'Lots of people don't know lots of things'

You might have seen news channels on the television (if you do at all, in fact) flash a piece of information repeatedly on their screens. News presenters also tend to repeat things they’ve said 10 or 15 minutes before and on-screen visuals join in this marquee exercise. I remember being told in journalism school that this is done so people who have tuned in shortly after a piece of news has been ‘announced’ to catch up quickly. So say some news item is broken at 8 pm; I can tune in at 8.10 pm and be all caught up by 8.15 pm.

Of course, this has become a vestigial practice in the age of internet archiving technologies and platforms like Facebook and Google ‘remembering’ information forever, but would’ve been quite useful in a time when TV played a dominant role in information dissemination (and when news channels weren’t going bonkers with their visuals).

I wonder if this ’15 minutes’ guideline – rather a time-based offset in general – applies to reporting on science news. Now, while news is that which is novel, period, it’s not clear whom it’s novel for. For example, I can report on a study that says X is true. X might’ve been true for a large number of scientists, and perhaps people in a different country or region, for a long time but it may not be for the audience that I’m writing for. Would this mean X is not news?

Ultimately, it comes down to two things.

First: Lots of people don’t know lots of things. So you can report on something and it will be news for someone, somewhere. However, how much does it cost to make sure what you’ve written reaches that particular reader? Because if the cost is high, it’s not worth it. Put another way, you should regularly be covering news that has the lowest cost of distribution for your publication.

Second: Lots of people don’t know lots of things. So you can report on something and it will be news for someone, somewhere. And if the bulk of your audience is a subset of the group of people described above, then what you’re reporting will always likely be new, and thus news. As things stand, most Indians still needs to catch up on basic science. Scientists aren’t off the hook either: many of them may know the divergence of a magnetic field is always zero but attribute this statement’s numerous implications to a higher power.

So, through science journalism, there are many opportunities to teach as well as inform, particularly in that order. And a commitment to these opportunities implies that I will also be writing and publishing reports that are newsy to my readers but not to people in other parts of the world, of a different demographic, etc.

Featured image credit: mojzagrebinfo/pixabay.

‘Lots of people don’t know lots of things’

You might have seen news channels on the television (if you do at all, in fact) flash a piece of information repeatedly on their screens. News presenters also tend to repeat things they’ve said 10 or 15 minutes before and on-screen visuals join in this marquee exercise. I remember being told in journalism school that this is done so people who have tuned in shortly after a piece of news has been ‘announced’ to catch up quickly. So say some news item is broken at 8 pm; I can tune in at 8.10 pm and be all caught up by 8.15 pm.

Of course, this has become a vestigial practice in the age of internet archiving technologies and platforms like Facebook and Google ‘remembering’ information forever, but would’ve been quite useful in a time when TV played a dominant role in information dissemination (and when news channels weren’t going bonkers with their visuals).

I wonder if this ’15 minutes’ guideline – rather a time-based offset in general – applies to reporting on science news. Now, while news is that which is novel, period, it’s not clear whom it’s novel for. For example, I can report on a study that says X is true. X might’ve been true for a large number of scientists, and perhaps people in a different country or region, for a long time but it may not be for the audience that I’m writing for. Would this mean X is not news?

Ultimately, it comes down to two things.

First: Lots of people don’t know lots of things. So you can report on something and it will be news for someone, somewhere. However, how much does it cost to make sure what you’ve written reaches that particular reader? Because if the cost is high, it’s not worth it. Put another way, you should regularly be covering news that has the lowest cost of distribution for your publication.

Second: Lots of people don’t know lots of things. So you can report on something and it will be news for someone, somewhere. And if the bulk of your audience is a subset of the group of people described above, then what you’re reporting will always likely be new, and thus news. As things stand, most Indians still needs to catch up on basic science. Scientists aren’t off the hook either: many of them may know the divergence of a magnetic field is always zero but attribute this statement’s numerous implications to a higher power.

So, through science journalism, there are many opportunities to teach as well as inform, particularly in that order. And a commitment to these opportunities implies that I will also be writing and publishing reports that are newsy to my readers but not to people in other parts of the world, of a different demographic, etc.

Featured image credit: mojzagrebinfo/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.

No country for new journalism

(Formatting issues fixed.)

TwitterNgoodThrough an oped in Nieman Lab, Ken Doctor makes a timely case for explanatory – or explainer – journalism being far from a passing fad. Across the many factors that he argues contribute to its rise and persistence in western markets, there is evidence that he believes explainer journalism’s historical basis is more relevant than its technological one, most simply by virtue of having been necessitated by traditional journalism no longer connecting the dots well enough.

Second, his argument that explainer journalism is helped by the success of digital journalism takes for granted the resources that have helped it succeed in the west and not so much in countries like India.

