The Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2020 ranks India at 142 among 180 countries. This poor ranking is attributed to a series of incidences such as the longest electronic curfew in world history in Kashmir, amplification of the spread of fake news and rumours during the pandemic, the addition of communal colour to the spread of the pandemic and so on. Additionally, the quality of news coverage is deteriorating and the public is questioning its credibility.
The media is chasing to get higher Television Rating Point (TRP) in a compromise with media ethics and professionalism. A dramatisation of news, shaping of public opinions, aggressive reporting and become the government’s mouthpiece on sensational topics have gained priority over sensible, informative, objective and diversified news coverage.
But the question arises: what can be done to save the Fourth Estate — a term coined by Edmund Burke to refer to the press and news media? Is the Indian news agency incapable of producing sensible news coverage? The answer to the revival of this flailing state of media rests upon the people of India, not in the form of criticism or ban, but by increasing the demand for unbiased news.
News in India is considered a public good that increases the dependency of media houses on external sources of finance to continue their operation. Thus, it is primarily the business model of television in India that has much to do with low-quality reporting. Looking at the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) tariff order of 2016, news channel face a price ceiling at Rs 5 per month.
On the contrary, it is as high as Rs 12 per month for entertainment channels. Such dismal regulatory mechanisms are not available in developed countries. Comparing revenue earned from subscriptions of news and entertainment channels in developed countries, one may notice that these channels earn about 70%, while in case of India, it is only 36%. This low revenue has pushed Indian media houses to heavily rely on advertisements, TRPs and other such compromising factors.
Similarly, print media, over the years, has increased its pages or reduced the number of news articles to accommodate more and more advertisements. Post pandemic, it was quite visible that the entire print media suffered a huge loss as their revenue from advertisements reduced drastically, leading to job losses.
Coming to the possibility of building credibility of the Indian media, a subscription-based model is a plausible one in that direction. According to IBEF statistics, over-the-top (OTT) platforms have seen a significant increase among Indian viewers. Between March and July 2020, there has been a 30% rise in the number of Indian subscribers on OTT platforms. This bursts the idea of Indian being ignorant of the content being provided to them.
There is a shift in this outlook and quality content is given preferred. However, it is an undeniable fact that the content being produced on Indian news is not comparable to the quality of content being generated by Netflix, Hotstar, Amazon Prime and others available in the market. Thus, solely depending on subscription would not be advisable in the current scenario. But, a combination of subscription and ads could be approached with efforts in the direction of subscription.
For the subscription model to kick-off, Indian media houses have to focus on providing customised news, avoiding misinformation and disinformation to the customers, using a freemium model, and considering citizens’ inputs as citizen journalists. However, a question arises with the increasing number of news platforms but limited disposable incomes: how can we prevent the media from falling again under the trap of increasing their subscription rate?
And here’s where the concept of ‘pay as you read’ comes forth. Readers only have to pay for the news articles that are of their interest. This will increase competition among all media houses in producing quality news with a deeper analysis of the situation before it can be presented in front of the audience. The cost of each article should not be high enough to make it difficult to access for those in the bottom of the pyramid.
Such a strategy of publishing content to appeal to the masses will considerably raise the bar of the slowly dying Indian media, thereby minimising their dependency on TRP-focused sensational news.