Doing away with 'paid' media isn't as easy as you'd think

Monday mornings, I agree, rarely feel reasonable. Particularly, the first Monday of the year. But that is no excuse for this thought that besieged me while I was trying to get back to a work routine.

I was dragging myself to my spiral notebooks when indecision gripped me. Should I write on a prime minister’s resigned desperation to become history in the hope of redeeming his economics, politics and character? Or a chief minister’s puerile assumption that the size of his accommodation will be inversely proportional to his reputation? Or should I write about a prime ministerial candidate’s shameless stretch to accept conditional support from a yoga baba whose conditions include abolition of all taxes?

Then, hit the beguiling thought. No matter what I write on and whatever sense I make (or not), most readers who do not agree will dub it a paid article. Not only opinion or analyses, even field reporting, scoops or investigations are dismissed as paid news. Professionals are rarely dissuaded by such illogical hostility. But this unreasonable Monday morning, the thought made me dither.

Can the media ever be 'unpaid'? Reuters image

Can the media ever be 'unpaid'? Reuters image

Is news media paid? Of course, it is. Readers pay Rs 3-5 for every newspaper they buy. Current affairs magazines are priced Rs 15-40. News channels are free to air. The material (paper and printing) cost of a newspaper is at least Rs 10. Add to it the editorial cost of gathering and processing news. This 80-90% deficit between cost and price is filled by advertisement revenue and other sources. Same is the dependence of news magazines. News channels with OB vans, studios, satellites and carriage fees are still more expensive. They recover their entire cost from advertisement revenue and other sources.

It is no secret that India media is one the cheapest in the world as far as consumer price is concerned. The strategy is open. In the words of The Times of India’s Rahul Kansal, “we had inherent faith that if we were able to build a large enough readership, advertising would pay for it. We were willing to jettison the stream of circulation revenue for the sake of maximising advertising revenue. And this bet has clearly paid off handsomely.”

If advertisers pay for 80-100% of the cost so that you can read or watch news, is it any surprising that they also want to decide what you read and watch? While it depends on the media house how far it allows big advertisers to meddle with their editorial, can the reader/viewer, who does not pay for the kind of news she gets (or wants), really complain?

On the other hand, does the reader/viewer, the awakened aam aadmi, need to be cross-subsidised by the advertisers? If she has had enough with corrupt politics, shouldn't she be also done with paid media? But can she really afford to pay, say, Rs 15 for her daily newspaper? That is three to five times what she spends today. Or pay Rs 100 – more than three times the present cost -- for a news magazine?  Or Rs 100-300 a month for the news channel she now gets for free?

I visualized quite a few people I know – quite aam, they are – who would readily answer in the affirmative. But these price assumptions are based on economy of scale. Even the least demanding option – an ad-free news magazine for Rs 100 – will require 40-50,000 subscribers to support the editorial talent pool necessary for delivering quality news content. Let me not spill an industry secret by spelling out how many of our news magazines sell that many copies today.

The lateral explosion of media, particularly electronic, in the last decade means that far too many 'journalists' are in the business today. It is inevitable that many of them lack in professional skill or integrity or both. It is not surprising either that the bulk of the major news investigations and breaks across all sectors come from print and not the electronic media. Together, the reporters who dig out the biggest news that matter can be counted on the fingertips of both hands.

That is not to say that journalism in India lacks in skill or integrity. The investigations that occasionally find their way to pages or air testify to that. But, for every such break, at least another remains buried. Social media, of course, is a great new window. But in the hand of amateurs, it lacks both rigour and accountability. At best, it needs open-and-shut cases to make an impact. At worst, it simplifies issues to seek mob justice.

Only professional, resource-intensive, journalistic investigation can convert a news lead into watertight news. And the media platforms that carry such news require further resources to legally protect themselves and their freedom against powers that be. Since advertisers control these resources and often even the platforms, most rumours snowball into stronger rumours and nothing more.

I know a number of journalists who know better than their body of work suggests and who I imagine will happily accept reasonable pay cuts to make an ad-free platform feasible. How wishful then is it to expect that tens of thousands, who seem to be desperate for change and transparency, will subscribe to 'non-paid' media at a premium? Having gambled on the Aam Aadmi Party for five years with their priceless vote in the run up to what many are calling the Indian Spring, will the new Indian bet, say, Rs 5,000 on a free media platform and unfiltered news for a year?

The phone rang. My friend heard me out for a few minutes before asking what the 'slant' would be. Free means free, I repeated, neutral, what news media should be. And all rational perspectives – right, left, growth, subsidy, industry, environment, nationalistic, liberal – are welcome. My friend laughed. If you are not with a believer (in Rahul, Modi, SEZ, apocalypse or whatever), you are against that believer. I agreed. And if you are against any believer, you got to be 'paid'.

Bloody Mondays.

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Updated Date: Jan 06, 2014 15:42:03 IST

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