So these points make me wonder if explainer journalism can expect to be adopted with similar enthusiasm here – where, unsurprisingly, it is most relevant. Thinking of journalism as an “imported” enterprise in the country, differences both cultural and historical become apparent between mainstream English-language journalism and regional local-language journalism. They cater to different interests and are shaped by different forces. For example, English-language establishments cater to an audience whose news sources are worldwide, who can always switch channels or newspapers and not be worried about running out of options. For such establishments, How/Why journalism is a way to differentiate itself.

Local v. regional

On the other hand, local-language establishments cater to an audience that is not spoiled for options and that is dependent profoundly on Who/What/When/Where journalism no matter where its ‘reading diaspora’. For them, How/Why journalism is an add-on. In this sense, the localism that Ken Doctor probes in his piece has no counterpart. It is substituted with a more fragmented regionalism whose players are interested in an expanding readership over that of their own scope. In this context, let’s revisit one of his statements:

Local daily newspapers have traditionally been disproportionately in the Who/What/When/Where column, but some of that now-lost local knowledge edged its ways into How/Why stories, or at least How/Why explanations within stories. Understanding of local policy and local news players has been lost; lots of local b.s. detection has vanished almost overnight.

Because of explainer journalism’s reliance on digital and digital’s compliance with the economics of scale (especially in a market where purchasing power is low), what Doctor calls small, local players are not in a position to adopt explainer journalism as an exclusive storytelling mode. As a result of this exclusion, Doctor argues that what digital makes accessible – i.e. what is found online – often lacks the local angle. But it remains to be seen if this issue’s Indian counterpart – digital vs. the unique regional as opposed to digital vs. the small local – is even likely to be relevant. In other words, do smaller regional players see the need to take the explainer route?

Local-level journalism (not to be confused with what is practiced by local establishments) in India is bifocal. On the one hand, there are regional players who cover the Who/What/When/Where thoroughly. On the other, there are the bigger English-language mainstreamers who don’t each have enough reporters to cover a region like India thanks, of course, to its profuse fragmentation, compensating instead by covering local stories in two distinct ways:

as single-column 150-word pieces that report a minor story (Who/What/When/Where) or

as six-column 1,500-word pieces where the regional story informs a national plot (How/Why),

—as if regional connect-the-dots journalism surfaces as a result of mainstream failures to bridge an acknowledged gap between conventional and contextualizing journalism. Where academicians, scholars and other experts do what journalists should have done – rather, in fact, they help journalists do what they must do. Therefore, readers of the mainstream publications have access to How/Why journalism because, counter-intuitively, it is made available in order to repair its unavailability. This is an unavailability that many mainstreamers believe they have license to further because they think the ‘profuse fragmentation’ is an insurmountable barrier.

There’s no history

The Hindu and The Indian Express are two Indian newspapers that have carved a space for themselves by being outstanding purveyors of such How/Why journalism, and in the same vein can’t be thought of as having succumbed to the historical basis that makes the case for its revival—“Why fix something that ain’t broken?”. And the “top-drawer” publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post that Doctor mentions that find a need to conspicuously assert this renewal are doing so on the back of the technology that they think has finally made the renewal economically feasible. And that the Times stands to be able to charge a premium for packaging Upshot and its other offerings together is not something Hindu or Express can also do now because, for the latter couple, How/Why isn’t new, hasn’t been for some time.

Therefore, whereupon the time has come in the western mainstream media to “readopt” explainer journalism, its Indian counterpart can’t claim to do that any time soon because it has neither the west’s historical nor technological bases. Our motivation has to come from elsewhere.

de Tocqueville & the news

That the switch from newspapers to digital handheld devices – for the purpose of sourcing all my news – is limited only by my comfort-level with technology is telling of some shortcoming of the print industry.

The changing journalistic scene is a reflection of the way people engage publicly and of how public discourse has changed. Quoting Tocqueville,

A newspaper is an adviser that does not require to be sought.

Believe me, I still do seek out the newspaper to be certain on some matters, but I am also a dying breed. News has changed from page-long pieces to 140-character tweets, but the information we are getting has tripled. As Neil Postman argued in 1990,

Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that, for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.

There is too much to read and to process. Today, people are quite likely to be discussing news over coffee, especially in light of the fact that almost all information tends to be “newsified”.

Tocqueville says in the same piece,

The power of the newspaper press must therefore increase as the social conditions of men become more equal.

My questions are, thus, two-fold. Do we live in a society that is increasingly unequal? Or have we transformed to become so individualistic that a common voice can no longer exist?

Alexis de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville addresses the newspaper, and the responsibilities of the Press by extension, in terms of their capacity to unite. In the same chapter, he also draws upon democracy’s tendency to leave individuals “very insignificant and lost amid the crowd”, the the responsibility to homogenize which lies with the newspaper.

