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Ashok Malik on blogs and the media

Way back in January, when the SEA-EAT blog was taking up all our (the SEA-EAT team's) time, we were coping with a lot of international media attention. International, that is, except for Indian media, who didn't seem to have a clue this was happening in their backyard. (Of course, they were busy covering the aftermath of the Tsunami, and most hadn't heard of blogs, but still.) Many of the journos we spoke to, barring the ones on a tech beat, hadn't a clue what blogs were, and we each evolved our own canned explanations; a kind of Blog 101 if you will.

Nilanjana Roy and Devangshu Datta, the friends whose hospitality and broadband connection I was abusing at that time, were, besides quietly helping me cope and pointing to sources, also evangelising the effort to their numerous media contacts. Ashok Malik called to wish them for the New Year, and DD quickly told him about tsunamihelp. Ashok spoke to me for a few minutes, asked a few searching questions (I distinctly remember the relief I felt at not having to explain what a blog was), and said someone would be in touch shortly. The Indian Express was, I think, the first Indian publication to write about SEA-EAT.

Last month, Ashok got in touch to get a little background for a talk he was to give at the Asian School of Journalism, Chennai, on blogs and what they meant for media. Here, with his permission, is the text.

My topic today is on blogs and, roughly, the challenges and opportunities the Internet has in store for traditional newspaper wallahs. We began yesterday on, I thought, a somewhat sombre note: with dire thoughts on where print is and still more dire thoughts on where it's headed.

I must say I offer a somewhat different perspective. I came into the profession 15 years ago, spending 10 of them as a journalist, until, at the turn of the millennium, somebody changed my name to "content provider". I've heard obituaries of print or of serious print if you prefer from, almost, the day I entered the newsroom for the first time. How valid are such fears? I would think they're exaggerated.

For a start, the invention of the Internet and the world wide web have made me more optimistic about the future of my calling, if I may use the word, than at any time since I became a journalist. Simply put, what it means is that every new print journalist doesn't inevitably have to throw his hands up at some stage and succumb to that job offer from television. He's got a fresh lease of life.

Let's not confuse the possible or even emergent longterm decline of print with the death of the written word. The first is happening; the second is not. The written format – or typewritten format – is only evolving, adapting to a new framework.

This change is visible in the way we present and consume news, views, ideas and all that is the stock-in-trade of journalism. It is changing, for instance, language, making it, depending on your point of view, more accessible or more low-brow. Yesterday, a speaker here pointed to the shortening of editorial page articles from 1,200 words to 800 words as an unfortunate example of new trends in journalism.

Frankly, I think we have to live with that evolution, live with the fact that attention spans are shorter, the Internet – where the future of the written word lies – is comfortable with concise pieces. If you can't say something in 800 words, don't pretend you could have said it in 1,200.

Again, not that is evolution in language is unique. In 1994, I remember, I moved to New Delhi and joined the Hindustan Times, Manoj Joshi's paper. Going through archival copies in the library, one day, I came across a paper from 1978 or 1979. The lead headline on the sports page read: "Miss Navratilova defeats Mrs Evert Lloyd". This was, of course, the Wimbledon final. Now if a sub-editor were to headline that story today, he would probably write: "Martina smashes Chris". The presentation and the idiom would be different; journalism ever needs new hooks to grabs its readers.

That evolution from stodgy to snappy headlines must have anguished old school journalists. It was, after all, part of a package that saw sports coverage leap from page 17 or 18 to page one, that saw a shake-up in the hierarchy of news. It made the good journalist's job that much harder. Yet did it finish him, do him out of work, lead to social catastrophe, end civilisation as we know it? Not a chance. Rest assured, neither will page 3 nor overenthusiastic stories on Sunjay and Karishma Kapoor.

Good journalism will always find a way, in newspapers and – after April 2040, if you go by Patrick Walters' sell-by date – on the Internet, on individual initiative-based newsites, and through the medium of blogs.

Why am I so sold on blogs? I find them an awfully exciting phenomenon. A blog, as everybody here knows, is a sort of personal website on which the blogger uploads pretty much anything he wants – his views, a short essay, criticism of a social phenomenon, a dialogue with his pet dog, links to articles he may have read and liked (or disliked).

Increasingly blogs are emerging as:
• alternatives or complements to newspaper editorial pages;
• news sources on anything from the intensity of disaster in a particular area to stories not deemed "sexy" enough by the mainstream media;
• community platforms and networks, just as newspapers, particularly in smaller towns, once were, before the men in suits took over.

Lest I be accused of fabricating evidence, I'll give you a few examples of Indian blogs that I visit. Amit Varma is freelance journalist who lives in Bombay , writes on cricket for cricinfo.com and on libertarianism for the Asian Wall Street Journal. He also runs indiauncut.blogspot.com , a blog that has been variously described as the "second Mrs Varma" – that description came, interestingly, from the first Mrs Varma! – and an obsessive but harmless hobby, like say, stamp collection.

indiauncut is Amit's personal opinion page, his views – eminently readable ones, I may add – on cricket, society, economics, politics. indiauncut is his way of telling his friends what he's been reading and where, if they click on the hyperlink, they could find it on the Net. indiauncut is also, when Amit can afford it or is motivated enough, his personal news bulletin. Immediately after the December 26 tsunami, Amit spent about 10 days travelling through the worst hit regions of Tamil Nadu, blogging reports where he could, when he could, writing one paragraph or a 1,000 words, as the stories came to him.

Earlier this week, I called Amit Varma. How was your tsunami experience different from a newspaper reporter's, I asked. "There was no word stipulation," he said, "I could go above 1,000 or write below 200 words. I could quote one person, and not wait to get three other quotes to 'balance' the story. I could write as I saw it. It was a step up in my evolution as a journalist."

