Covid-19 tumultuous times are turning yet another page in history for media in India and globally. Media’s latest tryst with its destiny began with the digital transformation of modern society. Media’s efficacy has been seen interestingly in the ‘viral’ effect it creates and the resulting impact! Now, the Novel (new) Corona Virus (SARS-CoV-2) causing COVID-19 is creating the next shift in media. But it was coming. The economic fallout of COVID-19 has challenged every industry with rapid transitions to survive. Media will gear up to emerge in its newest avatar in a modified version post-COVID-19 and keep evolving, just like another industry, governance et al.
Definition of media has never been defined or sacrosanct. It evolved from the time of beating the drums to shout out announcements to messenger pigeons and later took on a distributed readable, now viewable, format. I would define it as a means to deliver individual to collective messaging of different types for different appetites. Bottom line, the appetite for media will not go down. Answers lie in how and what content we create and how we dis-tribute it to a target audience.
In 1989, writing for the prestigious ‘Technology Week,’ from Washington, DC, I had predicted that communications, information, entertainment and content will be reduced to seeing it in the palm of our hands. I had covered NASA and emerging technology in the smartest, tech-savvy superpower of the world, USA, and realised the game had changed. Since then, media underwent a major paradigm shift as its means of creation and distribution kept changing and will go through more. I was among the first to introduce live streaming of moving pictures (TV, films and conferences) in India, but did not achieve financial success, as India wasn’t ready. Today, India is the biggest social and other delivered media market place perhaps. Even E-commerce platforms need content to drive sales through media and communications specialists. Today and into the foreseeable future, be it information, awareness, education, sports, entertainment, all types of government and private services, entertainment, economic/corporate/institutional communications, perception and opinion building for political to religious reasons, media will always be just a means to drive CONTENT.
Subhash Ghai, a respectable visionary and accomplished media doyen, says “Content is as important to each individual as breathing is. As long as we are breathing, we will want con-tent. The entertainment industry may change from time to time but it will always grow.”
The media space has become cluttered with too many means. There has been a gold rush to Radioenter the domain and dominate or survive as a player to create influence for pursuing goals and objectives beyond infotainment. COVID-19 will only accelerate the survival of the fittest (subjectively and objectively). Mergers and acquisitions, closures and layoffs have been the order of the day. Unfortunately, the aspiration of the young middle class entering media, communications, PR et cetera will be hard pressed to fit themselves in the evolution. That’s worrying traditional journalists or scribes. “Big media houses are slashing journalists’ wages or simply sacking them. People increasingly depend on their smartphones and laptops to get news. Media, as we knew it pre-COVID-19, may no longer exist post-COVID-19! What will become of media professionals? I wonder and worry,” says Venkat Narayan, senior journal-ist and President of the Foreign Correspondents Club of South Asia in New Delhi.
The digital medium will drive content for all time to come and it might just keep transform-ing with technology and innovation. Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reali-ty, Animation and Machine Learning will play a tremendous role. One needn’t worry, as long as we skill people for related jobs, just like the world did in the IT revolution that wonderfully employs tens of millions of people today. The thought process will drive content, i.e. humans, but machines, automation and new technological means will be in use to drive and deliver it. And there’s optimism for human resource and economy in media.
“In the history of the world, only two industries have never shown a negative growth rate yearly on a global aggregate basis - Healthcare and Media & Entertainment. The work by Nobel laureates, Abhijit Bannerjee & Esther Duflo, as well as the data from the great de-pression (1930s), talks in great detail about why the poor need entertainment & why films did so well during the Great Depression as people wanted to fill their lives with hope. In the near future, there will be depressed incomes and a possible utilitarian pull on people’s fi-nances, entertainment content consumption will never reduce,” says Chaitanya Chinchilikar, VP Whistling Woods International, a leading Indian media and entertainment training insti-tution.
Will these stake-holders have a role to play in future?
A dear friend who made a splashing foray into Hollywood as a screenplay writer of the famed ‘Monsoon Wedding’ film, Sabrina Dhawan, says the need for entertainment has only gone up during this (COVID-19) time. “People increasingly turning to Netflix, Amazon etc. to pass the time in bearable, even entertaining ways. Streaming had already changed the en-tertainment landscape and is becoming even more important now as traditional distribution has been upended. It is a good time to develop material and production companies are do-ing exactly that. The challenge, of course, is actual production. But all epidemics, pandemics pass and this is the time to prepare for when that will happen. It’s also becoming clear how many “real life” meetings can be done remotely, and I expect in the post-COVID-19 world, we’ll continue working and meeting remotely when we can. It’s efficient and economical when it can be done,” adds Dhawan, Professor at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, USA.
