Selling newspapers in the age of digital transformation

By Murli Dhar

“Those who produce and circulate the news should be scrupulous about facts and transparent about their sources while consumers of the news should exact demanding standards of reporting. These conditions, if also met by the classical media which are still thriving in developing countries, will keep the desirable notion of the watchdog media alive…”

News of the World (NoW), the biggest Sunday newspaper of Britain, appeared for the last time on Sunday last, shorn of its usually extensive advertisements. The decision to close down the tabloid that had been in existence for 168 years now, was taken by Rupert Murdoch, owner of News International, which publishes the NoW. This decision was prompted by allegations made that the paper had broken into the mailbox of a teenage girl who had been murdered. As events unfolded, it became clear that this tabloid, like others, was in the habit of obtaining some of its headlines by routinely employing private investigators to hack into mobile phone mailboxes of persons. The difference this time was that the victim of the hacking, which is a crime in itself, was not a celebrity but an ordinary person. The murdered teenager was one among others, including victims of terrorism and parents of soldiers killed in wars. The crime of intrusion into the privacy of individuals thus verged on callousness.

Rupert Murdoch is a media tycoon with a ferocious sense of business; he might be dropping an untenable publication in order not to lose out on his wider business empire or only to surface up again in calmer times. To his credit, it must be said that at a time when newspaper circulation in rich countries has been facing a sharp decline, he managed to steer his own media out of a treacherous digital challenge. Beyond the commercial concern of survival of media enterprises in this age, other issues have however cropped up about the selling of news, which is the fundamental reason for the existence of newspapers. The important question is about the line of conduct that a newspaper worth its name should adopt as its own, whether it is on paper or the digital standard.

It is in early 19th century that the first opportunities for media to team up with advertising came about. The cost of obtaining the news was mitigated by the advertising revenue coming in. This was a turning point. On their part, businesses found it interesting to accelerate sales by accessing the wider audiences of the mass media. In the process, business and media found their mutual interests coinciding, to the point that the media would not take the further step to publish any real news item or analysis of market misbehaviour likely to impact on any similar unhealthy business practices of firms associated with them in the advertising field. The influence of the emerging corporate media resulting from this kind of association on public affairs has gone on increasing, and not always for the best.

To take the example of the now defunct NoW, it was involved in the business of hacking to get to its sensational headlines by acting contrary to the law consistently. This upped the sales, no matter what damage was being inflicted on the victims. Wider circulation lined the pockets of the advertisers. When caught, NoW chose to shift the blame on supposed rogue reporters. There was hardly anyone in the whole outfit owning up to the responsibility of a paper that had lost all sense of right and wrong in the process. An investigation was started two years back by the police into this malpractice but, for reasons unknown, the police stopped pursuing the matter after some time.

An implicit deal seems to have been reached whereby the paper would go on publishing its outrageous stories based on illegal intrusion into the private protected lives of persons without hindrance so long it helped the police by raising the alarm about other criminals on the loose. It was like using a thief to catch another thief.

Politicians on their part are known to have cosied up to the tabloids: directors of communications of certain recent British Prime Ministers were picked up from the tabloids and it seems they did a good job spin doctoring for them. It served the politicians to promote deep right wing propaganda across the board using the media which was content on its part to stifle a diversity of contrary viewpoints about running society and the economy from emerging.

It is not necessary to go as far as Britain to find examples of abuse by the media and of complicities with them by politicians and others in power. We have cases here of individuals whose character has been sullied in public by the media, based on mere hearsay or simplistic extrapolations. Many who became the victims of this kind of abuse did not have the means to sue the concerned newspapers for damage done. It calls for time and resources to mount an action against an offending newspaper; so, they let go of the offence committed.

Emboldened by this kind of lack of reaction to their brazenness, some newspapers have carried on hitting left and right as the opportunity has served. It has also been observed that, abandoning all notions of fairness, some of our newspapers systematically adopt exceedingly harsh criticisms of governments of which the MMM is not a part. Thus, Labour and MSM governments have to get a constant thrashing at the hands of this part of the media. This is more so when the latter political parties do not oblige those in the private sector who sponsor the concerned newspapers with their advertising.

The problem with the governments which are subjected to this kind of selective attacks by the media is that they have failed to address the abuse at its roots. Each time limits of decent reporting or analysis have been crossed by the concerned papers, politicians in power have threatened to put up a regulatory body to keep the excesses of the press under check. They have stated that the so-called self-regulating codes of conduct for the media are not enough and that explicit rules for punishing trespassing of limits will be introduced. But no objective action has finally been taken.

No doubt, governments do not want to be reckoned among those who would be tampering with the freedom of the press for sticking on to power. Had some action been actually taken to stand up patented journalistic exaggerations in courts, this would have acted as a deterrent and promoted more responsible media reporting. Liberty to report should not be confounded with licentiousness. Someone with “teeth” will keep everyone within the limits of the law and protect potential victims from being lynched up without any justification but also without consequences for the abusers.

It is true that we are operating in the age of the internet. Thanks to various social networks, people from all walks are daily compiling, discussing and filtering news across the globe with their friends. A more participatory and social news environment as well as a remarkable range and diversity of news sources have emerged. The news agenda is not controlled any more by media empires or state broadcasters. People find what they need on various easily accessible platforms of news exchange. The web facilitates the transmission of news encompassing individual bloggers and technology firms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. The latter have themselves become important conduits of news.

This new gained liberty is here to stay and evolve further, as some recently fallen dictators will testify. Everyone will stand to gain from it provided certain conditions are met: first, the free exchange of information and whistleblowing under the cover of anonymity or otherwise should not be devoid of accountability; second, it should not foster niche corners for selling partisan prejudices which are blind to all facts except those it is keen on promoting for its fellow members or think-alike.

In other words, the fundamental canons of responsible journalism will need to be maintained: those who produce and circulate the news should be scrupulous about facts and transparent about their sources while consumers of the news should exact demanding standards of reporting. These conditions, if also met by the classical media which are still thriving in developing countries, will keep the desirable notion of the watchdog media alive.

* Published in print edition on 15 July 2011

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