India’s ‘Bully Pulpit’ Media in a Time of Digital Revolution

Author: 

Robin Jeffrey

Soon after he became president of the United States (US) in 1901 ¬after the assassination of President McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt was testing a speech on a few trusted newspaper editors. He read aloud to them an especially preachy, moralising sentence, then said: “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit.”
“Bully” was a good word in those days.1 He was saying, “Being President at this time is wonderful, because it gives me such a terrific platform to preach from.” As president, he commanded attention; but, more importantly, he recognised that he was living in a media revolution that gave him an opportunity – a platform – to reach out to the people in ways never before possible.
My belief is that we live in an even more explosive media revolution today than in Theodore Roosevelt’s time, and in India, that revolution throws up possibilities even more spectacular and positively disruptive than elsewhere in the world.

A ‘Bully Pulpit’
For Theodore Roosevelt and the journalists of his era, at least four things were transforming the dominant medium of print – especially newspapers and magazines – by 1901:
• The Linotype machine, invented in the mid-1880s, meant you could set type five times faster than typeset by hand.
• Steam-driven rotary presses meant you could print tens of thousands of copies an hour.
• Telegrams had become cheap. News – and the speeches and actions of the president – poured into newspaper offices small and large.
• Photography too had become cheap and widely popular, along with the reproduction of realistic photos in news¬papers and magazines.
In short, attractive, cheap, mass-produced newspapers and magazines became an affordable craze all over Europe, North America (and India, too).
To be president of the US at such a moment meant you had a “bully pulpit” – an unrivalled platform. People liste¬ned to you because you were president, and your words and your photos got disseminated to millions of people within hours. People had time to read. Movies, record players and automobiles were in their infancy. It would be ano¬ther 10 years before they became enter¬tainment rivals to the printed word.
Much of this story is told by the award-winning American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in a new book called The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (Keller 2013). For my purposes, it is the argument about “the golden age of journalism” that is especially significant.
It seems to me that – contrary to much of what one reads and hears – India is entering an age of journalism that is immensely exciting, full of potential, and waiting to be shaped and moulded. And that process of shaping and moulding has huge implications for the country, just as the journalists of Theodore Roosevelt’s time – “the muckrakers”, as they were called – shaped the US.
India, today, is in the midst of a “media revolution” even more dramatic and fundamental than the one in 1900 that Theodore Roosevelt was living in. Whe¬ther India’s digital revolution produces a “golden age of journalism” is something that the young journalists of today will play a large part in determining.

‘Golden Age of Journalism’
Why did Goodwin refer to “the golden age of journalism”? The answer is that all the technical advances that built “the bully pulpit” that Roosevelt referred to – the presses and the photographs and so on – would have been useless without a generation of remarkably brave and able journalists and the proprietors who were able to make a good living by supporting them. The term “muckrakers” today has bad connotations. But for a time, in those days, it referred to people who exposed wrongdoing and corruption with relentless research and vivid writing. “Don’t blame us for the muck on the floor”, they said, in effect, “we only turned on the light so that you could see it clearly”.
Theodore Roosevelt achieved what he did as president – reining in corruption, breaking up corporate trusts that destroyed competition, preserving vast national parks from unscrupulous developers – because there were journalists and publications that explained injustice and corruption to vast publics who were ready to pay money to read their accounts.
Roosevelt and “the progressive move¬ment” he led came at the end of what is sometimes referred to as the US’s “gilded age”. Not “golden”, but “gilded” – falsely plated to try to look like something it was not.
In their recent book, Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya concede there are “superficial similarities” between the US’s gilded age and India’s condition today: immense concentration of wealth, wide¬spread corruption, tight links between politicians and great corporations and the capture of public assets for private gain.2
A further similarity is that the US in 1900 and India today were living in times of media revolution. Goodwin says those times in the US produced “the golden age of journalism”. If India is at the beginning of a digital media revolution, what are the chances of a similar “golden age” of journalism in the coming genera¬tion? If you follow the speeches of the chairman of the Press Council of India, or keep track of reporting about the media, you would have to say, “The chances are lousy. Non-existent. Worse than an Aam Aadmi candidate’s chances in Ahmedabad.”
Paid news scandals implicate major dailies. Hundreds of television channels are underfinanced and under-resourced, hanging on because of the egos of their owners. Conditions for most journalists are uncertain. Stringers collect news, advertising, subscriptions and, if they are lucky, gratuities from satisfied customers. Readership surveys for newspapers and television rating points (TRPs) for television are disputed and unreliable. Advertising finds its way to the internet.
Reputable proprietors of print and tele¬vision organisations lie awake wonder¬ing what the future has in store. Are large parts of “the media industry” disintegrating?

