Scientific American is one of the most respected flagbearers of journalism in the world. Known for its cutting-edge science journalism, reportage and endeavours to popularise science, it is the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States, founded in 1845, with a rich tradition of balance and an apolitical stand towards science. However, in the 175th year of its existence, it did something it had never done throughout its history. It endorsed a political candidate for the US elections. Its editorial said, “Scientific American has endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in our 175-year history. We urge you to vote for @JoeBiden, who is offering fact-based plans to protect our health, our economy and the environment”.
Scientific American and a variety of western publications – from the New York Times to the Economist, from the Wired to the Atlantic, and from the Guardian to the Financial Times, all have robust subscription models to help them fund quality journalism. They can stand against their governments because their revenue model – dedicated readers who support them – gives them the leeway to do their job - which is primarily to protect public interest. The more they take on their government, and the more their president, Donald Trump, rails at them, the more they seem to attract subscribers.
Traditionally, journalism has had two major revenue routes – the first is subscriptions from its readers and the second is advertising from those who want to reach their audience. In the digital world, there is a third source of revenue -- advertising from a transient audience, that is following either search or social trends, clicks on a headline, lands on a page, and then disappears without any loyalty to the news platform. Often the news headline that is clicked on is scandalous, salacious, and often false. This is content constructed on innuendo, Instagram feeds, and instant reactions on other social media. Ask any editor why they run stories based on Twitter exchanges, or photo features based on star postings – it is because these attract audiences in droves, who engage for a bit. And these consistent little spikes in traffic, reach and engagement help deliver greater advertising revenues.
It is this transient audience of those who fall for clickbait, that is supposed to have flipped the US elections last time around. Falling for stories around sex scandals in pizza parlours and falling for the surround sound generated by the American right wing on twitter, the US electorate voted for a corrupt, megalomaniac who plays to the gallery.
Digital technologies allow everyone with a passion for news and an internet connection to technically become a publisher, editor, and reporter all rolled into one. The amount of content produced daily is astronomical. Most of this probably never gets consumed. And, yet while there is a glut of news programmes, channels and sites – there seems to be a complete lack of news – apart from trending topics. The quest for random eyeballs has diverted attention and energy from the primary purpose, public interest.
The business of news was traditionally aimed at an interested and engaged audience – the subscribers. The subscriber and the news brand were then linked together in not just a transaction, but also views, ideology, opinion, and exchange of ideas. However, the number of subscribers or paying customers was not astronomically high. They would be modest, localised, and engaged. That has really broken down, with the coming in of social and digital platforms, that allow consumers to consume the single unit of news – usually about sex, drugs or scandal. And, it is this quest for the random customer (in search of revenues) that is upending journalism.
The problem with most plans to revive journalism is that they look at platforms and models, rather than journalists and news. Most news platforms have replaced journalists and reporters with news curators. People who put together a list of trending news, rather than people breaking the news. And, that is what ails journalism in India today – the absence of reportage, the absence of investigation and the absence of activism. Journalists who feel outrage at injustice and use the power of the keyboard to do something about it.
To have journalism do what it was meant to do – report news in the public interest – we need models that go beyond the binary of subscription revenue and advertising revenue. We need to look at how do we fund journalists and how do we fund beats? For instance, how do we fund public health journalism by public health journalists – so that the system isn’t caught napping when 60 children die in hospital because they lacked oxygen; how do we fund journalism around labour issues so that we know what is going on; how do we fund science journalism or journalism that looks at development issues.
For a vibrant democracy, a vibrant press is needed. A press that highlights issues, persists with them till they are resolved and ensures delivery of promises. This is not what the news media is doing right now, it is too busy chasing eyeballs, and government doles of cash, in the form of advertising and access. News media platforms are too preoccupied with their survival to look at public interest. And it is for this reason attention needs to move to the creation of systems that fund journalists and journalism – rather than platforms and curated content.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is also a columnist, visiting faculty, and filmmaker.