enough incentive, initiative and clarity, almost anyone can be successful, but most organisations don’t back up the intent with the seriousness, dedication or resources (financial, infrastructural and human) that is required to pull something like that off.
3. Will integration result in downsizing of employees who are not competent in handling multi-media?
If you ask me, I come from the school of thought that skills are portable and that tools are just things that you use to exercise and leverage those skills. Any good professional will need to be adequately tooled to adapt to his/her working environment, if the skills are to be used right and compensated for in the right manner. A god sub-edtior is a good sub-editor, irrespective of whether he/she is in a print, television or an online environment.
So, the whole issue of competency is a non-starter if you don’t hold on to the thought that the tool is much more important the skill that it brings out.
Those who don’t adapt will lose out.
4. Is integration an attempt to increase the paper’s readership and retain the brand image of the paper, as today, many get their news from the television and internet?
Most of the integration are attempts that fall under the “let us do something!” domain. Most attempts don’t have a clear cut idea of what is the eventual objective than an almost unquestioned worshipping of buzz words and catch phrases. But, I guess, the more important part is that things are being attempted right now, than being totally ignored. A large part of those attempts are driven by desperation, seeing the events elsewhere and trying to keep the wolf out of the door at a future date. The others are business-led initiatives, where companies want to maximise the revenue from the content they have already produced and published. There are very few editorially driven initiatives in the domain.
I do not think there is a reverse flow of audiences from online to newspapers purely as a derivative of their online presence. One of the fallacies of cross-media promotions is that there is a direct correlation between sustained audience growth as a result of context switching (television, print and online being the contexts). Yes, it does have an impact in terms of branding, marketing and recall, but I have not seen anything yet that drives sustained growth in usage.
5. What is the future of print media?
That is a tough one to answer and the answer it itself probably lies in the fact that kids who will be born 10 years from now won’t have a primary instinct to write on or read anything from a piece of paper. Their primary instincts would be driven towards handheld devices or to a keyboard on a computing device. The current usage of print media is sustained by generations who have the primary instinct to write on and read off a paper. Maybe, some twenty or thirty years from now, that generation won’t be the ones who hold the purse strings in terms of spending. From that point of view, the future is very bleak for print media.
That said, print also has been one of the oldest forms that have been around. It has survived radio and television till date and I don’t see why it would not survive the onslaught of the internet. The internet is more of a tectonic change that has consequences much beyond the little sphere of media, so it would be unnatural to assume that print would be left untouched by it. I think what will save print would eventually be technology. It may well not survive as the print we know of now — of being printed on deadwood — and probably move into a form that is only similar in shape, but in the end it may just surprise us all by surviving and doing well 40 years from now.