The gaudy-hued beast

When you wake up in the morning to news of four people who allegedly raped a woman having been shot to death by the police, it’s hard not to ask yourself what kind of country this is. It’s even harder when you see political leaders and celebrities publicly applauding this extra-judicial killing, sparing no thought for their passive rejection of the country’s justice system and endorsement of populist politics at its most abject.

As a journalist with a news organisation where impact is just as important as reach, if not more, and where conviction (rooted in facts and certain cultural sensibilities) is our coin, I also couldn’t help internalise a bit of failure for not having been able to effect change. After a team of two dozen people (on average), plus thousands of reporters and freelancers, spent nearly five years of labour and crores of rupees trying – among various things – to infuse more faith in democratic principles enshrined in the constitution, the breadth of episodes like the present one really highlight, in gaudy colours, the giant beast that confronts us.

Of course, this is somewhat self-aggrandising: some newspapers as well as numerous public and private institutions have been trying to improve the way people think for over a century. (I’m sure the idea that society simply awaits instructions on how to conduct itself is also very flawed, but I hope you know that’s not what I mean in this text.) Different people glimpse the true avatar of the challenges they face in different ways, and I glimpsed mine after starting at The Wire.

Anyway, as such disappointing episodes pile up, quickly surpassing the Ghaziabad landfill in volume as well as stench, the sensation of having failed is bound to become your best friend, and whose presence is easily compounded if your beat is not as eye-catching as politics or political economics. It affects your ability to think straight, encouraging you to accommodate misanthropic sentiments in your evaluation of other people and their words or actions, and interferes with the reward mechanisms that used to make you feel good every time you finished writing a story.

I don’t want to delineate how people deal with such emotions because, and after insisting that that there are ways to deal with such emotions, I think there is very little acknowledgment in the first place that such an issue even exists. Organisations (at least English-language newsrooms in India) that employ journalists don’t openly discuss the sort of mental make-up a person needs to remain resilient, confident and productive at once, to be able to retain enough of their conviction and strength in the face of repeated setbacks. As far as I know, there are no institutional mechanisms of redressal either.

The bit about confidence is particularly important if only because a journalism of pessimism, an endeavour utterly incapable of imagining a better future, can only be corrosive to society, and it bodes even worse for a journalist on the job to spiral into cynicism as a result of their work. So as I have no doubt that the gaudy-hued beast that looms in front of us is only going to get bigger and badder if India’s socio-political culture continues to stagnate in its current form, I also hope that people – especially, but not only, employers – recognise that not everyone can be a healthy journalist all the time. And when they’re not, it would be great, for starters, to talk about it.

Featured image credit: Donovan Reeves/Unsplash. Effects: PHOTOMOSH.

The technically correct strapline

(Re)Stumbled upon this article, by Ed Yong in The Atlantic, July 2016, this morning. As usual, it is rivetingly packaged. The strapline in particular caught my eye:

Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.

Makes you go “Wow”, doesn’t it? But then you read the article and realise the strap is not entirely right. Lichens are still symbiotic unions of fungi and algae; the new finding is that there are two types of fungi involved, not one. You realise it’s the sort of blurb that only a pedantic biologist might be able to defend, or the sort of blurb most readers could be expected to gloss over because the article’s author is Ed Yong.

I would never have used this strapline to describe the story. Instead, here’s the one we did use for Nandita Jayaraj’s story on the same topic:

Lichens are the most famous and successful examples of symbiosis on Earth, but an unexpected discovery of a third player in this composite organism has given their study a much needed jolt.

As R. Prasad, the science editor of The Hindu, says,

… the strapline (or deck) together with the headline makes the sales pitch to the reader for her time. The headline is often the sole bit of metadata that will be most visible on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and is the one that’ll be most commonly shared (my guess). This way, the headline makes the all-important elevator pitch to bring the reader off of her platform and onto our site. Once she’s here, the strapline makes a more extended pitch to get her to start reading the body.

For curiosity gap headlines, the strapline often heightens the curiosity instead of fulfilling it. This is also true in the Ed Yong article: the headline makes you wonder what bit of biology was overturned; the strapline takes over from there, focuses your imagination into the niche, and still keeps you wondering (not necessarily about the same thing). The question here to me is whether it’s okay to be only technically right in the strapline because it’s still part of the inverted pyramid, where you can get away with making generalisations at the top as you funnel the reader’s curiosity into more specific niches below.

As a prolific consumer of science writing both fab and crap, The Atlantic‘s strap is not good enough for me; it’s a letdown. While Yong does a typically good job of dramatising the reveal, it pales in comparison to what the strap seemed to suggest. Such a description would be par for the course on, say, the Times of India, but I would expect much better from The Atlantic. It often feels like the smaller publishers are held to higher standards than the bigger ones, and in this sense The Atlantic certainly towers over The Wire.

