Modern Journalism

I wish to thank the writer of this post. A dear friend who is a professional journalist in India. I have the privilege of friendship with him and what better way to acknowledge that, than to request him for a guest post? He kindly agreed, but has requested me not to disclose his identity. I have reluctantly agreed.

Without much ado, here it is.

“What is modern journalism? In his essay on tradition and the individual talent, T.S. Eliot wrote how modernity and tradition were an extension of each other. What was modern today would be part of tradition tomorrow. And what we today recognise as the time-honoured tradition was earlier hailed as modern.

Can we apply the same yardstick to journalism? Has the journalism of yester years become the tradition that inspires what we now call modern? Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is an unequivocal no. What is true of literature is not what we see in journalism, even though scribes often delude themselves to believing that they are practitioners of literature in a hurry!

In many ways, journalism in India was an offshoot of the country’s independence movement. The desire to express one’s views as opposed to those held by the British Empire prompted the birth of many a newspaper in this country. That spirit continued even after India gained independence in 1947. Newspapers were there for a cause. Journalists were an instrument in furthering that cause.

Thus, journalism attracted those young men and women, who would not opt for a profession just for the lure of the lucre, but for upholding values and defending a cause. Journalists were poorly paid. That did not bother them though. What did was if they could not report what they thought was correct and comment on what was patently unfair. Their offices were not air-conditioned. They used public transport to travel from one corner of the city to the other. It was a blessing in disguise. For, that was what helped them keep company with the harsh reality – and write about it.

Technology had not made its impact on the media those days. We are talking of the decades prior to the 1990s. Printing presses had limited capacity. Page-making technologies had their own constraints. Journalists would write their reports in long hand or on typewriters in some newspapers with resources. Accessing information was a Herculean task.

Modern journalism has changed all that. Media is now an industry. Very often, there are no causes to be defended or rights to be preserved. The media industry exists like any other economic activity. It must survive on the strength of its economic rationale. If it makes losses, it must create an alternative business model to make it work. If it means using advertising revenues to finance its costs, so be it. If increasing dependence on advertisers results in subjugating the readers’ information needs to those of the advertising community, no tears are shed. If the advertisers want the newspapers to talk about only those issues and people who are their target audience, few eyebrows are raised.

Floods in Bihar ravaging homes and people will not make news for two reasons: One, the advertisers feel that floods in Bihar are not about which the up-market urban readers are terribly excited. Two, journalists themselves have become divorced from the reality of the other India – the Bharat that ironically is why the global financial investors are betting on for India’s sustained growth in the coming decades. Practitioners of the media prefer to write what is closer to them and their privileged concerns. Thus, the havoc terrorists from across the border caused at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Railway Terminus or the train bombings command less prime-time coverage on television than the attack on two five-star hotels in India’s financial capital.

Technology too has changed, and changed utterly. And dare I say, like WB Yeats had lamented, a terrible beauty is born? Access to information has become easy. But that has made journalists lazy. Access to information through technology (read Google searches) does not necessarily lead to better dissemination, understanding and intellectual ownership. Like Eliot’s regret, journalists too are wondering: “Where is the wisdom? We have lost in knowledge. Where is the knowledge? We have lost in information. Where is the life? We have lost in living.”

The disconnect between tradition and modernity in Indian journalism is too obvious to be missed. Modern journalism has no trace of the spirit that fired the drive of journalists or journalism of a few decades ago. How and why it happened is a different story. But there is no doubt that media’s success as a vibrant economic activity has led to the demise of the values the past traditions of journalism had espoused. Those values will revive only when modern journalism can imbue itself with the spirit of its hallowed tradition.”

Before I forget, please do visit the other three blog posts from the consortium of Conrad, Ashok and Grannymar to get different perceptives.