The ‘digital future’ which HT and Telegraph and other papers are seeking is not an easy walk-in. Here’s why

By Binoo K John

The ongoing cull in two reputed dailies, the New Delhi-based Hindustan Times and the Kolkata-based The Telegraph, has put obit writers on overdrive, perhaps rightly so. The issues at stake are: Is the large scale sacking of journalists and sub-editors a signal of the end of newspapering? Or at least newspapering as we knew it? What is the meaning of ‘digital future’ which these papers are desperately seeking?

Media website Newslaundry has suggested that it may mark the end of district reporters, stringers, etc., and thus signal the very end of grassroots reporting. Others have foretold the hasty end of major newspapers since it is evident that daily newspapers have no answer to the onslaught of digital media and social media. Nor do they have a sound ranking on FB newsfeed and Google.

Both HT and Telegraph are family-owned like most other media houses. Corporatised media houses and trustee-run ones are rare in India. Both newspapers have suddenly woken up to the idea of a digital future, long after that  space has been firmly occupied, by curated news site, fake news sites, click-bait websites and the rest of it.

The overall logic used in the culling is the classic western management model: be lean and mean, cut staff when profits are down, shut shop when profits go further down. It is no surprise that both HT and Telegraph have been advised by western consulting companies.

A look at the present state of Telegraph will give an idea of what the future holds. The Telegraph’s turnover is around Rs 930 crore and net profit is only less than Rs 50 crore enough for alarm bells to sound. The TV division inherited from Star seems to have a future, though here too competition is very stiff and ad revenues are not growing substantially. There is a company called ABP Holdings that controls three companies inside the group: Telegraph, book publishing and some Bengali magazines.

What is the digital future that Telegraph or HT (around 400 redundancies each) are looking at? Are they capable of becoming widely followed news website, incorporating blogs, journalists twitter handles, podcasts etc which will find a place in the FB newsfeed regularly? Do they have the ability to trend stories?

Here are some other reasons why the ‘digital future’ which HT and Telegraph and other papers are seeking is not an easy walk-in.

  1. Newspapers which have sacked journalists to become lean and mean, may have become lean but never mean. Most of them have deteriorated, unable to switch to a new future with a depleted demoralised staff constantly fearing sacking, and having given up its core strengths (grassroots reporting for example). Mail Today is an example of a paper which had huge potential and which downsized using 2008 downturn as an excuse and now has lost its way with neither a past nor a future.
  2. Sports journalists and district, rural journalists,both considered as stumbling blocks to a digital future, have ironically built up huge following on twitter  and FB. In fact the big stories of last year have all been broken by such unassuming, underpaid reporters who are dismissed by western consultants like Boston Consulting (HT’s advisors) as misfits in a digital future. One example is that of the Odisha local reporter who broke the video story of a poor man carrying his dead wife on his shoulder for 10 km back to his house for burial, full with video and on sport reportage. The story broke the internet for 2 days. Actually such reporters have powerful platforms of their own now and they are actually the drivers of a digital future. Telegraph sacked all its Bihar district reporters according to Newslaundry. Regional newspapers with its strength of rural reporting are better equipped for a digital future.
  3. Neither paper has the technology expertise to do anything innovative. So we can see that HT has spend a reported Rs 100 crore on renovating its newsroom, all to see its features editor sitting on her desk and giving live bhashan of some event or book. Is this the future?
  4. Washington Post is the only legacy newspaper which has captured its ‘digital future’ and is roaring ahead, leaving even The New York Times (NYT can be subscribed in India for Rs 49 a week) far behind. That is because its boss Jeff Bezoz, editor, the rock star Martin Baron, its Director of Product Joey Marburger “the punk rock star”, are a formidable team. There’s nothing wrong in aspiring to find a space in that world, but if removal of top reporters is the first step, which digital future can such papers grab? What is the digital plan? WP on February 8 picked up an agency story about women in an Assam village trying to get the adjutant stork seen only in Assam and on the verge of extinction back to social respectability and rehabilitation. No Indian English paper had the story. How can they when they hate rural reporting?
  5. WP has developed a tool Websked which allows editors to keep track of what reporters are writing, how many paras are left, etc. The software reminds the reporter of the deadline which the reporter himself has given. The 700-man WP newsroom, files almost double the number of stories than NYT which has 1,300 strong newsroom, according to Columbia Journalism Review. It is into this algorithmic world that the newly ‘lean and mean’ Indian legacy newspapers are plunging with hardly any expertise. WP is now also selling its Content Managing System which might help some papers in India. According to one of the WP managers quoted in CJR: “Also, how we write stories and how we approach them has changed. There may be one news peg for one story, but we’ll write it in a hundred different ways. Look at the Hillary Clinton illness story: the video, the combination of videos, the analysis, the tick tock, the narrative. We actually drove the story forward. We’re owning more stories digitally than we ever have.” Neither HT nor TT could drive the Tamil Nadu political crisis story, tailor-made for a digital world. They don’t have enough reporters there. Nor anyone here who could curate it for a digital world.
  6. Here in India, too, the challenges are daunting for HT and TT. Click-bait websites like Scoop Whoop and others have mastered the art of curating stories, creating stories in the newsroom out of nothing and trending throughout the day by keeping a watch on the analytics. Here too HT and TT are nowhere. On a big story day all newspaper websites score heavily over the digital upstarts. But what about a bad day?

In the belated struggle to plant a small flag in a digital terrain full of huge banners and neon-lit boards, Indian newspapers are, like the popular Malayalam saying goes, trying to sell puttu (rice cake considered cheap) during the glittering Onam when the meal has 24 curries.