Legacy news brands in India & changed media landscape

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There was a time when news was what we read in the papers about events which happened the previous day. Opinions and commentary about news were left to editorials and periodicals. Later television channels became our go-to destinations for live news – such channels had the power to shape our views on current affairs too. The digital age ushered in a 24×7, ubiquitous, all-pervasive news through social media. In my view this re-shaped news landscape is posing a few challenges to legacy news brands.

Reduced dependence: the ‘never offline’ nature of many of our lives has ensured an instant supply of news through social media, notifications and apps. Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook have become the go-to platforms for news for many. While legacy news brands are also present in such platforms, they need not be the only source of news. News-makers, brands, political organisations, news aggregators and even general public can be news sources. When say, the Prime Minister’s office live tweets an event, a traditional news outlet merely quoting such updates later doesn’t have much relevance. The expectations from a news broadcast which follows hours later or an article which follows the next day have also changed. If channels or dailies merely parrot what we already knew the previous day, they lose significance. The news-as-entertainment, ‘screaming talking heads’ model of TV channels has also served to provide fodder for sensationalism and erode the credibility of the news entire fraternity.

Cartoon by Bruce Beattie
Cartoon by Bruce Beattie

Dented credibility: up until a few years ago traditional news outlets and celebrity journalists were inaccessible to the common man. Now, every view of theirs can be commented upon, endorsed, rebutted or responded to on social media. The common man has the power to voice his opinion too, call the bluff of big media if & when they spin a story. The common man is now a fact-checker and unfortunately – an abusive troll at times. Senior journalists, media houses who share unverified news (which furthers a particular agenda or reveal their bias) often get caught out. Across political spectrum, the attempt is not only to keep you in one camp but ensure that you hate the other – with media being used as a tool. There is no attempt to hide any political leanings anymore. The battle is to win the reader’s minds & hearts, at ANY cost. In this context, the notion that journalists are objective, is long gone. In my view, this has taken the sheen of traditional media, celebrity editors & journalists as the only ‘voices of authority’.

Competitive pressure: rivalry leading to mudslinging, undercutting is common in any industry. When we see this happening in the news industry it is a dangerous sign as it creates doubts about the entire industry. Celebrity journalists are openly dissing competition pushing the viewer into camps.
In the urge to be one up on competition, basic journalistic ethics is often given the short shrift – unverified reports, insinuation, deliberate misreporting – these have become common.

Rise of the digital only new-age news brand: it doesn’t take a TV channel or a print magazine to become a news brand nowadays. Neither is a pedigree of a brand name.

Poor customer experience across screens & platforms: legacy brands have placed the least priority on customer experience, across platforms – be it in print or digital.

– Wrap-arounds, multiple full page ads before the front page, gimmicky ad formats, are all common in print. Even the one sacrosanct mast head is up for grabs
– regional news brands still lag behind their English counterparts in terms of design. I feel the regional news consumer is being exposed to good design thanks to lower priced durables and mobile phones. The content he consumes on a mobile phone through apps is largely slick – Facebook, Paytm, Gaana are commonly used by such and their design experience is world class. In a way they are ‘educating’ the consumer to experience & demand better aesthetics. In that context news brands cannot offer poor aesthetics and customer experience
– on TV the screen is split into multiple windows with screaming talking heads; gimmicks like graphic of a flames on a headline, constant ‘Breaking News’ alerts and commercial messages inserted in every available space are all but common.
– The web experience is geared more towards advertisers & ad sales team than the readers. While I understand that the news brands need to recover their investments (especially in the context of offering free content) through ads, if it is going to spoil the customer experience, ad-blockers come into play
– on mobile, several legacy sites don’t even have a responsive mobile design in place. Some have resorted to mobile apps but by and large the design of such apps follows a template. The courage to think different (like the QZ app on iOS) is just not there. The desperation to monetise everything also manifests in offering app install ads on article links from social media (on Twitter, click on a tweet pointing to an Indian Express article – chances are you will be directed to an app page on the App Store).

In contrast, westerns news brands like NYT,USA Today, CBS News and BBC have placed customer experience first when it comes to content distribution – across devices and platforms. There is a seamless consistency in the brand experience as manifested in uniform navigation structure, look & feel etc. In contrast, there is an anything goes attitude with Indian brands. If the print edition of Economic Times has ‘Business of Brands’ as a section you are unlikely to find a similar named section on the web version or on the mobile apps. What’s more the print edition’s sections can change depending on the current buzz – ‘King of bad times & companies’ was a section in the print edition of ET recently.

In sum, I would say fixing credibility and improving customer experience across platforms & devices would be the two main challenges facing legacy news brands in India today.

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