Jan 192017
 

The nature of truth has changed.  From an era, where one looked at proof and evidence to discuss what was right and wrong, it moved almost seamlessly to one, where we look for news content that confirms our biases. From a world where people believed, “if it is in the news, it must be true” it has moved to a place, where most of us take what is offered in news with a pinch (and sometimes a sack) of salt. And, while a lot of this distrust has been created by those who want to offer lies as the new truth –  – agenda setting by interested parties — much of the blame also lies with the media that is too busy running stories to figure if what they are running is verified and true. It is no surprise, therefore, that trust in the media is at an all time low. While the following figure is for western audiences, it is reaching the same stages in India.

 

Reuters on Trust in Mass Media

Trust in Mass Media by Age source : Reuters Institute “Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2017

Today, when we look at the mass news media, it is less about getting to know what is going on in the world around us, and how it impacts us, and more about listening to polar opposites debating each other, without any seeming conclusion or consensus on topics, or issues. And, there is a very good reason for this.

The Media is the 4th pillar of any Democracy – the other three being the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. But, unlike the other 3 pillars, the Media is also wholly and fully profit driven. The others, at least explicitly, do not state a profit goal. The media, however, owned by private corporate and facing a competitive marketplace has to deliver a three pronged goal – news that upholds democracy, increase their reach with   audiences, and news consumption (and sharing). One of the three has to give, and invariably it is news that upholds democratic values that die a unsung death. It is far easier to consume what a Bollywood Star thinks of demonetisation, than figuring nuances of monetary and fiscal policy which more serious authors write about (whether pro or anti).

The media is given special concessions, across the world, because of it’s historical role in upholding democracy. In India this was in the form of subsidised rates for newsprint, cheap rents, land given, and tax breaks. It was given because of the belief that the media would perform it’s function – be the watch dog of the ‘system’ on behalf of the people. Ask questions that needed to be asked, and persist till they were answered.

However, that hasn’t been the case. For the last 20 years, big media has been running purely for profit – and not for any of the duties that it is supposed to perform. It’s owners are corporatised, and often run industrial projects in other areas. The media then becomes a vehicle that not only legitimises their excesses, but also gives them undue influence on issues of policy. For example, if a large builder owned a media house, what would be it’s stand on land acquisition. Similarly if a large mining company owned media interests, how would the media deal with tribals being displaced so that mining can proceed. With media companies taking stakes in start up ventures, in lieu of advertising, can you actually have a balanced analysis on the start ups and how they are performing. Finally, when politicians and political parties own news media vehicles, what kind of monitor do you expect the media to play ?

The media in India, has unfortunately become like a cop in a 1960’s movie. they turn up after everything is over, and asks inane questions like “why do you think it happened”, and ‘how do you feel about it’. A simple example, when 26/11 was in progress, the big media noise was on how the NSG was delayed in getting to Mumbai, because they had no airport space allocated to them. And, while it was a valid criticism, the role of the watchdog is to flag it earlier. A watchdog that barks after the thief has stolen your belongings is of no particular use.  Unless we want to redefine the role of the media as the coroner, as opposed to the watchdog.

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Right now, while mainstream media chases eyeballs, and puts out news to something below the lowest common denominator, to collect advertising revenue that is a few rupees per a million eye balls, the question is what is the future of news ? If your audience is sold at next to nothing, then the value of that audience is next to nothing. It is a bubble waiting to burst, and world over it has begun bursting.  Newspapers that are chasing advertising revenues, keeping the cost of subscription fixed, are shutting down editions; digital only platforms that are putting out ‘me too’ news are figuring that the cost of consumer acquisition is so high, that it is neither possible, nor profitable even in the long run

I think at a very simple level it is acceptance of the fact that consumption of news has never been a mass audience activity. At any point of time in the last 100 years, the consumption of news was lower than the consumption of entertainment. To try and drive numbers without a focus on quality or veracity is something that news organisations are doing without check. It is this fakeness in news that is pushing consumers to pick out other things with similar sounding headlines.

The second thing is the concept of ‘balance’ in news. A balanced piece of news is where you take opinions from all stakeholders involved in that news and contextualise it in the overall story. For example, if you were talking about tribals being evicted to set up industries, there will be the tribal view, the political view, the economic rationale, the industrial rationals – so that the reader can make up their mind on what to think. However, if you run this story with only one perspective, then the story will be unbalanced. Look at all the stories that you have been reading, and ask yourself if you are getting the balanced view. An additional point to remember is that there are things where the concept of balance does not exist. For example, if you are discussing rape, then the counter balance to those who oppose rape, is not some one who talks about rape being a ‘natural’ occurrence in society. Or if you are talking about the age of the earth, your counter is not a religious fundamentalist who talks about the world being created on Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C, And, no, when we discuss the marvels of modern medicine, you cannot have a person discussing how an elephant head was transplanted on a human being before time began. These are good conversations in the privacy of your home, or in a party. But, without evidence, this is not news. Mainstream News media today, is crying about hoaxes. But, the problem is that they perpetuated and popularised those putting out the hoaxes, as experts.

