The changing face of Journalism in the last two decades

When I was asked me to write an article (by the Editor for a book on JOurnalism) about the changing face of journalism and its future, I took it as an opportunity to look back and reflect on how this industry has changed in the last two decades. While the basic journalistic values or the way of the journalists’ work hasn’t changed much, it’s the technological advances that have revolutionised this industry.

I started my career in the nineties as a broadcast journalist working for a Television production house in Bangalore. We were covering the burgeoning IT industry in the Silicon Valley of India, making a daily half-an-hour programme for CNBC Asia, a business news channel broadcast from Singapore. In my one-year-old tenure, I would have covered the who’s who of the IT & ITeS industry, not just in India but from across the world. But let me not get carried away thinking about those golden days.

What I am going to write is about how we used to work and cover news. As a reporter, my work was just like any other journalist’s – attend press conferences, cover events and conferences, etc and make reports. I also did a lot of stories about the work, life and the culture in the IT industry. As a team, we had four people in our crew – a cameraman, a sound recordist cum camera assistant and a driver apart from the reporter. In terms of camera technology, those days, we were using U-Matic cameras with separate recorders. The cameraman and the sound recordist had to work in unison for shooting a news item or an interview. There was no way you could run behind someone carrying the camera like you see on TV nowadays.

Now coming to the way the news was delivered, it took a minimum of 8-10 days from shoot to telecast. Sounds unbelievable now! After editing individual stories, the episode would be packaged and the final Beta master tape would be sent by courier to Singapore for the telecast.

Today we can go live on Television or on the Internet from any location as long as one is in a location with 3G or 4G network coverage. Even if you are not, then there is always the Outstation Broadcast (OB) van to rely on.

In the nineties, we had two General Elections within a gap of 13-15 months, thanks to the coalition politics at that point in time. Even though I was a student of Mass Communication that time, those elections gave very good opportunities to work with established media houses as an Intern. We should remember that those days, private news broadcasting or 24-hour news channels were still not permitted in India and only our good old Doordarshan had the right to broadcast news and do a programme on current affairs. In 1995, some private producers like New Delhi Television (NDTV) and TV Today Group got a few time slots on DD1, the national channel and on DD2, the Metro channel, but with strict guidelines and regulatory norms in place.

NDTV was the first to do a daily half an hour current affairs programme ‘Tonight’ for Doordarshan in February 1995. This was India’s first private daily news broadcast in English but it was not live and the programme was pre-censored. A few months later, TV Today began a daily news show in Hindi, Aaj Tak. On September 30, 1995, the Malayalam channel, Asianet became the first private TV channel in India to do a ‘live’ news broadcast from its Subic Bay studio cum uplink centre in the Philippines. It was much later that private news producers like NDTV, TV Today and ZEE News got licences to start independent news channels.

The U-Matic cameras gave way to Betacams, integrated camcorders or a single unit camera cum recorder which gave us a lot of flexibility and freedom in covering news. Even though one unit weighed around 10-14 kgs depending on the battery pack, it was still possible to keep it on the shoulder and move around to get better shots or close-ups of action while covering news. And for all other occasions, you always had the tripod to keep them on.

But sending visuals was still a big challenge. Since I was working with the Bangalore Bureau, we had to send the visuals to New Delhi from where the news was packaged and broadcast. Initially, Aaj Tak had a 20 minutes slot on DD Metro which was later extended to 30 minutes. After a few months, we got a 45 minutes slot during the breakfast show. Usually, we used to send the Beta tape by air cargo through commercial airlines. There was an Indian Airlines flight for New Delhi at 5 pm. This meant getting the tape to the airport by 4.30 pm. This tape would be then collected from the Delhi airport by 8 pm or so, and the visuals would make it to the 10 pm bulletin, which would be recorded earlier. If we missed that flight or if there was a delay with the flight, then the visuals can be shown in the next day’s morning bulletin. It was the same scene with most other production houses or private news channels.

But what happened if some important news broke out and we needed to send the visuals early? There were two options. The first was to use the uplinking facility at the local Doordarshan Kendra to send the footage. We had to pay Rs.6,000 by Demand Draft to send about 10 minutes video which includes bites, cutaways, etc. Our office used to keep at least two Demand Drafts ready on any day. The script would be faxed later. There were some time restrictions on using the facility of Doordarshan, so many a times we had to go for the second option, which was to use an ISDN line of the erstwhile VSNL (Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd). Even though the quality of the video was affected, we had no other option but to send it through VSNL and this was a costly option also, at Rs.10,000 for sending 10 minutes video.

