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Abhinandan Sekhri Interview: The State of Media

Abhinandan Sekhri is co-founder and CEO of media critique, news, and current affairs website Newslaundry. He is also co-founder of Small Screen, which produced award-winning shows like Highway On My Plate and OMG India. He worked for TV Today Network from 1995 to 1999 that made Newstrack and Aaj Tak. He was also the chief scriptwriter for the news-satire show Gustaakhi Maaf and The Great Indian Tamsha on NDTV. He regularly delivers lectures and hosts panel discussions on journalism, Right to Information, along with the importance and independence of media. In this interview with Divanshu Sethi, he discusses the problems in the media ecosystem, the role of identity in media organisations, and the future of media in a post-COVID-19 world. 

With your decades of experience, starting as a reporter and now running a media organisation, can you lay out some of the changes you have seen in the field. How has journalism transformed?  

It has transformed in various ways — some good and some bad. One big transformation has been the motivation of people joining journalism. Nowadays, the motivation of many people is visibility, access, and fame. But back then there wasn’t much visuality; only the top people were in the limelight. Things that changed for the better is that much more exposés are being done. So a lot more accountability is sought by reporters across the board.

But the hysteria has changed. It was never so loud and noisy. I started in 1995, and the benefits of liberalisation were just starting to hit us. It was full-on in the late 90s. But the nature of commerce changed in such a dramatic way that it has just become a reality show. I think that, that has been the most dramatic change. News is now, at least in the electronic medium, a reality show. It is not a news show.

Newslaundry is a news critique platform, among other things. In these polarised times, how difficult is it to critique other media houses constructively? 

It is easier now than when we started. In 2012, when we started critiquing media, it was very new back then. Not many people were calling each other out, and we often would call out our friends and colleagues with whom we had have worked in the past. It was difficult in the sense that journalists weren’t used to being critiqued. So the way they would respond was really shocking. Considering that journalists spend their life critiquing others and expect everybody to take it and move on, their responses to our criticism were really shocking. Since journalists were not used to being critiqued, that was a real painful experience for having to deal with— the tantrums and the sulking because of being mocked or made fun of. 

But I think it is a very important part. I don’t think it is difficult at all. What could be difficult is that once you do critique, you may lose friends and if you have spent as much time in this industry as I have. You have a lot of friends in the media. So that’s a bit of a bummer. But otherwise, I don’t see it as a problem at all. It’s not difficult, and there are enough reasons to be critical. There are enough reasons to appreciate their work, as well. There is a bit of both here. But I think the biggest mistake the media made was not critiquing each other 20 years ago which is why we are in such horribly polarised times, with such horrible journalism being pushed or such terrible content being called ‘news’. It would not have reached this stage had news organisations learnt to critique each other before Newslaundry came about. 

With the drop in advertisements, news organisations are facing problems in their business model. As you must have heard, Google announced to pay some publishers in Germany, Australia, and Brazil for news content. And the Australian government wants Facebook to pay for news, even though Facebook has said that news content is “highly substitutable”. Do you think such developments with big tech giants, who are beneficiaries of the ad revenue, which was previously enjoyed by the news publishers, will eventually become a necessity for the survival of the news ecosystem? 

This is a question that many people have been grappling with. I think at a fundamental level, I agree. Conceptually, I think if they are making their money from it, it’s only fair that they pay for it or share the revenue that they earn in a more equitable way. But how would one go about it? – the little nuts and bolts of and the terms. How would you implement it? How would you enforce it? Because of the power that these tech giants have; it is something that is not as simple as a court order or a regulatory command. So I think that it is something that should be thought through and executed.

But like I said, fundamentally it’s fair that these tech giants also reward those who are doing the hard work, but the downside will be, where will it stop? Anything a search engine throws up or should they actually have an incentivised way of having an arrangement with anyone who shows up on search? I mean it could go on. It is a slippery slope. But in principle I am with that, I think it should happen. We have disabled adds, so we won’t get any of that because that is not out model. But others should. 

Reading or supporting a news media organisation has become an important part of a person’s identity – like supporting a football team. People are forming an association with their news media. For instance, because the Guardian is left-leaning, people who associate with that outlook follow it; similarly, because the Guardian knows that its followers are left-leaning, they adhere to that narrative. What implications of this model do you foresee for the news ecosystem? 

It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, it will definitely make news organisations more committed to the news in my view because people won’t pay for nonsense. They won’t pay for one fake report after the other. They won’t pay for opinions without anyone going on the ground and having done any reportage. So, I think generally if it becomes more subscriber driven, the commitment of the news platform towards news will become a little more honest and sincere. On the downside, it may have a very polarising effect on news — those who have one ideology will support one platform and those who have another will support another platform, which is a potential danger, but in either case, I think people who are not doing accurate news reporting will find it very hard to retain subscribers. I think we are in an age where earlier trends used to take months and decades to emerge, now trends come and go in weeks. So, I am not sure which way this will go because social media was supposed to bring the world closer together and clearly that hasn’t happened. Similarly, I will not give a full authoritative or definitive answer on how it will shape in the future. But the polarisation for me is an acceptable price to pay for accuracy, and I think a subscription-driven model would better serve that. I don’t think too many people will be proud to say that I support XYZ website which has been accused of like 25 fake news instances. I think people would be embarrassed to say that. 