The media birth of the tsunami was, however, a qualitatively different blog: tsunamihelp.blogspot.com had a million and a half hits in a fortnight starting December 27, acting, as an insider put it, as a "giant clearing house of information."

Put together by an ad copywriter from Mumbai – he eventually had more than 200 people helping him, all online, ranging from a Sri Lankan TV executive to a web designer from Boston and an academic in Holland – this blog put volunteers in touch with agencies, reunited families by matching posts of those missing each other, provided links to where you could turn to for information, updated its news pages with its band of volunteer or citizen reporters.

In times of disaster, the town hall in ancient Athens must have played a similar role. tsunamihelp was classic newspapering, as the Americans would put it. It defined the public sphere Robin Jeffrey so thoughtfully reminded us of yesterday.

Funnily, reversing the traditional pattern, the team behind tsunamihelp provided the template for katrinahelp.blogspot.com, after the recent New Orleans disaster. An Indian media product, if that be the word, was the prototype for an American one; katrinahelp had a million visitors in two days.

Yesterday we heard of the many negatives of globalisation, and of how it skews the proverbial world information order. I would like to believe if offers us new opportunities. katrinahelp is my shining example.

It will be argued, correctly, that blogs often amount to desktop journalism: a bunch of opinionated people sitting before their computers and inflicting their opinions on the world. I first noted the phenomenon of blogs in early 2004, while attempting to follow the debate across election year America. This past year's presidential election was, as you no doubt know, a deeply ideological battle, fought between two very different ideas of America. The country was divided as it seldom has been.

In my estimation, the blogs reflected this better and faster than the newspapers. They were written by individuals, they were by definition fiercely partisan, even prejudiced: pro-Democrat, anti-Republican, vilifying Kerry, crucifying Bush. They gave you raw public assessment, without intermediaries and gatekeepers in the form of reporters, columnists and news editors. The blogs were a great barometer of America 's wrenching debate; they were also, if you were open-minded about these things, a huge resource for journalists attempting to understand the election.

Are blogs as accountable as newspapers? Not in a formal sense, I agree. Yet, in keeping with the anarchic framework of perfect competition, the blogosphere offers its natural corrective to factual errors – in the form of instant comments, complaints on other blogs. It's a society that monitors itself.

Isn't all this so reflective of the early practitioners of journalism? That initial "magic" of newspapers, to borrow Robin Jeffrey's evocative expression, owed so much to the fact that editors and proprietors, or editor-proprietors, spoke their mind. They didn't even pretend to be unbiased.

In the 17th century, around the time Daniel Defoe was publishing his Review, the early British newspapers were pamphlets. In America , a century a bit later, Hamilton and Jefferson were patronising newspapers that routinely backed one and ridiculed the other. Turn to Satyajit Ray's Charulata. Its editor protagonist, an enlightened 19th century Bengali bhadralok, saw his newspaper as a vehicle for his world view. Tilak's Kesri and Swaraj were no different.

That crackle and excitement used to be the lifeblood of newspapers. With blogs, are we at the cusp of a brave new age?

This may sound paradoxical, but the "say it as it is" school of newspapers ran into problems when they began making money, discovered "marketshare" and carved out cities between two or three survivors. Dumbing down and moderation are, after all, two sides of the same coin. A newspaper that wants to sell to all types of people, leftwingers, rightwingers, socialists, liberals, even, to use the current bugbear term, neo-liberals, tries to alienate none. As such, it often says nothing, takes no position – but makes lots of money.

I'm told at least one blogger in America attracts advertising worth $ 10,000 a month and others have got lecture and book contracts, as indeed have some Indian bloggers. In September, yahoo.com hired former CNN journalist Kevin Sites to travel alone to conflict zones across the world for a year-long series as a SoJo – solo journalist. In essence, Sites is being paid to write a blog.

Citizen journalists, with their text blogs and video blogs, were paid by British newspapers for reports after the July London bombings

Are these flickering exceptions or do they hold a beacon to a new treasure room that journalism is at the edge of? Honestly, I don't know. Someday the MBAs who pay people like me our salaries – and who in turn are paid their salaries by people like Mr N. Ram – will finally pronounce judgment on a possible revenue model for blogs. Who knows, they may even seek to tamper with the format.

Till then log on to the blogs. You might just be onto the biggest story of the rest of our careers.

Talk at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, October 15, 2005.

© Ashok Malik.
Comments:
Hello Zigzackly,

Thanks for posting it here. Ashok Malik is one of the best Indian journalist and it was great reading his views on blogs and journalism.

Somehow the idea of "citizen journalist” is so compelling. In fact it would have raised the antenna of the likes of N. Ram, as the biases being peddled by ideologues with their newspapers would now be challenged and corrected by bloggers from every where.

Off – course the sense of responsibility would also rise as bloggers would require to frame their own ethical codes and live up to them as best as they can. I would say that we are not there, but surely getting there. And once we do, it would be The End of ideologues and bad ideologies.

Once again thanks and long live CITIZEN JOURNALISM
 
Blogging is the start of citizen journalism, yet sitting among ourselves we cannot think that this is the future already. PC and internet penetration levels in India are abysmal and the amount of tech, nay, computer unsavvy people out there at the senior echelons of journalism will think of blogs as well, another stupid worm. Just look at Ashok's former editor, or for that matter an editor with a large daily who still writes his articles longhand. While blogs being revolutionary and influential in themselves is not debatable - the recent ruckus with Sony and the copy-protected CD proving that - we have a long way to go in India. And while I admire Ashok as a person I have known for a very long time, I think he is being a bit too enthusiastic. However, I might be proved wrong in a few years time, if BSNL's plan for wiring up the country do ahead as planned, or maybe, just maybe one day it is possible to read a blog on your mobile phone.
 
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