Media Matters #3: Enter the Excel jockey

There is only one teeny problem with TimesNow anchor Navika Kumar: She talks so fast, so incessantly, and at such high decibels that her mind never manages to catch up and make itself heard.

Late last week, Navika Kumar hosted a debate on Vande Mataram, which Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath wants to mandate as India’s answer to the Tebbit Test. On the same day in Gorakhpur, the UP constituency Adityanath has represented in the Lok Sabha since 1998, 31 children died in the span of 24 hours of what early reports said is a combination of encephalitis and the cutting off of the hospital’s oxygen supply for non-payment of bills.

As the Vande Mataram debate gathered sound and fury in the TimesNow studio, one of the invited guests sought to question BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra on the Gorakhpur tragedy. “This is an issue that is very sensitive,” Patra said in exasperation after the nth attempt to bring up the tragedy, “but for God’s sake, we are debating about an issue that is also equally sensitive, that is, Vande Mataram.”

At this point, Navika Kumar cut in:

“We understand that today is a sad day because 30 children have lost their lives in Gorakhpur in a hospital because of certain conditions of lack of oxygen supply, we understand that. Let us not beat our chests in a manner as if something like this has never happened in Akhilesh Yadav’s time. When the debate is on Vande Mataram you are bringing up this issue because you are running away from the real issue.”

There was considerable outrage on social media over Times Now choosing to debate the nationalism issue as opposed to the Gorakhpur tragedy. (While on this, I think folks to the left of center have to be more selective about which of the many right-of-centre rabbit-holes they want to plunge headlong down.)

In this instance, the outrage was misplaced. Debate topics are decided in advance and guests briefed accordingly; you cannot invite people to the studio to speak to one question and then switch them around to something else at the last minute — not if you want any semblance of coherence. (Whether there is any coherence at all in TV debates is a whole other question.)

More to the point, Gorakhpur was a late-breaking story – verified information was only then beginning to trickle in; there was as yet no clarity over how many had died over what time span and owing to what cause. That is to say, there was nothing that could be “debated” at that point in time.

For a studio host, there are two options available at such times: 1. If the media house believes a late-breaking issue is of overweening national importance, cancel the debate and anchor live reportage with updates from the field and insights from those who are able to provide it or, 2. Make a statement at the very start, something on the lines of “With great sadness, we note the deaths of 31 children in a hospital in Gorakhpur over the past 48 hours. Our reporters are in the field investigating the contours of this tragedy; our hearts and prayers are with the children who died and with their parents. As the situation clarifies and more information becomes available, we will bring you the story in all its detail. Meanwhile, we ask for your thoughts and prayers for those unfortunate children (Hashtag thoughtsandprayers — NOT!), and we move on for now to our pre-scheduled debate topic, which is…”

That would have been the sensitive way to handle it. But no — Navika Kumar kicked off her intervention with gratuitous whataboutism. A senseless death today is no less tragic because similar deaths have happened in the past — in fact, if it is part of a long-standing pattern then it is even more imperative to ask why, to dig deep into the systemic causes and push for the required remedies.

She then layered heartlessness on top of that thoughtlessness by her choice of words, when she suggested that the deaths of children are a “distraction” from the “real issue” – to wit, whether we should mandatorily sing a song very few of us, including ministers in Adityanath’s government, know the words to or can hold the tune of. (Try an experiment: Ask the next 10, or 25, or 100 people you meet at work or at play to sing Vande Mataram without recourse to a YouTube refresher course and see how many of them pass the test.)

The Vande Mataram debate, which played out in TV studios and on social media with the usual ferocity sans clarity, is a classic example of a manufactured issue, a distraction. For the government, it is red meat for the base (or, since “meat” is a contentious subject these days, call it beetroot for the base).

For the editors of television channels, it is a handy way to while away a prime-time hour without needing to waste any thought or resources in reportage or time in nuanced analysis –much sound and fury signifying nothing except, they hope, some TRPs. (A competing example from the same period of time comes from the Republic, which produced considerable hot air over a similar issue.)

Hold that thought; I’ll circle back to it later in course of this series.

A broad-brush history of where the media is at today can be told through three stages:

  1. The media looked for newsworthy events which it then reported in all its particulars
  2. From this, the media moved to dressing up events, giving it a color and an interest it did not intrinsically possess – the point I was driving at towards the close of the previous post in this series when I spoke of the jashn ka mahaul
  3. The media began to manufacture its own “news”, in the process ignoring all that was really happening altogether or, at best, giving it only cursory attention

How did we get here?

