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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Tabloidisation of media

I had the opportunity today to interact with journalism students of some Bangalore colleges at a seminar on Tabloidisation of Media Today organised by the Bishop Cotton Women's Christian College. Along with me were Mr K Sathyamurthy, City Editor of The Hindu and Mr Vijay Grover, Bureau chief of Zee News.

It was a very stimulating discussion. Students had a number of questions on where the media is headed for. There was a sense of concern among the students on what they said was "decline of serious journalism". Mr Sathyamurthy said whether it be tabloids or broadsheets all types of publications had their place in a society. Mr Grover said often ideal methods were overtaken by practical constraints and realities. All of us touched upon the diversity of Indian media and choices people have today to pick the media of their liking.

I put forward my views on tabloidisation in a paper which I presented at the seminar. The following the full text:

Dear members of the panel, Principal, members of the faculty and students,

First, let me thank the Bishop Cotton Women's Christian College for inviting me to this seminar.

In a way, I am quite pleased that we have this topic of "Tabloidisation of Media". Not least because it's an easy one to speak on. I am pleased because we have today an opportunity to discuss what tabloidisation actually is.

Personally, I feel tabloidisation is a much misunderstood term, leading some people to even make almost dooms-day predictions of journalism's imminent death. Incidentally, there are some people who feel journalism is already dead!

Well, I have my own views about it. So, let me very categorically say that whatever is happening around us, journalism has only, quite contrary to popular beliefs, got more vibrant and serious.

The four postulates

Let me present to your four postulates on this topic:

One, tabloidisation is not the same thing as becoming a tabloid.

Two, there's nothing to be alarmed about this change.

Three, tabloidisation is not a dirty word.

And, four, we haven't seen the last of the changes.

I shall dwell upon these as we go along. At the outset I wish to strongly assert that the current global wave of tabloidisation -- which is just about 10 years old -- is nothing related to the typical tabloids which have been in existence for around 100 years.


Tabloidisation is one thing, tabloids are another. A tabloidised media has not necessarily become a tabloid. The Indian media – both electronic and print – have become tabloidised to various extents. But they haven't become tabloids themselves.


I hope this distinction is getting clearer. Hopefully it'll become as we go along.

What is tabloid

Let us see what constitutes a tabloid and what constitutes tabloidisation? The crucial difference between the two lies in the message.

Tabloid is a concept wherein the message is not serious in nature. The first tabloids appeared in early 1920s; and prominent among them was the New York Daily News. For the first time, as tabloids, they came out in half the size of a normal newspaper.

A tabloid is a product. The oddities and the trivial occupy more space than serious issues like education, science, foreign policy, economic policy etc.


What characterises a tabloid typically is the 3-S formula: Sex, Scandal and Sports. More than half the space of these tabloids was taken up by detailed reportage on crime, gangwars, bootlegging, sex and financial scandals.


Typical tabloids of early days, gave lots of importance to murder trials and love affairs. Some 20 per cent of space was devoted to sports, racing results etc. Serious issues were completely avoided.


If you look at the English language tabloids in our country, they don't even fit this description, except in the size of the paper and probably the use of big photos. Not only that, they also cover serious issues, probably from a different angle. Actual tabloids can be found in the vernacular press.

What is tabloidisation

Tabloidisation is altogether different. It is a process. It's more to do with simplification of the message, making the message more relevant to the audience. As I see it, it is the current trend wherein journalism is more about individuals, families, their lives and society; and not about government policies and proclamations.
Tabloidisation at one level is demystification of everything that is academic; use of colours, use of graphics, illustrations etc. Tabloidisation at another level is giving emphasis to individuals rather than the state. Tabloidisation is more of practicals and less of theory. Less of concepts and more of reality.


What triggered tabloidisation

Why do we have this issue of tabloidisation staring at us?

There is a one-word answer to that: technology; and if I may add one more word, Information Technology. We are in the midst of an extremely dynamic era in the whole history of our civilisation. There haven't been many inventions like the computer and the internet which has had such a dramatic influence on our daily lives.

When this is the case, I really don't understand how journalism can be isolated and insulated from these changes. Journalism is a social science. And, it evolves as the society evolves. The changes in journalism are only a reflection of changes in other aspects of our daily lives.


We live in an era of multimedia. There are multiple means of getting information. News spreads the fastest through the mobile phone network. Radio and television come after that. Technology has redefined not just news value but the manner in which news is disseminated.

Look at the growth of blogs. Conventional media, both print and electronic, have acknowledged their presence. The news and views given by a citizen journalist is valued as much as that of a veteran journalist. It's no longer a one-way flow of information from the media to the people, there is an equal measure of reverse flow.


I hope you may have noticed how one TV news channel last week began a programme called My News, wherein the viewers are given an opportunity to select which news item they want to watch. Every news organisation has become highly interactive.


