What is wrong with Indian journalism?

I found this question – and a lot of angry replies – on Quora.  Because I work in Indian journalism and am curious about attitudes towards our product, I read the replies.

For the record, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Indian journalism. This isn’t to say that there aren’t issues, problems and weaknesses (some of which are industry-wide.)  But overall I think it’s a robust industry that will survive long into the future. (Financially, though, there might be some ups and downs for various reasons.)

On Quora, though, the question very quickly turns into a referendum on: corporate corruption (who owns the media, whose relatives are married to whose, etc); coverage of separatist groups and causes (one answer complains that the media doesn’t even bother to cover Jammu & Kashmir); and even the Indian educational system (which one user accuses of churning out gullible journalists and an audience that deserves them).

Both on Quora and in my anecdotal observation, frustration with the media seems related  to a broader and more general frustration with the effectiveness of this country’s governance, education and judicial structures (Case in point – “what’s wrong with Indian politics” is another popular question.)  This frustration isn’t unique to India.  At a recent Open Data event at the India Habitat Center, I met researchers who are examining the impact that open data movements can have on governance in developing countries.  It’s an interesting question because the motivating ethos behind open data – the belief that free information empowers individuals and improves societies – stands in stark contrast to the somewhat oligarchic concentrations of political and economic power in developing countries (oligarchies that perpetuate information asymmetries in order to survive.)

All of which brings me to my central point – the meaning of the term “citizen journalist.”  It’s a term that apparently has fallen by the wayside in many developed countries; as a friend recently told me.   People sharing content on FB, no matter how well-intentioned, are not journalists, and that content can’t be seen (on its own) as journalism.  But in India, at least, there is a very real sense of crusade attached to the term “citizen journalist,” a belief that citizens can tear down and rebuild a media structure that sometimes fails to capture the many shades of Indian reality.

To an extent, the perception is greater than the reality. Even if Indian media were perfect (which we’re not) we would still struggle to capture the multiplicity of voices and viewpoints that are emerging as more and more Indians become literate and start using technology. The advent of technology doesn’t automatically mean that marginalized citizens will start agitating for their rights – that’s another theme that emerged at the open data event – but it does mean that they become potential consumers of a media that, traditionally, has not made much effort to represent them. (A quick glance at the country’s major English newspapers – the ones targeted in the Quora question – reveals that coverage of rural areas and issues tends to fall into a few predictable molds.  There is the “government services fail the poor” story, and the “crazed khap panchayat issues senseless verdict” story.  Recently we’ve added the “rural residents have no idea about women’s rights” story.  Even if we accept that English-language papers will never reach rural populations, most stories are bylined by journalists who were born or educated in large metropolitan areas.  As elite urban audiences increasingly migrate online, ad revenues and readership for the English papers will stabilize, and growth will remain concentrated in regional products.  That’s a trend that’s been going on in India for several years now – since I first arrived in New Delhi four years ago.)  These issues of representation have occurred in the United States as well – the legacy newsroom of the past was overwhelmingly white and male, which is no small part of the reason why popular media like blogs were so easily able to rise.

To an extent, the belief that citizens can become journalists through their use of media – can represent their own communities more effectively than traditional media can – is what draws people to terms like “citizen journalist.” In places like India, where the traditional media has lagged in its representative-ness, there is a very real opportunity for others to pick up the slack.  (For the media, the reason for not covering these audiences may have something to do with perceived profitability – an issue in the US, as well.) As a working journalist, I look around and see tons of stories that aren’t being told by anyone – not by foreign correspondents, not by Indian journalists, not even by blogs.

The appeal of terms like “citizen journalist” stems almost directly from issues of representation. (Not just in India, but in Egypt, Turkey, etc). There is a perception that media, like government, doesn’t serve the average citizen, but that journalism should.  The conflict between our ideological expectations of journalism and the financial realities of the news business is not a new one, but one that will increasingly come to the fore in India as “citizen media” continues to rise.  It doesn’t matter whether these perceptions of the media are accurate, because perceptions influence people’s behavior, and therefore reality.

An Indian Data Journalism Showcase: #HHDelhi’s Experience

2013-07-14 16.59.40We just wrapped Hacks/Hackers New Delhi’s “data journalism showcase.”  A few takeaways.