In mid-2001, the CEO and publisher of a website called his senior editors to his room for a meeting. (NB: To the extent possible, I will through this series name names. In this one instance, however, I’ll leave the identities vague, because to reveal more detail could have a detrimental impact on the careers of others.)

In his prefatory remarks, he complimented the editors for their passion and their hard work. But, he said, they had not understood that times were changing and their thinking needed to change with it. With that preamble, he moved to his prepared slide show.

The first slide was labeled PTI, and it showed, in graphic form, how many stories the website received each month from that news agency, how many of those stories made it to the site, and how many page views those stories cumulatively resulted in.

The second slide was labeled ‘Columnists’, and it showed the same sort of detail as the first slide. You can extrapolate the math – a news agency sends thousands of stories over its wires in any given month, of which hundreds are used; the website in question had six handpicked columnists, ergo six columns a week, 24 columns a month. The readership numbers obviously reflected the imbalance.

The next slide was labeled “Costs”, and showed two figures. Against PTI, the cost was Rs 90,000. Against columnists, it was Rs 1.2 lakh.

Do you see where you are going wrong, the publisher asked – you are not being cost-effective. You need to cut out the columnists, which saves you all that money, and you need to put your editorial resources into processing and uploading more of the agency stories we are paying good money for but not using.

That is the smart way of doing it, he argued – on the one hand, you keep costs down and on the other, you raise traffic numbers up. That, he said, is the secret of journalism.

The editors argued. Any fool with money to hire a server can similarly sign up agencies and replicate what we do, they pointed out – what makes people come to a particular website is not the agency content they can get everywhere but the specialized, high-touch, differentiated content. The voice.

The argument was well made. It was also futile – the columnists’ budget, the publisher told them, is being cut as of this month, and instructions had already been sent to the finance department accordingly.

In January 2010 I joined Yahoo as Managing Editor. In a series of early conversations the Managing Director, Arun Tadanki, outlined the existing state: Yahoo India had at the time around 24 million unique visitors coming to the site every month, and 175 million page views.

We need, Arun said, to become a high-trafficked site – what do you think our target should be? 500 million page views a month for starters, I said. (If you get to that figure in 12 months I will buy you an apartment, Arun said then. He was joking – I know this because we breached that target in five months, and hit 1 billion page views that November, and I still live in a rented house).

There was a point to our discussion. For a website (or any media operation for that matter) to be successful, it needs to trigger a need in the mind of the reader. You need, at some point in the day, to want to visit the website because you know that what you find will be worth your time. (Management types talk of “opportunity cost” to explain this – I’ll spare you the jargon, though).

To achieve this end you need two things: news done right as your core, and differentiated content (the in-depth stories, the analysis, the columns, special stories and features, the essential showcases of the skills and talents of that particular editorial team, which allows it to stand apart from the rest). There is a natural order here of cart and horse – it is the differentiated content you will remember and return for, and while you are there you will also consume the more generic content. And the only way to know if your content mix is working is by measuring traffic.

In the first couple of years, we upped the way we reported the news and cleaned up the user interface to make discovery easier and more organic. We added a slate of hand-picked columnists, each an expert in his particular field. The section – expertly curated by the award-winning columnist and editor Amit Varma — produced a new column every day, six days a week.

We then added a section we called ‘Originals’ – deep, well-researched longform narratives on issues that existed outside the day’s headlines. This section was helmed by two ace writer/editors – the wife-husband team of Nisha Susan and Gaurav Jain, who came together as Grist Media. Around the same period,  the talented photo-journalist Arati Kumar-Rao signed on and began a deep, ongoing exploration into the state of India’s rivers.

Each of these initiatives was expensive – the cost measured not merely in rupees but also in manpower. On each occasion, Arun asked for a thorough briefing on the idea and the requirements; on each occasion, he said yes. The only condition he laid down was that overall costs should not exceed the allocated budget.

Our footfalls increased exponentially — we were regularly topping the 1.5 billion page views per month mark by the time I quit in November 2014, and unique users were up to around 32.5 million. Our narratives won awards — the first, and only, time in Yahoo India’s history when its content won accolades from the industry.

And then, almost overnight, it all changed. Yahoo decided to centralize editorial functioning in Sunnyvale “to improve efficiency”, and appointed as head of global media someone whose background was in brand marketing. A new process was instituted. This is how it worked:

If I wanted to assign someone to do an in-depth investigation into, for instance, the systemic causes of the floods that devastate Assam year after year and what these lethal disruptions do to the lives of the people in that area, I had to fill out an excel sheet.

