Friday, March 21, 2008

Is there Future for Journalism as a Career?

Dr V. Santhakumar, an economist at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, recently wrote in a note: Journalism as a profession will face a somewhat difficult time in future. One issue is increasing competition; but much more than that, there will be a tendency by the owners to try to run the media organizations with people having minimal skill set...

In short what he says is that the owners of the media organizations have realized that journalism (or at least running media organizations) is a job which does not need much talent. So in the coming days, they will dispense with talented people, who naturally demand better pay, and will make do with morons who can run them very well. And they would remain profitable too. Profits they would make because earlier this week came the FICCI report that said Indian media in the past year has seen an annual growth rate of 17 per cent, and even the laggard print had registered 16 per cent growth.

Santhakumar in his usual no-nonsense style of an economist is making a statement that, however, cuts me to the quick.

For a number of reasons:

First, I was a working journalist for over 25 years and still remain one making a living out of it; and secondly, I am extremely worried about the decline of mass media as a social organization that empowers the more backward sections of our society and in its absence, the serious consequences that may have for our future.

In a way, what he says has already come to pass in our media today. Nowadays there is a talent deficit in journalism. Except for a few top-end people who are more celebrities than journalists, most of those who work in media these days earn very little and are facing a bleak future. Seniors who used to get wages and are covered under the service conditions laid out in the wage board awards are now persuaded (read forced) to take up contracts and then in a few years they are asked to vacate. Even in the most profitable English papers, there were such incidents though most of them remained unreported. A labor strike in the Kasturba Marg print station of The Hindustan Times, the premier newspaper of the nation’s capital, was not reported in the media even after it continued for many months. For a more local example, see what has been going on in New Indian Express where most of the seniors are now out. No newspapers report about it, and one has to resort to some blogs to know what goes on there. This is now going to be a trend and nobody can stop it.

So what is the solution? Like farmers in penury, do the journalists also have to commit suicide to invite attention of the society to the grave human problem they face? In fact in Veekshanam a few years ago, some employees did threaten suicide when they were denied their long pending arrears in pay.

However, what is at sake is not only the survival of those who still remain journalists. The issue has a wider ramification because mass media, especially newspapers, do have a major role in social empowerment; for the mature development of democratic politics. Without a vibrant media we cannot ensure an equitable participation for all sections of our people in the democratic practice. However, we are experiencing serious problems here. Let us take the example of Thejas, launched in January 2006. Around three years ago, when we were recruiting and training around three dozen new journalist for our newspaper, I thought we were on sure and firm ground: terra firma as we were working on the rock bottom. Those we selected came mainly from the lowest sections of our society like the girl who was a salesperson in a textile shop in SM Street and the boy whose father was a butcher's assistant...

But now I see that almost two-thirds have already gone; some to other papers and most to other jobs. So where do you get more journalists to take part in our social rebuilding, to speak up for those who are voiceless, who are really down and out? Even their own kids who from their own experience do know how important it is to speak up, do not want to be in this wretched profession as they find life has better things to offer.

Now I too see a very bleak future: not only for our newspapers, but to our entire society.

(Devil’s Sermon is a regular political commentary


Unknown said...

Dr. V Santhakumar writes in an email:

Interesting to read the essay Saab: When a major part of the revenue comes from non-news content, owners have lesser incentive to improve the news content. Moreover, the advertising revenue(and subscription)depends on larger readership-such larger readership need not be based on reliable reporting. Thus newspapers in an economic sense has lesser incentive to produce and publish relibale and informed pieces. Thus newspapers are like political parties. They have an ideology, but to survive in political market has to please the majority. Thus there can be a gap between rhetoric and reality - and the gap between ideology and practice narrows only when majority has a stake in that ideology.

Newspapers will start publishing reliable and informed news when this is demanded by a larger number of readers. Otherwise, accurate reporting and analysis should become a niche product - and some firms will try to capture such product markets. To some extent The Hindu was doing that earlier but now it has shifted its focus to another market.

As you can see, reality is not that confortable if somebody wants to publish socially relevant informed articles.

V Santhakumar

Unknown said...

Joseph Satyadas, a senior journalist in Singapore, writes in an email:

On journalism and journalists, Malayalam papers have attracted and kept many bright sparks despite journalism veering towards populism and the mundane. That may be true of other regional papers as well. I don't know.

Also, morons have always found a niche in English journalism, even before the owners caught on to the idea of populating papers with more of them.

There is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel though. Looking at how journalism has grown outside India, commercialism cannot breed morons for long. That is the law of the jungle.


J.Geetha said...

Thank you Che for letting me know about your blog. I went through it and found the postings interesting and thought-provoking. I shall watch out for future postings.

This one about journalism touches a raw nerve. Don’t know why it should after all I am no longer a ‘journalist’ but it does probably because it was my first and only profession and I feel strongly about the relationship between media and society.

Dr Santhakumar has implied that media organisations do not or will not need talented and / or trained journalists. Funnily enough, I was one of the last batch of non-trained, non-MCJ or non-diploma journalist to enter Indian Express and I remember S.K. making his terse (and only) favourable comment to me then: “As long as you know your English, that is fine, the rest you will pick up here”! Later on, we saw the emergence of trained journalists – I trained them too a decade later - entering the print and later in a very big way the electronic media. While I agree with the spirit of what Santhakumar has said, I think it is the case that leading newspapers now take in only trained applicants but the talent they are looking for is completely different to what it used to be earlier. Herein his later comment fits: the gap between rhetoric and reality. If profit is the only motive, then you do not need that well-trained or talented journalists. Such a paper is also less problematic to those in power and less upsetting for all concerned.

On two opposite counts I agree with my one-time colleagues Satyadas and Chekkutty. Satyadas is right in saying that morons were always around (we should know☺) and that with commercialism comes in a certain kind of professionalism. But I also agree with Chekutty that there is a problem regarding retaining potentially good journalists in the field (it is the same with teaching – it is badly paid!). The professionalism that creates some celebrity journalists, well-paid jobs and a well turned out and readable paper is around but needless to say, these are not taking on the task of also empowering the backward, marginalized and powerless. Sometimes, I wonder if we are getting nostalgic about good ‘ol times. But, maybe not. I think what we are seeing now is unprecedented - an unabashed and unashamed global capitalism making inroads into every institution in our society. And it is disturbing when that happens to our media, as it still is our only public conscience. If you look outside India, you will see a more professional but a more homogenised media. Big corporations rule. But surely, struggles (hopefully not suicides) both individual and collective will create changes. I see both the bleak future and a light at the end of the tunnel!!! Maybe media can become the conscience of capitalism? Or maybe new-media, the Internet, will wage a war against it?