Featured image credit: Free-Photos/pixabay.

On that Poynter debate about stock images and ethical visual journalism

Response to Mark Johnson, Article about free images ‘contradicts everything I hold true about journalism’, Poynter, February 9, 2018. 

Let’s get the caveats out of the way:

  • The article to which Johnson is responding did get some of its messaging wrong. As Johnson wrote, it suggested the following: “We don’t think about visuals BUT visuals are critically important. The solutions offered amount to scouring the web for royalty-free and (hopefully) copyright-released stock images.”
  • In doing so, the original article may have further diminished prospects for visual journalists in newsrooms around the country (whether the US or India), especially since Poynter is such a well-regarded publisher among editors and since there already aren’t enough jobs available on the visual journalism front.
  • I think visual journalists are important in any newsroom that includes a visual presentation component because they’re particularly qualified to interrogate how journalism can be adapted to multimedia forms and in what circumstances such adaptations can strain or liberate its participants’ moral and ethical positions.

That said, IMO Johnson himself may have missed a bit of the nuances of this issue. Before we go ahead: I’m going to shorten “royalty-free and/or copyright-released” to CC0, which is short for the Creative Commons ‘No Rights Reserved’ license. It allows “scientists, educators, artists and other creators and owners of copyright- or database-protected content to waive those interests in their works and thereby place them as completely as possible in the public domain, so that others may freely build upon, enhance and reuse the works for any purposes without restriction under copyright or database law.” However, what I’m going to say should be true for most other CC licenses (including BY, BY-SA, BY-SA-NC, BY-SA-ND and BY-SA-NC-ND).

By providing an option for publishers to look for CC0 images, the authors of the original piece may have missed an important nuance: publishers come in varying sizes; the bigger the publisher is, the less excusable it is for it to not have a visual journalism department in-house. For smaller (and the smallest) publishers, however, having access to CC0 images is important because (a) producing original images and videos can invoke prohibitive costs and (b) distribution channels of choice such as Facebook and Twitter penalise the absence of images on links shared on these platforms.

Bigger publishers have an option and should, to the extent possible, exercise that option to hire illustrators, designers, video producers and reporters, podcasters, etc. To not do so would be to abdicate professional responsibilities. However, in the interest of leveraging the possibilities afforded by the internet as well as of keeping our news professional but also democratic, it’s not fair to assume that it’s okay to penalise smaller publishers simply because they’re resorting to using CC0 images. A penalty it will be if they don’t: Facebook, for example, will deprioritise their content on people’s feeds. So the message that needs to be broadcast is that it’s okay for smaller publishers to use CC0 images but also that it’s important for them to break away from the practice as they grow.

Second: Johnson writes,

Choosing stock images for news stories is an ethically questionable choice — you don’t know the provenance of the image, you don’t know the conditions under which it was created and you don’t know where else it has been used. It degrades the journalistic integrity of the site. Flip it around — what if there were generic quotes inserted into a story? They wouldn’t advance the narrative at all, they would just act as filler.

He’s absolutely right to equate text and images: they both help tell a story and they should both be treated with equal respect and consequence. (Later in his article, Johnson goes on to suggest visuals may in fact be more consequential because people tend to remember them better.) However, characterising stock images as the journalistic equivalent of blood diamonds is unfair.

For example, it’s not clear what Johnson means by “generic quotes”. Sometimes, some quotes are statements that need to be printed to reflect its author’s official position (or lack thereof). For another, stock images may not be completely specific to a story but they could fit its broader theme, for example, in a quasi-specific way (after all, there are millions of CC0 images to pick from).

But most importantly, the allegations drub the possibilities of the Open Access (OA) movement in the realms of digital knowledge-production and publishing. By saying, “Choosing stock images for news stories is an ethically questionable choice”, Johnson risks offending those who create visual assets and share it with a CC0 license expressly to inject it into the public domain – a process by which those who are starved of resources in one part of the world are not also starved of information produced in another. Journalism shouldn’t – can’t – be free because it includes some well-defined value-adds that need to be paid for. But information (and sometimes knowledge) can be free, especially if those generating them are willing to waive being paid for them.

My go-to example has been The Conversation. Its articles are written by experts with PhDs in the subjects they’re writing about (and are affiliated with reputable institutions). The website is funded by contributions from universities and labs. The affiliations of its contributors and their conflicts of interest, if any, are acknowledged with every article. Best of all, its articles are all available to republish for free under at least a CC BY license. Their content is not of the ‘stock’ variety; their sentences and ideas are not generic. Reusing their articles may not advance the narrative inherent in them but would I say it hurts journalists? No.

