Layoffs and roll-backs, relevance and need
These have not been good times for newspapers. Lay-offs, wind downs and if the recent incident in Manipur where a journalist finds himself behind bars for a year without even a chargesheet or court hearing is added, the trouble is not just with the bottom-lines. There is also the ever present challenge of relevance and speed, something that social media and television beat newsprint to with ease.
And while on the current times, in the region, we have known these immediate months as the news-drought phase as must be apparent to regular buyers of newspapers (thanks for doing so) who could not have missed the dearth of “local” news updates in their local papers. But this is a cyclical phase, what has arrived as a shocker, and also a reminder, on what the media space is going through came in the form of major developments like across the board layoffs. It was not so long ago that a string of rather exceptional newspapers bankrolled by chit-fund finances folded up and left behind a litter of suddenly made jobless journalists. But at that time, the blame rested with the financiers; with what has happened with HT now and with other media houses over the recent years, however, has brought the whole print journalism model into question. One was always aware of these discussions raging the world over, but with these developments, the deliberations have arrived closer. Why, even this newspaper has risen from the ashes of another, and while that might have a ring of positivity to it, it also carries a hint of things not being all honky-dory in the newspaper business.
Point is that while journalism might serve the community, it still requires a business model to remain viable. Fiscal robustness is an important contributor to quality journalism. That said, it cannot be looked at solely as commercial enterprise. Unfortunately, business managers have been gaining more influence in media houses in the recent decades and while they have scaled up profits in the past, they clearly lack the resolve to weather economic crisis. Spending fiscal quarters or even entire financial years deep in the red is not new to newspaper houses, but they never triggered the kind of panic layoffs and roll-backs in the scale that one has been witnessing off late. That is happening because journalists have been edged out or won over by the accounts sections. That said, it is not being implied that newspapers should be not-for-profit (although, good luck with turning profits from good journalism), but just a reminder that business ups and downs had earlier led to re-strategizing and innovations unlike the bloodletting that one sees nowadays.
It is in a setting like this that one should also go over what newspapers are all about. Survival alone does not a good newspaper make. Opinions on this will undoubtedly differ, but here are some points for the readers to mull upon. For starters, good newspapers are unwavering in their commitment to their community and this “community” can be the national audience, a big city or even a small town. They serve as a kind of glue that provides various factions with the same information so that they can unite or divide based on their views formed from access to the same unbiased reportage. Newspapers don’t decide, they provide the people with all the required information from all the varied points of view and let the people decide. Newspapers are lynchpins which keep things civilized even as they facilitate change and moderate the opposing views in the course of this change. They don’t bring about the change. That is for the people to do. Newspapers and journalists who believe themselves to be the activists/ agents of change credit themselves with too much intelligence and importance. As individuals or even institutions, one can only contribute to change, not force it. These qualities are not always overtly expressed in a newspaper’s pages, but flow naturally when newspapers succeed in shining the light on real problems. And good newspapers go a step further.
Apart from reporting on issues they provide insight into the issues that face a community. If, after reading a newspaper, you feel that you have understood an issue better, it is a sign that the papers are succeeding. Similarly, one should see her concerns and experiences reflected in the pages. That’s a must, because that provides the connection between the publication and the readers. Good newspapers also play it straight. And when doubts surface, they explain their actions. But they are neither arrogant nor defensive. Finally, good newspapers are like relatives. They prompt a wide range of emotions that run the gamut from love to hate, depending on the day. But you still want them around, just like the relative. Look where we arrived - a conversation which started with layoffs, ended with finding family :-)