News as fun – the future?

BY SEEMA KAMDAR| IN Opinion | 17/08/2016
Some sniggered at his remark but TOI’s Vineet Jain was right when he said people want news in a short, fun format.
SEEMA KAMDAR says this has already happened


Vineet Jain, managing director of BCCL which owns the Times of India, on ‘leading India’s media into the future': “We are moving from pure news toward entertainment, short-form content, and fun videos. The definition of news has changed completely…millennials want to consume content from wherever they are, especially on social media. They want to read what their friends are sharing, not what an editor chose to put on the front page.”

Many have rushed to condemn this comment outright. Others have sniggered and sneered and tsk-tsked. Because he is Times of India, criticism comes easy. I would say, however, that at least in this case, Vineet Jain is merely documenting the change in mindsets and the way we process information now.

Isn’t what he has said true? Gone are the days when we read a 1500-worded edit on a subject in heavy prose. Now the style is the essence, not the content. Smart, pithy sentences that may not say much but sound good work for everyone. Nobody reads news reports any more. TV simplifies it for them, social media does one better.

Two and half decades ago, a news report was not complete or edited till you had the 5 Ws (what, where, who, when and why) and 1 H (how) in the first three paragraphs. The inverted pyramid format was strictly followed in spot news. There is no way you could tell the newspaper’s opinions on a particular issue unless you were reading the edit page.

Today, news stories on the first pages of most dailies routinely start with a sarcastic comment or quip; the story is laced with more adjectives than facts. At the end of the verbose read, you often get a story missing in some basic data: the date of the event or the place or the time or the description of an important person, or the backdrop if it’s a follow-up. If you are reading a newspaper or watching TV or scanning an online portal after a day or two, the chances are you will feel all at sea about what’s happening in your city or country.

Three decades ago, an editorial or Op-Ed page writer got instant admission into the Hall of Fame and evoked general awe. I remember reading these articles diligently as a college student and making it a point to memorise and write down important points as well as words. Today, most dailies are missing their Op-Ed pages and the writers that still contribute to these pages are either purveyors of chaff or bright but unknown. Their names do not ring any bells in our heads because hardly anyone navigates to the edit page, let alone has the time and patience to read such articles.

The advent of online media has delivered instant news to our mobiles which, thanks to their size, cannot accommodate too much verbiage. So, news capsules are brief, often lacking in details, and, not infrequently, accompanied by links to comment pieces. If you quickly scroll the most popular news sites, you will find more than 60 per cent of the stories, on the lower side, are primarily airy comments by people who are simply not conversant with their subjects but have an opinion that they can write with attitude.

Most online writing is rhetoric, high-pitched and programmed to provoke instant reactions. There is no substantiation or detailing. The reasoning, if any, is extremely myopic with absolutely no research worth its name to warrant the strong positions inevitably taken by all sides. It more or less mirrors the television phenomenon; in fact it only adds to its venomous impact on the social psyche which finds prompt outpouring on the interactive and hyperactive social media.

Thus, as with nuclear fission, one opinion feeds another and the chain reaction ensures everyone gets the coloured impression of one carefree writer who, for all practical purposes, has banged out her or his “comment piece” like a casual chat with a co-commuter on the train back from work.

Given this dominant template, there is little the print can do to compete. It toes the line, the way it did when television invaded its shores. Newspapers readily imitate their online rivals as there is no conceivable option to keep their readers in. To stay in the game, they deliver crisp, punchy headline and stories without much care for their content.

And no one is complaining. Who has the time? Or inclination?

Take two ordinary stories from the front page of the Delhi edition of the Times of India of August 13, 2016. The lead story is headlined, ‘CJI Lashes Out In Court At Govt For Stalling Appointment Of HC Judges.’ The intro para reads: “The Supreme Court's frustration over its eight-month-long face-off with the Centre found expression in an open courtroom on Friday, with a bench headed by India's chief justice T. S. Thakur launching a scathing attack on the government, accusing it of bringing the judiciary to a standstill by stalling the appointment of judges to high courts.”

The reporter or sub-editor evidently felt the need to spice it up with a deductive phrase upfront. Reading about the Supreme Court’s “frustration” instantly makes the reader sympathise with the Supreme Court. Helping a reader form an opinion is the job of a journalist but not in this evidently subjective fashion. Here, the opinion is being formed on the basis of the opinion of the reporter/sub-editor and not on the basis of the facts furnished in the report, as should be the case. As it is, the facts of this stand-off are quite complex.

The opinion formed by the reader may, in fact, be correct but the process is not. The reader is being compelled into a ready set of judgments, and not being allowed to form his or her own.

So there are two grievances against the journalist: 1. He is doing a disservice to the reader by forming an opinion for him and not letting him form his own. 2. He is not fulfilling his obligation of fully informing the reader of the facts of the case revolving around the Supreme Court’s frustration, which is taken as a given instead of being built into the story as background information. In the absence of these facts, the reader should not be drawn towards making an opinion.

The second paragraph states that these problems have been reported by the TOI earlier. But that is a no-brainer for someone reading the news piece for the first time, even though it indicates that the daily has probably done some of the homework for its judgmental intro beforehand.

Lower down the page is another story headlined, ‘Hit, dump and run: Cabbie leaves man to die on road’. The story reads: “Days after hundreds of Delhiites passed by a dying man on the road without offering help, here's another shocking act of criminal apathy on the capital's streets. A cab driver knocked down an ice-cream vendor in central Delhi's Gole Market on Wednesday night and, on the pretext of taking him to hospital, dumped the dying man at a desolate lane some distance away.”

“Another shocking act of criminal apathy” is unnecessary appendage, apart from being said twice. The incident naturally evokes shock. A couple of decades ago, the editing desk would knock off these frills and condemn the reporter for writing such pulp. Moreover, while “shocking act of apathy” is decent English, “shocking act of criminal apathy” overstates without reason.

Most newspapers suffer from this malaise of over-telling a story while under-telling the facts and peppering it with their perception.

It was to this reality that Vineet Jain has shown the mirror. Whether his media house was instrumental in this transition to snug and snippety stories is debatable but he was bang on while documenting the phenomenon of frivolity in the media.

The lack of substance, let alone depth, is a grave concern for all of us in the media and outside it. The way social media picks up a news story or a comment thread and builds on it is frightening. It’s a lethal game of Chinese Whispers being played out there on a daily basis, with facts and opinion torn out of context and served up wittingly or unwittingly to manufacture reactions.

With the 24x7 exposure to all-round media, we are highly susceptible to getting misled into believing, saying and doing something ill-advised. And in these days of heightened sensitivity, it is hazardous to our communal health.




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