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Friday, January 18, 2013

Why new media thrives (as traditional media survives)

Building an audience is a protracted and painstaking process which demands perseverance more than anything else. Going into what constitutes the standard for a majority of people is beyond the scope of this article but my message is: you cannot just sell anything. Relevance is also not the sole criteria for an acceptable content of a viable new media outlet. While credibility is the main virtue behind people's sustained interest in such a venture, it is the most delicate thing as it takes years to be built but minutes to be erased. 

Desist from preaching and making unsubstantiated and overarching predictions, that is my ordinary approach to many contemporary issues. That is the best way to avoid being prematurely discredited, whatever one writes in whichever field. But too much of caution risks making one irrelevant to the readers by shying away from burning issues of the day. A cautious approach with relatively valid arguments is thus the optimum policy, it can be safely said.

The issue of New Media has been in discussion for long. I have been actively engaged in the realm and have been a very enthusiastic member of the evolving community of non-traditional stakeholders of today's media world. Subsequently, I have been aware of the talk about new media challenging the traditional media.

To start with, the traditional (T) media, at least in this article, means the established forms of communication like newspapers, magazines, televisions and radio. And new media means those which are struggling to gain prominence in society as forms of communication but are yet to succeed. Blogging and a host of related online outlets working without well-established hierarchy as in the T media, and most importantly, needing no large scale investment, could be logically included in this. Social networking sites, being very important cousins of the new media, are better characterized by their popular name of 'Social media'.

Frankly, the two media cannot be compared in same terms at this point of time, at least in South Asia. If Traditional (T) media is the pompous and obese middle-aged,the new media till today is a cachectic infant. While power and connections of the T media make it a notable presence in the society, they constitute the parts and parcel of inherent downsides and limitations of this form of media. On the other hand, despite the relatively small and less visible role it has played so far in shaping the society, the very slimness and lack of connections of the new media comes as its asset when it comes to competition with the powerful old rival.

I have been observing these features of the two media for long but one unprecedented account of T media prompted me to compare it with new media in this way. That was the autobiography of the-most-sacked-editor-of-India Vinod Mehta.

I reviewed Mehta's book in this blog but my temptation to draw some more meaningful inferences from experiences of the veteran editor refused to die away. After all, his career spans at least the precious three decades during which many experiments took place in the traditional or mainstream media in India. In a sense, the media industry in India 'matured' during the period by appropriately(?) accommodating to the liberalized economy over the past two decades. Mehta's account of the journalism in India is thus an illustrious tale of strengths and weaknesses of T media. At heart of his personal story is the unending struggle between the owner's efforts to optimize profits anyhow (even ditching the best interests of millions of people when it came to that) and the editor's effort to balance that by using his judgment to the extent possible.

One simple inference that can be made from plain reading of the book is this: while the corporate funding of the 'free' media in the form of advertizements has no alternatives in today's world, the very lifeline has the possibility of choking a publication by forcing it to compromise on contents. While the shadow of ownership of the media house and its links with the powerful people and companies is not always visible in the contents, that works endlessly and the balance between the owner's need to optimize profit and keep the beneficent advertisers happy and the editor's effort to bat for the interest of larger public is very delicate and tenuous.

Even more disturbing than usual dependence of the T media on corporations is the evolving trend of outright collusion between other business enterprises and the media. When media sheds the garb of impartial observer and jumps into the fray of all out business, the meaning itself of 'media' takes a new form. The trend of paid news and other more clandestine forms of symbiosis between the media houses and the corporations and wealthy elites have been there for long, at least in India.

In a particularly troubling trend in Nepal explored by one media critic (1), the mainstream media outlets in Kathmandu have been in an embarrassing competition of appeasing the small business community in the country literally blurring the distinction between news, columns and advertizements. (One of the advertizements disguised as news, cited in the work, can be read here.)

So where does all this take take the T media and where and how comes the new media? How new media is different from the rival?

Well, I have no pretensions that the new media has nothing to do with corporations. Nor is it an essentially grassroots movement attempting to dissociate itself from the corporate-dominated society. In fact, the free or paid space in web provided for these outlets is part of business for the big corporations like Google inc. Many of these outlets indeed proudly display the ads and I, by no means, intend to judge them or pass a verdict on them. But there is a fundamental difference between the two media that starts from the point of birth of any new media outlet. Launching a newspaper or a television channel is a mammoth task which can be possible only with investment of big money, and without continued funding (by big players like state in case of state media and the corporations/companies in case of 'free' media), that money evaporates over time and the whole project looses the viability. In contrast, the new media lacks this bottleneck: one can run a blog or a site with minimal cost for long time and is always in a position to end the venture without making anyone go bankrupt.