Royalty-free and copyright-released images and videos free visual journalists from being involved every step of the way. This is sadly but definitely necessary in circumstances where they might not get paid, where there might not be the room, inclination or expertise necessary to manage and/or work with them, where an audience might not exist that values their work and time.

This is where having, using and contributing to a digital commons can help. Engaging with it is a choice, not a burden. Ignoring those who make this choice to argue that every editor must carefully consider the visual elements of a story together with experts and technicians hired just for this purpose is akin to suggesting that proponents of OA/CC0 content are jeopardising opportunities for visual journalists to leave their mark. This is silly, mostly because it leaves the central agent out of the picture: the publisher.

It’s a publisher’s call to tell a story through just text, just visuals or both. Not stopping to chide those who can hire visual journalists but don’t while insisting “it’s a big part of what we do” doesn’t make sense. Not stopping to help those who opt for text-only because that’s what they can afford doesn’t make sense either.

Featured image credit: StockSnap/pixabay.

To watch ‘The Post’

I read a few reviews of The Post. Based on what the critics are saying, it seems the film has at least the potential to raise the spirits of many journalists today who could use a leg up. That said, I do resent that some of my friends and peers think I should be more excited about the film. This is how my conversations with them have generally gone.

§

Have you watched The Post?

No.

OMG, why not?!

You mean you’d like me to be excited about watching a film about a story based in the industry I work day in, day out but about which you don’t give a damn unless it’s brought to life by a pair of pompous (not to mention white) Hollywood actors while also blissfully ignorant of the fact that dangerous and consequential choices of the kind the journalists probably make in the film are made on a daily basis by journalists in many parts of the world?

… yeah.

Or do you mean have I watched the film about a story based in the industry I work day in, day out and I’m quite likely to know about but you wouldn’t acknowledge that until I joined the rest of you, went to the movies and finally walked away feeling its makers had mangled both the spirit of what had actually happened and reduced it down to the valour of a few people, when in fact a lot more hearts and minds went into achieving what they had, just so a small group of well-established actors could draw all the attention – while you walk away feeling the film was how things had actually happened and that I’m the cynic whose cynicism won’t switch off?

I’m going to walk away from you now.

Featured image credit: DieElchin/pixabay.

To watch 'The Post'

I read a few reviews of The Post. Based on what the critics are saying, it seems the film has at least the potential to raise the spirits of many journalists today who could use a leg up. That said, I do resent that some of my friends and peers think I should be more excited about the film. This is how my conversations with them have generally gone.

§

Have you watched The Post?

No.

OMG, why not?!

You mean you’d like me to be excited about watching a film about a story based in the industry I work day in, day out but about which you don’t give a damn unless it’s brought to life by a pair of pompous (not to mention white) Hollywood actors while also blissfully ignorant of the fact that dangerous and consequential choices of the kind the journalists probably make in the film are made on a daily basis by journalists in many parts of the world?

… yeah.

Or do you mean have I watched the film about a story based in the industry I work day in, day out and I’m quite likely to know about but you wouldn’t acknowledge that until I joined the rest of you, went to the movies and finally walked away feeling its makers had mangled both the spirit of what had actually happened and reduced it down to the valour of a few people, when in fact a lot more hearts and minds went into achieving what they had, just so a small group of well-established actors could draw all the attention – while you walk away feeling the film was how things had actually happened and that I’m the cynic whose cynicism won’t switch off?

I’m going to walk away from you now.

Featured image credit: DieElchin/pixabay.

In solidarity with Nautilus’s writers

In April this year, Undark published a piece that caught me by surprise: Nautilus magazine was going broke. Actually, it wasn’t a surprise that lasted long. Nautilus, to me, had been doing a commendable job of being ‘the New Yorker version of the Scientific American‘, an aspiration of its own phrasing, by publishing thought-provoking science writing. At the same time, it was an extravagant production: its award-winning website, the award-winning illustrations that accompanied every article, and the award-winning writing itself I knew must have cost a lot to produce.

The Undark report confirmed it: Nautilus had burned through $10 million in five years.

But what had gone unsaid was that, in this time, Nautilus had also commissioned many pieces that it knew it wouldn’t be able to pay for. This is according to a bunch of science writers who have come together under a ‘National Writers Union’ and asked that Nautilus settle their collective dues – a total of $50,000 – or face legal action. Before you think they’re being rash, remember that many of them haven’t been paid for over a year, that they’re on average each owed $2,500, and one among them is owed a staggering $11,000.