We began by trying, inadequately, to define “data journalism.” A few practical definitions:

-Using data to source story ideas

-Using data to visualize stories

Although both of these are part of data journalism, they don’t define data journalism.  The data journalism handbook says the following, “What makes data journalism different to the rest of journalism? Perhaps it is the new possibilities that open up when you combine the traditional ‘nose for news’ and ability to tell a compelling story, with the sheer scale and range of digital information now available.”

Realistically, there’s no effective difference between the great data-driven stories of today and those of yesterday, except that technology allows writers the ability to process a lot more data more quickly and effectively than before, and the increasing visibility of “open data” means that content that was previously off-limits is now fair game.

Insights from the presenters:

Avinash Celestine of ET has been patiently mining the Indian government’s census and NSS data in order to pick out and explore broad socioeconomic trends on his Datastories.in blog. The project he highlighted was a post in which he’d separated women’s labor force participation by rural and urban areas, and found contrasting trend lines for each. (Rural women are withdrawing from the labor force more markedly than urban women are.)  He correctly pointed out the connection between womens’ employment and economic cycles, but also mentioned that the data don’t tell us one important fact: whether women want to withdraw from the labor force or not.

His broader point was that data is conceptual, and each one of his blog posts begins with a question (the question isn’t determined by the data, although the answer is).

Data Source: NSS, devinfo.org

Tools: D3 database of visualizations, Tableau Public (free)

Themes: 1. using tools that can quickly clean and graph data and 2. paying equal attention to what data say and what they don’t

Cordelia Jenkins of Mint presented the winning project from the GEN Editor’s Lab hackathon in Delhi, “Slum Economics.”  The project is a comprehensive, searchable database that presents information and statistics about slums. The project is an app (similar in scope to some World Bank data apps). It’ll take three months of development before it’s ready for the public, although the team demo-ed the basic functions at the Editor’s Lab event.

Data source: Indian slum data

Themes: you need a developer to build more complex apps and visualizations, the free tools won’t cut it; data still can’t sub for on-the-ground reporting

Neeta Verma of NIC and data.gov.in, on the Indian government’s extremely robust new data portal, which includes all sorts of functions, including embeddable visualizations.  Downside: not a lot of data available yet, nothing being done (as of now) about standardizing the manner in which data are presented.

Theme: at least it’s not in PDF format!

Ravi Bajpai of Down to Earth has been churning out visualizations for the D2E blog, including this one on perceptions of corruption in various Asian countries.  For this post, he isolated South Asia country data and compared these countries to each other and to global averages. An interesting treatment, and one that made for a very engaging post since every one of his infographics was interactive. This led to some discussion as to how much interactive graphics increased a post’s popularity, and Bajpai’s conclusion was that the graphics increased traffic, time on page, and share-ability on social media.

Data source: various surveys

Tools: Data wrapper, Tableau (free)

Theme: you can produce good-looking, share-able data journalism in a hurry

Guneet Narula of DataMeet on various projects that the collective’s members are undertaking, including the Geohackers blog, Datahub.io and the India Water Portal. His prez led to some discussion of possible collaborations with H/H, since most of their group comprises people from a technical/coding background. Most of them are not looking at journalism, perse, but at cool things that can be done with data.

Tools: Leaflet, MapBox

Theme: It’s not that hard to understand the basics of the coding

Overall takeaway: data journalism is far more vibrant in India than I thought when I set out to organize this showcase.  Even if we don’t have the answers, a lot of people are asking the right questions.  The increasing availability of data – the govt portal is an important and significant step in a more transparent direction, provided truly significant datasets find their way to the site – means that there are very valuable lessons/stories to be found in the numbers.

When I look at the Guardian’s data journalism awards recap, however, I notice the broad and audacious scope of the questions that some news organizations are tackling.  Whether it’s La Nacion’s enormous database of senatorial spending or Thomson Reuters’ epic chart of political/economic power in China, I think we in India could afford to ask even bigger questions than we’re currently asking.  The great thing about data is its scope – so let’s take further advantage of that.

Want to see what other people had to say about the Meetup? Check out the excellent Storify.

UGC in Uttarakhand, and useful tech tools


A grab bag of a post today, organized around no particular theme.

Item 1: Any tips for verifying user-generated content?

I’m throwing this out there because I’m not sure what to do. The past few days have seen an outpouring (terrible pun not intended) of posts on social media about the ongoing natural disasters in Uttarakhand. There are great opportunities here for social media. In the past two days we’ve created an interactive map of user-generated pics and  put out a call to help connect missing family members.  But then I had an incident like this morning. A user sent in a terrible – but very newsy – video of a car being washed into a river by a flash flood.  I published it, but emailed him to ask him about the provenance.

