Two short articles from the CHENNAI section of The Hindu were all over my online universe today. One was about the Right to Education law recently approved by the Supreme Court and the other was about a brouhaha at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). They stimulated tons of discussion on email forums, workplace water coolers and Twitter feeds. Neither piece broke any new ground. Neither piece was particularly well sourced. In the pre-internet era, the two pieces may have occupied the space below the day’s power shutdown schedules. Why then, were both these pieces discussed so heavily and why should we not take this too seriously? Because, both articles were right out of the internet traffic generator playbook and not meant to be treated as serious news.
For years, the Mount Road Maha Vishnu provided the best (sometimes the only) morning news, original opinion, compelling crossword puzzle and content to millions of Chennaites. I was one of the many starry-eyed fans who woke up with anticipation to the prose in the latest R Mohan/Nirmal Shekar column. But over the last few years, the newspaper has seen its standing dented and gradually eroded by the ‘Times of India’. The perception of the paper as a stoic relic of the past did not help in adding new readers. For a detailed account of the challenges and changes at the newspaper please read this beautifully sourced and reported piece at Forbes India.
The Hindu was also not a prime mover on the web causing it to lose significant eyeballs to a constantly burgeoning online population. Sites like Rediff, First Post and NDTV are stealing prospective Hindu readers every day. To attract eyeballs in the ever-expanding internet, a news site’s 2 best options (outside of pictures of hot chicks of course) are to either offer real-time news or original content. Thehindu.com has not been able to make a compelling case yet on either of these fronts.
Cornered at the intersection of readership loss and systemic changes in the world around them, what does a new editor management team do? It is my reading of the situation that they decided that the best way to stop the bleeding is to cover aggressively and hype those topics that will push the buttons of the median Chennai reader. Also, keep in mind that the easiest way to generate conversation among an online audience is to involve as much polarizing politics and religion as possible. If you’re checking boxes for the aforementioned articles – Check and Check.
Few things get the Chennai household more vociferous than a discussion about the IIT or schools and admission policies. These are topics that have been sewn in to the dinner conversation since the early 70s. By writing around 600 words on these topics and quoting anonymous or unreliable sources, the newspaper gets the eyeballs, the comments section and attention it craves. It makes the newspaper a prominent character in the news cycle and does its best to pull in new readers. For example, the newspaper succeeded in getting me to read them and even write about them. I have not visited the site with any regularity in a while and I clicked on about 20 links on the site today.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, here’s some more obvious flaws in the stories that tell me that this is no serious journalism but the early stages of an attempt to get readers at any cost –
a) We do not know if the kids quoted in the piece on education are real or if they are fictional. We also don’t know how old the kids are, especially the one from PS Senior Secondary school. Would you give the story any credence if these kids were not even teenagers yet? Little kids and really young teenagers echoing their parents’ belief systems blindly is news and controversy now?
b) The entire IIT piece is based on one anonymous source. This is from the article and according to the reporters – Prasanth Radhakrishnan and Vasudha Venugopal. Corroborating information provided by one source with at least one other independent source is a fundamental tenet of reporting. Would Prasanth ad Vasudha publish any thing about any private or public institution based on what one person (who may have inherent biases and vindictiveness) says? Also, nothing asserts a piece’s importance like including the word ‘may’ in the headline. The headline ‘IIT-M may enforce more norms’ could literally be used on every day that the IIT-M has been in existence!
Ways to subsidize education for the vast illiterate masses of India and the restriction of freedom to some of India’s best and brightest at IIT-M are serious topics worthy of introspection. These topics do not have easy answers and contextual in-depth reporting on these would serve society and hold people in power accountable. These are things that very few organizations can pursue and execute. ‘The Hindu’ has the budget and human resources to do this. Instead, they have chosen to join the plethora of sites on the internet that exist solely to poke and prod the frustrated masses on the most controversial topics in the anonymous conflagration that is the internet. Welcome to the Page 3-ization of ‘The Hindu’.
Some ideas for topics to be reported on next week on thehindu.com – “Some Rajini fans don’t get along with Kamal fans” or “Iyengar grandmother disapproves of Iyers”.
P.S – Image of HINDU logo/masthead courtesy thehindu.com and globaltamilnews.net.