'Times Group shaped my product-centric thinking from deep inside a newsroom'

11 months ago 36
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Raju Narisetti, Publisher at McKinsey & Company’s Global Publishing, was conferred the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Honoris Causa) in Media Management by Bennett University at its convocation on Thursday. Raju is an alumnus of Times School of Journalism and had started his career in journalism with the Times of India group. He spoke to TOI’s Nalin Mehta on journalism education and future of the profession.
Q. Tell us about your time at Times School of Journalism - what do you remember most about that time?
I credit Bennett Coleman and the

Times Group

for the original foundation that took a 22-year-old, who was keenly interested in reporting and writing but in a very generic “I am good in English” sense, and had zero journalism functional skills and, in 194

intense days

of education, equipped me with both the tools and an intellectual rigor that has lasted three decades.
My nine months at what was then called Times Research Foundation Institute for Social Sciences Research and Education (TRFI) in 1988-89 were searing and unforgettable. Searing because, in Thomas Oommen, then head of the School of Social Journalism there, we had perhaps the most iconic journalism teacher India has ever produced. He brilliantly disassembled us, in mind and spirit, and then, every passing day, built us back, once we were able to truly look beyond the daily terror and embarrassment of the sea of red ink he poured on all our nascent journalism efforts.
Deep inside Daryaganj, in a decrepit, hard to find building, Prof Oommen ran a modern class/newsroom that, over the years, produced dozens of journalists steeped in both the art and craft of quality journalism, many of whom are still practicing in India and elsewhere.
It was also my first exposure to journalism as a product, something that then Vice Chair of Times Group, Samir Jain, would frequently talk about in our class, as he took an active, personal interest in the students. Little did I know that, in time I would develop a great affinity to thinking about journalism as a product and how to use that thinking to try make journalism itself more sustainable.
And my very first journalism job in India, as a Staff Writer for The Economic Times, where I helped create ET Esquire, the first glossy weekend “magazine” for a mainstream business newspaper in India, also was very instrumental in shaping my lifelong product-centric thinking from deep inside a newsroom.
Journalism education in India has evolved significantly—as has journalism and the business of journalism—and sometimes not necessarily for the better, at least in relative terms. Yet, not a week goes by even after all these years, when I don’t think of some lesson that I was taught at TRFI by Prof Oommen, and I will always remain grateful for that incredible year. And, 32 years later, all 23 of us ‘88-89 TRFI batchmates, now spread across three continents, are on a daily, active digital chat group, showing how that collective experience has shaped our lives and friendships.
Q. From your experiences in newsrooms around the world, what do you think are the core qualities required to succeed in journalism? From the journalism practice point of view- what are the new skillsets that aspiring journalists and J-schools must have in today's environment at a time of great change in the wider journalism ecosystem and the shift to digital?
I am often asked, given I have run newsrooms in three continents, whether Indian journalists are different, as people often conflate the quality of news brands they see or hear about, with the inherent qualities of those who are in any newsroom in any country. I think what makes for a good journalist, first and foremost, is a deep sense of personal curiosity which, with the right education, multimedia tools and storytelling craft, can make for a successful journalism career. You really need to always start by asking ‘why’ and then wanting to try and find the answers, first for yourself, and then have the skills to able to share that with your audiences. In that regard, those serious about making journalism a career in India are no different from those in the US or Europe. Over time, the tools and skillsets you need to engage your audiences have changed—and will continue to evolve. Back in 1989, I wanted to be a business writer and a newspaper, in my case The Economic Times, was the place to aspire to join. Today, you can still want to focus on business journalism and now you have the luxury of telling those same business stories through words, pictures, videos, audio, graphics, interactive databases—all of which you can still do at ET, except it is no longer just a newspaper.
What is also different today is that those entering journalism should be prepared to have several different jobs in perhaps many different organizations early in their career as the media industry evolves and is buffeted by changes in the digital ecosystem. If you are a good storyteller, you will always have a bright future if you can keep up with the shifting needs of your audiences and where and how they want to engage with your journalism.
Q. To what extent does the digital ecosystem fundamentally change the way journalists tell their stories and approach their craft? Your views on the extent to which journalists have adapted to usage of big data, AI and machine learning — or not — and the impact of this on the wider ecosystem?
The pandemic has significantly accelerated some trends that have been visible for several years in media, particularly for many organizations with business models that are more, or solely, reliant on advertising revenues. It is important to distinguish between the demand side of media and journalism, and the many supply-side issues, and not fall prey to recurring doomsday fears and easy, lazy critiques of dubbing a changing world as merely “click-bait” tactics.