No reply, but six hours later the same user submitted two more videos, also very dramatic, also clearly shot on mobile phones, purporting to be taken at sites within about 46 kilometres of each other. Now here’s my question: did this guy actually witness three buses/cars washed away into oceans or gorges in a single day?  (And if so, god, worst day ever).  And if he didn’t, where are these videos actually from?

No response from the user.  The videos are fantastic footage, if they were really taken by him, at the sites in question, in the past day or two. I searched for his name on YouTube – no hits. I looked for “Bus accident – xxlocation” in Google News and Google Images. No matching hits.  (Normally, Google’s “search by image” is an invaluable tool for figuring out if users have whacked pictures off the Internet and are passing them off as their own – if you don’t know how to use it, learn!)

Beyond all that, what solutions can people recommend? What are other folks doing, if anyone is using UGC to report on Uttarakhand?

UPDATE: Spoke with the user on Twitter and email, he confirmed the videos had been shot  by him and a few of his friends, on June 17th.  I posted one on Facebook.  Sure enough, within minutes another FB user mentioned that he’d seen the same video on YouTube a year ago, and provided a link.  The incident actually took place in Bolivia.  Any tips for how to handle it now?

Item 2: Free tools that are worth some time

Expecting every piece of digital journalism to be “Snow Fall” is like expecting every news article to be the Watergate investigation.  Here are some WYSIWIG tools to produce interesting things in a hurry.

1. Google Maps – surprisingly customizable. The only downside is that they don’t provide embed code for personalized maps (or do they, and am I missing it?)  We used this one to create an interactive map of north Indian floods.

2. Timeline.js – I haven’t used this one as much as I’d like, but it creates lovely timelines in a hurry.  If you’ve got a coder handy, a few simple hacks and you can do a lot – change the orientation from horizontal to vertical, alter fonts, etc.

3.  Storify – This one actually has a bit of a learning curve, or at least it did for me.  Nothing beats Storify for pulling together social media content fast.  The carding is beautiful. The embedding is painless and incredibly attractive. My only gripe is the awkward “read next page” blue link that they throw into the middle of a story. It’s unattractive and I doubt most users click past it, no matter how fascinating the content. Storify is great for sites like ours because it gathers our primary content in one place. We use it to create social news stories, where we gather social reactions to questions we put out in response to trending news topics.  They offer paid accounts with all kinds of promised upgrades, but I haven’t used those.

4.  Meograph – I don’t just list it because I know the founder.  An attractive tool for pulling together a lot of content into a single almost encyclopedic video, including Maps/data/etc. I love how clickable things remain within a Meograph vid (a bonus for Storify too) but playback on Meographs can be slow, or at least it was on the couple I’ve tried.  They also have paid options.

Pic by Walter Siegmund.

This story was written by robots

AINot this story, the one you’re currently reading, but this one, the one you’re about to click on: Robot story.

Narrative Science, which just raised an undisclosed amount of funding (partly from the CIA), uses artificial intelligence tools to produce business intelligence reports.  In the words of Peter Kafka, they turn “structured data sets into prose.”

As a high school student I remember learning how to create form letters in Microsoft Word, where we plugged in data values into empty fields.  I originally thought that NS’s tools must be a souped-up version of that.

It turns out that their tool, Quill, is quite a bit more complex.  From their description: “Quill applies complex and sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms that extract the key facts and interesting insights from the data and transforms them into stories.  The resulting content is as good or better than your best analyst, and is produced at a scale and speed only possible with technology.”  (Emphasis mine – read more about Quill at their link.)

The most interesting thing about Quill is not that it grabs facts, but that it calculates the relationships between them. (You can see that calculation at work in the Forbes story above, which is propelled by relationships like the following: “The company has been reaping profit in the past eight quarters, and for the last four, it has seen an average of 19% growth in profit year-over-year. The biggest boost for the company came in the most recent quarter, when profit jumped by 48%.”)

For the very nerdy (and possibly unemployed): NS’s full patent filings are here and here.  What I find most fascinating about these filings is the mathematization (yes, I invented that word) of basic news story structure. At Northwestern (where some of NS’ founders are from) we were taught to write a news story like an “inverted pyramid,” stacking the most relevant information up top. When combing facts for a common thread, we would often ask, “so what’s the angle?” NS’ technology uses the exact same language.