I laud these writers, 19 in all, for what they’re doing. It wouldn’t have been easy to have to force a publication that’s struggling financially to settle its bills, a publication that, while functional, was likely a unique platform to present those ideas that wouldn’t have found a home elsewhere. And – though I’m not sure what it’s worth – I stand with the writers in solidarity #paynautiluswriters. As The Wire‘s science editor, I’ve often had to turn down interesting pitches and submissions because I’d spent all my commissioning money for that month. It was painful to not be able to publish these pieces but it would have been indefensible to take them on anyway – but that’s what Nautilus seems to have done.

When Undark‘s report was published, I’d blogged about Nautilus‘s plight and speculated about where they could’ve gone wrong, assisted by my experience helping build The Wire. I’d like to reiterate what I’d written then. First: Nautilus may have taken on too much too soon. For example, the magazine may have put together awesome visuals to go with its stories but, from what we at The Wire have observed firsthand, readers are evaluating the writing above all else. So going easy on the presentation until achieving financial stability may not have been a bad idea. Second: In commissioning content it knew it couldn’t afford, Nautilus squandered any opportunity to build long-term relationships with the people whose words and ideas made it what it is.

The open letter penned by the science writers to Nautilus also brings another development to the fore. When John Steele, Nautilus‘s publisher, had been under pressure to pay his writers earlier this year, he had cleared some partial payments while simultaneously them promising that the remainder would come through when the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) had finished ‘absorbing’ Nautilus into itself. This didn’t bode well then because it left the consequences of this acquisition on the magazine’s editorial independence unclear. Since then, the letter says, the acquisition has fallen through.

While I’m not unhappy that Nautilus isn’t merging with the AAAS, I’m concerned about where this leaves Steele’s promise to pay the writers. I’m also concernfully curious about where the money is going to come from. Think about it: a magazine that used up $10 million in five years is now struggling to put together $50,000. This is a sign of gross mismanagement and is not something that could’ve caught the leadership at Nautilus by surprise. Someone there had to know their ship was sinking fast and, going by Steele’s promise, put all their eggs in the AAAS basket. One way or another, this was never going to end well.

Featured image credit: NWU.

In solidarity with Nautilus's writers

In April this year, Undark published a piece that caught me by surprise: Nautilus magazine was going broke. Actually, it wasn’t a surprise that lasted long. Nautilus, to me, had been doing a commendable job of being ‘the New Yorker version of the Scientific American‘, an aspiration of its own phrasing, by publishing thought-provoking science writing. At the same time, it was an extravagant production: its award-winning website, the award-winning illustrations that accompanied every article, and the award-winning writing itself I knew must have cost a lot to produce.

The Undark report confirmed it: Nautilus had burned through $10 million in five years.

But what had gone unsaid was that, in this time, Nautilus had also commissioned many pieces that it knew it wouldn’t be able to pay for. This is according to a bunch of science writers who have come together under a ‘National Writers Union’ and asked that Nautilus settle their collective dues – a total of $50,000 – or face legal action. Before you think they’re being rash, remember that many of them haven’t been paid for over a year, that they’re on average each owed $2,500, and one among them is owed a staggering $11,000.

I laud these writers, 19 in all, for what they’re doing. It wouldn’t have been easy to have to force a publication that’s struggling financially to settle its bills, a publication that, while functional, was likely a unique platform to present those ideas that wouldn’t have found a home elsewhere. And – though I’m not sure what it’s worth – I stand with the writers in solidarity #paynautiluswriters. As The Wire‘s science editor, I’ve often had to turn down interesting pitches and submissions because I’d spent all my commissioning money for that month. It was painful to not be able to publish these pieces but it would have been indefensible to take them on anyway – but that’s what Nautilus seems to have done.

When Undark‘s report was published, I’d blogged about Nautilus‘s plight and speculated about where they could’ve gone wrong, assisted by my experience helping build The Wire. I’d like to reiterate what I’d written then. First: Nautilus may have taken on too much too soon. For example, the magazine may have put together awesome visuals to go with its stories but, from what we at The Wire have observed firsthand, readers are evaluating the writing above all else. So going easy on the presentation until achieving financial stability may not have been a bad idea. Second: In commissioning content it knew it couldn’t afford, Nautilus squandered any opportunity to build long-term relationships with the people whose words and ideas made it what it is.

The open letter penned by the science writers to Nautilus also brings another development to the fore. When John Steele, Nautilus‘s publisher, had been under pressure to pay his writers earlier this year, he had cleared some partial payments while simultaneously them promising that the remainder would come through when the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) had finished ‘absorbing’ Nautilus into itself. This didn’t bode well then because it left the consequences of this acquisition on the magazine’s editorial independence unclear. Since then, the letter says, the acquisition has fallen through.