Take the demand side. As of this July, just about 59% of the world’s population, about 4.57 billion people, are active internet users, up from under 50% less than two years ago. This means there are another 3.2 billion people who will be doing this on a regular basis in coming years. A significant portion of these new “customers” will consume news and, at a macro level, represent a huge global audience that is still waiting to be tapped as consumers of journalism content. Of course, not many of them might become paying customers for news, if at all, but the demand for news has never been greater today, going as far back as we want in history, starting with the commercial use of the Gutenberg Press in 1450, which slowly led to a “mass” market over time for content. And, guess what? Tomorrow will see an even larger audience for journalism, and every next day for the foreseeable future. It is actually a very enviable position to be in for the global news-content-creation industry and for those getting into journalism.
On the supply side, first it is important to remember that with very limited exceptions, platforms and tech companies don’t, by themselves, actually create original news content, while primarily acting as powerful forces for the spread and virality of content, increasingly from individuals, but mostly from newsrooms across global media companies. As in, these platforms and their audiences still need news organizations to be the ones providing the bulk of the content that is consumed on platforms globally for news and information needs. What would the 1.6 billion monthly visits to Wikipedia be like, if there was no new “third-party” content there, pointing to original citations, mostly from news organizations, for example?
So, what we have had and will have for a long time is a case of growing demand that needs to be fulfilled in a way that supports the continued creation of news. Just imagine if the news business was today where the buggy-whips or horse-carriage industry was, when cars came along and wiped out “demand” for those products.
What we need to get used to is that the era of captive audiences when newspapers that landed on your doorstep each morning were the primary means of getting information is over and our audiences are increasingly promiscuous, thanks mainly to their phones, to go wherever they choose to and whatever attracts and engages them better.
So, our battle is as much for a new reader, who has more choices, but for the time and attention of any reader—even ones who pay for our journalism now, as they have unprecedented options. This is why it is not enough, as a journalist in a news organization, to simply create the journalism that you think a reader ought to read and see. The onus is on each one of you as journalists to also find ways to get people to come to your journalism, to consume it, to engage with it and, in doing so, build a habit and a loyalty that will bring them back later in the day, and then the next day. And journalism educators need to ask and answer: what skills does such engaging journalism need and is what a contemporary journalist producing meeting the needs of the audiences who may have time and/or money to give you for your journalism.
Q. You have spoken in the past about the need for digital media businesses to develop multiple revenue streams without moving away from their core. If you can expand on that a bit
Those news organizations and newsrooms that embraced the idea that their core strength lies in both smart content creation and content curation, while serving audiences across multiple platforms and investing in that core—journalism—appear to be better poised to withstand the continuing changes roiling the news business ecosystem. Another trait that seems to separate the relatively healthier organizations from the rest is their investment in data and analytics to better understand, and respond, to their current and potential audiences. And those newsrooms that see the value in a “Church and State” model, than embrace the traditional “Church versus State” stance, when it comes to collaborating with product, tech and revenue teams, and be willing to create the right structures to operationalize such partnerships without crossing ethical boundaries will continue to thrive, amid what will remain a turbulent industry that is still seeking sustainable growth and profits.
Finally, organizations that recognize that multiple revenue streams, well beyond just advertising and just subscriptions, in for-profit or not-for-profit ecosystems, will be the ones that will be left standing when the post-pandemic next normal is gradually upon us. Many media companies with journalism at its core can potentially have up to 12-15 revenue streams without moving away from that core, including video, podcasts, licensing, translation, monetizable archives, databases, events, education, docudramas, content-led commerce, syndication to name a few. Increasingly, a successful digital media company will be one that can accumulate multiple revenue sources. While each of these revenue opportunities has challenges and competition, they will be under stress for different reasons at different times. So, it is quite possible to build a sustainable, growing media company than if we still think in terms of just advertising and subscriptions as the primary revenue models.
Raju Narisetti's 32-year global career in media includes 14 years at The Wall Street Journal's US and Europe editions. He was founding editor of Mint and Managing Editor at the Washington Post.

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