I had to specify: 1. What the story is about; 2. how long the reporting will take; 3. how many words the finished narrative will contain; 4. how many images and video clips will accompany the text; 5. how many unique visitors will see the story; 6. how many page views this will result in; 7. the total cost including travel and related expenses plus payment to the reporter; 8. the section the story will appear in; 9. the current CPM/advertising rate on that section; 10. and finally, deriving from those figures, whether the final ‘product’ would be revenue positive, neutral, or negative (number of page views into the advertising rate per page minus cost).

Filling that sheet in, for just one narrative, could consume half a day of your time, and after all that effort it was all bullshit anyway: How do you, before a reporter has even gone to the field, know how many words the story will span and how many images and videos it will incorporate? Which editor can tell you precisely how many people will click on any given story?

But you filled all this in and you sent it off to Sunnyvale, where your submission took its place in the global queue (Yahoo at the time had operations in over 30 countries). Once a week, the designated authorities reviewed these submissions. There were seven such reviewers, only one of whom was an editor. If any one of the seven decided to reject it for any reason (or even without assigning any reason), the project was killed. If all seven okayed it, the submission then went to CEO Marissa Meyer for her approval.

If Meyer approved it, you went out and bought a lottery ticket on the theory that you should always ride your luck hard when it is hot, and then you moved on to step two: You wrote a brief about the project, attached the global approval, and sent it to the procurement team. The head of that department reviewed your submission and arranged a meeting or conference call to “further understand” what you were trying to do. Once that understanding was achieved – another miracle, try explaining ‘content’ to someone who has never spent a minute in a newsroom – the procurement team passed on the details to the legal team. Cue another conference call to “iron out the details”. The legal team then prepared a contract with all specifics. It was usually about 20 pages long – and it could take a couple of weeks, if they could be persuaded to put a rush on it.

A physical copy of the contract was then sent to the reporter you intended to commission. She had to sign it in duplicate and courier one copy back to the legal team. Only after the legal team received the signed contract could she begin work on her story (On one occasion, knowing that the approval from on high was coming, I commissioned a reporter to go ahead on a story.. When the time came for payment, the legal team looked at the dates of the reportage and decreed that since the work had been done before the contract was in place, it could not be paid for. I ended up reimbursing the reporter out of my own pocket).

Think about that process for a minute – what it entailed was that if you had an idea today, you jumped through all these various hoops and about one month down the line, if everything moved fast, you knew whether you could do it or not. This, in an industry where today’s news is only fit for wrapping fish tomorrow.

Meanwhile, all the existing initiatives – first the columns, then Arati Kumar-Rao’s exploratory narrative (which, by then, was being noticed and applauded by among others double-Pulitzer winner Paul Salopek) and the Grist narratives – were all terminated, one after the other. (In a classic case demonstration of smearing a person or an initiative you wanted to kill, the number two person in the content procurement team went around telling people within and outside the organization that I, as editor, was dreaming up these “costly” projects and farming them off to my friends so I could get a rake-off. That person is now MD of a web operation.)

The reason for the detail above is that it graphically illustrates a tipping point in media operations. Veteran editors will tell you that even ten years ago, the process was far simpler. At the start of the year, the editor and his team worked out all the anticipated expenses, including special initiatives they intended to launch or take to the next level, new hires, technological upgrades and all the rest of it. The editor then submitted that as his operating budget.

The publisher and his finance team did due diligence; occasionally he and the editor argued the need for a particular line item, and at the end of the exercise the publisher assigned an editorial budget for the year. It was the responsibility of the editor, from that point on, to produce the best possible content, and he had both the right and the authority to deploy his budget to that goal, and to make any changes to various line items based on the need of the moment. The publisher’s only brief to him was that he produce quality without over-running the budget. In other words, the editor had within broad guardrails the freedom to shape his paper, or his site, as best he was able.

The entry of the bean-counters into editorial operations diluted that autonomy. A new deity was installed in the editorial room: ROI. And the excel-jockeys became its high priests.

Return on Investment became the sole criterion – and, as shown in the Yahoo example, it was carried to ridiculous extremes, with predictably disastrous results.

This, in turn, pushed editors and reporters into a whole new way of working, and resulted in us collectively getting to where we are now – a world where the reader says “I don’t trust the media… I can’t find the real news any more… Everything I read is publicity material… Paid news… Fake…”. The how and why of this is the subject of my next installment.

NB: I have drawn here on my personal experience for illustrative examples. Every journalist/editor operating today, in pretty much every media house, has her own stories to tell, some of them truly horrifying. I know a lot of my peers, and am privy to many such stories – but those are not mine to tell. The only point I need to make here is: my experiences, detailed above, are normative; they are not outliers, extremes.