While I’m not unhappy that Nautilus isn’t merging with the AAAS, I’m concerned about where this leaves Steele’s promise to pay the writers. I’m also concernfully curious about where the money is going to come from. Think about it: a magazine that used up $10 million in five years is now struggling to put together $50,000. This is a sign of gross mismanagement and is not something that could’ve caught the leadership at Nautilus by surprise. Someone there had to know their ship was sinking fast and, going by Steele’s promise, put all their eggs in the AAAS basket. One way or another, this was never going to end well.

Featured image credit: NWU.

Writing, journalism and the revolutionary spirit

One of my favourite essays of all time – insofar as that’s a legitimate category – is one called ‘How to do what you love’ by Paul Graham, the startup guru. In it, he makes a case for the usefulness of a passion. Mine is writing; what kind of writing I don’t know yet. According to Graham,

To be happy I think you have to be doing something you not only enjoy, but admire. You have to be able to say, at the end, wow, that’s pretty cool. This doesn’t mean you have to make something. If you learn how to hang glide, or to speak a foreign language fluently, that will be enough to make you say, for a while at least, wow, that’s pretty cool. What there has to be is a test.

So one thing that falls just short of the standard, I think, is reading books. Except for some books in math and the hard sciences, there’s no test of how well you’ve read a book, and that’s why merely reading books doesn’t quite feel like work. You have to do something with what you’ve read to feel productive.

My personal test of how I’ve read a book comes to be when I write about it, when I take away something the book’s author did not directly intend, but which I realised by merging the book’s lessons and my experiences. I’ve applied my habit of writing – whether for The Wire or for the blog – in a similar vein to almost everything I do, hear, read or think. I write personally informed takeaways. The flipside of this is that when I’m unable to write about something, I disregard it, and I don’t know what the consequences of this have been or will be.

The one thing I’ve realised I don’t like about this habit is that it prevents me from crafting bigger lessons. Because I read a book, write about it, and then throw the book away (figuratively speaking), I make a habit of ‘not mulling over it’. I move on. As a result, my blog is littered with a string of shorter, piecemeal observations but nothing too protracted or profound. Thankfully, my writing habit also improves my memory: I remember better what I’ve written than what I’ve read/seen/heard. So looking back, I can piece together a picture of my thoughts over the course of time. The true issue arises when this habit is brought over into journalism.

In journalism, this seems to be a problem because it fosters a coverage-oriented mindset: “Have I covered this? If yes, then move on. If not, then cover it now and then move on.” Our coupling with the news cycle – which is a polished way of saying our dependence on traffic from Google News – means we cover frequently cover the smaller issues but rarely piece them together to reflect on the bigger ones. Ultimately, we believe that because we’ve written about it, it counts for something, and that we get to move on with clearer heads.

Mayank Tewari, who wrote the dialogues for the Bollywood film Newton, perhaps alludes to this when he tells Anindita Ghose (in Livemint),

“We are living in a time of self-conscious irony,” says Tewari. “We are aware of what’s wrong with our society… but if you read the righteous online news platforms, it’s as if just knowing this elevates [their writers and editors] from that reality. The revolutionary spirit is exhausted right there…the constant talking about what they are doing and what other people are not doing.”

The realisation that one knows about something is meaningless to our readers at large. But is its expression in words also equally meaningless? If they’ve adopted the coverage mindset, then Tewari is right: “the revolutionary spirit is exhausted right there”. We need to stop assuming that expressing our knowledge once will change anything.

This is difficult to internalise, however, especially if the journalist in question is busy. To go hammer and tonks at an issue, to repeat some details over and over again, doesn’t make for good business; it’s novelty that sells so it’s novelty that journalists seek out. And depending on what kind of a news organisation a journalist is employed at, I wouldn’t blame her if she wasn’t harbouring the revolutionary spirit.

Featured image credit: ChristopherPluta/pixabay.

A measure of media trustworthiness

A publication online that makes its money by displaying ads can be profitable even by publishing a slew of bad or offensive articles. That will drive the traffic too; people will share its content even if it’s to complain about it. It will also be trustworthy in that people can always trust to publish a predictable kind of content.

But when the publication stops making its money through ads and pivots to a less quantitative, more qualitative channel of revenue, it can afford less to publish bad content and even lesser to make money off of it.

You can see how this is a stream: upstream is the publisher publishing the content, midway is the consumer reading and engaging with the content, and downstream is the publisher once again, cashing in on the user’s actions in some way.

Now, if the midway behaviour changes, will there be an upstream effect that is not mediated by the downstream response? I.e., if people stopped sharing bad content because they no longer want to give the article in question any play, will publishers stop putting out bad content irrespective of whether it affects their revenues?

