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Guest Column: Newsmanic: TV has put newspapers in liquid oxygen!

12-June-2009
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Guest Column: Newsmanic: TV has put newspapers in liquid oxygen!

It was a rare treat last week for newspaper readers.

On Wednesday, June 3, The Indian Express began a special series on the mucked up response to Mumbai 26/11. The report revealed the shocking inefficiency of the Mumbai police. It pointed out that on the night of 26/11 the four terrorists at the Taj Mahal hotel were locked up in one room for two full hours, offering the best chance for the police to take them out before they took scores of lives. But the Mumbai police waited half a day for the NSG to arrive, preferring to kill time rather than terror.

The same day, The Times of India ran an exclusive lead story on the capitation fee scandal involving a medical college with links to a Union Minister from the DMK -- Rs 20-40 lakh per MBBS seat. It followed that up with some good stories on the HRD ministry’s apparent (not deemed!) penchant for granting “deemed” university status to scores of undeserving institutions.

While the Express and the Times stayed on their respective exclusives the next day, The Hindustan Times came on board the “exclusives” wagon with the equally shaming story of the corruption in the Punjab High Court and the sluggishness of the Chief Justice of India in granting permission to prosecute the touts and judges who were caught on tape.

Not in a long time has the reader got such a variety of exclusives from the printed medium on a single day. It was a pleasant read through the week, as the three dailies continued to hawk their virgin stories rather than treat us to their normal routine of yesterday’s repackaged TV.

But good things don’t last forever. As I write this, all the papers are back to serving up yesterday’s headlines. Sehwag’s injury, Pranab’s meeting with PSU banks, race attacks on Indians in Canada etc, leaving me wondering if newspapers have condemned themselves to an existence of television-in-transcript.

Ten years ago, when the full force of 24x7 news started hitting print, many predicted its annihilation. That has not quite happened. Sure, TV news has knocked print off its pedestal, but has stopped way short of delivering the knockout punch because of its own many inadequacies.

In India, TV has largely confined itself to being an “event manager” rather than a news generator. When something “happens” it turns the event inside out in an hour. TV makes a meal of scheduled events (an upcoming cricket match, elections, counting day, VIP weddings, movie releases, etc) or events that unfold in the public domain (accidents, racial attacks, riots, sensex, statements, public spats etc). But the nature of the medium and the constraints it puts on man and material is such that TV glosses over the details.

And print in India has largely survived by filling in the details the next day.

There is another more important reason why TV will not want print to vanish. TV has neither the time, money nor the inclination for deep newsgathering of the kind that print can do. A typical day at a news channel begins with a quick scan of all the morning papers to cannibalise content. From page 1 to the sports pages, everything is game. That is about all the news gathering that happens in TV stations on a normal day (apart from the scheduled events and happenings).

Print subsidises TV’s newsgathering expenses to a considerable extent. So TV has nothing to gain from killing print. Print’s influence curtailed, its relevance under question and its survival under perennial threat, TV doesn’t mind print. In a manner of saying, to steal the words of screen villain Ajit and his many wonderfully evil ways of tormenting his adversaries, TV has put print in “liquid oxygen”. Liquid won’t let print live, oxygen won’t let it perish!

Of course, print doesn’t necessarily see it that way, and with good reason. World over newspapers are dropping like nine pins, but India has consistently bucked this trend of falling readership. So print has not seen the need to come up with any great innovations following the advent of TV. For example, if news channels can pick and play so much content from newspapers, are the papers being blind to their own strengths and stupidly transcribing yesterday’s TV for the cover story of the day (and a major part of page 1)?

Will print then survive merely as the medium of detail? Has TV’s inability to knock the stuffing out of print lulled it into believing the worst is over? Will we continue to read roughly the same cover stories in all papers, saying roughly the same things, roughly 24 hours after TV has chewed them to bits and spit them out?

Will print be forever content with life in liquid oxygen?

Venkat, as the writer is called, thinks newspapers should play to their strength rather than stick to conventional definitions of lead stories. The views expressed are the columnist's own and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.

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