The Old Lady of Boribunder discovers the Internet

This morning, the venerable editors of the venerable Times of India woke up to the Internet—and promptly hid their heads back under the pillow again, whimpering in agony. In a remarkable editorial, The Times complained Delhi University’s practice of releasing admission cutoffs late at night “puts newspapers, which are among the most convenient mediums for widespread dissemination of this vital information, under tremendous time pressure”.

“For a student who needs to check out various options of colleges and courses”, the newspaper went on,“the print medium arguably makes the information more accessible than any other. “In any case”,The Times’ editors concluded,“it is not as if the Internet would suffer if the cutoffs were announced a few hours earlier”.

OK, so The Times’ stated arguments are these: first, printed text is more user-friendly than searchable text; and second, information should be made available not when it becomes available, but to suit newspaper print schedules.


Representative image. AFP

It's time print understood the uses of the Internet. AFP

These bizarre arguments shouldn’t surprise., part of the Times of India empire—and, I should add, a direct competitor to Firstpost and its sister online platforms in Network18 — is India’s largest online news platform by some distance. Yet, though it gets an estimate 25 million readers a month (Comscore), an average issue of The Times was estimated, in the last Indian Readership Survey, to have 7,615,000 readers a day.

In addition, not one of The Times’ English-language competitors is within shouting distance of its circulation; number 2, The Hindustan Times has an average issue readership, or AIR of 3,820,000., though, has to compete in a harsh online world, where it battles not just Firstpost but YouTube and, gasp, Google.

For obvious reasons, then, The Times has no reason to want Delhi University students, and their sweating, terrified parents to go online.

To understand the Times’ agony, you also have to comprehended the way newspaper economics works. In essence, the newspaper industry survived as a mediator between advertisers and consumers—and uses the revenues to pay for journalism.In his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, media guru Marshall McLuhan noted that “classified ads (and stock-market quotations) are the bedrock of the press”. “Should an alternative source of easy access to such diverse daily information be found”, McLuhan had predicted,“the press will fold”.

Precisely that has happened across the world because of the Internet: bar China and India, with their armies of new literates, old media is in decline everywhere. Thousands of newspapers have closed down—as have, it’s less often noticed, many television stations. Earlier this year, even Chinese editors I spoke to told me of the crisis they saw looming because of the challenge from the social media.

In India, this crisis is particularly acute. Newspaper prices are among the lowest in the world—they’re one of very few commodities whose cost has diminished significantly over the decades—and that’s because up to 85 percent of revenues come from advertising.

The thing is, going online isn’t an easy choice. The revenue model is uncertain: The Guardian, which has staked its future on open-access digital, is in serious trouble, and no-one knows if the New York Times and Sunday Times paywall models will work. Though specialist publications have had better results with paywalls, it’s unclear if general news will be able to take the same route. However, open-access news websites have to compete for advertising with social media and search giants—which, obviously, isn’t easy.

Poor Old Times.

Yet, the response of The Times’ Editors is a bit like the Persian emperor Xerexes, who according to the venerable Herodotus had his men to whip the unruly waters of the sea at Hellespont.

For some time now, as the eminent editor N Ram noted in a talk he delivered in London last year, Indian newspaper readership has remained stagnant. The last available figures show substantial declines in readership for not just The Times, but other major brands like The Hindu, Nai Dunia, Danik Bhaskar and Dainik Jagaran. Ram argued that Indian media suffered from“a widespread attitude of denial of the proximity, if not the immediacy, of the digital impact”.

He’s right. Internet usage, has increased sharply—and will continue to do so. Perfectly good Tablets are now available for not much over Rs 5,000—and this price will, inexorably, decline. 4G is going to make Internet access—the biggest obstacle to new media growth—ever more reliable.

“A newspaper”, recorded the great historian of the India’s newspaper revolution, Robin Jeffreys,“is a cheap status symbol. For the price of a cup of tea, you can impress the neighbours”.

For journalists like me, long persuaded by ourselves that you pay Rs 2.50 every morning for the privilege of reading our incomparable pearls of wisdom, this is a ego-bruising proposition—but it’s one we, the industry and readers all need to wake up to.

It will be seismic, this time that is coming—and not just for newspapers, Prime Time is going to die, too. People using portable devices will get what news they want, when they want it, and in the format they choose.

And students will, sadly for The Times, all go online to see which institution has deigned to admit them into wage-slave boot camp.

Not one Editor of a national newspaper or television station that I know of gets it—and if they do, they’re showing no signs of acting on it.

There’s a larger debate to be had on what journalism will look like, but it will, without doubt, have to be more agile, knowledgeable and richer in media than it is today. India’s notoriously incestuous journalists will have to have a better sense of the conversations and concerns of their audience. We’ll have to come to terms with the fact that they’re competing for attention with the smartest minds world—not the other hack we were tanking up with last night.

It’s a miserable new world, and like the editors of The Times, I’d rather hide my head under the pillow. The thing is, the sun will keep rising anyway.

Updated Date: Jun 27, 2013 12:38 PM

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