Last Wednesday, as a part of this semester’s India Remixed initiative, Media School distinguished alumnus and CEO of Gizmodo Media Group Raju Narisetti, MA’91, discussed the state of India’s news media with professor Radhika Parameswaran in an intimate Q&A session in the Global International Studies Building auditorium.
Prior to being named the CEO of Gizmodo in 2016, Narisetti worked for the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and several other media organizations in the US and Europe. He also founded Mint, India’s second largest business newspaper.
Throughout the years, while doing other journalism work, Narisetti would periodically return to his native India and visit his parents. Each time he went back, he would grow more distressed with the quality of the journalism he was consuming there. He wanted to give Indians the journalism they deserved.
Unlike the United States and much of Europe, there is a huge market for business newspapers in India. However, “all of the other business publications were boring, dense and tended to talk down to the reader,” said Narisetti. “They were off-putting and not very inviting to people who didn’t know a lot about business. I wanted to do something different.” So, in 2007, he launched Mint.
“It began with the name,” continued Narisetti. “But calling it Mint took a lot of convincing. In India, Mint is also associated with freshness, so I was playing off of that. Also, if you are successful in India, in common parlance, they say he or she is minting money. So it was also associated with success. So I played off that.”
He also sought to do the opposite of what everyone else was doing in news media. The style is simple, everything is in color. He also decided to include a code of conduct and practices. This is in stark contrast to many other newspapers in India.
“There is no self-regulation really being done by the media,” explained Narisetti. “They only cite it when the government says they are not doing something right. Then everybody says we regulate ourselves. The reality is there is no self-regulation. As a result, overall, journalism standards have continued to deteriorate over time. There is a lot of pay for play kind of journalism.”
In fact, Indian newspapers will sell advertising packages to companies in which the company can pay to have whatever stories they want written by the reporters and the newspaper won’t inform the audience that the content was paid for.
“TV stations, particularly in local markets, have been known to, for example, call a company and say that ‘we heard that there is some problem and we will do a show standing outside of the gates of your factory unless you pay.’ So it’s pretty blatant and there’s no self-regulation. And this has continued for a long time.”
This, Narisetti said, has led to a deep distrust in journalists and journalism. Indians even use a popular hashtag, #presstitutes, when discussing how controlled the media is.
Narisetti explained that it has come to this because of the almost 100-percent ad-based revenue model Indian media companies lean on. When Indians pay for a newspaper subscription, they are ultimately spending less than what they get paid at the end of the month when their local recycling man comes around and buys their old newspapers back. So, in order to survive, these companies have to bend to the will of their advertisers.
The largest advertiser in India is the government, Narisetti said, so even though India is technically the world’s largest democracy and there is supposed to be a free press, there is a fair amount of self-censorship.
“What has changed in the last few years is the ability of the government to influence other businesses,” said Narisetti. “Most media brands are owned by big industry conglomerates, those are still very dependent on government approval. So, the easiest way for the government to go after a media company is to say, ‘well if you do this then your other company isn’t going to get approval.’ And that causes a significant strain.”
However, advertisers and the government aren’t totally to blame for the lower quality of journalism. Narisetti says that this is also due to years of poor training.
“This a cliché of India, but it’s also true: Most Indians for a very long time wanted their children to be either doctors or engineers. Those were the only two honorable professions. If you’re really bad at history and economics, you end up in journalism,” said Narisetti. So, all through the ‘50s and ‘60s, most of the journalism came out of opinion writing of people seeking independence. When digital media came into fashion in the ‘90s, there was a shortage of professionally-trained journalists. “Then, media companies started making their own journalism schools, saying if you spend 9 months in our school you’ll get a job with us. The downside of that is that it perpetuates how that media company does journalism. So you really aren’t taught to question the norms.”
Narisetti says there are problems even with the best journalism schools in India because they are being taught by people who haven’t been in a newsroom in decades. There is also very little emphasis on journalism ethics and law. “All of this has led to journalists who have been in the business for years but don’t really know the fundamentals of ethics and media law and role of media in society.”
The standards are even lower in television, said Narisetti. However, the medium is very widely consumed in India, so it gets the majority of advertising dollars.
“When you think of talk-shows in the US, usually it’s like four people sitting, maybe five and five is a lot, talking about a topic,” explained Narisetti. “On almost every talk show in India, the screen is usually split from anywhere between nine to fourteen people simultaneously talking, yelling. That’s just the norm. It’s very rambunctious, very loud and noisy. People yell and scream. People get up and throw things and walk away in anger. But it’s very normal and very influential as well. These talk shows drive a lot of conversations and people watch it for entertainment as much as they watch it for the news value.”
In the midst of all of this, there are also promising aspects of Indian journalism, said Narisetti. Because the country is getting more urbanized and there are so many different languages, the journalism industry is growing every day. There is also a fair amount of diversity in Indian newsrooms among genders and economic status because it has never been considered an elite profession.
However, Narisetti said, there is still a lot of room for progress in India’s journalism industry. To this day, Mint remains the only newspaper to have their a printed code of conduct and fixed corrections policy. He also says that while Mint’s format may not be the most financially successful newspaper, it’s won more than a dozen Indian and international journalism awards and widely considered the most ethical paper in the country.
“The pressures are pretty intense,” said Narisetti of maintaining an ethical publication. “My hope is that you will see a lot more of it going forward, though. The challenge is that you have to convince people that you are different and that you are honest, because the assumption now is that it’s all for money. But there is hope.”
- Read about Narisetti’s talk with the Online News Association about the digital transition in media.