10 thoughts on “Media Matters #3: Enter the Excel jockey

  1. Pingback: Media Matters #4: The rise of the pseudo-event | Smoke Signals

  2. Dear Sir,

    1.Got caught up with work;so read your exceptional column today!

    2.I had,earlier, read the P Gopichand interview in Scroll;have had the great fortune of interacting with him 7 years ago in Atul, Valsad, Gujarat,where P V Sindhu won her first ranking badminton tournament…challenged for funds,his own house/family jewelry was hypothecated to the banks for loans,to run his coaching academy.

    3.Two quotes leapt out of the interview:-

    “For me, when we look at sport and the challenges, I think, always it should be people first, programme next and infrastructure last…”

    ‘I am not saying that a system that has sub-standard people will produce results. The one criticism of system driven approach is it can lead to sub-standard people getting more power and that has to be avoided”.

    4.Along with ROI,ROTI,ROMI…,the next three words you often hear are…stakeholders,systems,and processes…and see where yahoo is today.

    5.The media,education,sports,businesses…all are infected with the same normative viruses;is it so very difficult to trust people?

    • Hi, Sekhar — thanks for the kind words. I agree with your central point, and I’d take it one step further: the reason you hear such words used so often is simply this. Industry, and that includes the media, has increasingly begun to reward mediocrity. People fail upwards, and end up occupying chairs too big for them. They are incapable of performing their assigned roles, and so resort to such abstractions, unquantifiables, to create a smokescreen to shroud their own serial inefficiencies. Newsroom language is a perfect example: We once talked of stories, ideas, and how to do them right; today we speak of processes, and “improving efficiency”, and “streamlining the content chain” — say-nothing words that have the advantage of sounding superficially profound, without however tying you down to any real, measurable outcome.

  3. Well, at least to me, that does not seem to be the only problem with Navika Kumar. Well, her name itself is problematic. I could understand The Bespectacled Cretin calling her Naaaaaavika, but she herself has settled down admirably to calling herself the Boatwoman (er.. boat people?) .. Not the Navika or ‘newness’ or ‘novelty’ that her parents who named her must have imagined. Of course, if it fits…

    Progressive, methinks.. as in Navayuga.. or as in Naavayuga.. the boat age. Wheee!! A better metaphor for the Floating World..

    • Not getting into Navika. She is merely a very visible, obvious symptom of a much larger malaise. She is interesting only in what her behavior says about the pressure to emulate — she is desperately trying to fill the vacuum left by Arnab, rather than establish her own identity. I’d rather stay focused on the landscape itself, mate.

      • No, no. Not at all, my apologies. I don’t even have TV, so there is that. However, it was just a silly little digression on my part, not to detract from the larger issue that you have raised (as well as the idea of emulation etc).
        Appreciate your thoughts on this and please don’t get distracted by my random silliness at times. (Q: Why has it not become fashionable for journalists and mediapersons to take a stand against the ruling dispensation, if the “jashn ka mahaul” and dressing up stories, or emulating formulaic topics is so successful in generating TRP or readership? It happened once with IE and its “journalism of courage” during the Emergency and all reporters aspired to be just as upright and immovable. Why is it not happening when they can clearly see, for example Ravish Kumar and his growing fan following? If self-preservation were on their mind, in spite of their corporate backers and pressures, why would they not at least pretend to be fair and balanced or aggressive towards what might be unpopular government policies? Just fear? Or a misconceived belief in the popularity of the current dispensation? Hopefully you will address those too in the next few articles in this series. Thanks for all of this).

        • A nuanced answer to your central question would be book-length. But, broadly, two reasons: One of the primary sources of revenue these days is government advertising. There was for instance a news report recently, about how a sum of over 1000 crore was spent publicising Modi. Keep in mind this is just one aspect of government ad-spend — then there are the generic ads, then the ads put out by various states to hype their own accomplishments, it all adds up. Where do you suppose this money is going? Mostly, to the media. It is a very big pie, and if you want a slice of it, you toe the line. The corollary is equally true: If you take too harsh a stand opposing the government, you end up on the wrong side of income tax raids and all the other tools the government has at its disposal to harass you with. So from the publisher’s point of view, it is better to play the government’s fiddle for it, than to take a stand against.

          That attitude percolates into newsrooms. Job security does not exist in this profession — look at the number of layoffs there has been in the media in recent times. Therefore, purely for self-preservation, a journalist would rather pander to his publisher’s interests, than do the kind of journalism that could attract adverse attention from the powers that be.

          If this becomes the culture among the seniors in the newsroom, then the baby journos, the ones coming into the profession new, absorb this almost unconsciously. And that shapes how they grow as journalists. So we end up breeding a class of journalists — the newsroom leaders of tomorrow — who are temperamentally tuned to turning out fluff rather than do the hard work of research and reporting that leads to intelligent questioning of the government.