The third thing is that everyone is not your audience. They never can be. ‘Who is your audience’ if you ask this basic question of anyone running a media set up, the response invariably will be 14+ (those over 14 years of age). from 14 to 94 is a lot of age cohorts. And, beyond age, there are interest cohorts. If you try and be everything for everyone, you most likely will end up being no one for anyone. Fix the audience you want to serve, and aim your content at them. There will be a spillover in terms of audience. But, that is a better than aiming for everyone and getting people who flit in and out of your site and content.

The fourth thing is don’t be afraid of charging money for your content. If you start giving things away for free, and expect advertising money to deliver your profits, then don’t cry if your serious content does not deliver. if your audience sees value in your content they will pay. If they don’t see value in your content they won’t pay. If your content is aimed at the lowest common denominator that is flitting in and out of your offerings, there is little or no engagement, and advertising money is going to start chasing engagement rather than clicks – sooner rather than later.

Finally, it is less about customer acquisition than customer retention. You can spend all the money you want on branding, marketing and getting the customer to visit you. The question is what next ? are they going to come back? and, the question that plagues the Indian news media – especially in a digital era . if your customer gets his or her news through their social media feeds, then how much are you willing to sacrifice for baiting the click ? Are you, as a media organisation, ubiquitous for all, or are you focused on your core audience and targeting your communication to them.

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In 2017, i see the media, world over, debating all these, in some form or the other. I also don’t have much hope from most of the established players, who are selling kilos of eyeballs for next to nothing to advertisers. Where i see some glimmer of light is with those entities who have declared they will focus on quality, and get customers to pay (nominal amounts) for that quality. And, i see hope in newer entrants who have eschewed clickbait for quality.

Jan 172017
 

Image from here. 

The New York Times today released the report of it’s 2020 group that studied how the organisation needs to move forward in a turbulent digital era. As the previous reports from the NYT, this too was very illuminating (especially if you also work in the business).

A summary. But, if you have the time do read the whole thing. I found the whole thing fascinating, especially the success of the subscription model , probably because a) i work in the space, and b) more importantly, it is my firm view, that if you are giving away content at next to nothing, it cannot be very good content. If you have to create a long term sustainable business model, it cannot be purely advertising driven. It has to be by paying customers, who like the content enough to pay for it, again and again.

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NYT on how it managed to get $500 million of digital revenues, which is “far more than the digital revenues reported by many other leading publications (including BuzzFeed, The Guardian and The Washington Post) — combined

We are, in the simplest terms, a subscription-first business. Our focus on subscribers sets us apart in crucial ways from many other media organizations. We are not trying to maximize clicks and sell low-margin advertising against them. We are not trying to win a pageviews arms race. We believe that the more sound business strategy for The Times is to provide journalism so strong that several million people around the world are willing to pay for it.

they talk about this later in the report too, when they say

A story that receives 100,000 or 200,000 pageviews and makes readers feel as if they’re getting reporting and insight that they can’t find anywhere else is more valuable to The Times than a fun piece that goes viral and yet woos few if any new subscribers.

And  the subscription focus helps the NYT not just get a dedicated, paying audience, but also attracts advertising that wants to reach these customers.

Our focus on subscribers stems from a challenge confronting us: the weakness in the markets for print advertising and traditional forms of digital-display advertising. But by focusing on subscribers, The Times will also maintain a stronger advertising business than many other publications. Advertisers crave engagement: readers who linger on content and who return repeatedly. Thanks to the strength and innovation of our journalism — not just major investigative work and dispatches from around the world but also interactive graphics, virtual reality and Emmy-winning videos that redefine storytelling — The Times attracts an audience that advertisers want to reach.