In one of Nieman Lab’s “Future of Journalism in 2013” reports, Miranda Mulligan said the rise of the robot is one of this year’s biggest journalism trends.  She wrote that enhanced robot tech will make journalists’ jobs easier (rather than replace journalists altogether). Mulligan quoted Siri founder Dag Kittlaus, who has said that technology only needs to be about 90-95% accurate in order to go from novelty to utility.

Of course, if you subscribe to a business intelligence service, 95% may be better than what you’re currently getting.

Earnings reports are the utter, necessary drudgery of the financial journalism world. If we lived in a castle, writing earnings reports would be about as exciting as emptying chamber pots. It’s also one of those tasks that even experienced humans – extremely skilled ones – frequently get wrong.  (Some of these mistakes can have serious repercussions if the mistaken company gets angry enough about the error.) To be honest, most of these reports are already so formulaic in their construction that they might as well have been written by robots.

There’s certainly a case to be made for automating tasks like writing earnings reports, freeing up reporters for putting together the more dazzling data stories that sometimes lie buried in earnings reports and company filings. Spotting a real story in an earnings report takes serious skill and a talent for numbers (we dedicated several hours to it in a business journalism course I took).

Nor is NS the only firm headed in this direction. Recently, I had lunch with the co-founder of a firm that’s experimenting with robotic news anchoring.  This isn’t artificial intelligence in the way that Quill is. They would put together a complex film database of a news anchor’s facial expressions, pronunciation and intonations, and then use this database to animate news scripts.  Again, what news anchor wouldn’t mind if their robotic avatar could take the 6 am newscast? News never sleeps, but the same is not true of people.

Any student of economics has heard the theory that technology powers real economic growth. Interestingly, the advent of technology has not allowed any of us more rest – if anything, we work longer hours and in faster-paced jobs than ever before. So perhaps what we journalists should really fear – if robotic journalism becomes the future – is not that we’ll be replaced, but that we’ll have to work even harder, faster and longer than we already do to match our robots’ inhuman pace.

So you want to run a user generated content portal

timeEvery media organization worth the name is looking at how to bring in user-generated content. CNN led the charge years ago with iReport, the Guardian just announced GuardianWitness.  Al-Jazeera has a social-media show and site called the Stream.  Soon enough everyone will have a UGC portal.

Recently, a journalist in Hong Kong, who is working on a book about crowdsourcing, asked me, “What are the benefits of user generated content (UGC), besides the free content?”

For the record, free content is not the advantage.

Let me explain. The other day, I spotted some Twitter commentary about a breaking news story, and forwarded it to an editor in case we wanted to use it.  She came by a few minutes later and said, “I can’t take anything that has spelling errors or incorrect facts in it.”

And my thought was, Well I guess that rules out Twitter.

The reality is that most people are not trained journalists.  It’s easy to accept this in theory, but much harder to accept it in practice in a breaking news situation. As someone who runs a UGC portal, much of my day goes in checking things like – did this person spell the name of their home state correctly? I’ve gotten posts in which people misspelled their own names.  Copy editors complain endlessly about how long it takes to correct journalists’ copy, and journalists have been trained.

None if this reflects badly on non-professional journalists – they’re just casually sending content our way.  But it does reveal the dark secret of the so-called “HuffPo model.”  Either you pay content producers or you pay content editors, but somebody has to get paid.  There is no such thing as a free lunch (and HuffPo pays their editors and their staff writers, if not their bloggers.)  When discussing social sharing and user generated content, there is a tendency to forget (or just remain ignorant of) how difficult it can be to polish user content while retaining the original voice.  (The other option, of course, is to disavow all responsibility for what users post. But then what’s the difference between the site and FB?  Most UGC sites seem to have settled in a poorly demarcated middle ground, where they edit for “voice” but excuse themselves from legal liability.)

That said, there is a very real space for sites/portals/etc that bridge the gap (consistently, daily) between legacy media organizations and their readers.  Beyond buzzwords, the truth is that most organizations increasingly need their users in order to provide accurate news at the same speed that Twitter provides…well, whatever it is that Twitter provides.  Consider breaking news: there is simply no way to send a camera crew to a location faster than someone at the site can take a picture and upload that picture to Twitter. Media organizations cannot ignore that the images that percolate on Twitter and Facebook affect how people perceive our coverage.

