Who Needs Journalists?
If you haven’t seen #real talk from your editor, you need to click on that link right now. A friend of mine sent it to me a few weeks ago and within a few minutes, I became a fan of Ann Friedman, who was the executive editor of the magazine GOOD and is the genius behind #real talk from your editor. I say “was” because a few days ago, Friedman and much of GOOD’s editorial staff were laid off. Rumour has it that GOOD wants to try “a community-based publishing system”, which is fancy-speak for low-cost citizen journalism.
It’s no news that the times are hard for news media. The popularity of the Internet has meant that the number of readers have exploded while earnings have either fallen or flatlined because no one has really figured out how to monetise the number of clicks a website gets (yet). India is one of the few places where prospects for media companies are still considered good. Most of us are in the habit of reading a physical newspaper rather than going online to check whether or not the world has blown up. Perhaps because the reach of the Internet is relatively limited and the browsing speed suits crawling rather than surfing, we still buy newspapers and magazines in our country. It’s why we continue to see launches of Indian editions of international magazines, and bizarre or extremely niche local publications cheerfully continue to do business here. “Screw quality, everything and everyone can survive here,” a journalist friend of mine said to me the other day. “It’s the advantage of having a billion people. Someone, somewhere, will think you’re good and as long as that someone has money and/or power, you’re sorted.”
Fortunately or unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Take GOOD, which was founded in 2006 by 26-year-old Ben Goldhirsh, a multimillionaire (his father started a number of magazines of which one, Inc. was reportedly sold for $200 million). Despite the fact that Goldhirsh wasn’t much of a magazine reader, he put in the money to start GOOD with his friends and from the look of the website, you wouldn’t think that there was anything awry. Except, of course, there must have been. Why else would Friedman and gang find themselves without a job on June 1? GOOD appears to have decided that experienced journalists and editors are an unnecessary luxury when there’s virtually enough free information to be gathered from the Internet. This is the kind of news that makes all of us who still have writing jobs say a prayer of thanks, but it should also cause at the very least a prickle of unease.
The news about GOOD came in a month that’s been quite entertaining for Indian journalism. Open magazine and Outlook’s Vinod Mehta received a threatening letter from the Indian Express, demanding hundreds of crores from them for saying, among other things, that a recent front-page story by the newspaper was “a mistake of Himalayan proportions”. There have been changes in a number of magazines, with people leaving and joining other places. So many conversations I had this month began with “Don’t tell anyone but…”. It’s cute that we think anyone in the real world, beyond our little pond of print media in Mumbai, cares about who has left one organisation or joined a new one. We actually hold on to the delusion that readers will notice a journalist’s presence or absence in a publication, which is laughable.
Despite the belief that the media is a profitable business in India, journalists are usually considered easily replaceable. It’s the sales team that needs to be pampered. I’ve always been mystified by how when a magazine doesn’t get ads, fingers are pointed to the editorial department for not creating sell-able content. However, when advertising targets are met, the credit doesn’t come to the writers or editor. Then the applause is reserved for the sales department, as though they achieved what they did despite the editorial content.
The prevailing belief is that anyone can be a journalist in India and everyone other than the journalist knows better. (Admittedly, given the appalling quality of much of what is printed in Indian newspapers and magazines, there may be reason for this condescension.) Good journalistic writing is valued mostly by other journalists and validation comes in the form of Tweets, re-Tweets and Facebook posts. There are already programmes on news channels that make use of citizen journalism and Aamir Khan is the latest investigative reporter on the block. So how long before the citizen journalism trend leaves writers like me unemployed and morosely signing up for a blog? (Given I have three, I probably won’t be starting any more blogs and certainly not morosely, but you get my drift.)
The newspaper you get every morning or the magazine whose new issue reaches you every fortnight, month, or week may not seem fragile, but it is. It is an unstable mix of facts, opinions, constraints, creativity and selling potential that is held together and made to look good by the writers and editors who work on it. Perhaps the most unnerving fact is that the majority of readers wouldn’t notice the difference if our newspapers and magazines did turn into community-based publications and we journos were taken out of the picture. However, worst comes to worst, at least we’ll have our blogs.
Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma. She is currently the books editor at DNA.Tags: Good magazine, Journalism, magazines, Media, The Definite Article