If the answer to this question is yes, then I think that’s what would make (or keep) the publisher trustworthy in an economic environment where private corporations are simply buying publications out instead of fighting them.

Breaking the bargain

nasty review of P.V. Sindhu’s performance at the World Badminton Championships by Sandip Sarkar for the Hindustan Times:

In the last one year, Sindhu has played 17 matches that stretched to the third game. She won 10 and lost seven. Six of those seven losses have come against players who were unseeded or seeded below her. A top-5 player of the world certainly has to have a better record than that.

Take Spain’s Carolina Marin for example. Just two years older than Sindhu, Marin comes from a country with no recognisable heritage in badminton. But she won gold at the 2014 and 2015 World Championships, following it up with gold at Rio 2016.

Okuhara had come well-prepared for the final. By being drawn into long rallies, Sindhu lost the plot, drained her reserves of energy and finally went down on the big points. PV Sindhu is undoubtedly one of top sportspersons of our country but till she does a Marin or a Okuhara, she will not be pure gold standard.

… all as if to suggest Sindhu was taking the tournament easy and hadn’t done her homework. To be disappointed with a sportsperson’s performance is one thing but to complain that she didn’t do her best is quite another.

Sarkar has failed to keep up the other end of the bargain: if sportspersons are expected to treat journalists with dignity, then journalists must treat sportspersons like the professionals that they are instead of accusing them of wilfully underperforming. I also feel that Sarkar’s assessment is especially out of place because Sindhu won the silver at the championships, in the sort of tight game that could likely have spit out a different outcome if played a second time. So I wholeheartedly agree with Mahesh Bhupathi when he says…

False equivalency

Margaret Sullivan in the Washington Post on August 16:

Does finding these powerful ways to frame the [Charlottesville] situation amount to abandoning journalistic impartiality?

“The whole doctrine of objectivity in journalism has become part of the [media’s] problem,” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, said this week in a talk at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. He believes that journalists must state their biases up front and not pretend to be magically free of the beliefs or assumptions that everyone has.

If objectivity is a “view from nowhere,” it may be out of date. What’s never out of date, though, is clear truth-telling.

Journalists should indeed stand for some things. They should stand for factual reality. For insistence on what actually happened, not revisionism. For getting answers to questions that politicians don’t want to answer.

On point.

On the “view from nowhere”, a coinage of the philosopher Thomas Nagel, from Rosen’s blog:

In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view.

The traditional sides that reporters have been used to for many decades have, in these fractious times, been destabilised. One side – usually framed in the context of partisan politics – has been increasingly coming off as unhinged, almost depraved. In the US, this side is epitomised by its president, Donald Trump. In India, this side is that of the political right, the one occupied by the incumbent national government and in particular the politico-religious organisations backing it: the VHP, the RSS, etc.

Sullivan writes that Trump’s tacit support for the neo-Nazis and pro-Confederate forces at Charlottesville should put an end to false equivalency in journalism once and for all. She’s absolutely correct – just as we must put an end to ‘striving for objectivity’ within all of journalism itself. This said, one of her statements struck me as odd:

Journalists should indeed stand for some things. They should stand for factual reality. For insistence on what actually happened, not revisionism. For getting answers to questions that politicians don’t want to answer.

There are four sentences in this statement, and they progressively segue from being applicable to all of journalism to being applicable in a particular context, that of politics. And through this progression, I think some of the power of what she’s asking for, hoping for, is being lost. ‘Getting answers to questions politicians don’t want to answer’ is not so much a tenet of journalism (although arguably it is for adversarial journalism) as much as a narrative arc, and it doesn’t always conflict with equivalency, false or otherwise. Sullivan’s framing as a result seems to be a proxy for the belief that false equivalency is a problem only in national-level political coverage.

It is not.

At least not in the Indian context, where politics of one kind or other permeates our lives all the time. Even my writing on this blog is political in a sense because it is a display of social and economic privilege, no matter how subtle or unprovocative, and what advice I have to dispense out of this blog has to be – and will be – viewed through that lens. This is because there is more than just economic or even racial inequality in India: there are class- and caste-conflicts, linguistic chauvinism, a tacit north-south divide, and even an urban-rural split (typified by most mainstream media coverage).

A big problem in Indian journalism is the lack of representation of Dalits: there are no Dalits covering the news, at least not in any of the major media houses that publish content in English. Yet Dalits around the country are being mistreated by the government, the violence against them passively condoned. How this affects what we write might be apparent when covering politics or issues like agricultural distress and labour – but there is danger in assuming that it doesn’t affect how we cover science, for example (I’m a science writer).