There’s the flip side to media economics. It was driven by advertising spend that is paused or terribly slashed for now. “The global media business, already in tumult before COVID-19, is in meltdown now. While there are more people than ever consuming and sharing and di-gesting news, the advertising spend is way down and that means newspapers and magazines are already closing and many more. Everyone needs to pay close attention to this issue as the quality news can literally save lives,” says Sree Sreenivasan, Visiting Professor of Digital Innovation, Stony Brook School of Journalism, New York, USA, and founder of South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) of USA.
Journalists like Umesh Chandra, awarded the Order of Australia Medal and Publisher Bris-bane Indian Times, says “Traditional and quality Journalism went out the window with the introduction of social media if that wasn’t bad enough now we are faced with this pandemic. The call of the hour is instant news, and video conferencing has become a norm; to me, they still need refining and are not as productive as face to face meetings. In Global business world, that model works well with quality streaming software and protocols etc. The biggest threat is for print media as more and more people consume news via electronic means. All of the major dailies have a web version that even includes videos.”
Print or for that matter even the traditional television and radio mediums had adjusted to new times and new media. But, even new media will undergo massive changes in the post-Corona world, according to Sanjay Trehan, who started the new media business for Hindustan Times long time ago, then moved to MSN and is now a consultant. Trehan says, “Digital will gain a huge fillip, mobile video will be a key mode of content production and consump-tion, communities on social media will become more engaged and efforts to sift credible and authentic news from the morass of fake news will gain momentum. Overall, the con-sumption of news, especially of business and personal finance, will rise. Consolidation of of-ferings will be key for media houses and news on the go will gain currency. Traditional me-dia especially print, will be adversely impacted. It may be a mixed bag for broadcast media. While it will attract more eyeballs, ad revenues may suffer in the near term due to the can-cellation of big events and slowdown in the economy. Digital will be a gainer and the chal-lenge for it will be how to harness this opportunity and move the monetisation needle. In all, a time of churn and change for the media industry, and I see more opportunities than challenges.”
Yet, the role of media in the post-Corona era has become sharper and more incisive than ever before, says a seasoned journalist and author, Kumkum Chadha. “It is during these try-ing times of a nationwide lockdown that the media became not only the only source of in-formation but also the one on which people turned to and relied on. There were different news and views and opinions expressed. Stories were reported as they were: from the ground even while keeping the official versions well in focus. During the war on the Corona outbreak, the media stood together in the national interest. At the same time, it highlighted deficiencies it did not lose sight of the good work that was being done by the government and all other agencies that were fighting the pandemic on a war footing. It was also a test for objective, balanced and mature reporting without resorting to sensationalism or exag-geration. The corona war has amply demonstrated that the fourth pillar of democracy is not the only firm in its foundations but has the grit to continue steadfast and remain strong de-spite the bashing it has received in recent years.”
For the immediate future, digital and online media have seen an impressive adaptation and growth all across platforms and verticals, especially OTT (Over-The-Top) media, feels Abhesh Verma, CEO of Hindustan Times Digital News. Verma says, “The same way demonetisation brought digital wallets and payments to the forefront, this pandemic has brought Digital Media to the frontlines and users have shown a change in their habits post this pandemic, embracing online media a most preferred way to get news, information and entertainment.”
This view is echoed by one of the early starters in India of media content exchange. Anurag Batra, Founder Exchange4Media and Chairman of Business World, says, “The future of me-dia is bright if we can reimagine what we do in media and why we do it. The media has to become a tool for the 3c economy - contactless and caring and collaborative. Media has to become video first and digital-first and powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning. Media will need to use technology even more and it has to become medium neutral and 360 degree. Whether B2C or B2B, media will embrace virtual events and audiences that want experience even in a digital setting. Media will become a gateway to influencers.”
A well-known publicist and media advisor, Ranjan Bakshi, says India could well lead media transformation. “India had defied international trends of adopting digital newspapers (ex-cept the Early Adopters) as Print editions continued to thrive since literacy was growing in Tier II and III towns. This helped regional newspapers increase circulation and advertisers were looking at new markets to expand. Even print editions of English newspapers in Metros continued their growth as this phenomenon was explained as a ‘daily habit’. The nationwide lockdown post-COVID-19 has drastically changed the reading habits of consumers and they are unlikely to live as before. This has been facilitated by Hawker Associations refusing to distribute newspapers as Resident Welfare Associations banned their entry even though it qualifies as an ‘essential service.’ The longer the lockdown continues, the less likely they are to return to print editions which means COVID-19 is helping accelerate the growth of Digitisation even among generations which were resistant to change. The Association of Indian Magazines (AIM) has already written to the government requesting a bailout package for the struggling magazine sector. News television channels are largely Corona-free now and have been the mainstay and primary source of information in the absence of print editions. This will continue to attract viewers and possibly at a later stage even advertisers once production and distribution comes back to normal. When you do a little crystal ball gazing, then you don’t need to be a soothsayer to predict that online media is the way forward and it’s going to be platform-agnostic and it’s all merging on the mobile phone.”
