New medium is the new message

And Old Media is yet to get it. Modi, helped by new tech, has made traditional news outlets redundant

ajay

Ajay Singh | July 13, 2018


#Namo App   #Facebook   #Twitter   #Narendra Modi   #Social Media   #New Media  
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)

A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Those initiated into English-language journalism were asked to learn this sentence by rote and type it on a typewriter repeatedly to familiarise themselves with the keyboard layout. That was before the advent of computers. This sentence (it’s called pangram as it contains all the letters of the alphabet) was the terra firma on which a reporter would build his edifice of a career in communication. In the first month of training, an English-language journalist would furiously type it out a hundred times a day to memorise the placement of all the keys. In due course, his  or her fingers would move with ease and speed.

But that is an era gone by. In this age of social media where a smartphone and a maximum of 280 characters are all you need to do the trick, this practice of the past has become irrelevant and the brown fox has become as lazy as the lazy dog.

Nostalgia is often nothing more than self-indulgence that provokes grandeurs of delusion. That holds true for the conventional media which had assumed for itself the role of the only channel to conduct the political discourse. That assumption was captured well by Arthur Miller, the great American playwright, when he said a great newspaper is a nation talking to itself – a line that many papers proudly appropriated as their motto and proclaimed over their mastheads. The media called itself the Fourth Estate, the very Soul of Democracy. No wonder, then, that some newspaper editors claimed to be holding the second most important job in the country, imagining that they were shaping the people’s opinion on the great challenges facing the nation and single-handedly influencing the destiny of the republic.

Suffering from this delusion, the conventional media ignored the warning signals coming from technology, which was rapidly opening up other channels of communication. And about a decade or more into the new era, it continues to bury its head in sand, blissfully ignorant of its redundancy while the nation prefers to talk to itself through a variety of new mediums and platforms.

Nothing illustrates it more clearly than the manner in which prime minister Narendra Modi has been using a host of unconventional channels of communication to reach out to the masses and deliver his message. Of late, he has used technology to talk directly with farmers, beneficiaries of the central schemes and upcoming entrepreneurs of digital India. The ease with which his audiences, largely comprising common people, have been interacting with the country’s top political executive is fascinatingly effective. It is altogether an innovative way of establishing connect between the ruler and the ruled.

Granted that much of the discussion happens in controlled environment, but its positives cannot be ignored when an ordinary woman in Raipur gets a chance to speak directly to the PM and narrate her entrepreneurial journey. Similarly, farmers living in the remotest parts of the country get connected with the PM via 50,000-odd common services centres (CSEs) spread across the entire country. In one go, he reaches out to millions through his Narendra Modi app apart from his social media platforms.
Meanwhile, the conventional media is yet to wake up to the irony of the fact that it has to go to these sources for the news for the day.

The PM’s lively interactions with hoi polloi do create an impression of a frank and open political dialogue directly with people who matter in electoral terms. Not only commoners, even to talk with the crème de la crème of society, the old media is hardly the preferred mode of communication. Take for instance the closed-door meeting the PM had with the top chief executive officers (CEOs) of corporate India in Mumbai in June in which he explained his government’s economic policies to them and sought their feedback face to face – which would ensure no nuances are lost in transmission. He directly communicated with corporate honchos to let them know about the government’s expectations of them and road ahead.

There is something unique about this changing mode of communication which is adopted by commoners and ruling elites like fishes to water. It paves the way for two-way communication which empowers the less privileged.

This has grossly marginalised the conventional media which prided itself on having the privilege of exclusive access to corridors of power. The fact that a communicator could create an interactive platform to send and receive messages with the whole nation demonstrates the redundancy of the traditional media that thrived on its supposed connect at least with the elite. That is precisely the reason most media interviews conducted with the country’s top leaders, irrespective of their domains, mostly conform to PR exercises.

Though people still love to watch irreverent and probing inquisition of Indira Gandhi by a BBC journalist in the post-emergency phase, that model of journalism is hardly relevant now. People no longer need an intermediary to convey their messages to the top. In the age of social media, a victim of discrimination at the regional passport office (RPO) in Lucknow could get access to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and get her grievances addressed. (In the process, Sushma Swaraj could get trolled by people with an antediluvian mindset who weigh significantly in numerical strength. That exposes the hideous face of the society and a stark reality.)

This entire exercise is conducted without involvement of a conventional media as a channel of communication though it triggered a political debate. Time was when such ‘campaigns’ were conducted by the print media, followed by the claims of the impact they generated. Now people have taken to leading such campaign themselves, empowered as they are by the new technology. Online petitioning, for example, would be a more effective way of setting things right, rather than sending a Letter to the Editor as used to be the case.

Gone are the days when the traditional format of journalism like interviews or TV debates was considered the effective platforms to conduct politics for leaders. If you have any doubt, look at Arun Jaitley who has been using Facebook posts to disseminate his views on political matters. In terms of reach, this is far more efficient way of disseminating views than writing an op-ed or holding a press conference. In any case, the old media has to willy-nilly report his views next day. Even those less visible on social-media platforms compared to top leaders find conventional tools of journalism nothing but a means to promote their career till they reach the top. The media’s fabled access to newsmakers and its unique position to carry the message from the top are grossly undermined.

This development should not surprise anybody when the list of top ten richest people does not have any old-media baron, and instead had as three tech czars at the very top (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg). Bezos’s acquisition of the Washington Post should summarise the whole new paradigm. 

Modi was ahead of the curve in setting the agenda in the new communication age. His interactions with various social groups through social network platforms emerged as the most powerful medium of communication. Even in his days as the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi used technological tools and conveyed his messages directly to people, over the heads of the conventional media like print and TV networks. No doubt, his messaging proved to be far more effective than the conventional media’s rants. His evaluation of the media’s capability can be gauged by the fact that in his new role, he has discontinued the practice of taking journalists along on the PM’s foreign tours which a select bunch of scribes used to consider as their entitlement.

Modi was the first Indian leader to prioritise social media over traditional media, but others were soon to follow suit. Shashi Tharoor of the Congress, for one, had taken to Twitter much earlier, and has more followers than almost all political leaders. His party’s chief, Rahul Gandhi, too has of late started making news via social media comments. Several chief ministers, as well as political parties, too have joined the trend. 

Of course, no tears need be shed on this gross marginalisation of the conventional media. As technology bridges the psychological distance between the leaders and the led, the conventional media can no longer hold on to its self-indulgent nostalgia as a mirror for the future. The credit will go to Modi for expediting this course correction. Perhaps a rephrasing of “A quick brown fox…” will be in order to evolve an effective conventional media.

A version of this comment has appeared on FirstPost.com.

(The article appears in the July 31, 2018 issue)

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