          A Ravish, by the way, is an outlier, an exception to a very widely prevalent mindset. You brought up the emergency — think for a moment of the leading lights of journalism then. With the exception of Vinod Mehta, the best of that lot are still alive — but look where they are and what they are doing. One example of many: MJ Akbar, who, as a young and vibrant editor at Sunday magazine, spearheaded the brilliant coverage of the Bhagalpur blindings.

          • Absolutely.
            But this argument goes to show how crucial a BBC like institution is in India. (Forget Prasar Bharti and the dreams of the 90s of making it an independent body. The very first head was an old friend of mine, and even though a complete bigot, he was once upon a time a fearless journalist in the FPJ… or maybe not, who knows. I knew him as a young boy.. and maybe I am mistaken.. )

            Should ad-spend dictate the newsroom’s activities? I don’t know. It is impossible to judge people by their actions to make it commercially viable or to make it truly ethical media. The ad question will always remain, unless that too has some body governing the rules of where the adspend has to go. Nah, just grounds for more influence-peddling and corruption of another sort.

            About punitive action however I have a few examples to put up in reply. Maheshwar Peri comes to mind, first off. Goenka is, of course, the best known example. Now, the NDTV action was no doubt precipitate, but no one questions whether there was any hanky-panky at all. They pick the wrong battles at the wrong times. And suddenly they want the rest of the media to huddle together and circle their wagons to face the “onslaught”. This division, to my mind, is one of the root causes of the lack of unity in the media. They run with their agenda until they get into trouble and then call foul. (I might add, that is very much like our present opposition as well).
            Maybe they just do not have the moral authority to face any kind of punitive action at all. Too many skeletons in the news morgues.

            You are right, I should not have mentioned Ravish at all, but for the fact that Ravish Kumars are not conjured out of thin air. They do not just appear, something must have made them what they are. Not just Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi as a role model (I am sure even Ravish came across that name much later in his professional life) or an Ed Murrow.. somewhere in their career they must have crossed paths with real role-models, or at least experienced it in some way. I admit, Ravish is an outlier. But how does he even exist, then? How is he immune to anything? I don’t believe it is just because he is completely clean and unassailable, but because he may be too insignificant to the powers that be. The sad truth is, after all, the impunity with which everything is taking place or happening. Nothing fazes them, no matter how big the scandal. There is some other spin or some other sensation which is going to replace anything within a day or two.

            The less said about MJ Akbar the better. Maybe there is something else to that too. Do you remember the atmosphere or anti-Congressism then? I think all of our modern politics and current events could be attributed to that. The cynicism that set in after the Janata experiment ruined it for everyone. Most turned opportunist long before this. But the common factor was the anti-Congress feeling. Even with Rajdeep Sardesai reporting during the elections in the 90s outside the Congress Party office, “The Congress still remains the party of sycophants… ” he shakes his head, as if there is so much disgust within him. Which is quite correct, but his own feelings came out quite openly at the time. I still remember that, late at night.
            People like Vir Sanghvi.. Trehan.. I simply don’t know what happened. There was so much of world-class investigative journalism at the time. The 80s, especially. Sunday, as you mentioned, Caravan, Illustrated Weekly (I am never sure whether to remember that rag fondly or with disgust), Onlooker.. To my mind, the only magazine that somehow carries on the old form of journalism (to an extent) is Caravan now. The Week turned out to be such a disappointment after years of crying out hoarse to people that journalism should be like that, like they pursue – only to find it turning into some ghastly weekly now. Mindless. Outlook when it came was impressive, but later one got the feeling that stories were some sort of blackmail – they put out a stinging article once and when there is some kind of furore, then they go the opposite directions.. (One apt example would be “When Icons Wept” story). Wishy washy journalism.. thaali ka baingan sort of work.

            But, yes, I agree with all that you said. Maybe I am just indulging in wishful thinking that there yet might be a rebellion in the ranks of the journalists and that like the US media, there might really be a turn-around (of sorts, I am not too enamoured of the US media either.. they created this mess in the first place and now shout themselves hoarse that all this is unacceptable. Well, you asked for it and you got it.. not unlike our own people and country).

            Thank you for the reply. Apologies for the long reply in return.

  4. So now I know why you quit Yahoo India.
    Was always wondering what happened to all those riveting columns.. why, all of a sudden they started drying.

    Too bad.
    The loss is ours.. the junta.

    • The larger loss is the gradual erosion of informed opinion, of nuance, from the public discourse. Sad, but that is the world we live in.

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