On a broader level, in a world where media content (online) is ruled by metrics like “engagement,” nothing beats local content.  I recently interviewed Aswin Punathambekar, a researcher who has focused extensively on how online communities grow and thrive.  One of the things he noticed was the grave importance of authentic content.  A blog post by your neighbor will always feel more authentic than a TV news story by an unknown anchor who has visited your town once.  People are drawn to what they know.

Social media is also increasingly how viewers hold the media accountable, and finding ways for users to channel their questions and frustrations is key.

Are there alternate models for user-generated content?

One possibility is to approach user generated content the way Amazon is trying to approach “fan fiction.”  (Hear me out!) Amazon has found a way to possibly monetize fan fiction (which is a genius idea, only slightly unhinged by the fact that almost all fan fiction is absolute drivel.)  That said, there might be a few really good stories in there, or at least stories that readers will relate to.  Even if the prices are low and cheap, they have created an alternate revenue stream and it cost them almost nothing (and the authors get something too).  Similarly, BuzzFeed uses their community section as a potential talent incubator. There are innovative ways to look at UGC and its potential to bring people together around topics and in a vernacular that feels more organic than the usual magazine article and/or TV show.  The question is, how much of what we consider “journalism” will we preserve in those end products?

Insights on news design

HH and UI/UX meet pics

Hacks/Hackers New Delhi held its third event a few days ago with the UI/UX meetup group in Delhi.  Official blog post forthcoming, but a few key points I took away:

  • There are no beautifully designed news sites in India.  Really.  We conducted an unofficial audience poll.  One attendee summed up his experience with Indian news sites with the word: “crappy.”
  • Why are they crappy? The notion of user experience is not built into design.  Advertising and biz heads decide what ads they can sell, edit snatches up the rest, and no one asks users what they actually want to look at.
  • There is an ad revenue optimization point where you have just enough ads to make maximum money with minimum user turnoff.  We in India err on the side of far too many ads.
  • Why are news sites so hard to design well? They handle, on an avg day, 200 new pieces of content. The “splash” screen of the average page (equivalent to the space of a newspaper that lies “above the fold”) is about 500 px high.
  • Users want personalized content on their mobiles. They want to choose their news.
  • Direct homepage traffic is a thing of the past.
  • USAToday managed, with their site redesign, to create new inventory spaces where they could sell ads.  More explanation of exactly how ground-breaking the USAToday site was in this article.
  • UX is the end product
  • Responsive design is a multi-platform content strategy. I always heard that you design for responsive by marking your content in “priority” categories.  Priority 1 will display on all screens. Priority 1 & 2 will show on slightly larger screens…and so on for as long as you like. BUT. Big caveat. Don’t overcrowd your big screens.  Fluidity is key.
  • You do not always need a responsive design. Do your mobile use cases match your desktop use cases? Then go responsive. Otherwise don’t.
  • “Redesigns” are usually the result of a biz head who needs to justify his salary. They aren’t always necessary. Always ask the users.
  • CASE STUDY: Why didn’t users like the moneycontrol.com redesign? BC that audience (finance people, traders) wants fast information and sudden redesigns will slow them down. In that instance, an iterative redesign would have been far better.

I think this post is what they mean by “burning the midnight oil.”

Photo courtesy of Rudi MK, who turned photog for the H/H New Delhi meet.

It must be beautiful: on news product design

Product design workshop at India Internet Day.

Product design workshop at India Internet Day.

How to design a great tech product for news?  The United States has seen some great and lovely new products for digital news, all in the past 5-6 years.  In India, on the other hand, digital design (at least for news sites) remains a race to the bottom.  A quick glance at the websites for the two big English dailies suggests one thing above all: no one seems to give a flying fig about designing a unique UX.

What a tragic oversight.  UX forms the core of any tech product; in many cases it is the answer to the fundamental question: “why are people using my product?”  A great UX can make the difference between a standout, successful product and another defunct web domain.  It’s not what you do, it’s also how you do it.

Recently, I went to a two-hour product design workshop at India Internet Day, where Amit Somani of MakeMyTrip, Sree Unnikrishnan of Google and Satish Mani of Zovi.com held forth on all these themes.  Here’s what I took away from it.

Design by committee – in this case, the 80 people in the room – is inevitably a disaster.  The first hour of the workshop was a mock product design brainstorming session.  Amit asked us to invent a product that could tell the time better than the devices we currently have.  Here’s how the cycle went:

Question 1: What do we want from a time product?  Desires: ability to quickly see multiple time zones at once, a tool that quantifies the value of time.

Question 2: What is wrong with what we currently have? Problems: watches can be lost, cell phones and watches require charge.

