How social media is giving mainstream media a run for its money

With Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and blogs everyone now has a voice.

 |  5-minute read |   01-04-2015
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Is mainstream media (MSM) an endangered species? In the West newspapers are closing or downsizing. Increasing numbers of young people don't use newspapers or television anymore as their primary source of information and entertainment.

Network television with set programme timings is going out of fashion. When Apple launches its TV service, it will accelerate the trend towards "Appointment TV" - viewers deciding what to watch when. TV-on-demand online is already giving cable and legacy TV networks in the United States sleepless nights. Habits are changing fast as consumers become kings of content rather than the other way around.

In India, the implications are likely to be even more game-changing. Social media has democratised content. Till a few years ago producers of content were a privileged minority. With Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and blogs everyone now has a voice.

Consumers of content can today themselves produce content at no cost - except their time. This has transformed the relationship between traditional media - print and TV - and its audience. Op-ed writers, accustomed to a one-way conversation with readers, now have to deal with instant feedback - some of it discomfiting.

Twitter and Facebook together have over 150 million users in India. To put that into perspective, India's two largest national dailies, The Times of India and the Hindustan Times, have a combined circulation of less than seven million and a combined readership, according to the Media Research Users Council (MRUC), of less than 13 million - a fraction of the reach of social and online media.

Television fares even worse. India's leading English news channel has fewer than one million viewers. Increasingly, television channels use Twitter hashtags to bump up viewership, impact and audience loyalty.

But the really dramatic change is the manner in which social and online media have made traditional media more accountable. Editors and TV anchors are routinely named and shamed if they wander off the straight and narrow. Prejudices are ruthlessly exposed, political affiliations closely scrutinised and slanted articles hoist on their own petard - in real-time.

The digital world is cruel and not for the faint-hearted. Politicians, used to deferential treatment in the real world, have their egos rapidly punctured the moment they go online, especially on Twitter with its open platform and instant response. That is why not a single member of the Gandhi family - Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka - has dared venture on to any social media. TV anchors who use Twitter hashtags to build audiences for their programmes quickly realise how sharp this double-edged sword is when negative hashtags start trending.

Traditional media has no option but to adjust to the new virtual reality. Facebook announced recently that it would "host" content on its pages from The New York Times, Buzzfeed and National Geographic. More publications are likely to join. Not everyone is thrilled with this development which will make Facebook a news portal - and the first port of call for young people who neither read newspapers nor watch much television. Social media is their principal source of information and entertainment.

Felix Salmon, a US-based media writer, warns: "If Facebook continues to grow as a trusted news source in its own right, then the result could be an existential crisis for news organisations with old-fashioned things like editors and fact-checkers and clear ethical guidelines. Those things are expensive, and it's far from clear that Facebook's readers particularly value them. The risk is that they'll just get disintermediated away."

Will Oremus, writing in the online news magazine Slate, once owned by Microsoft, is equally worried: "Facebook has made it clear that newspapers who sign on early will see huge growth in their Facebook reach. If that proves true, others will scramble to follow, even as it becomes clear they're seeing diminishing returns. Meanwhile, the holdouts would see their Facebook audiences wither and die, as Facebook's algorithms gradually downgrade posts that link out to third-party websites."

Twitter meanwhile is likely to add video feeds to its timeline (TL) offering in the next few months. Tweets with images are common. Tweets with embedded video are set to make the platform more appealing to mobile users who tweet-and-shoot on the go. Realtime video-tweets could make everyone potentially a live television reporter.

The really important development in India though is that social media now acts as an informal watchdog of mainstream media. Over the past few years, MSM has been hit by a credibility crisis. The line between journalism and public relations (PR) is blurring. Corruption in mainstream media occurs in two ways: one, individual journalists are paid in cash or kind (travel junkets, flat allotments, discounted land plots, etc); two, media owners are compromised by political parties or business houses through convoluted stock deals, sponsored content and other inducements.

Self-regulation has not worked. The Press Council of India (PCI) has no teeth. The Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) is packed with insiders and rarely takes action against erring TV channels who misreport. For instance, the recent vandal attacks on churches have been reported as "attacks on Christians" which is nonsense. Most of the attacks, as subsequent police investigations have proved, were isolated acts of petty criminals, not communal incidents. The gang rape of a 71-year-old nun in West Bengal was similarly misreported as a communal attack on Christianity whereas later investigations showed the culprits to be Muslim youths.

This doesn't mean communalism is not a threat to India's tradition of inclusiveness. It is and it must be defeated. But inaccurate journalism, deliberate or inadvertent, plays into the hands of those to whom self-interest matters more than national interest.

Such irresponsible reporting - with minimal editorial errata issued - is picked up by other news outlets, including international media, without cross-checking the facts. The result: where there is no communal tension, it is created by journalism of vilification.

Alert social media is an unforgiving critic of such chicanery. It spares no one - individual journalists or media organisations with political agendas. Some marquee names have been outed. More will follow.

Ideally media should have an ombudsman to check professional misconduct of this sort. That seems utopian. But as social media grows more powerful it will act as multiple ombudsmen, weeding out the chaff from the media wheat.


Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

The writer is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. He is a media group chairman and editor. He is the author of The New Clash of Civilizations

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