Indian ‘Media Revolution’
We are living in a media revolution. It is the biggest thing to hit humanity since the printing press. We might have to go back to the invention of shoes to get a sense of what mobile phones – personal handheld devices – mean for human communication and for “journalism” as we have known it.
Thirty years ago, India fell in love with daily newspapers. The country went from nine million dailies on the street each morning in 1976 to more than 160 million on the streets today. The penetration rate went from about 20 dailies for every 1,000 people in the 1970s to more than 130 dailies per thousand today. In contrast to the most of the rest of the world, newspaper circulations in India remain strong today and appear to have a vigorous future for five or 10 years at least.
The rapid newspaper romance, how¬ever, looks like a gentle courtship compared to what has happened with mobile phones and the potential they bring. In 2003, India had 13 million mobile phone subscribers; by 2013, it had 900 million – an increase of about 70 times in 10 years.
And a cheap 2G phone, which even someone on an Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) wage can afford to buy or borrow, does not simply make people two-way talkers and listeners. It makes them potential broad¬casters. CGNet Swara, for which Shubhranshu Choudhary was awarded one of the annual prizes of the London-based Free Press Index in March, demonstrates this. CGNet Swara enables adivasis, who may not be literate and whose language may not have a well-known method of writing, to become reporters and broadcasters by using a basic 2G phone. It has brought their stories to the world – as Choudhary’s award indicates.3
The digital revolution brings the capa¬city to be a broadcaster in sound and images to anyone who owns a mobile phone. The world has never been in a position where anyone, no matter how poor or stigmatised, can disseminate her or his story to a global audience.
But can there be any reason for thinking that these conditions might lead to a “golden age of journalism”? Surely all the indications are that these conditions point to the end of journalism as we have come to know it over the last 150 years.
In spite of strong circulation figures, newspapers face growing competition for advertising revenues. The internet is enabling ordinary citizens to do many of the distinctive things that organisations called “newspapers”, “radio”, and “television” used to do exclusively. Now, all the formats arrive together, and they arrive by radio signal from a nearby land-based transmitter, or through a cable laid to one’s household, or as radio frequency off a satellite hundreds of miles above the earth. The jargon I have encountered is OTT – Over The Top – transmitting digital material by any method that works. You do not need a television set to watch TV or a telephone to make a phone call.
Information floods us and threatens to drown us every day, what with blogs and bloggers, SMSes and MMSes, electronic newsletters, and Facebook and all its clones.
No wonder old-style newspapers and television are traumatised.
For middle-aged journalists with debts and responsibilities, 2014 may not be the best time to be alive. However, for the young and the restless, and the old and the flexible, especially in India, this is the most exciting time – at least since Teddy Roosevelt, and maybe since Gutenberg – to be “in the media”.
I say that because “the media” are opened up in a unique way. Anyone can be a “broadcaster”. You might argue that in a world where seven billion people are blasting out their own stories and prejudices, “media organisations” of the old kind will disappear in a blizzard of information. The people who might have used the output of “media organisations” in the past now will occupy themselves with an almost infinite range of other sources. Once readers and viewers abandon “old media”, advertisers will follow and funds will disappear.
And that is happening in some ways. Local news organisations (outside of India) are in particular trouble, as I will return to later.

Global Media
But larger globally-focused news organisations are surviving and will survive. There are two reasons. The first is the need for reliable information. Regular newspapers originated in the 17th century to provide merchants, who were willing to pay for them, with precisely this commodity – timely, trustworthy information. That is what India’s oldest still-publishing newspaper, Mumbai Samachar, was set up to do in 1823. There is a global audience for globally significant news that organisations like The New York Times, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg, the BBC and others provide.
This reliability and global reach are the related reason why big media organisations will survive: thousands of institutions and millions of people will pay for the services they offer – even if the most effective methods of extracting payment are still being discovered.
Media organisations have to pay bills. Even during the Indian nationalist movement, when there was as much idealism in Indian print media as we are likely to find anywhere, someone had eventually to pay for the ink and paper – and sometimes the fines and bonds demanded by a foreign government.
“News is expensive”, runs the mischievous paraphrase of C P Scott, the legendary editor of the Manchester Guardian, “but comment is almost free”. It is a particularly relevant remark in the era of the incorrigible, unstoppable, and usually unpaid blogger.4 Initially, when people seek information, they may be attracted to the outlandish and the sensational. But ultimately, the test is reliability. Is this information trustworthy? Global media organisations that employ outstanding people and finance them to report in the time-honoured, stick-one’s-nose-into-other-people’s-business way, will survive and be joined by other organisations that find particularly effective ways to practise the old craft – the craft of discovering stories and reporting them in ways that engage readers and viewers. Global citizens and institutions will pay for such services, and savvy media organisations will find ways of making payment necessary, simple and reasonable.