So we already had an unwieldy brief: design something that does a whole lot of calculations and syncs with multiple time zones, but at the same time avoids all the pitfalls and minor inconveniences of a device.

We then had pitches.  Someone suggested an earring/piece of jewelry that vibrated according to the time.  Another suggested a brain implant (which we couldn’t design). The winning design – which just goes to show the importance of presentation – was a plate with 24 dots on it, worn on a strap on the wrist.

Exactly. We voted in favor of a product that was essentially a more stone-age watch, and addressed none of the desires mentioned initially.  So much for product design by committee.

But THEN Amit, Sree and Satish took us through their product design manifesto.  At this point I was paying only inadequate attention because my phone and pen were both dying, but I remember a few key things:

BRING USERS INTO THE UX DESIGN PROCESS.  Seems intuitive, and yet, does not always happen.

IT MUST BE BEAUTIFUL.  I stress this point because this concept – that users deserve lovely products – doesn’t exist in India.  The digital design situation is a big game of chicken, wherein media orgs keep waiting for users to start paying more for products while users keep holding out and waiting for a product that is actually worth the money.  Is India a frustratingly price-sensitive market?  Absolutely. But on the other hand, genius design often means giving people something they have yet to realize they want. The notion that Indians either don’t notice or don’t care about beauty is utterly, horribly flawed. Everyone cares about beauty.  But I guess not everyone can afford it? Indian media cos have to stop treating their audience as a second-class audience that doesn’t deserve the best.  That is no way to build relationships, trust, or products that withstand the test of time.  Comparing the revenue earned by the New Yorker on iPad with the revenue earned by Mint on iPad is apples to oranges, not just because Indians have less disposable income but because the New Yorker app on iPad is a far more robust and vibrant product (and they designed it on a flying hunch, btw, not off an existing user base).  Mint is an interesting example because much of their initial traction when they launched was due to the lovely design and layout of their product, both on and offline, which was a novelty for the Indian market at the time.

I don’t claim to have the answers, but whatever we design for India has to have the following at its heart: 1) Android. 2) Beauty 3) Internationally Competitive UX 4) Cheaper, somehow?

(All very easy to say when my money is not on the line.  But still.  Point me to ONE beautiful tech news product that has come out of India and FAILED.  Exactly.  There aren’t any. An investment is not the same thing as an idea.  Indian users are sophisticated enough that we have seen/used well-designed, beautiful products.  We’re not going to magically start settling for less in the world of news.)

Everyone’s on FB, but no one’s on FB

A couple of studies worth presenting with some context today.

Case study 1: No one’s on FB

The first write-up, in Nieman Lab, discusses how the Delhi gang rape case provided new avenues for Indian journalists to engage with social media.  The article is a bit undercooked.  The piece begins with the troubling line: “This discourse highlighted how social media offer an emerging space for storytelling — remarkable in a country where social media hasn’t had the same impact it has elsewhere.”

I question this assertion, which seems entirely based on low Internet penetration numbers.  For starters, which social media are we talking about? The authors lump social media together, which in the Indian case is a mistake.  Twitter has made almost no impression in India outside of English-speaking, urban elites.  The same cannot be said for Facebook, which through clever apps like FB Photos and FB Zero has managed to divorce the FB experience from English and (to an extent) from smartphone possession.  So are the authors talking merely about the echo chamber of journalists, activists and (rare) politicians who are currently shouting at themselves in the Indian Twitter-verse?  (That’s what it sounds like, based on some of the quotes that appear below) Maybe, but then the writers have limited their study by default by not acknowledging the wider discourse that might exist in the world of Indian social media.  This is a country with a huge number of social networks, including audio and mobile networks.  Who knows what people are saying over on Goonj or CGnet Swara.  It is fine to limit your discussion to an aggregated, American-themed breed of social media, but then acknowledge that that’s what you’re doing.  Anyway, most Indian journos use social media to talk to other journalists, not to sources.  To what extent THESE conversations shape news coverage – and accelerate the spread of certain media myths – is a topic worth exploring in its own right.

