Thursday, October 9, 2008

INTERNET EFFECT: CELEBRITY COLUMNISTS OUT OF TOUCH?

In a nation of over a billion people, regular columnists who comment on a variety of current topics in India's mainstream English print media can all comfortably share an evening in the living room of an upper middle class Indian home. There are so few of them. Considering the sometimes shoddy analysis and an often inaccurate reflection of the views of the people of the country, one has often wondered whether many of them are getting generous print space and handsome monetary compensation because of their names and connections rather than their writings.

Is there really such a paucity of talent and intellectual ability in this country that leading newspapers cannot find more and better-connected-with-India individuals for their editorial pages? Is the situation so bad that some leading dailies regularly carry editorials that are little more than hastily scribbled regurgitations of chat shows conducted by the 'authors' as anchors on TV channels? Are the print media losing touch with normal Indians by sticking to very few and well known, metro-bred and NRI columnists, some of whom can hardly be distinguished from the politicians they write about? Are these people really able to accurately reflect and influence opinions of the people of this country about the issues and events that agitate and interest them?

The internet is beginning to democratise media like never before. Even though internet penetration in India is low, the signs are clear and loud. Ordinary Indians read the papers for news at one convenient stop. But for analysis, those who are connected to the internet are increasingly seeking out the alternate and candid views and analysis available there, particularly in the blogosphere. The slick columns and editorials written by the same few and remote faces in the mainstream media are perceived by many as conditioned, constrained, out of tune with real India, and often not honest.

Are these celebrity columnists adding value to the platforms of the publications that have engaged them or are the platforms adding value to them by making them appear more popular and relevant than they actually are? The belief that the latter is true is supported by some startling statistics.

MJ Akbar, one of India's best known journalists and author of a number of books, writes for a number of newspapers now. He was earlier editor of The Telegraph and The Asian Age. Since 2004, his writings have also been available on the net through his blogs. His main blog, mjakbar.org publishes his columns that appear in the print media. In addition to him, four other regular columnists, Seema Mustafa, U Mahesh Prabhu, Susenjit Guha and Mubasshir Mushtaq write in this blog. Guest columnists complete this impressive line up.

Quite a power-packed blog that should have been 'burning the charts', in a manner of speaking, is it not? But what do we have? Rather sparse visitor traffic reflected in an embarrassing Alexa ranking of 1,255,822. The Google Page Rank(PR), though, is a healthy 4. Akbar's other blog, mjakbarblog.blogspot.com, where he writes alone, is PR 2 and has a very poor Alexa ranking of 6,697,605. The lack of interest of even those who visit these blogs is apparent from the fact that very few people have left their comments on the articles even though, unlike letters to editors of newspapers which are almost never published, all comments posted on the blogs get published almost instantaneously. This is the state after four long years on the net.

The story of John Elliot, a Delhi based journalist who has written for a number of prestigious foreign publications is quite similar. Till the middle of August this year, he was writing about India in his blog on the Fortune.com platform. His posts there were widely read by Indians and others around the world and were also heavily commented upon. In August, he moved with all his work to his own standalone blog, ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com. What is the net result? Traffic has dropped dramatically, as reflected in an Alexa ranking of 3,089,314. PR is still zero but that is because the blog is new. Comments too have got reduced to a trickle.

There are no other brave and well known Indian journalists who are writing on the net on their own platforms. Most of them are using the portals of large media houses to publish their articles, making it impossible to pinpoint the number of visitors who would have read and commented on them had they not been on those platforms. But, considering what has happened in the two cases mentioned above, it can be deduced that many of the those writing in the blog of CNN-IBN at ibnlive.com, for example, are similarly benefiting substantially from the one-stop advantage that widely known and heavily advertised media portals have in attracting lazy as well as ignorant surfers.

The statistics of a citizen journalist portal, merinews.com, where ordinary, unknown Indians write about and analyse various subjects and developments, are equally illuminating. It is a PR 5 site with an Alexa ranking of just 15,193. This remarkable success has been achieved without any professional journalists or celebrities, no advertising, no linkage with any big business house and no foreign collaboration! This favourably compares with Alexa 11,956 of the online edition of the Deccan Herald, 12,156 of The Telegraph and is much better than 45,884 of The Statesman! Another very small but similar site, youthejournalist.com, which has shown no enthusiasm whatsoever to grow or attract more writers and readers, is PR 2 and has an Alexa ranking that almost equals that of John Elliot!

There are many other such blogs and portals that are attracting more and more readers with every passing day. Already, a couple of the better known ones, encouraged by terrific response, have started taking out regular print editions of the articles posted on their web sites. Pragati and Mutiny are two examples. Of course, it is debatable whether paid print editions of articles already published and available for free on the net will find a large enough market, particularly since internet penetration is increasing exponentially and net access charges are dropping dramatically in India.

The big picture that is emerging is, however, quite clear. Indians are not satisfied with the limited and elitist output of the almost incestuous club of celebrity columnists. Till recently, they had little choice but to suffer in silence as they had no access to the honest and divergent views and analysis of real Indians connected to the world they wanted to talk or write about. The internet has changed all that, despite the fact that in India it is still in infancy.

Even though the emerging internet revolution has yet to touch many Indians, there is already a qualitatively far better analytical content available on the net than in the papers. In fact, one can go so far as to say that most mainstream media columnists will find their often mediocre and motivated efforts not making the comparative cut if selection of columns is based on a 'blind test', without their names propping the content or lack of it. Perhaps that is the main reason why the entry of foreign print media into India is being opposed so stoutly by domestic print media houses.

It is time to make use of the potentially unlimited platform of the net to revolutionise the manner in which news is gathered, reported and analysed by hundreds of thousands of articulate citizens, most in full-time touch with real India in its every nook and corner. If this game-changing opportunity is exploited and managed properly, many fundamental rules and constraints that apply to and stymie mainstream media, and propel them to promote a few celebrity columnists, can be brushed aside. That will unleash an unprecedented information revolution, making available a number of truly democratic, open and outstanding news and analysis resources to the people of not just India but the whole world.

They want and deserve that.