From South Africa, emerging just 27 years after freedom, there is caution. “The impact of Covid-19 has been detrimental for mainstream print media, as readers required updates on a more frequent basis,” says Nazeer Noormohamed of the NisMedia Group from Johannes-burg. Fortunately, NisMedia diversified into television (GlowTV) a few years ago and has witnessed “a huge opening for the electronic & social media platforms, as news updated on a minute to minute basis was much more read by the general public. With the flooding of hoax news on social media platforms, government & readers alike realised that there was a need for media houses to exist, as they are bound by ethical reporting & ensured that news transmitted was first verified.”
Editor in Chief of a leading Television Group who wished not to be identified feels there will be huge challenges to media industry post-COVID19. He confirms the news that has sur-faced in the last two weeks that the media giants and iconic institutions going back even half to a century in business will lay off manpower in a big way and start with salary cuts. Anoth-er senior international agency bureau head says work from home has become a norm and media houses will try to save their costs on account of closing offices in different cities.
Some media houses had stepped in with the changing times. International agencies were focusing on economic news provided to industry, stock exchanges, brokers and traders. That may well translate into speciality information services, aka tailored news and updates, across sectors. Competition is not going away, so there is a great opportunity for specialised digital media services. Culling, editing, formatting and delivering news/ content may see the emergence of a new vertical under the media horizontal. Viewership/ readers of mainstream media will reduce considerably. Radio will bounce back and grow in FM and digital formats.
Several international reporters and journalists, I interviewed for this article felt they couldn’t put their finger on the future. But, then some seasoned ones who have migrated and acclimatised, felt the pandemic has increased appetite for quality journalism and in-depth reporting and analysis. Shobhan Saxena, an independent journalist based in Sao Paulo since 2012 and also President of the Indian Association of Brazil, says “As most people are under lockdown or quarantine, the consumption of media, especially news and analysis, has increased. This is good news for the media. The post-COVID19 world may still be far off. Till there is uncertainty, people would want to have authentic news. When this is over, people will continue to consume good journalism and they will have less interest in celebrity gossip or stories which do not add value to their life.”
I finally agree with the view of a seasoned international journalist once based in India for the leading Brazilian daily ‘O Globo’. Florencia Costa, Chief Editor, www.becodaindia, a Por-tuguese-language website covering and promoting Indian culture in Brazil and earlier a for-eign correspondent with O Globo, says “The media scene was moving to online even before the pandemic. Now, it will move with even faster speed. As we all watch news round the clock on our phones, there will be a big growth in podcasts, online videos and articles that are niche in nature and done seriously. As people become more conscious of what they touch, people will now stick to their phones and laptops for news, views and features.”
Ethnic media in distant lands has a different take. Indian-Americans are more than four mil-lion strong in the most powerful and richest (by current GDP) of nations, the USA. A leading Indian-American weekly, ‘India Abroad’, just shut down. Many others may fold or are merg-ing, certainly adapting or adopting. The affluent and sizeable Indian-American community has already felt the hit and might feel more post-COVID-19. “I see businesses coming to a full stop. Small business which is the backbone of Indian-Americans is almost dead for now. The most thriving Indian-Americans who worked hard and built businesses from a restaurant to jewellery to garments, small to medium size motels, engaged in entertainment with mega concerts, parties and lavish weddings, hospitals and clinics etc. we are suddenly strug-gling for survival. It’s not on the economic front but the challenge to our lives where we are losing the lives of top medical professionals and small business owners to media profession-als. The new norm of hosting funerals on Zoom has made us emotionally unstable,” says Sunil Hali, an entrepreneur who is engaged aggressively in all formats of media, based in New York, USA. Hali is emotional but says he is “reinventing media in all formats I deal in and find ways to use it to connect us all while being socially distant. Whether it is to enter-tain, educate or inform, my team is fast learning how to empower the world of our readers, listeners or viewers.” His businesses came to a haunting stand still! He is turning to the digital format.
We will have to change our life and style as public, irrespective of media. We may no longer be freely enjoying concerts and sports in packed arenas or watching movies in theatres. Un-less, of course, technology gives us safe, instant, harmless and foolproof sanitisers and fu-migators. Outdoor media events will suffer badly as social distancing will be a new normal in the coming days. For the time being, we can change our habits just like we did to live in-doors and wear masks and sanitise everything during lockdowns. But, that’s all good if you have employment and the means to live and enjoy in the current situation. One of the big-gest challenges before the governments is to skill and re-skill people as the virus and technology turns the tide on humanity. For, if everyone has things to do, there won’t be a pan-demonium during or post any pandemic.
(The writer is a veteran international journalist turned media entrepreneur. He currently owns and operates PIO TV – www.pioTV.com that targets mostly the Indian Diaspora. He is also Secretary of the Foreign Correspondents Club of South Asia in New Delhi and member of many media organisations)