Going forward, to engage more audiences this is what they are planning to do:

  • Go more visual – use more pictures.
  • Short, chunk-able, utilitarian content – such as the Daily Briefing – that will lead to more consumption/engagement.  As they put it “They take advantage of the available technology and our curatorial judgment to explain the world to readers on a frequent, predictable rhythm that matches the patterns of readers’ lives.”
  • Features to become more useful (read utilitarian) content. Become a guide.
  • Make readers co-creators of content, that will be curated by the NYT’s journalistic expertise
  • Train existing staff digital ready ..to understand how the consumer wants to consume content. This would also look at journalism more as a ‘ visual narrative’ exercise.
  • Also, desk people may be holding their breath “The Times currently devotes too many resources to low-value editing — and, by extension, too many to editing overall. Our journalism and our readers would be better served if we instead placed an even higher priority on newsgathering in all of its forms.”
  • And on being wedded to an organisation form meant for a different era & technology — ie dead (wood) technology ie. print – “The print version of The New York Times remains a daily marvel, beloved by a large number of loyal readers. It is a curated version of our best stories, photography, graphics and art. But the newsroom’s current organization creates dangers for the print newspaper — and is also holding back our ability to create the best digital report”

Read the full report here 

Dec 312016
 

Was there ever a year like this ? Every literary cliche you can think of, can be brought into play year. And yet, as 2016 makes way for 2017, a question remains – will 2017 be better than 2016 ? And there are two answers to that – a) how can it be possibly worse, and b) abhi toh shuruvat hai (it has only just begun).  To say we are in for a rocky ride, is an understatement. There was a twitter joke a few months ago, a few years from now, whenever a quiz question is asked “when did event x take place” the safe answer would be 2016.

Amongst the more popular urban legends is one pertaining to a quote by the ancient Chinese, which was also a curse,  “May you live in Interesting Times“. The only problem is that no one can find a single ancient Chinese reference to this. It is a bit like the stuff my grand mother would tell us, when we were growing up – ‘if you do this, this will happen’. Brought up to be inquisitive – or sceptical – we would ask “how do you know”. she would respond “the elders said so”. I have never been able to figure out if the elders indeed said so, or did she attribute it to the elders. But, there you go.

In a post truth world, it is useful to remind ourselves that all falsehoods didn’t spontaneously come into existence in the last 5-10 years. We have had post truths that have defined worlds. the earth is flat; The King is God; Our Religion is the Best; The Caste System is God’s will; An Angry God will condemn you to eternal damnation; people of colour x are better than people of all other colours; I can go on and on- but, you get the gist. Those in power tell lies to stay in power. Those without power tell it to get into power. I think that most normal people, outside ivory towers and echo chambers, get this basic fact. Leaders lie. These could be outright lies, or these could be being economical with the truth. There is that old joke. How do you tell when a politician lies? his (or her) lips move. In today’s world, with fragmented power bases – add corporate leaders, media stars, top journalists, and every other ‘manufactured’ image to this – and you have a certain fuzziness as far as truth is concerned. If events were always represented from the observer’s point of view (and the observer was always the winner), in today’s era that observer is manifold and can add his or her voice to convincing you that night is day.  Orwell wrote about this in 1984. Way back in 1949, when the book was published, it was an allegory of those times. It really wasn’t that dystopian. It was their current reality. One of the most famous created words, Doublethink originates from this book :

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt. doublethink lies at the very heart of Ingsoc, since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary.

And, while the former was considered to be the process that those in power used to create the sense of social coherence, this is how Winston, the main protagonist in 1984, saw it

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word “doublethink” involved the use of doublethink.

 

If we look at the world around us, based on both social chatter and main stream media – you will find that you are living in a rather schizophrenic world. There is a part of it that tell you we live in the worst of times. And, another part of it tells you that this, indeed, is the best of times. Nether data, nor evidence seems to matter. What matters is belief. Their hero approximates to God or Prophet, or a historic hero of mythic proportions;  and all others approximate to the demon, or the enemy. And, conversations tend to follow partisan lines. Very little discourse, and a tremendous amount of validation and re-validation.  It is almost as though the process of dialectic and the evolution of a synthesis is discarded, and we are reversing back to dark ages – where a truth is  prestated and accepted without question. Questioning is seen as blasphemy, and the punishment for blasphemy is death. And, blasphemy was defined as anything you didn’t believe in, and attributed to God. Today, you look at topics as diverse as beef ban (in India) or abortion rights (in the USA); climate change or automation – the middle ground is being squeezed out, and all of us are being asked to take polar sides. This or That ? A or Z? And, while death may not mean the state will shoot you, it means that enough nutcases, frenzied enough in their belief, might. And, we see the most extreme forms of this behaviour from organisations like ISIS. If something doesn’t fit their world view – and given how warped their world view is, most things don’t fit – they destroy it. People, history, institutions, everything. If i spend a lot of my time on the interwebs – and i do – this is the world i see. A world with two opposing sides, battle lines drawn, no conversations, everyone snarls at everyone else, and there is no common ground even in areas there should be.