But then we get into murkier waters still.  What, exactly, is the impact that social media has had elsewhere, to which these authors are drawing comparison?  In the Guardian, Leo Mirani presents Indian activism in Kashmir as a counter-example to Malcolm Gladwell’s frustration with social-powered revolutions.  Mirani also makes the excellent point that Facebook activism is essentially the 21st century version of “nailing your thesis to a church door,” ie FB activism is really just another manifestation of how social activism has functioned for centuries.  So, so true.  So how are we defining the word “impact”?  If someone wanted to make the claim that social media has not had the impact in India as elsewhere, and they could, then they should do a side-by-side comparison of social media in the wake of the Delhi gang rape and social media in the wake of, say, Steubenville.  These are both incredibly sensitive rape cases in which social media played a dramatic role in shaping discourse and news coverage, and both cases proved to be cultural touchstones.  If we want to talk about relative impact, we have to first decide what impact means, and how to measure it.  Merely saying that India has lower Internet penetration than the United States is no grounds for asserting lesser “impact.”

The basic claim that “This case demonstrates how journalists respond to social media and how social media allows for new spaces for storytelling in India” actually feels generally correct to me.  Unfortunately, we’re not really seeing many numbers to support this assertion either.  Considering the hundreds of journalists – in multiple languages and media – who covered the Delhi gang rape case, the few interviewed in the Nieman piece can hardly be considered a cross-section.  Are we talking only about foreign journalists in Delhi and their English-speaking counterparts?  How much of the Indian media universe does an event/trend have to impact in order to be considered a “watershed”?  To be honest, I would have expected English-speaking journalists in Delhi to talk about the rape case on Twitter and FB.  They’ve been connecting with English-speaking audiences over social media for a while. But what about Hindi-language journalists in Jharkhand and Haryana? Did the rape case catalyze their coverage in any way? Did it change the nature of the conversation between journalists and sources, as measured in RT’s or the number of voices participating?  Did it change how media organizations’ coverage was perceived by audiences? Now these would be interesting metrics.  I just don’t find nearly enough hard support in this article to convince me that the Delhi gang rape case marked a shift or a change in the relationship between journalists and social media in India.

Finally, the authors conclude that “[Social media] offer starting points for news-gathering and distribution, but they haven’t replaced traditional journalism.”  So in other words, exactly the same outcome as in the United States.  Again, not entirely sure what unique light this observation sheds on the situation in India.

Case Study 2: Lots of people are on FB

By contrast, here’s an article that appeared on the front page of the Hindu a few days ago: “Facebook users could swing the results in 160 Lok Sabha constituencies.”  For those who want to parse the original study on which the article is based, it’s available here.  (Honestly – if you have ANY interest in Indian data journalism/elections/etc, read this study in its entirety.  It’s fascinating.  The authors of the vaporous Nieman report cited above, for example, might be interested to know that a third of Indian FB users live in towns with populations >500,000.)  There are places, of course, where this methodology is highly flawed, but the authors look at the analytics-based peer-to-peer online targeting used to great effect by Obama in 2012 and ask, “Could this happen in India?” And they conclude that it could, if you look at sheer number of FB users.  (Of course, the authors themselves admit that “We have used the number of Facebook users as an indication of the clout of social media instead of analyzing their behaviour to see if they are really active and showing signs of wanting to make an impact.”)  In other words, Indian social media users could be so apathetic that they’re never going to vote, or they could be so civic-minded that they already vote, in which case targeting them might or might not make any difference.  We have no idea how receptive these users are to political messaging, nor through what channels.  But considering the success that brand messages have had with young Indian audiences on FB, one never knows.


Both of these assertions can be true, and taken together they illustrate the unique situation of social media in India.  Despite its somewhat shaky support, the Nieman article is right in that the absolute penetration of Facebook in India remains low.  BUT the IAMAI study is right too, in pointing out that these users already possess enough clout to potentially have a significant impact on things like the political process.  Of course, there is a dramatic gap – as we’ve observed universally – between being able to affect politics (who gets elected) and being able to affect policy-making (what rules politicians make.)  Empowerment is about more than getting Facebook spammed by Rahul Gandhi or Narendra Modi come election time.

But essentially, journalists and politicians face the same challenge – figuring out how to use social media (an imperfect and not completely widespread tool) to inform opinion-makers and recruit new audiences, even while understanding how narrow the spread of these tools remains.

The ideal integrated newsroom isn’t a newsroom…

…it’s a network.

All the buzz I hear from editors in India is how to “integrate” their newsrooms to be digital-forward and even digital-first. Here are the unfortunate facts that the Indian Readership Survey doesn’t always convey: print revenues are declining as a per cent of total revenues. There are many ways for these ratios to shift, but paper is no longer king.  The percentage of ad revenue that comes from print went from 51% to 46%  over the past five years.  In the US, it took ten years for that shift to take place.  Meanwhile, mobile is eating our lunch, and the Internet has taken a big chunk out of our highly profitable classified sections.  So suddenly everyone is a lot more serious about digital than they were last year or even the year before.