This is probably the biggest strength of the new media vis-a-vis the old rival. Minimal running cost means one is free to choose: pursue more commercial objectives by displaying the ads or opt for a purely non-commercial venture without ads. This especially suits for people who cannot or do not intend to make a living out of journalism.

  Single Nepali mainstream media outlet in result: that too omits 'Ncell'

Compare that with the generous coverage of corruption at Govt. Hospital
Coming to the issue of editorial freedom and choice of content, new media has unprecedented scope. Indeed, some issues of corporate fraud never make it to the pages or hours of T media for fear of retribution from the advertisers. One classic issue of this kind in Nepal is the case of tax evasion by one of the most generous advertisers of Nepal, the telephone company Ncell. When one reporter from one of the T media outlets expressed his frustration at suffocating silence of media houses on the issue on his facebook page, I compiled a short article quoting him and later on when the news of mega scam involving TeliaSonera (the parent company of Ncell) in Uzbekistan came, I followed it with another short article in Nepali. While the combined pageview of the two articles stands near 450 today (far more than a big zero in popular Kathmandu newspapers), even today a search for 'Ncell Nepal Tax Evasion' yields only results from either the blogs or the international outlets (photo: interestingly, in a search for 'Ncell Nepal Tax Evasion Scam', the only local T media outlet to yield result, Republica, omits the searchword  Ncell and displays result for other scams!).

Finally the real bottlenecks of new media. Whatever their shortcomings, the T media outlets have established something that the people perceive as 'standard'. Subsequently, a regular reader/viewer of T media is likely to first judge any material in new media as 'standard' or 'substandard'. After all in any media, the strength comes from the size of audience. Building an audience is a protracted and painstaking process which demands perseverance more than anything else. Going into what constitutes the standard for a majority of people is beyond the scope of this article but my message is: you cannot just sell anything. Relevance is also not the sole criteria for an acceptable content of a viable new media outlet. While credibility is the main virtue behind people's sustained interest in such a venture, it is the most delicate thing as it takes years to be built but minutes to be erased.

Most important thing is, however, not to loose focus from the long sight. My personal judgement is that every new media outlet has to come with some agenda that has relevance to society. However flabbergasting the style or presentation, a sustained interest of people is impossible without delivering solid contents related to relevant issues of the day.

At least for the foreseeable future, I see no genuine threat to the T media from the new media but in the longer term I am not so sure. It will certainly depend upon how well the two perform in the future. If a significant cohort of new media enthusiasts keeps building the audience over years and decades, the new media has the whole world to win compared to the relative saturation that the T media is facing. That is, however, possible only with continuous increase in quality of the contents delivered to the readers. A bulk of materials with little regard for quality is going to only reverse the gains of the realm. A host of activities among the enthusiasts including cross-reading, cross-posting and mutual feedback can help improve the quality and uplift the aesthetics of these outlets.

Some advantages of the new media over the rival are, however obvious. First is the increasing internet penetration and use in regions like South Asia. This process will take long to reach the saturation point and the potential audience of paperless and channel-less form of media is rapidly growing. How well the existing outlets can tap this potential by dragging people's eyes from streaming videos or  games to the letters is, however, an altogether different issue. The second advantage is: a chunk of readership disgruntled with the T media's servile attitude towards and blind praise of the corporate world is actively searching for alternative avenues of information and opinion-making. An active engagement of this readership can be of immense significance for the struggling new media outlets.

To conclude, new media thrives as of now despite its small posture compared to the T media. A great potential lies ahead for this relatively new phenomenon. The traditional media also thrives as of now (even though the title of this article proclaims it to 'survive', which may be a truth in near future) but all is not well in this realm the way it is depicted in everyday newspapers or TV shows. There lies the solid possibility of T media failing to resist the process by which the advertizing corporations convert them from apparently impartial observers in society to their servile auxiliaries. Indeed this process has gone too far in India; as a commentator puts it: save for 'Outlook' and 'Tehelka', (I add also 'Frontline') Indian democracy lacks any genuinely independent voice in media. Thereby lies the biggest opportunity of all time for the new media: fill the gaping holes left by the T media while consistently building audience and credibility. Future belongs to no one in particular but becomes their who persevere and make the best of opportunities. I can clearly see which of the two media is in better position to march faster to claim the greater slice of pie in the future.


1) Kshetri, I. D. 2012. Corporate Friendly Nepali Dailies: A Case Study of KFC Coverage. In Studies in Nepali History and Society (SINHAS).

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