Going Local
But, what about local news? The sort of news that district supplements in Indian-language dailies have reported remarkably effectively for the past 20 or 30 years, and small-town newspapers in North America, the UK and Australia have done for more than a hundred years.
In future, who will pay for someone to attend the monthly meeting of the district solid waste management com¬mittee or a dozen similar bodies where decisions are made, deals are done and lives are affected? There is little titillation in such stories. The market for them is the locality in which they take place. Today’s users of iPads and iPhones are unlikely to go a-googling for an account of last night’s district board meeting as they sip their morning coffee. In the days of newspapers, such accounts were useful – often extremely important – components of the whole newspaper package. And the package was made profitable by local advertisements. The local newspaper flourished as a business, because strong local coverage sold news¬papers, and circulation attracted local advertisers ready to pay.
I said that it was easy to be “Small” in these digital times, but what I am describing does not sound easy, profitable or even viable. As well as being econo¬mically fragile, Small is vulnerable and dangerous. Big media organisations in the past have not only been able to give their editors and reporters the time and money that enabled them to work on big stories; they have also given them protec¬tion. Small-town hoodlums are likely to think twice before attacking a staffer of a substantial institution, whether it is the Leader-Post of Regina, Saskatchewan, The Tribune of Chandigarh, or The New York Times. But who is there to raise a hue and cry if a lonely blogger in a country town gets bumped off by the local bosses?
This is a negative of the digital age – one that we will struggle to resolve. When two leading American media analysts focused on this question in 2009, they recommended creation of a “Fund for Local News”, financed by government and philanthropists, which would offer competitive grants to help maintain locally-focused news organi¬sations. You can imagine the derision this provoked from the American right and the followers of Fox News (Downie and Schudson 2009).
Social scientists grapple with a similar “local” phenomenon. They write about “networked individualism”. They mean that people are able to be independent and autonomous more effectively today than ever before, and along with that autonomy they are able to be in touch with individuals thousands of miles away. Yet with all this amazing independence and connection – because of all this independence and connection – people may not know the neighbours who live next door or who are their daily companions on the bus to work.
We are still discovering how human beings are going to resolve the tension between their autonomous digital selves and the fact that they exist in a physical space – a locality – that they have to care for like a garden. If they ignore it, as they now can, weeds will grow.

New Formats
People working in media today face the challenge – the excitement and the uncertainty – of devising new formats in which to tell stories. Journalists in future will need to be adept at using all media. First, they will have to be able to tell a story. At some point, that probably means being able to write it down. But, they also need to know how to record a¬udio and video aspects of their story and to edit such material into the story they tell.
This is happening in a related way in universities where there is a rush to create MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses. At one level, these are simply “distance learning” courses, the sort of thing the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) has done for years. The difference is that great universities, including places like Harvard, are investing a lot of money in “making MOOCs”. To be effective, MOOCs must emphasise pro¬duction values and inter¬activity. A bad MOOC is a video-recorded lecture – a talking head (and often not a very good one). Education managers are still working out – just as media pro¬prietors are – how to pay for the cost that goes into making a good MOOC. Because a good MOOC looks more like a stylish, old-fashioned television docum¬entary. It has colour, sound and move¬ment – and interactivity. Good MOOCs are not cheap to make.
My point is that people with information to communicate – stories to tell – whether they are ordinary citizens, great univer¬sities or media organisations, now know that their audiences expect stories to be told using all the human senses – sound and vision as well as words on screens.
The best “journalists” and newsgatherers will need all the reliability, persistence, story-telling talent and rat-like cunning that have long been part of the profession. In addition, they will be able to conceptualise and present their stories, using all the means that digital techno¬logy allows. The best of them will do this quickly and intuitively, and their stories will attract hits and followers to their organisation – just as the muckrakers drew readers to McClure’s Magazine a hundred years ago.5 And with all this, they will also be people who establish a formidable reputation for trustworthiness.

A Digital Revolution
This formative phase of the digital revolution is a great time to be a journalist. It is a moment when there is the opportunity to build a “bully pulpit” – a new and effective platform – from which to tell stories and, if one can be romantic for a moment, to pursue truth. There is a chance, perhaps, to produce a “golden age” for Indian journalism.
I have four reasons for suggesting this.
First, it is because we are in this formative phase. There is a similarity to that 20-year period from about 1890 to 1910 – before the record player, the movies or the automobile – when mass-circulation print was king. When big-city dailies produced 10 editions a day and sold a million newspapers, and when magazines like McClure’s and journalists like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and William Allen White produced riveting research about the state of their country that millions of people followed as closely as people today follow Twitter and Facebook.
Today, a new media world is struggling to be born. People are creating new formats that will attract audiences, exert influence – and manage to pay bills.6 These may be uncertain times for media, but they are exciting times in which the individual talents will affect outcomes.
The second reason for saying this is an exhilarating time to be in media is that it is possible to be small. Small may be dangerous, but Small today is also almost unlimited in potential. As we have seen, anyone with a mobile phone can be a broadcaster. If people have stories to tell, and sparkling ways to tell them, they do not need to find a printing press, a radio station or a television transmitter.
CGNet Swara suggests how such services may develop. They arise out of unmet needs of substantial groups of people. And because such new operations give voice to large numbers of people who were rarely heard in the past, other people will want to read, listen and watch – just as I read my CGNet Swara bulletin each day, as, I am sure, do officials, politicians, business people and citizens in central India.