Here’s my take on how to do an integrated newsroom right:

-Borrow a page from the startup manual.  Lean, responsive teams.  How many people do you really need to churn out good, multi-platform content? Not the 100 who make up a national staff.  This is inefficient, and it’s newsroom bloat.  Fewer jobs for traditional “journalists” and more jobs for coders, designers, statisticians, etc.  Each team has a project manager, a senior editor/content head (spectacular writer and editor), an intrepid reporter or two (gets to the scene, files the content), a UX guy who can hack a great data viz using whatever code he finds off GitHub, a social media person

-“Re-envision” content streams as products.  That means that economics coverage, finance coverage, business coverage, auto coverage – each of these is its own product, and falls under a product manager.  (We can invent some other title if we really object to the crass commercialization of that precious entity we refer to as the news.)   That person is responsible for overseeing coverage, chasing down partnerships, and figuring out inventive and possibly revenue-generating new things for the team to do.

-A spectacular, cutting-edge content management system that files all your inputs into a secure cloud.

Souped-up mobile phones with Camera+, 3.5 mm lav mics, sound recorder apps installed that can file every conceivable type of content from the field.

-Photographers, statisticians, get their own bureaus and get pulled into projects ad-hoc.

Here’s how the workflow goes:

-Senior editor assigns a story, flags product manager.  If it’s a big story, he might request a photog.  If it’s a numbers story, he might ask for a special stat guy.  Reporter goes out into the field, covers the event, captures all the required footage, files directly into the cloud as the news happens.  Senior editor stands by, reviews inputs as they come in, assigns things to various platforms (this goes to mobile, this can become a slide show, etc – this is where the product manager can also kick in ideas).  Editor tweaks copy as needed for paper/long-form online text.  Meanwhile the social media guy Tweets/FB-s/Pins/whatever else also as the news happens.  The social media guy might also RT other people who are in his network who are commenting on the same news event.

That’s the basic format for breaking news/beat teams.  Special projects can be its own team.

I think the scariest thing for traditional journalists is there are very few actual journalists on these teams, at least in the conventional sense.

The other big snarl in newsrooms is that the digital guys usually report to a digital business head, while the edit guys report to a traditional editor-in-chief.  As the wall between digital and edit comes entirely down, we will have to somehow mesh these roles.  Perhaps senior management can be its own top team, with the digital business head and editor-in-chief serving in the two top roles.  Business head looks at partnerships/revenue max, while the editor-in-chief looks at storytelling and content production.  Of course, there has to be a top boss to take calls and break a tie. I think the challenge will be getting journalists to accept business people as their partners, when for so long all they’ve felt for them is a gentle disdain.

And there you have it.  The integrated newsroom: a network of tightly linked, highly responsive teams, hierarchy largely removed, roles very clearly defined.

That’s what Eric Schmidt Said



Apparently everyone was at Google’s big tent activate Summit in New Delhi two days ago, at least judging by the firestorms on Twitter.  And it wasn’t just Googlers and fans, familiar faces from competing firms were everywhere.

Some interesting things that were said at the Summit:

1. There is good online vernacular news in India, but not a lot of vernacular sites for anything else.

2. India’s next-gen tech firms have succeeded despite government regulation, rather than because of it. – Deep Kalra of MakeMyTrip. An especially keen point in light of this recent story in The Economist, about the challenges facing next-gen firms.

3. For Indian politicians, social media still hasn’t reached do-or-die status (unlike in the US, where it’s impossible to campaign for any public office without putting together some kind of social presence)

4.  Yeah, Section 66A of the IT Act is nobody’s favorite – Eric Schmidt

5. Really, that was it? – Public response to Gujarat CM (and potential future Indian Prime Minister) Narendra Modi’s utterly unrousing speech about the importance of the Internet

6.  The value of journalism can be measured in “informedness”, not pageviews – Jeff Jarvis.  A friend of mine is working for a new research facility devoted to this concept.

7.  When that whacko American pastor filmed himself burning the Quran, 16 people died in riots in Jammu&Kashmir – Omar Abdullah, on why the state imposed a bandwidth limit on mobile users at that time

8.  The Indian government is sponsoring a data-based hackathon.

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