As I grapple with the initial, broad mapping of content and technology architectures of a news journalism product that I plan to launch in India, I must admit that I am unusually distracted by the state of brand equity – and the consequent future – of the product category itself.
In the global context, the most recent push for the sobering deliberation came through the fall from grace of the much admired NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. In an on-air apology, he lamented that a ‘faulty memory’ had led him to falsely claim that he faced intense enemy fire while riding in a U.S. Army helicopter in Iraq 2003. His helicopter was a good hour behind the helicopter that actually did.
Appearing just another unintentional or deliberate error of judgment in isolation, the context around the ‘helicopter incident’ is summed up well by Rekha Basu, columnist for The Des Moines Register, in her writing ‘Williams adds stain to media credibility’:
Decades ago, news anchor Walter Cronkite, with his steady, reassuring presence, gave Americans of all persuasions a trusted ally even when he brought us bad news. Now, at a time when universal trust in any news source — or anything else, for that matter — is a vanishing commodity, Williams had it and he blew it. And it will be harder for anyone in this business to build (emphasis mine).
The example is not about my suggesting that news media hasn’t been gradually battling a fall in credibility. Far from it; Williams just revealed himself to be the latest name in a modern day game in which news credibility is defined by means of either the popular or the partisan.
As an Indian, disbelieving television news anchors feels more like an instinct that evolves as a part of the growing up process – if it is not the government controlled newsroom, it most probably is the corporate house dictated one.
The broad difference between the two is that while it is easy to arrive at the discount percentage for India’s sole official / government news channel, it becomes impossible for anyone to know the extent of the ‘shaping of news’ under the guidance or pressure of principal advertisers / sponsors of news media vehicles.
Case in point with regards the latter is the ongoing ‘Essar links’ saga, which concerns alleged planting of stories in influential news media by senior journalists on behalf of Essar Group, an Indian multinational with interests in steel, energy, infrastructure and services sectors.
Alongside, even as I write this, newsrooms in New Delhi are abuzz with stories about a document of the country’s Enforcement Directorate (ED) that suggests out of ordinary funding arrangements of a media house – and the corresponding fretting of the big-ticket journalists and anchors who benefited from it. Expect an ivory tower or two to come down in India this summer.
You would think that it would be big news in India. But the only place where it is buzzing right now is Twitter – that new platform / medium for news as it happens. The rest of the country shall, as in the past, never learn about the details. It doesn’t care either, perhaps.
Unfortunately, everyone in the news media landscape knows that ‘Essar links’ are the kind of dealings that keeps many, if not most, organisations float above about 82,000 other news / journalism media titles (Source: 55th Annual ‘Press in India’ report) in India – and consequently survive for a new print.
So then, if many in media believe that ‘links’ with large business groups is part mode of ‘ensuring return on newsroom investment’; if large part of the readership today gets its news via Tweets and Facebook shares – only the 140 characters and / or headlines, mind you – rather than through purchase of the actual news sources, and most part of the society doesn’t care about who reports (‘writes’) what for whom and for what reason, how would you rate a NEW news product as a viable business proposition?
This is not an essay in pessimism. This is just to reflect upon and invite thoughts/ideas about succeeding in a scenario wherein a most vibrant product category might actually be a great platform for sowing seeds for glory but not really for reaping rewards of honest risks.
This musing was published on LinkedIn here