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The Rise of Independent Journalism in India; Truth versus Sustainability

In the last seven years, India has undergone many fundamental changes – its journalism having gone through the biggest shift. While accepting an award in 2016, Raj Kamal Jha, the chief editor of Indian Express said,

“Good journalism is not dying; it is getting better and bigger. It is just bad journalism that makes a lot more noise than it used to do five years ago.”

Such has been the consequence of the noise of bad journalism that everything looks like a part of propaganda to the public now. They don't trust their journalists anymore.

Especially in the last 2-3 years, Indian journalism has seen some new lows. The heavy wave of tabloidization that swept international journalism also took Indian news along with it. Soon, a competitive streak followed where exclusive news had more power over factful news. To top that, insensitive reporting on several volatile issues further polarized the masses in their opinions. Reports on communal issues, caste violence, mental health have reeked of ignorance. It has been strange to witness this trait of journalism on Indian television that has been getting more abhorrent with each passing day. The rippling consequences of what people see on the television or read on their screens quickly spread into their lives causing more resentment and agitation against people who hold different opinions. But what drives these channels to behave the way they do?

American intellectual, Noam Chomsky, talks about the fatality of consuming news that is bought. Media moguls fund the news to regulate what the masses know and think. In his book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media, he talks about the media manipulation and relationship with the surveillance authority that creates a bubble in which the public is subjected to live. In the documentary by the same name, Chomsky in an interaction with college students explains that there are people in power and people who "own the country" and they will do what it takes to oppress the press freedom if it attacks them. These invisible stakeholders of the country manipulate grassroots politics for their benefit through the media that they have bought.

However, going back to what Jha had said at the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards, to use media channels as an anchor to our trust in the fourth estate, good journalism is getting better and bigger despite all the noise. As a testimony to this, the voice of independent journalism has also been getting bolder and stronger. Despite the rampant arrest of independent journalists for questioning the decisions of establishments, their voices still ring loud to awaken the conscience of the people. They might just be the saving grace our journalism needs.

In India alone, the stark rise of the voice of independent journalism amidst the youth circles has built a positive arch. These young people are learning to critique establishments, ask uncomfortable questions to the government, and challenge deeply rooted social institutions. The change is slow but it is significant. But building sustaining business models is more difficult. Independent news organizations and their employees cannot survive without money, there need to be prominent sources of revenue that drive the wheels of these organizations. Advertisements manipulate content but are currently the only respite. To make independent news completely free of corporate control, it needs to have a sustainable subscription model. However, most people don’t want to pay for their news despite having the purchasing power. People don’t want to buy something they are already getting for the bare minimum or free.

In a survey conducted by the World Economic Forum in six markets out of which India was one, it was revealed that only 1/4th of people paid for their news. However, the same survey showed that 2/3rd of this population was willing to pay for news. This interest was largely expressed by younger groups from the age of 16 to 35. Thus, it reveals that there is a market for paid news. Only the importance of paying for your news has not dawned on the majority.

Compulsory payment for access to news is not a pragmatic solution. It will further create information inequality, refraining information from people who cannot afford it. Thus, paying for your news has to be a choice people make for the greater good. Getting people who can pay to do so needs to be a conscious and a voluntary act. In an annual report for the year 2020-2021, Netflix recorded 2.4 million adult users from India. If 2.4 million users can pay INR 500-800 monthly for recreation and entertainment purposes, it shows that there is a potential subscriber base for the ‘pay for your news’ campaign.

Milan Kundera, in his book The Book of Laughter and Forgetting wrote, "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." In an era where a deliberate removal of history, culture, and ethnicity is being carried out by stakeholders of power, independent journalism is recording these acts of atrocities so that when all is said and done, people don't forget.

Amidst all this, if they have to worry about economic sustenance, the fight only gets more difficult. That is why, a unanimous campaign by all independent news-media outlets is needed that will create a sense of social responsibility among people, encouraging them to pay for their news. The older generations should not be left out in this. They should be made to realize that if you don’t pay for your news, you get paid news – news that doesn’t tell you the whole truth.

When things get better, India must and will remember the fight of independent journalism against the rise of rampant abuse of power. Till then, a sustainable fight must go on against ignorance, false, and propaganda news.

Rushalee is a masters student of Mass Communication at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.

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