One of the most important changes that happened during that time period was in the field of telecommunications. In my initial days of work, there was only the landline. Long distance calling or STD calls were limited and metered. The stories or scripts were sent by facsimile or fax, as it was more popularly known. The first device that came into our rather peaceful life was the pager. Only the senior journalists in the office got one. Even though it was a mode of one way communication, it was an effective tool for sending/receiving messages and information. In 1995, VSNL became the first telecom service provider to start Internet services and gradually, we started using emails for filing stories and also for receiving press releases and other material. Next was the mobile phone which tied us wirelessly to the office. Remember those days even the incoming calls were also charged. Text messaging or SMS was introduced much later. Today, we cannot imagine working without Internet, Email, Messenger or WhatsApp groups.

The new millennium saw the introduction of a new range of professional video cameras which were bigger than the handycams (Hi8) but much smaller than the Betacams without much loss in the broadcast quality of visuals. Weighing just under 2 kgs, the PD 100/150 DVCAMs revolutionised the way news was covered in India.

I was lucky to be among the first few television journalists in India to be trained as a Video Journalist, a term hitherto unheard off in the Indian television news industry. As a video journalist, I could shoot, edit and package my own story. TV Today Group pioneered this concept as they rolled out Aaj Tak, their first Hindi news channel. Soon many other channels followed this concept.

The way we were sending visuals also started changing. The tapes of regular stories were still being sent by flight but for sending important/breaking news, we got a 2 Mbps dedicated data-line in our office. Even though it used to take 10 minutes to send 5 minutes of video, it was much better than rushing to DDK or VSNL. We could even do ‘live’ from our studio in our bureau.

The launch of private news channels also saw the introduction of new and smaller Outstation Broadcast (OB) vans which resulted in faster and better coverage of breaking news, event, rallies, etc. This was putting additional pressure on the journalist who had to be always ready to go ‘live’.

In Kerala, the first 24×7 news channel, Asianet News was started only in 2003. Today, the figures from the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India show that there are almost 400 licensed news channels in the country (across all languages) and much more in the queue for a licence. The proliferation of private news channels has been the biggest change in the last twenty years of the visual news media.

After the simultaneous General Elections and the Assembly Elections of 2004 in Karnataka, I moved from the blooming visual media to the just emerging online media. At that point in time, it was as good as committing professional suicide but looking back, I have no regrets. I started off by writing for some of the well-known news portals of those days like Sify.com, MSN and Techgoss, to name a few. In 2007, I shifted my base to Trivandrum. Even though I cannot write Malayalam, I was lucky to be associated with Weblokam, the first news portal in Malayalam and a few other new web initiatives. Over these years I have been involved with several news websites including few English news portals which I started on my own.

The next revolution in journalism and news coverage came with the introduction of the Smartphone. The easy availability of bandwidth, first 3G and then 4G, has changed the way news is covered, irrespective of whether it is print, online or visual. The flooding of cheap Android-based smartphones in the market also meant a change not just in the way the news was produced but also how it was consumed.

For the journalist, the smartphone was a tool that replaced several other devices used for news coverage. Depending on the situation, one could use it as a still camera, a video camera, an audio recorder, a scanner; to share images, text, send and receive emails, and even file stories. This one device gave a lot of computing power in the pocket and has now given rise to Mobile Journalism (MoJo), an emerging form of new media storytelling. In MoJo, reporters use their mobile phones (smartphones) with network connectivity to gather, edit, publish and distribute news. There are several mobile applications (apps) available to help the journalist in this task – be it photo editing, video editing or packaging of news.

For the common man on the street, the smartphone gave him the power to report news, not as a journalist but as a common man itself in the form of User Generated Content (UGC), on a scale that was never seen before. UGC can be described as any form of content such as video, blogs, discussion forum posts, digital images, audio files, and other forms of media that were created by consumers or end-users of a website and is publically available to others consumers and end-users, as well. Most of the social networking sites or the ‘Social Media’ as we call it thrives on user-generated content. I must add a word of caution here – we must check and if possible, cross-check news and information found on such websites. Authenticity and credibility of news take a big hit when reported by those who are not trained to be journalists.

The ever-increasing presence of social media and social networking sites in our lives has replaced the traditional sources of news for the consumers. These days, most often we see the breaking news first on Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat.

Most of the established media houses like Hindustan Times, NDTV and Asianet News are investing heavily in setting up MoJo divisions and are training their personnel to be mobile journalists. Looking back, it is just an extension of my being a video-journalist. The transition from a television journalist to an online journalist, and from there, now to a mobile journalist took almost two decades.

Change is inevitable but how one adapts to change is what matters. The print is on its decline and its days are numbers but it may not happen so soon in India. The future of journalism is in Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR), terms which one is going to hear more often in the coming days. The visual and online media has already converged to your mobile handset and the future is in your hands.

By Anil Philip

Originally written in January 2018

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