While these notions may have coincided in Tocqueville’s times, the landscape of governance has changed vastly. For one, Tocqueville was writing in the 1830s, at a time when democracy itself was as new as the emerging print industry, when its spread and depth were both limited.

For another, for me to able to infer that the power of the newspaper is waning, I am also inferring that the newspaper must exist only on paper, that news cannot be delivered in other forms, and that all peoples must unite themselves under the light of one beacon, not any other. Are we right in thinking this?

So, while the newspaper – as an entity comprising words in ink and ink on paper – may be on the decline economically, the responsibilities of the paper are now in different hands. As for Tocqueville’s cautioning against the individualists, much is to be said.

In the execution of goals democratically, Tocqueville’s faith in which mires his thoughts, there will be opportunities to “wrong the people” by desiring an action that feels right personally. In other words, the French philosopher has not considered the evils of populism in vouching for the newspaper.

Today, however, technology enables so much that things work the other way round. Instead of firing up common beacons, discrete ones, classifiable in terms of social status, culture, financial needs, and personal desires, are lit, and people flock to them.

I concede, there is a barrage of news, but there is also democracy in news! I can finally get what I know I will use the most. Is that wrong? In fact, does it even suggest a conflict in any sense?

I must also concede that Tocqueville was right in championing the cause and function of democratic rule, but that it mandates representation above all else is something not to be forgotten.

In the ongoing version of the discourse between public policy and responsible journalism, individuals have the responsibility to cure more evils than they cause, individuals must hone their own moral framework, and individuals are tasked with interpreting democracy in a way that perpetuates its essence. Is this so bad?

Even if the newspaper has left us, the notion of news hasn’t, not in this “post-reporter era”.

de Tocqueville & the news

That the switch from newspapers to digital handheld devices – for the purpose of sourcing all my news – is limited only by my comfort-level with technology is telling of some shortcoming of the print industry.

The changing journalistic scene is a reflection of the way people engage publicly and of how public discourse has changed. Quoting Tocqueville,

A newspaper is an adviser that does not require to be sought.

Believe me, I still do seek out the newspaper to be certain on some matters, but I am also a dying breed. News has changed from page-long pieces to 140-character tweets, but the information we are getting has tripled. As Neil Postman argued in 1990,

Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that, for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.

There is too much to read and to process. Today, people are quite likely to be discussing news over coffee, especially in light of the fact that almost all information tends to be “newsified”.

Tocqueville says in the same piece,

The power of the newspaper press must therefore increase as the social conditions of men become more equal.

My questions are, thus, two-fold. Do we live in a society that is increasingly unequal? Or have we transformed to become so individualistic that a common voice can no longer exist?

Alexis de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville addresses the newspaper, and the responsibilities of the Press by extension, in terms of their capacity to unite. In the same chapter, he also draws upon democracy’s tendency to leave individuals “very insignificant and lost amid the crowd”, the the responsibility to homogenize which lies with the newspaper.

While these notions may have coincided in Tocqueville’s times, the landscape of governance has changed vastly. For one, Tocqueville was writing in the 1830s, at a time when democracy itself was as new as the emerging print industry, when its spread and depth were both limited.

For another, for me to able to infer that the power of the newspaper is waning, I am also inferring that the newspaper must exist only on paper, that news cannot be delivered in other forms, and that all peoples must unite themselves under the light of one beacon, not any other. Are we right in thinking this?

So, while the newspaper – as an entity comprising words in ink and ink on paper – may be on the decline economically, the responsibilities of the paper are now in different hands. As for Tocqueville’s cautioning against the individualists, much is to be said.

In the execution of goals democratically, Tocqueville’s faith in which mires his thoughts, there will be opportunities to “wrong the people” by desiring an action that feels right personally. In other words, the French philosopher has not considered the evils of populism in vouching for the newspaper.

Today, however, technology enables so much that things work the other way round. Instead of firing up common beacons, discrete ones, classifiable in terms of social status, culture, financial needs, and personal desires, are lit, and people flock to them.

I concede, there is a barrage of news, but there is also democracy in news! I can finally get what I know I will use the most. Is that wrong? In fact, does it even suggest a conflict in any sense?

I must also concede that Tocqueville was right in championing the cause and function of democratic rule, but that it mandates representation above all else is something not to be forgotten.

In the ongoing version of the discourse between public policy and responsible journalism, individuals have the responsibility to cure more evils than they cause, individuals must hone their own moral framework, and individuals are tasked with interpreting democracy in a way that perpetuates its essence. Is this so bad?

Even if the newspaper has left us, the notion of news hasn’t, not in this “post-reporter era”.