Challenge of Inclusiveness
The third reason why this a fine moment to be in Indian media is because this is the generation when the challenge of inclusiveness will be confronted and resolved.
By this, I mean that the presence of dalits and adivasis in media will increase by many, many times. As the Indian state has acknowledged since Independence, 15% of the population are dalits (scheduled castes), about 180 million people. Another 7% are adivasis, about 85 million people. And yet there are almost no dalits or adivasis on the editorial desks of Indian news media today.
According to recent research by Ajaz Ashraf (2013) in The Hoot, there is one dalit journalist who reads the news regu¬larly at a regional studio of Doordarshan. That, I suppose, is progress. In 1999, it was pretty clear that there were no dalits (or adivasis) in significant editorial positions in an Indian newsroom. But, it is lamentably slow progress in 15 years.
If the goal of an illustrious news organisation is to capture “all the news that is fit to print”, the job cannot be done if more than 20% of the population is almost nowhere to be seen on editorial desks, screens, or the pages of publications. That admirable publication, The Authentic Voice: The Best Reporting on Race and Ethnicity, from Columbia University Press, says it well:
It’s a question of accuracy ... In order for our news reports to be fundamentally accurate, we must reflect the entire community. … If ...our news pages or broadcasts represent only narrow segments of the community, how can we consider our work to be an accurate depiction of the places where we live? (Morgan et al 2006: xi-xiii).
There are some similarities with the position of African Americans and other minorities in the US newspapers. In 1978, the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) made a commitment that its members would aim for a mix in their newsrooms that reflected the ethnic composition of the communities they served. “Racial parity” by the year 2000 was the goal. American newspapers have not met that goal. In 2012, 12% of the staff of American newsrooms was non-white, though non-whites are more than 35% of the US population. Today, the ASNE recognises the failings on its website, but says that it continues to be “a steadfast leader in calling for newsroom diversity”.7
This absence of dalit and adivasi voices in Indian media can and will be corrected in the digital world. CGNet Swara suggests one way that such changes can gain momentum. But, change will come more rapidly if it is multipronged, and a declaration, along the lines of the US declaration of 1978, by a peak body of Indian editors and publishers would hasten and lubricate an inevit-able process.

Indian Media Presence
My fourth and final reason why India’s “bully pulpit” in this time of digital revolution is a great place to be is that the world is ready and ripe for an Indian media presence. I argued that the new world of media will sustain a number of global news organisations. But, where is the Indian entry? Britain, the US, Canada and Australia all have significant voices that report the world. The Arab world produced Al Jazeera. The French have Agence France-Presse (AFP). EFE, the Spanish news agency, is the world’s fourth largest (after Associated Press, Reuters and AFP). Germany has Deutsche Welle as well as huge privately owned media organisations.8 China pours money into its global newsgathering and dissemination.9 Even Russia has a lively and imaginative English-language news service.10
Where is India? India, that has unrivalled international connections – throughout Asia and Europe, in Africa and North America and even in South America? India, that has more speakers of English than England itself? India, that has a vast film industry and a leading place in information technology? Yet India’s media presence in the world is tiny. Its public broadcaster barely speaks internationally,11 and when its vibrant domestic media venture abroad, it is only to connect with NRIs (non-resident Indians). The world is waiting for a digital-age voice from India – a BBC, a New York Times or even a China Central Television (CCTV). A voice with global interests, global sources yet an Indian point of view.
So, there you have my four reasons why the media “pulpit” that India provides today is a “bully pulpit” – an outstanding platform. That platform offers a superb range of possibilities.
• Those possibilities do not depend on size alone.
• They offer the chance to shape the way we communicate for the next generation and perhaps beyond.
• They foster the social equality that the Indian constitution of 1950 envisaged – equality that must enable all citizens to tell their stories.
• And they make it so much easier – and more important – to send valuable Indian voices to the rest of the world.
If a generation of media people could claim such achievements, future analysts might be tempted to refer to the coming 20 years as a “golden age of I¬ndian journalism”.

This article is a slightly modified version of the text of the convocation lecture delivered at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, in May 2014. Robin Jeffrey (isasrbj@nus.edu.sg) has researched on India for over four decades and is well known for his work on the media. Presently he is at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.
Courtesy: ACJ and EPW