Editorial Independence vs. Financial Realism: When the hand that feeds extracts a pound of flesh …

In this era of free content, subscription fees can’t keep publications afloat. So, advertisement, more than ever, is the lifeblood of professional journalism. But, in order to survive, is journalism becoming nothing more than a promotional and marketing tool for the funders?  How does independent and credible journalism survive?

I get sniggered at a lot, usually behind my back, for having a spiritual Guru. But whenever I am in a dilemma I bow before His framed photograph on my desk and ask Him to clear my head.

Usually He doesn’t. Not directly at least. So I turn to my copy of a tiny booklet of His teachings that I carry around. Whatever page opens up, I decide, contains the answer to my immediate question.

To queries like, “Should I demand a pay raise at work?” The answer that invariably pops up is, “Nijer jonno kichhu cheyona.” (Don’t ask for anything for yourself). This divine instruction has stopped me from approaching successive bosses with the ignoble proposition of paying me more (consequently keeping my salary so low that the humility He was trying to instill in me had established itself automatically without much effort).

Alas, I am repeatedly confronted with another of His commands which poses more dilemmas than it solves “Do not express your views on something about which you do not know the whole truth.” Um…”the whole truth”? I am a journalist by profession, for God’s sake, I find myself telling my Guru exasperatedly. It’s part of my job to form (AND EXPRESS) provisional views about things based on whatever bits of information is available!

When we rush to the spot of an incident to report the facts, don’t we just scratch the surface? With the evening deadline breathing down our necks, don’t we, much like Andrew Marvell’s  timeless words, just constantly hear “Time’s winged chariots hurrying near”?

Of course we try to gather as much information as possible, cramming into the limited time and space dozens of voices and views from eye eyewitnesses or experts; facts and figures from administrators and authorities. But long after we have filed our stories and even after the pages have “gone to bed” (to use the trade jargon) don’t we find ourselves haunted by niggling doubts and nagging questions about the WHOLE truth?

Today, few publications dedicate the time and money to investigate in-depth into their stories, barring a few major ones. But to be fair, it is not really feasible to do so.

In the day of social media when news and views – much of it even fake news and frenzied views – transmit in lightspeed around the world, the professional media (whether print or digital) must keep pace. News must be fed instantly and passed on through every imaginable channel of communication.

The lack of “wholeness” of a news item thus transmitted, however, is not the main problem.  It can even be pardoned as an occupational hazard.

The real danger is the encroachment into news of content that promotes the interests of  particular people or entities, especially those who provide financial support to the publication through advertisement (such as corporations and governments). In this era of free content, subscription fees can’t keep publications afloat. So advertisement, more than ever is the lifeblood of professional journalism. But when the advertisers claim their pound of flesh (by essentially asking the “news” to be a marketing vehicle) and publications are ready to oblige, then the news can no longer even strive to be the truth, much less the “whole truth” – in fact, it becomes free of the truth.

Having said that, how is a publication supposed to survive, if it refuses to give in to the diktat of its lifeblood suppliers? Isn’t that like biting the hand that feeds it?

Ideally, the reporter or editor should not have to think about that. Traditionally it was the job of the business and marketing departments to worry about revenue and profit margins. Even though reporters and editors were also paid from the company coffers, it was expected that they would take independent stances – often critical of the very sources of the company’s income (whether corporate or government) – and publications that followed this principle were often hailed for practicing what was called “credibility” in journalism. However, from the point of view of the aforementioned “business and marketing” people,  this could easily seem unreasonable.

I have turned the pages of the booklet of teachings of my Guru for a solution.

I’ll reveal it in my next post here at Cuckoo News. In the meantime, for different perspectives you can enter your comments below.

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