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Guest Column: The new gods of digital newsrooms

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Modern journalism began in the early 1600s, triggered, as any new vocation or market usually is, by technology, ie, the invention of the printing press. At first, a very crude community narrow-sheet was born, which was circulated to a few households in the vicinity. It took almost a hundred years of slow evolution for today’s broadsheet daily to acquire shape, with a large distribution footprint, photographs and advertising. It took another century for the next innovation in news journalism, the birth of radio broadcasting. But evolution was quicker after that, with television news appearing just a few decades after radio.

Nearly 400 years later, around 1990, internet news disrupted the whole landscape. And that was a seminal turning point for mainstream journalism.

Technology only changes the practices, never the principles of any established vocation – this was the irrefutable wisdom until the Internet turned a million axioms on their heads. Simply put, the principles of journalism – who, what, why, where, when, how, integrity of facts, stringent adherence to the truth, always giving the right of response to the accused/aggrieved – remained inviolable, even as the dissemination medium changed from ink on paper to sound on analogue waves to sound with moving pictures on electronic satellite signals. Technology could never change the principles, only the methods and practices, of telling a news story.

But the Internet did the unthinkable, forcing mainstream journalism to modify its principles. I like to describe the pre-digital era of news as “the voice of God journalism” – the Gods, of course, were the all powerful editors. Since I won my editorial spurs in that bygone era, I too belong to that Tribe of Gods, where every morning, a bunch of stiff guys would troop into the conference room, with pencils and notepads, and decide the order of news stories for the day. It was such a unilateral exercise! “Let’s lead with Gandhi, then do that parliament debate … and just stuff a bit of sports and movies towards the end”. Done. The viewer was a complete “outsider”, her interests were peripheral, because “Gods” had the divine right to mandate the run order of news stories.    

I grope for the correct adjective here. Archaic? Anathema? Anachronistic? Absurd? Perhaps all four of these, and a billion more, could be justifiably used if “the voice of God journalism” were to invade and dominate a digital newsroom today. Why? Because a digital newsroom is not a unilateral, linear, one way transmission of stories. In the nanosecond after you publish anything, readers and viewers pounce at it with their likes, hates, shares, comments, denials, corrections, updates, meme tweaks on WhatsApp, cartoon caricatures on Instagram, vociferous protests, loud applause etc etc etc … an intelligent or distasteful cacophony gets lit, and you have to respond to it, agree with it, deny it, debunk it, decorate it, ie do something, anything with it or to it, but you simply can’t ignore it. Because if you choose to be the unmoved, stoic, non-responsive “Godly” editor of the early 90s, you will be out of a job. Pronto.

Let me illustrate with a simple choice that we had to make the other day. We were dealing with two big “demonetization stories” – one was a rather complex unraveling of the tax rules enshrined in the new Income Disclosure Scheme, wherein you would have to pay X% tax/penalty if illegal cash was deposited by Y date; and if you failed to do that, you would be liable for Z additional penalties. The other was a heart rending story of a 75-year old woman, the youngest sister of five brothers.

For the last 50 years, she had kept 250 precious envelopes in her safe, containing cash given to her on bhai dooj. In her world view, that cash was a sacred gift from her brothers, not to be ever spent. Her heart was broken when her son forced her to open each envelope, take out nearly Rs 1.50 lac in notes of various denominations, and deposit them in banks. Her faith was rattled, shaken. What an astonishing human story, capturing the unusual pathos that demonetization has inflicted on ordinary people. In the unilateral, Godly days of yore, the tax rules would have played upfront, while the human interest story would be tucked towards the end, to be soon forgotten. But in today’s digital newsrooms, the story of this rudely disenfranchised 75-year-old woman would gain unrelenting velocity on social media, would whiz around cyber space, getting Facebooked, WhatsApped and Instagrammed, touching the hearts of a million people, instigating thousands of comments/shares/likes.

No God could stem the viral force of this venerable lady’s touching story, which would simply obliterate the dry prose of tax rules, and reign supreme in the world of digital news.   

public://unnamed_2.jpg The author is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’. The views expressed are personal and Indiantelevision.com need not necessarily subscribe to them

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