Scientific facts could be ‘hard’ facts and writing/reporting about them is easier by a degree for this reason. When covering phenomenological developments – such as in physics and chemistry – you’re often either completely right or completely wrong. But the moment you step away from (at least classical) phenomena and turn your gaze onto human beings, you also give way for multiple truths to prevail, depending on the contexts in which you’re framing your narrative.

A popular example is in education. Well-staffed English-medium schools are less affordable than schools of other kinds in the country, and this creates a distortion in the demographic of scientists who eventually graduate from such a system. And if some of these scientists eventually argue against the quota system in Indian universities because it is limiting the number of ‘talented-enough’ students who graduate and work in their labs, they are both right and wrong – more likely neither and floating in the pea soup that is affirmative action.

Another example, and one of my pet peeves, is the representation of institutions in science journalism. When covering topics like stem-cell or molecular biology, political ecology, etc., many journalists quote scientists from one of three institutions (to establish authority in their stories): NCBS, IISc and ATREE. While researchers from these institutions might be doing good work and, more importantly, willing to speak to journalists, increasingly speaking only to them and playing up only their ideas may or may not create an imbalance of importance – but the journalist’s abdication of her responsibility to seek out scientists from other parts of the country definitely creates the impression that nobody else is doing good work in X area.

… and I could go on.

Circling back to Rosen’s and Sullivan’s comments: journalists should surely stand for factual reality. But it need not – and should not – be under the banner of objectivity. Similarly, the ‘view from nowhere’ does not exist because ‘nowhere’ does not exist. Where monopolar facts do prevail and feed into, say, sociological issues, their truth-value could remain at 1 but their relationship with social realities could simultaneously be in flux. In other words, right/wrong cannot be the sole axis on which journalists navigate reality; there is also the more-correct/less-correct axis (and possibly many others). And together, they can and do give rise to complex stories.

Recommended reading: To stop superstition, we need viable ethical perspectives, not more scienceThe Wire

If Nautilus is so good, why is it doing so bad?

If Nautilus is so good, why is it doing so bad? There’s no short answer.

From UndarkAward-winning Nautilus enters rough waters

For all the good news and accolades, however, murmurings within the science writing community suggest that not all is well at Nautilus. Rumors of delayed or entirely absent payments to the magazine’s fleet of freelance contributors have reached a crescendo, as have complaints that editorial staff continue to solicit work knowing that the publication may not be able to make good on promised fees. One Nautilus freelancer, who asked to remain anonymous because thousands of dollars in fees are still pending, received a note a few months ago directly from the magazine’s publisher and editorial director, John Steele, offering assurances that the funds — which were for a feature that the magazine published last year — would be on their way by the end of January. That deadline came and went without payment, the freelancer said, and follow-up emails to Nautilus have not changed things.

How translatable are Nautilus‘s troubles to the theatre of Indian journalism? By itself, Nautilus is one of the best science magazines out there. While many have gushed about its awesome content, I like their pieces best when they stick to the science. When they wander into culture and philosophy, I find they lack the kind of depth common to writing published by 3 Quarks Daily, The Baffler and Jacobin. Its illustrations however are undeniably wonderful. Multiple reports have suggested that Nautilus’s online traffic is booming and that its print editions have been well-received. So what happened?

In some ways, Nautilus‘s origins are reminiscent of The Wire‘s. The former’s launch was enabled by a $5 million grant (over three years) from the Templeton foundation. The latter launched on its own steam –  with $10,000 (Rs 6 lakh) and bucketloads of goodwill – but a $600,000 grant (i.e. Rs 3.95 crore, over one year) from the Independent and Public Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF) in its second year has allowed it to scale up considerably.

While grants to media start-ups are definitely awesome, they are likely to be accompanied by expectations of growth that the grant alone won’t be able to ensure. In such cases, a majority of the grant can’t be used to fuel growth as much as to keep the company alive long enough for it to conceive and implement an alternate business model that will then fuel growth. If the Templeton foundation set such targets for Nautilus, then I suspect the magazine screwed up here somewhere.

Second: by Undark‘s own estimates, Nautilus has burned through over $10 million in three years. That’s a lot of money and it makes me wonder if it took on too much too soon. Again, I don’t know how far off the mark I am here because I don’t know what the agreement between Nautilus and Templeton was. But if it had anything to do with Nautilus being unable to sustain growth, I wouldn’t be surprised. While the magazine comes across as a great idea, some things are possible only beyond a certain scale. For example, it’s possible that Nautilus would be better off if it had 140,000 people paying it $15 a month to read the print editions; that’s $2.1 million a year. And the profits can be maximised – and reinvested to solicit more, better writing – if, for the first one or two years, they cut back on the illustrations. It’s always more important to pay for what you’ve used*. It helps build long-lasting relationships.

