G Sampath | Agency: DNA | Saturday, November 3, 2012

G Sampath

G Sampath

Journalism is changing. And prudes that we are, we don’t want to look. But it’s true. It’s taking its clothes off, and getting a hot and sexy make-over in the hope of an enduring genital interface not just with its old lover, paid news, but with a genetically modified, digitally empowered mutant offspring of paid news – ‘relevant content’.

And the Good Samaritan that brought the journalistic whore and the paying customer together is not Lady Gaga or a NAKED Gadkari or a SEXY Kejriwal’s HOT ONSCREEN KISS with Salman or PoonamPandey bikini pic or Lokpal cumshots or Justin Bieber or a MessiSachin, but our very own friendly neighbourhood superhero, Mr Google.

Did the para above sound a bit excessive? Well, don’t blame me. My choice of words were dictated not by a mindless desire to shock and annoy the God-fearing, conservative reader genuinely interested in titillating content but by a simple and psychotic wish to cram in as many ‘keywords’ as possible into my first few paras so that this piece shows up in as many searches on Google as possible. In the online jungle out there, if I’m to compete for eyeballs with other journalists producing ‘relevant content’, then I cannot but pay obeisance to the new deity of journalism in the digital era: SEO.

For those of you logging in late, SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation. And ‘keywords’ are the phrases that people type into the search box when they’re looking for something on Google. ‘Doing SEO’ or using ‘keywords’ means consciously writing/editing, or to use the exact word, manipulating copy and story ideas such that they are full of keywords.

So this, dear reader, is the future of journalism. Where ‘news’ will gradually but surely be superseded by ‘relevant content’ customised to cater to your fast-changing information and entertainment needs across an array of delivery platforms.

Keep searching till they find you
The 2012 FICCI-KPMG report on the Indian Media and Entertainment sector is a veritablegoldmine of industry trends and hard data. Titled “Digital Dawn: The Metamorphosis Begins”, the 200-page report offers enough evidence, if any was needed, that the vast majority of print journalists will have to become SEO-friendly sooner or later. News reporters will have to reposition themselves as content providers, and editors will have to manage not news but content, while commentators will write not for readers but for search engines.

These are the numbers: During 2010-2011, advertising revenues as a whole rose from INR266 billion to INR 300 billion – a growth of 13.1%. While print ad revenue grew by 10.6%, TV advertising grew by 12.6%. Guess what was the growth rate for digital advertising? 54%. And it is expected to grow at a CAGR of 30% till 2016 (the corresponding figure for print and TV advertising are 11.5% and 14.7% respectively).

In absolute numbers, the digital advertising pie is not very big at present – only INR14billion. Print advertising in 2011 was worth INR139.4 billion. But the digital ad pie is already bigger than that of the magazine industry, whose total revenue in 2011 was only INR13billion.

Now combine this with the fact that the number of Internet users in India touched 132 million in 2011 – 25% of total TV viewers (in comparison, the Average Issue Readership for all English newspapers and magazines taken together in 2011 was only 22.1 million). The number of Internet users is expected to touch 70% of TV viewership by 2016, with digital ad revenues projected to grow from the current INR14 billion to INR54 billion by 2016.

So everyone in the media space will be eyeing the digital ad pie. As a media organisation, there is only one way for you to grab a big chunk of it: Drive traffic to your site. And how are you going to do that? Well, by making sure your web page shows up at the top of the results page when people do searches on Google.

I’ll see you when you SEO

That newspapers are not in the news business but in the advertising business has long ceased to be ‘news’ for most journalists. But while this awareness may have lent a certain weary (and wary) cynicism to the their general orientation at the workplace, it did not actually change the nature of the tasks they carried out as journalists – by and large, news editors were still prized for their news sense, subs were prized for their ability to come up with great headlines, and reporters, for their ability to investigate difficult leads and produce storiesthat serve public interest.

But all this is set to change – even in India, where print is still king. The change has already taken place in major international newsrooms, especially in the West, where the print media has already lost the battle with digital. Major online media brands such as HuffingtonPost, The Daily Beast, Christian Science Monitor, Politico, BBC, Gawker Media, and the online divisions of leading print publications such as The Washington Post, New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal take SEO very seriously. They all have SEO guidelines for editorial staff, if not ‘specialist’ SEO managers and software engineers working alongside reporters and writers.

The Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten claimed in a column back in 2010 that he could get more hits just by mentioning ‘Lady Gaga’ in the headline. In the piece, appropriately headlined, ‘Gene Weingarten column mentions Lady Gaga’, he writes, “Every few days at The Washington Post, staffers get a notice like this: ‘Please welcome DylanFeldman-Suarez, who will be joining the fact-integration team as a multi-platform idea triage specialist, reporting to the deputy director of word-flow management and video branding strategy. Dylan comes to us from the social media utilisation division of SikorskyHelicopters.’ Call me a grumpy old codger, but I liked the old way better.”

Alas, the old ways are not coming back. The ‘optics’ (to use the ‘relevant’ goobledygook) of old world journalism was determined by ‘news values’. According to Wikipedia, news values “focused on political and local issues with socio-economic impacts” as opposed to, say, the fact that November 1 is Aishwarya Rai’s birthday, which is the top news story on several news sites right now as I am typing this.

But in the brave new world of SEO and ‘idea triage’ and keywords and metadata, the ‘optics’ are simply the power of your content to draw traffic to your site.

What’s the difference between ‘news’ and ‘content’?
‘Content’ is a term that was traditionally applicable only to information and entertainment. Information that is actively sought, say, through a Google search, has to be relevant to the person seeking it, because it is being sought for an immediate purpose.

Similarly, entertainment is also ‘content’ with a clear purpose for existing: Consumption. That is all it is required to achieve, nothing more is needed. Here, too, one can stipulate that it be ‘relevant’ in the sense of being able to connect with the targeted audience.

News, on the other hand, has as much to do with relevance as Shilpa Shetty has to do with Shakespeare. For instance, any news about Hurricane Sandy is not going to change a single thing about my plans for tomorrow or the next week or next month. It is not relevant to me. But it still holds value for me as news, as it does for all those who don’t have any friends in the US and have no immediate plans to travel there and don’t care about storms.

But isn’t news also a form of information, even if it is mainly about current affairs, etc? Yes, but there is a fundamental difference between information that answers a question you already have, and information that keeps you informed. The former is ‘relevant content’; the latter is news. And traditionally, news has been evaluated not in terms of relevance but in terms of ‘newsworthiness’ as determined by ‘news values’.

But the substitution of ‘news’ with ‘relevant content’ as the main goal of journalism accomplishes one major corporate coup: It completely erases the public service dimension of journalism and repositions it purely as a business service proposition. Journalistic news addresses the reader-as-citizen. ‘Content’ addresses the reader-as-consumer.

What can Rahul Gandhi learn from Rakhi Sawant and Mickey Mouse?
Recently, I was talking to the (well-meaning) editor of the online portal of a leading media group who wanted to know if I would be interested in looking after their news content. Yes, I said, I am from the news business, I understand news. But what is ‘news content’? As opposed to what – news discontent?

I listened as he patiently explained to me how online journalism is different, operates at a pace faster than even TV journalism, and is much more efficient than both print and broadcast journalism because you can actually see the monetary value of every single article, and check whether it is adding to the bottom line or not – through audience metrics.

As the ‘content head’, my job would be to ensure that my team tracks breaking news and produces top quality SEO-enriched content, and updates it on an hourly or even minute-by-minute basis, with the keywords that are ‘trending’ at any given moment incorporated into the headline and first few paras of every report and analysis.

So if Harry Potter, Ek Tha Tiger and Rajnikanth happen to be the top searched keywords at 1400 hours on a given day, the site should ideally have an interesting, well-written article out by 1420 hours on, say, ‘What Ek Tha Tiger has in common with Rajnikath and Harry Potter’ or ‘What Rajnikanth can learn from Ek Tha Tiger and Harry Potter’.

I’m not joking at all. Just watch out for the number of headlines in news sites that follow the formula of what/how/why/where combined with the keywords (usually two or three proper nouns). And while you’re at it, just Google the keywords Rajnikath+Ek Tha Tiger+Harry Potter and see what you get. And don’t be surprised.

What’s the big deal about keywording?
There are many who would argue that there is nothing wrong in incorporating keywords into headlines and your opening paragraphs. After all, the purpose of writing is to be read. What’s the point of producing great ‘news content’ if people are not going to find their way to it through Google? The BBC, for instance, has even come up with a “dual headline system” which would “keep the index headlines unchanged while introducing a longer, search-optimised text that would sit at the top of articles and supply the page title meta-tags, which are what search engines take most account of.”

While I do not disagree with the argument that using keywords and SEO-tinkering can get more readers for your article, I also believe that in the long-term it is bound to affect how you think as a journalist.

