Guest Column: Are we ready for 140-character journalism?

With online journalism poised to catapult to a higher level, future journalists need to walk in tandem with evolving technology without compromising on the quality & concerns of good journalism, says veteran journalist Brij Khandelwal

e4m by Brij Khandelwal
Published: Sep 10, 2014 4:50 PM  | 5 min read
Guest Column: Are we ready for 140-character journalism?

If Indian newspapers fail to evolve, reinvent and constantly update themselves with technology, they would land in a grim financial crisis. The demands of the news market – which includes a wide range of interest groups, not just conventional readers, but consumers of information as well – will necessitate fundamental shifts in coming years.

The speed with which the Modi-led NDA  Government is shifting focus on the information highway, and the Prime Minister’s penchant for going digital in all spheres of human activity, will usher in a massive technological revolution in the next five years.

Online journalism, which hitherto has been a passion of a small group of experimentalists, is already poised to catapult to a higher level, expanding its consumer base, from a few thousand in 1999 to millions in 2014. No one really knows the exact number of users, but the reach and access of web journalism today extend far beyond the geographical borders of a country.

Digital media with convergence technology is the future. The thin lines that separated print journalists from video/ radio or web journalists will soon disappear. The flexibility of time and space, convenience and economics of operation, make online journalism a game changer. Online journalism is defined as “phatphat journalism” or instant journalism, reporting events as they are happening. Who has the patience these days? The “right now deadline” pressure has already forced many an editor to scout for talents quick to learn, adapt and constantly experiment in tune with the fast changing technological environment. The new recruits to the media world are also expected to find new definitions of news by exploring frontiers well beyond the gaze of the ordinary.

While newspapers in the West were quick to learn the lessons with the advent of television, which in a fundamental manner forced new business plans on media outfits, many of which collapsed as a result of shifting interests of users, newspapers in India are still seen dragging their feet. Daily newspapers in Hindi and vernacular languages do have presence on the internet, but updating constantly is a major problem. Some dailies do not update stories fearing “the contents would be lifted and used by rivals”. Websites of Amar Ujala and Dainik Jagran, their local pages particularly, are examples. Bhaskar has in recent months improved a lot as reflected in its content and rising graph of users. Right now is the only platform to have its own independent news network run by 50-odd journalists and hundreds of stringers down the line in UP, for instance.

Hindi papers are still not ready for what western communication gurus call the “140-character journalism”. Write-ups are not crisp, to the point and rarely crowned with a lusty attractive headline. Remember a fair number of good stories are now breaking on the Twitter. The Prime Minister loves to do just that. Film stars like Amitabh Bachchan, too, have in the past tweeted news, worthy opinions and reactions. The mindset of the Hindi editors need to change fast, as many still think Facebook and other social media platforms are a waste of time. Even today, many newspaper offices do not allow journalists to connect to Facebook/ Twitter.

It is high time journalists learnt the power of 60-70 character headlines and 140 characters stories. Short tell-all or teasing headlines usually of  60-70 characters can catch eyeballs faster and the compacted story should not ideally exceed 140 characters keeping in mind the limitations of space, and the user in a hurry to catch up with the latest on his mobile, I-pad or other gadgets. Today’s end user of news is a busy, on the run, irritated, often in a hurry to update himself.

Experience shows and experts opine that internet journalism, social media now becoming an integral part of it, has really no space for gate keepers. A story could break anywhere at any time and by just about anyone. It may not require a trained journalist. The absence of filters, call them moral cops, censors or legal pundits or gate-keepers, could in future create problems in societies which are pluralistic, divided on caste and communal lines. A rumour or a canard, before it is proved hollow, could circulate round the world and do enough damage before its veracity is nailed.

In coming days, while information as a commodity is bound to explode both in volume and frequency, the processes to verify and apply socio-cultural restraints, could be wholly missing. The audience, or target groups will dictate the terms of reference and impose tastes, not the editor who hitherto has been so used to sermonising from the editorial pulpit.

Whether the quality of journalism would suffer or the needs of information would undergo unexpected changes, it is difficult to predict at this moment, but let it suffice to say that technology itself is a culture and can impact the nature and format of news as it is understood or consumed today. From class or elitist journalism we are already moving towards mass-oriented journalism, which many practitioners of the profession think is lacking in depth and substance. “It is as superficial as face powder,” they say.

Future journalists have to be trained to walk in tandem with evolving technology without compromising with the quality and concerns of good journalism which should inform, entertain and refine tastes to enable people graduate to a higher level of contentment. 

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