The cutting-down-on-illustrations bit wouldn’t be so bad because, as we’ve learnt from The Wire, if the writing is good and the reporting and analysis substantial, a publication will do well even without bells and whistles. But if the writing lacks depth, then no amount of tinkering with anything else on the site will help. I agree that Nautilus was going for something more than what most science writing outlets had to offer, but my sense is that the magazine wanted to offer more from day one when it might not have been possible.

Additionally, staying above water for long enough to have a sustainable, over-the-horizon business model of your liking has another important implication: independence.

I’m not privy to the grant agreement between Templeton and Nautilus. The one between The Wire and IPSMF does not contain any requirement, specification or clause that prevents The Wire from publishing anything that it deems appropriate. On the other hand, notwithstanding the terms of Nautilus‘s relationship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is apparently in talks to ‘absorb’ the magazine, the magazine has not found a way to become completely independent yet. To be sure, it’s not that Nautilus and AAAS won’t get along, or that Nautilus‘s content will become untrustworthy, but that nothing beats a journalistic publication being fully independent. To perfectly comprehend the benefits of this model, I recommend reading the story of De Correspondent.

This is also The Wire‘s aspiration: not paywalls as much as a reader-contributes model in which we produce what our readers allow us to and trust us to.

What De Correspondent‘s trajectory highlights is the development of a way to more efficiently translate emotional appreciation to material appreciation. Evidently, De Correspondent‘s model requires its readers to have a measure of trust in its production sense, ethics and values. If its readers paid $X, then $X worth of content will be produced (assuming overheads don’t increase as a consequence); if its readers paid $2X, then it will scale up accordingly. And it is this trust that Nautilus could have built if it had gone slower in the first few years and then bloomed. But with AAAS, or anyone else, acquiring Nautilus, and there being no word of the magazine planning to do things differently, it’s either going to be more of the same or it expects to secure a large funding boost.

And it is for all these reasons that I can connect with Paul Raeburn’s comment on the Undark article:

Nautilus has burned through … some $10 million in foundation grants in five years. But that’s just the foundation funding. Nautilus is also, in effect, being subsidized by writers and illustrators who work for it without pay. We can only guess, but it seems likely that the pay that never went to contributors amounts to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies for Nautilus. It’s time we recognized that many online publications – Undark not among them – are being subsidized by writers. And we should stop subsidizing them.

(Paul Raeburn and Charlie Petit founded the erstwhile Knight Science Journalism Tracker, now subsumed by Undark. Also, and of no relevance whatsoever, Petit once quoted my blog on the pages of KSJT.)

Such persistent subsidies will only postpone the finding of a good solution or the meeting of a tragic end, neither of which is good for anyone publishing stories worth reading. At the same time, writers should be understanding of the fact that independent media initiatives are in their infancy – on top of operating in a region with its own economic and professional troubles (I can’t emphasise this enough). This doesn’t mean they should be okay with not being paid; on the contrary. They should expect to be paid for all services provided but they should expect reasonable amounts. One freelancer I’d once sounded out for a story asked for $1 a word. This might be okay in the US and in the UK/Europe, but Rs 64 a word in India has no bearing to ground realities. Of course, I do laud the freelancer for having been able to secure such rates in the past (in other countries) as well as for valuing his own work so highly.

The Wire publishes about 300 original articles a month (excluding in-house content). The average length of each article is around 1,500 words. Some of our contributors write for us pro bono because they recognise the value of what we are trying to do and our constraints – and because the response they receive is gratifying. But assuming we had to pay for everything we ran, this means commissioning costs Rs 22.5 lakh a month if we pay Rs 5 a word and Rs 90 lakh a month if we pay Rs 20 a word. Excluding these numbers, The Wire needs X readers to pay Rs Y each a year to cover its running costs (with X estimated as conservatively and Y as liberally as possible). Including these numbers, The Wire will need 1.45X to 42X readers (for Rs 5 to Rs 20 a word) to pay Rs Y each a year. Now, IPSMF + donations from readers has allowed us to expand our audience to up to about 8.5X. But do you see how far afield we will have to go to be able to pay Rs 20 a word and break even (let alone turn a profit)?

In fact, not just us: this applies to all news publishers in India considering a reader-pays model, whether the start-up funds come from philanthropy or angel investors. This is the essential conflict that manifests itself in different garbs, forcing publishers to display crappy advertisements and/or publish ‘trending’ dumpsterfire. As the search for the holy grail of sustainable, high-quality journalism continues, the bottom line seems to be: Pay better, get better in return.

*Except when writers insist on waiving the fees because they can afford to.