First of all, it is naïve to assume that keywords and SEO matter only at the final, presentation stage of writing a story. If language is the skin of thought, then how we write is also how we think. Imagine what would happen to your journalistic reflexes (there is such a thing, as any news hound will tell you) if day after day, for years together, you were required to ideate and write with a relentless focus on ‘relevant content’, keywords, and SEO.

What’s the likelihood that such an editor/content manager will ask a reporter/writer to work on an investigative story that will reach the public three months later, as opposed to twelve comment pieces a week built around ‘keywords’ that happen to be trending at a given point of time?

And what’s the likelihood that, as print loses traction to digital media, more and more journalists, tasked with producing such quickies, will struggle everyday to find something original to say on a breaking news before somebody else does it first?

The New York Times’ Jeremy W Peters described exactly such a scenario in a 2010 article titled, ‘In a world of online news, burnout starts younger’. “Young journalists who once dreamed of trotting the globe in pursuit of a story are instead shackled to their computers, where they try to eke out a fresh thought or be first to report even the smallest nugget of news — anything that will impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way.”

Pointing out that some media outlets such as Bloomberg and Gawker Media pay writers partly on the basis of how many readers click on their articles, he adds, “Tracking how many people view articles, and then rewarding — or shaming — writers based on those results has become increasingly common in old and new media newsrooms.”

Things may not be as extreme in India yet, simply because print is still the dominant player and Internet penetration is limited. But already, all leading print publications prominently display a list of most viewed or most shared articles on their website, a clear indication of where we are headed.

Shouldn’t we be more optimistic?
To be sure, some of the online journalists I spoke to about this issue were quite optimistic. It is not as if journalism is going to die, they said, pointing out that long form journalism is still very much alive in the digital space. Didn’t the Huffington Post win a Pulitzer Prize, after all? Keywords, they said, are a mere quirk, a technicality of the digital age that journalists should learn to work with, not feel threatened by.

I would love to believe that, but we all know that a lot of high quality online journalism happens simply because people want to do solid work for the sake of it, and believe in good journalism as a matter of principle – not because they are making big bucks from it. In-depth investigative journalism that challenges the status quo can never by itself sustain a profitable enterprise — no matter what your business model is – or there would be a lot of entrepreneurs funding such journalism. Neither does it have an audience large and rich enough to support it through subscription, nor would it attract ad revenue on a scale that would enable the writers to make a decent living. That’s why you find so many good, alternative media sites displaying a donation request on their home page.

What is more likely is that high quality, traditional journalism — as opposed to ‘relevant content’ — will survive in mainstream media because a) writers want to do it, and b) it suits the corporates to strengthen their media brands, build intellectual property, and acquire cultural capital by producing exclusive top notch ‘content’.

Long-form investigative or narrative journalism that is necessarily high cost will flourish as a form of ‘niche content’; as special projects cross-subsidised by the mass of commoditisedcontent that hacks operating lower down the content value chain will generate in digital sweat shops. Indeed, the FICCI-KPMG report enthusiastically recommends this as an ‘innovative’ business model for newspapers in the digital age. Says the report, “In case of print, the editorial content, in depth investigative journalism, specialised business coverage and local city news, etc which readers may not get readily through other information sources can potentially be moved behind a pay wall to build subscription revenues while thecommoditised content may be offered free of cost to drive traffic towards the website.”

My prediction is that digital era journalism will unleash a new, two-tier class system among journalists that will mirror the society at large: the 99% who will write/edit/design SEO-friendly, keyword-enriched news content, and an elite minority of 1%, almost all of them armed with a journalism qualification from a First World country, who will either slave-drive the 99% or produce old school journalistic ‘content’ that, now rendered ‘prestigious’ by its relative scarcity and the high opportunity cost it entails, and thus invested with symbolic capital, will be monetised and sold across ‘multiple delivery platforms’.

But here’s a thought: If as a journalist, all you are going to be doing is produce ‘content’, then why be in the news space at all? Why not go where content-writing is respected more, and pays more as well? Yes – why shouldn’t journalistic talent dump the news room for corporate communication or PR? Well, this too is already happening. And it didn’t escape the notice of the FCCI-KPMG report, which has duly recorded the scarcity of quality talent as one of the big challenges facing news media.

Well, the digital dawn is here. A lot will depend on who wakes up first.

G Sampath is an independent writer based in Delhi. He is reachable at [email protected]