But, is the real world really this polar? is all of humanity gathered around two poles of opinion, on each topic. Do each of us, in real life, want those who have divergent opinions from us dead or worse? Are we really, as a species, so bereft of decency and niceness ? Does the world depicted by Main stream media, and increasingly by social media, reflect us as a species? are we really that terrible ? Is the dystopian future already upon us ? is there nothing really to look forward to. And, the answer, no matter how politically or cause aligned you maybe, is no – the world is actually a comparatively nice place. People are nice and helpful. Random strangers are kind to people. Families are still the source of support. Friends still catch you when you stumble, and help you up without any expectations. It is still possible to have a healthy exchange of ideas, and even disagree with people without being called names, or threatened with death. Even on social platforms such as twitter that are accused of fermenting hate and fascism, you find decency and niceness.

It isn’t all hunky dory. You find the nutcases too. But, and this is the big question, do you want to focus on the ugliest aspects of human behavior to the exclusion of everything else. If you see the world through a distorted lens, the world is going to look ugly. If you take away all lenses and see it, you will possibly see it for what it is – mostly good, often helpful, mainly decent, with a bit of humour, instinctively helpful. At the worst of times, the decency of ordinary people has shone through. Maybe we all, especially those who are in AC offices and run the media or social media,  need to get out of our comfort zone, and stop having pure social media conversations. The nuances that come through real life conversations, may redress our balance and our world view.

And, on the last day of 2016, ask this question of yourselves – was the year really as bad as it is made out to be, or do you feel it was terrible because everyone else is saying it is terrible?

My year, like all years, was a mix of the great, the good, the nice, the fun, the sad and the tragic. And, as with most years i am grateful to the people in my life, my friends, my family, my colleagues, and my dog(ess) who have been there for me. stood by me. and made me feel loved. There isn’t much else one can say about 2016. If you ask me a few years from now, i will possibly remember it as the year Mohammed Ali died.

 

Dec 192016
 

 

Many moons ago, i watched a war film called Operation Daybreakthe story of Czech partisans – fighting for the British Army – whose mission it is to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich . Heydrich was the brain behind the plan for the Final Solution – a soultion that would see millions of Jews being sent to the gas chamber. A man who was truly evil, and without a moral compass.  Operation Daybreak was a movie about individual heroism, and a mission that is greater than your own life. I have seen many such films base on true life incidents of war, but Operation Daybreak has stuck in my memory, possibly because it was the first one that I saw in that genre.

When i began watching Rogue One yesterday, it was impossible not to make comparisons. A well organised, united,  highly militarised enemy. Rebels who are not organised, not united, and have weapons cobbled together from leftovers. And, a mission to destroy a weapon of mass destruction, that would save the universe.

If you look at the film and ask, what is the film about – it is about heroes, who fight for something they believe in, for a better tomorrow. A film about hope. IT is also a war film, in the true sense of a war film. A small squad of misfits who goes to take on the Goliath military operation- think Guns of Navarone.

The film had a magnificent set of characters, and unlike most films in recent times, i wished that the movie was slightly longer so that i could get to know them better. All in all, story wise, a much better outing on the franchise, than the last 4 films. I would still rate Empire Strikes Back as the best Star Wars Film, this comes very close in toppling that number one status.

If you are a star wars fan – this is a must watch. And, if you don’t know the universe at all (how is that even possible), it is still worth viewing for the tightly plotted storyline and well etched characters

Dec 012016
 
dear-zindagi-wallpaper-11115

I finally got to see Dear Zindagi.

A story about a young woman – a cinematographer – who has everything going for her. She is confident, talented, good looking – and yet feeling completely out of sorts. Nightmares. Insomnia. A sense of being on the edge with everyone in her life. A sense of not belonging. we have all been there.

But, she does something, most of us don’t do – she visits a counsellor for help to take charge of her life again.

Alia’s character, Kaira, does not have any dark demons. No child abuse. No abusive parents. None of that. And, that is what make’s Gauri Shindes take on mental health so interesting. The fact that seemingly ‘normal’ people can have problems. That you can cope with your everyday activities, have fun, laugh, smile and all of that, while you are crumbling from the inside. Alia’s vulnerability and brittle strength are played well. SRK as the counsellor is outstanding. The sheer empathy, decency, and that his character does not judge situations or issues in the young woman’s life, or her choices, makes him a poster boy for popularising mental well being. I am not sure anyone else could have pulled off the role as well – there was, unlike in most of his films,  no SRK superstar in this film. There was only Jahangir Khan (Jug), and you wish you met someone like that when you were going through your own shit (without outside help). And, it is not because of the way he looks. It is because of the way he is. SRK, is infinitely better when he plays his age (or close to it).

A bit talky, maybe 15 minutes too long . But, beautifully cast. well acted, and a lovely little slice of life. I would definitely recommend it to watch in the theatres – preferably with BFF’s, an extra large box of tissues, and some pop corn.