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Do readers know what they want?
Content is a mix of what the reader wants and what he does not want…The reader, ladies and gentlemen, is not king; actually he is a nice hypocrite. Outlook editor VINOD MEHTA argues that the media must lead readers, not be led by them
Posted/Updated Thursday, Dec 20 23:47:41, 2007

This is the full text of Vinod Mehta's speech on receiving the IPI Award 2007 which Outlook magazine won for its Navy War Room leak and Scorpene stories.

 

It is an honour and a privilege for me accept this coveted award on behalf of the Outlook Group. I would like to especially congratulate Saikat Datta, the correspondent and Ajith Pillai, his editor. Saikat pursued this story for over six months, putting it together for all of us was like a roller coaster drive.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, in India 2007 numerous challenges face the media. There is the reluctance of the media, especially the electronic media, to regulate itself. And simultaneously we see daily the eagerness of our political masters to impose a code on the profession which will effectively castrate it.

 

Then there is the strange but seemingly irresistible animal called sting journalism, which when it is good is very good, but when it is bad, shames us all.

 

Then there is the media's myopia regarding how its credibility is being eroded. To the extent that journalism today is often confused with being part of the entertainment industry.

 

Then there is the challenge of the markets. What is the media for? Is it only for making money? Once you treat the media as if it is no different from running an ice-cream parlour, journalism loses out to commerce.

 

Then there is the accusation, hurled by politicians, that the media creates cynicism about politicians. Thanks to the media, our politicians maintain, the public views its leaders and the very process of governing, with suspicion and mistrust. Our netas say a pervasive climate of cynicism leads to the sense that a whole range of problems are beyond the control of mere politicians, beyond solutions altogether. This in turn breeds frustration, hopelessness and lack of faith in government. I don't accept this highly exaggerated accusation, but I concede it is on the table. And the media needs to counter it, probably with the response that politicians by their conduct create the cynicism, we journalists merely spread it around.

 

And last but not least, what checks and balances should the media impose on itself in India 2007, where the intense competition, both in print and TV, is threatening professional ethics? As journalists we need to remember that a newspaper's credibility is like the virginity of a woman. You can lose it only once.

 

I now come to my main concern. There is one more critical challenge, one that is rarely discussed in journalism seminars or among serious editors. But I notice advertising managers and self-styled media pundits pontificate on it endlessly -- and they have by now signed and sealed the argument. They have given us a new mantra. When these guys speak in the excellent and proliferating media and advertising journals, they assume the pose of Moses. Their words are written on tablets of stone. And what is their subject? It is the nature of editorial content in television and print. They have come to the considered conclusion that the highest responsibility of the media is to give the reader or the viewer what he or she wants.

 

Any other kind of journalism is irrelevant, indeed an insult to the public!

 

I believe this is a crucial issue for the media. Alas, the wrong guys are discussing it, the wrong guys are giving us the solutions.

 

I say this with much humility, but brand managers, with honourable exceptions, are congenitally incapable of understanding the nature and purpose of journalism. They simply cannot understand it by virtue of their background: which is sales in order to maximise profits. They can never understand that content is more, much more, than what readers want. It also has a social dimension. Thus, content is a mix of what the reader wants and what he does not want. The trick is to marry the two and make money.

 

Accompanying the mantra, is much loose talk that the old journalism is dead and a new journalism has been born. This new journalism is entirely based on reader or viewer demands. So, we are told the reader is king and it is the job of a responsible media organisation to provide cent per cent satisfaction.

 

This proposition is now so widely accepted that to argue against it is like whistling in the dark. Those who believe otherwise are seen as cranks, out of touch with the contemporary market -- in other words the reader. If journalism is a consumption item like butter chicken, then why not give the customer the flavour and taste he wants. That, after all, is the first rule of free market capitalism.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, in my nearly 30 years as editor, I have heard a lot of nonsense talked about journalism and its role in India, but this piece of nonsense is outrageously and self-evidently absurd and dangerous. To demolish it is urgent. To let it become the benchmark of our profession is to put in peril everything we have worked for in 60 years.

I ask you this: If some readers or viewers wish to see or read about paedophilia, should we oblige? If some readers or viewers wish to see or read about wife-beatings, should we oblige? I could go on. The whole idea is preposterous and I dare say most editors would end up in jail if they followed the mantra.

 

I will just provide three examples of the confusion in readers minds regarding their expectations from the media.

 

One. Research shows unambiguously that most readers desire to read more international news. Yet, the international pages of a paper are the least read. International news may be good for the soul but it does nothing for circulation.

 

Two. Readers insist that the price of their morning paper does not matter. It is such a vital part of their life that they would happily pay the extra rupee for it. Yet, as Mr Rupert Murdoch and Mr Samir Jain have demonstrated, print publications are extremely price sensitive. You can bleed the opposition by cover price cuts. The phrase "invitation price" terrifies rival publishers.

 

Three. Readers will tell you that they want a single-section, compact morning paper. They don't want sections and supplements dropping out. Yet the opposite is true. Papers with multi-sections prosper, others suffer.

 

I think I have made my point. We must lead readers, not be led by them. Really great journalism must do more than merely give people what they want. There has to be room for the unexpected, for stories the public has no idea it wants until it sees them.

 

The reader is a paradox. He frequently complains about negative news being constantly reported. But for all his clamouring for positive news, surveys show that people are more interested in negative news, sensational news, news about crime, violence and corruption. The reader, ladies and gentlemen, is not king; actually he is a nice hypocrite.

 

Editors in India are an endangered species, but only a good and professional editorial team can decide what is news and what is humbug. That is the sum of what I have learnt in 30 years. Thank you.

 

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