Many news media organisations are switching to a subscription-driven news model. There is also a rise in community-driven journalism, especially for local news. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative effect on media, especially local news. We hear stories of many organisations closing or shutting operations from America to India. But, on the other hand, the subscriptions for the New York Times and Financial Times have increased over the pandemic period. What do you think will be the possible fallouts of this since the New York Times themselves rely on the reports of local newspapers? And recently, The Salt Lake Tribune, a local news organisation in America, became a non-profit news division. Do you think for local news – a community-driven not-for-profit system makes more sense?

I don’t believe that. If you are not operating in a market, you cannot change the trend. The analogy I often draw is that the difference between an NGO and a political party — an NGO can make a difference and do good work, but it will not have a significant impact on the political culture of any society or any country by remaining an NGO. If it becomes a political party, it has a huge impact. I can give you examples of the RSS vs BJP. The RSS was around for a long time but only after the Jan Sangh and the BJP, could they make an impact politically in an overwhelming manner. Similarly, for Arvind Kejriwal’s NGO – Parivartan and Public Cause Research Foundation (PCRF). He was running it for 15 years and he couldn’t change much. But as soon as he entered politics – there was more of an impact. Now one can question whether the impact is good or bad, but that is a separate issue. Similarly, in the news space, if you are running as an NGO or not for profit, you may be doing great work, but you will not be able to impact the ecosystem in a significant way. For that, you have to compete commercially and win. And when you do that, then everybody says —okay, that’s the way to go. So, if people can make good journalism commercially viable, it will have an impact that is greater than any amount of not for profits can have. That is the answer to the last question. 

The one about COVID – yes, it’s having a huge destructive impact on the economy, various establishments, and commercial operations. So, news will not be insulated. The only thing is that when news is impacted in the way that it is, it has a huge hit on democracy and democratic values. I read an article that by the end of the year or early next year, 30% of airlines will fold down, which will be very unfortunate. It will have a huge impact on the exchange of ideas and the cultural osmosis of people travelling to other cultures and experiencing them. They say 25-30% of the restaurants will never open again. That will have an impact on people’s appetite and culinary. But if 30% of news organisations shut down, that has a huge impact on democracy itself, which is why this is a bigger danger. Most media were supported by advertisements and because this economic downturn has impacted commercial operations to the extent that some of the largest advertisers have cut the marketing budgets by 80-90%, the only people left to advertise are governments. Today there was I think, a full-page ad put out by the Telangana government. These are the only people who have the money. Then how can the media really be fearless and fair? Because who is going to cut your cheque. It becomes very hard. So, I think, on that front, it has had a hugely detrimental impact. 

And as far as local news is concerned — that was dying even before COVID. The whole local news ecosystem was slowly dying as far as print is concerned and even broadcasters. It already started late last year. But I am not that afraid of it because I think that could be revived digitally. I think media like the News Minute, of course now a national platform, but when they started out, they said we only want to cater to Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra, Telangana, and Karnataka. But that is what they said they wanted to do. Of course, the fact is that they have a readership way beyond that and have become big. But that can be replicated on a smaller scale. I know that there are a few websites which are catering only to a Malayalam speaking audience and they are very popular. So, I think that, that could be revived digitally, by lots of enterprising journalists at a local level. But, it is the larger media that I am afraid has got completely compromised, whose operating costs are enormous. 

And lastly, what media organisation do you subscribe to or has influenced you, over your years of being in the media space? 

The things that have influenced me were my bosses, the people I reported to. I was very fortunate and very lucky to be reporting to journalists such as Madhu Trehan, Alpana Kishore, Suprima Dhawan. Coincidentally, all three are women. There is a lot I learnt from Nakhivi dada from Aaj Tak and SP Singh. I was just fortunate that I reported to very good people. So, they influenced my journalism. I wouldn’t say any platform influenced my journalism. But one platform that I am always amazed by who tell stories really well is NPR (National Public Radio). Whether it is Planet Money or American Life, their ability to tell stories is really good. I try to tell all journalism students or even my young colleagues to check out how they do their storytelling. It is very well done. I wish more people in India would do that. 

I think there were a few shows other than Newstrack, which were really good. I think from time to time I have found though it is inconsistent, Truth vs Hype was a really good long format show which went into one particular aspect which Sreenivasan Jain used to do. I used to find, back in the day, some of Shekhar Gupta’s commentary really good. I mean I wouldn’t subscribe to what he says now. But at his prime, I think he has done some fantastic reporting and interviews. I think when it comes to panel discussion, Barkha has done some great work in her early days. I subscribe to pretty much every Indian media and that is because I just want everybody in my office to have some reference point.


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