Free is the enemy of Good Journalism: The problem with the News Market

The Indian news media has been expanding in all directions. Print, TV news, and digital have been giving us content of all shapes and hues, in order to attract our eyeballs, and engage us for fractions of a minute. Most of this content is free. As per the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) there are 350 companies that run 908 TV channels, around 50% of them are news channels. There are 1.18 lakh registered news publications in India – 17,573 newspapers, and 1,00,666 periodicals. And, it is next to impossible to ascertain how many news websites there are.  Each of these news outlets compete for the small chunk of an advertising pool which is unable to sustain so many players in a manner where business goals – such as paying salaries and turning in a profit – are also met. Most of the content is free, and most of the content is pretty useless. And, maybe there is a link between the two – Free, in the news space, becomes the enemy of good journalism.

For the media, election is the biggest money spinner. More audiences are attracted to news in this period, simply because of the show put on by political parties. This is where media platforms can show off their reporting and analytical prowess. And they live in the hope that the money they earn during elections – either from parties paying for advertising, or advertisers chasing eyeballs – will sustain them.  But, it simply is not enough. No sooner than the 2019 elections results were out, that the predicted media implosion began. The industry has been hit with a series of layoffs, and belt tightening, that augurs ill for the future of news.

News traditionally worked on a subscription model. Subscribers paid a small fee on a daily basis for the news they consumed. Most news outlets focused on moderate numbers of small paying audiences, keeping costs low, and trying to boost circulation. However, this model was upended by digital technologies – where the need for circulation was reduced, as the news directly reached the reader via the internet, without any intermediary delivering the news physically to them. And what the customer faces is an overload of free news that is delivered to her mobile or another device of choice.

And, ultimately, the free model works well for large companies with deep pockets and sustaining power. Smaller companies fall by the wayside. About 5 years ago, the buzz in the news industry was new players, digital natives, who were talking to new audiences for news that were not being addressed by traditional players in news. While their news coverage was more than decent, they had no revenue model. Most of these companies have scaled back or shut down – Mic, Vice, Scroll – all hailed as the future of journalism on digital, have found it next to impossible to compete in a model of news delivery, where content is an undifferentiated commodity.

The innate nature of digital platforms is one that enables discovery. And, discovery is often driven by volumes of audiences that find something interesting. On most days a story about “aliens kidnapping a military aircraft’ will make for more compelling reading than factual accounts on health policy, for example. The more ridiculous the story, the higher the probability of it appearing on your facebook or twitter stream, and the more likely you will consume it – if only as entertainment – instead of consuming something more relevant. It is simple human nature. Nothing exemplifies this more than the rise of Tik Tok in India – where millions of Indians exhibit their creativity by the silliest of activities – and it is compelling viewing. But, the time you spend on inane content, is less time that you spend on anything else. And, hence news is no longer competing with other news channels, but with the entire ecosystem of content on the internet.

The way ahead is both simple and complex. There are too many platforms competing for the same audience cohorts – and at a very basic level media owners of these platforms need to consider consolidation of the audience by a process of mergers. And, this is primarily a survival tool. There is strength in numbers – and if the media needs to survive, it needs to reorganise itself. There are just too many platforms and most of them will not make enough money to survive.

The second part is slightly more complex, and that is forcing a subscription model as the default option. There is something fundamentally wrong with free content. It is a model that can only be sustained by very deep pockets. And, the problem with that is that it becomes a barrier to competition. Not only that, it rightfully deprives the exchequer of valuable tax. Free is barrier to entry. Free distorts the market. Free kills innovation. And for these reasons free must be checked.  Governments have to step in to ensure that ‘free’ that was meant to boost competition and give new entrants a chance at playing with big business, is not used by big business to kill competition. And, that will not happen without a fight from those who rule the market.

News Reporter

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