Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Sudipta Sengupta that discusses how the recent controversy of Deepika Padukone and TOI is a lost case of digital journalism, one driven by the hunger of pageviews. Apart from being an active blogger on findingloopholes.com and a passionate trekker, Sudipta has over 8 years experience in managing end-to-end business cycle of developing businesses around online community, user generated content and social media.
A quick background for all those who had been living in Antarctica till now. A few days ago Times of India posted some content about Indian Film Industry’s currently most happening female superstar – Deepika Padukone. The title – “OMG! Deepika’s Cleavage Show” was self-explanatory to let you know what was enclosed within.
The Entertainment team of TOI goes ahead to push the same content on Twitter. So far, it was standard operating procedure in any mainstream media portal (irrespective of what stance they are taking on this issue).
Things take an ugly turn when Deepika criticizes the move and decides to confront head-on. First she sends a series of tweets, got supported by celebrities and netizens alike and then she took the war further by putting up a Facebook post on the issue blaming Times of vulgarity and dual standards. And then Times of India replies back in a post (‘Dear Deepika, our point of view,’ Sept. 21)
So far, a good masala war and gives you a lot to speculate and debate. Was Deepika trying to get some cheap PR publicity before her movie release in the celebration season? Or were the photos on Times of India just being stupid and unethical work of a naïve journalist? While Deepika indeed made her point through Twitter and got tremendous support for herself, she went an extra mile to hit out with her Facebook post.
TOI on the other hand could have ended the matter with a simple plain apology, but then when you are a ‘mighty power’ probably ‘introspection’ and ‘apology’ are not the easiest thing to bring to the table. So they shell out an argument that sounds similar to what Mamata Bannerjee’s team said after the infamous Park Street Rape case in Kolkata – why will a woman go to the bar at late night? [“…what about all the times, and there have been many, when you have flaunted your body off screen — while dancing on stage, posing for magazine covers, or doing photo ops at movie promotional functions?” ]
It also childishly reflects a juvenile mentality of a driver caught by traffic police after jumping the signal – “why catch me when everybody is breaking the law?” [“…several media outlets have freely displayed Deepika’s cleavage even as they sounded all outraged on her behalf…” ] But nah! This article is not about those debates. A lot has been said about them already – objectification of women et al and a lot of male-female anatomy has already been discussed.
What surprised me is one particular line in the TOI article – “…the online world… is chaotic and cluttered — and sensational headlines are far from uncommon…”
The author Priya Gupta is supposedly a TOI employee. Her profile says, she has written 796 articles, helped Times get over 2 crore views. This particular article was the ‘most read article’ in her portfolio within a few hours of it being published. My assumption is the article got around 6 to 8 lacs views in first 24 hrs. of being published. Priya must be ecstatic for creating a masterpiece of page view garner. And this exactly is the mindset problem in every online content house across the world – we are driven by pageview counts. Hence as Priya said unabashedly, ‘sensational headlines are far from uncommon’.
The situation is same throughout. Our journalism schools do not prepare you for digital business and our business schools never thought of discussing journalism. In fact for ages writers (journalists included) and businessmen lived in two poles of the corporate structure. But when the two communities merged in 21st century, there started a huge crisis around basic KRAs of an online reporter.
The Business Side problem
Search Engine optimization, tagging of articles, Google’s changing algorithm and overall every logic defying social media communities are too technical for an author, journalist or an editor. Even most heads of the online division of leading media companies will struggle to find out a ‘right way’ of handling these. You cannot ignore them – you are hungry for page views. You cannot have a bench of SEO specialists to work on an article after it is published – that takes the essence out, that increases the TAT and that increases the cost.
So what do you do? You try to put your editorial team through a quick fix training session – on SEO, on the online community, on Google crawlers. In most cases these happen over a cup of coffee session, lunch break and in other informal settings but if you are a proud business owner you will arrange a training session in your board room with ppts and all. What happens as a result? Your trained journos who learned to sit, sits everywhere – on chair and on sh*t.
The Editorial Side problem
A few years ago I was interviewing a young content writer from NDTV for a position I was recruiting. In an answer to “Why do you want to join us – an apparently much smaller brand when you are working for an established media firm?”, the girl went overboard in explaining how frustrated she is with her current work, how chasing after pageviews is killing her, how she wants to do some ‘real work’.
I was perturbed by the fact that a very young journalist who is at the start of her career is so very dissatisfied with her job because her work is measured by pageviews. I still have editorial team members who believe ‘real work’ happens in the print and television industry. The fact that we are evolving (or already have evolved) in a completely different journalistic era where finding readers for your own story is your responsibility is a truth the journalistic community is elusive of. And the situation gets complicated when they see this powerful tool as a burden.
Despite being in the middle of it themselves, they will not try to create followers, develop online communities for their own set of stories, and understand analytics and so on. If pushed too much, they will take it as a bitter pill and will focus only on the end result – pageviews. Hence sensationalism in title and photos of semi-clad women are the easiest way.
So we have a happy business team who thinks their training worked, we have a trouble-free editorial team who are happy to deliver on pageviews on their stories. And thus we end up with situations like these and explanations like these.
Solution, is there any?
Not apparently in the corporate arena. It’s a hunger for bigger advertising revenue share. And advertisement on the online space is very much pageviews driven (no matter whichever metrics you sell on).
With the bigger brands having higher overhead costs, the pressure will continue. It goes unsaid that TOI is a very powerful brand. The fact that Priya Gupta’s article was written justifying sensationalism in online space, the fact that it went through the editorial board, the fact that brand team sat back and let this happen, the fact that management team allowed such a petty issue snowball into such a dirty mudslinging episode, proves the fact that we all are now sucked up in this blackhole of pageviews.
As far as online journalism is concerned – ethics has taken a backseat. This is not only an ego war – this is mop up as much as you can offer. And every other media house is riding on the tide. In fact TOI’s this particular article will continue to garner pageviews from voyeuristic communities searching on “DeepikaPadukone’s nipples” and “SRK’s 8 pack abs” even after the controversy dies down.
Niche sites (and TOI group has the most of them) is probably the only solution where you keep the reader community targeted and charge an advertising premium on that. But for generic news websites targeting generic public and for entertainment based content – it is a volume game.
The problem can be sorted in the educational domain though. Priya wrote in her article – “There isn’t a one-fits-all formula for either distributing or consuming content across various media.” Of course writing a story headline on print and writing it for online cannot be same. We all understand that. But how many masscomm departments teach that? How many wannabe reporters actually get educated on how to create different sizes for different people? Journalism schools needs to imbibe ‘digital’ more into the DNA of the young students enrolled with them.
But then most journalism colleges follow a set pattern of educational curriculum without much research going into it. Whether there are enough educated teachers who can educate young students on the ‘online journalism and various technical nuances involved’ is another concern. It’s high time that such colleges include analytics, pageview driven metrics into their course curriculum.
But that transformation will probably take an era. Till then, we will continue to have such real life multi-starrer action movies. Enjoy with popcorn.
And no, I am not carrying a photo of Deepika’s cleavage along with this article. I tried making the headline as sensational as possible though. But the fact that you read till here proves you do not care anyway, isn’t it?
Image credit: Facebook