Don't be alarmed

This brings me to my second postulate. Don't press any panic button, because journalism has got tabloidised. There is nothing to be alarmed. As I said before, serious journalism is still vibrant, much less dead. Why do I say that? Because I see it all around me. We just have to keep our eyes and ears open, be a bit more perceptive to what is printed and telecast. I'd even go to the extent of saying that serious journalism has only got more serious now.

Examples are aplenty. Let us take one: last year's flood in Mumbai and Bangalore. I don't think at any point in Indian journalism floods got, not just such an extensive, but such an incisive coverage in our media. Issues were dug out and examined with clinical precision – the issue of unplanned development; lack of an administration that a metropolis like Mumbai or an upcoming global city like Bangalore should have; the inability to handle growth of the slums; the skewed pattern of development wherein tier 2 and 3 cities don't get official patronage; so on and so forth.


Now, here in Bangalore we have a very serious issue of over 1,000 schools being shut down, midway through the year, and students and teachers being left in the lurch. This is a serious issue, one that is concerning students' education and future. Media has taken up this.


Another example is infrastructure and civic amenities. The Bangalore media have taken up very seriously this issue.

Yet another is health issues. One newspaper recently carried an article on how doctors are discovering Uric Acid as the new villain, in lifestyle diseases.

Don't be shy

Now, let me come to the third point. Tabloidisation is not a dirty word. This is in fact a derivative of my first postulate, that tabloidisation is not the same thing as being a tabloid. Tabloids may be "dirty", but not tabloidisation.
Just as we needn't be alarmed about tabloidisation, we needn't be shy about it: because I interpret tabloidisation as a democratisation of news; a process of demystification.
A recent issue of Newsweek has on its cover, the topic of many families the world over preferring not to have children. One may argue that it is personal matter for a couple. Why should it make it to the cover of an international news magazine. But, this is a very relevant topical issue; and can't viewed as sensationalism.


In the public domain, in the common parlance, the tabloid does have a negative connotation. That could be one reason, why the venerable Times of London decided to use the word compact instead of tabloid when they converted the paper to tabloid size on Nov 1, 2004.


When Amitabh Bachchan had to undergo a major surgery and also when Vajpayee had to undergo a knee-replacement, media had a lot of reports on the medical aspects of it; trying to demystify the issue for the reader. Newspapers and magazines carried a number of illustrations on medical problem and the surgical processes.


When a newspaper carried an illustration of the abdominal area to explain better what Amitabh's illness actually was, one person told me, that the newspaper was invading the privacy of the great actor, the illustration was in bad taste, that there was no need to explain his illness in such detail etc. A very similar point was raised about Vajpayee's knee. Why the PM's knee so important? Is it more important than the Prime Minister's views on our country's secular fabric?

In both cases the point that was missed was that a lot of scientific and educative input had gone into the reportage. It was not just a picture of the abdominal area.


It's not over yet

We haven't seen the last of anything, that's my last postulate. Tabloidisation itself is in various forms and degrees. The clear-cut demarcation between highbrow journalism which broadsheets pursued and the lowbrow journalism that tabloids followed, is gradually getting diffused. A lot of grey area has crept in, probably one reason why there is a lot of confusion over this change.

Today we have a lot of middlebrow journalism. While broadsheets are getting more informative and entertaining, tabloids aren't ignoring serious issues either. Today, if you look at some of our tabloids it's not all entertainment and gossip. There are lots of articles worth reading.

Let me conclude with a suggestion to the students. Try to understand contemporary media. Merely noticing the changes in journalism today is just half the job done. Try to look at them in the context of social evolution. Learn how media profile has changed over the years, how it is changing today, and how it could change further. Evaluate and understand the different roles media have played at differnt periods in history. That would give a better picture of the changing scenario and also help you understand this change better.

30 comments:

  1. That was some vibrant thoughts, Pradeep.Cannot agree with you more on several counts.Technology has certainly redefined news value and the ways it reaches the end user.The changes (in the electronic and print media)are nothing but results of attempts to catch up with that and the surging times.Interactive nature,was always an inherent attribute of the media.Columns like letters to editor,view point etc being examples.But the electronic technology has upgraded this to real time interactive levels and rendered a participatory nature to ithw hole thing.Also, 'tabloids' are certainly addressing serious issues also. As you rightly said, there are lots of articles (in tabloids) worth reading.

    Jay

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  2. Jay,
    Thanks for going through a very long post. And good to know that you could understand the points I was making in the post.

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  3. Its nice of you to say that tablodisation is not a dirty word and that there are aricles there worth reading.

    Just as Amitabh Bachchan is not a formally trained acor, it is not necessary that best journalistic talends is necessarily with hournalists. What makes a news item serious or not is the content and not who writes it- a citizen may write very well and a formally trained hournalist may have an off day.

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  4. Well written. your line is not surprising since u are a journalist. what else will u say? serious journalism is there - but how of it we have. that is the question.

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  5. Anonymous
    Thanks. Of course, I can't deny that my views haven't got coloured because I am a professional journalist.

    Thanks for at least partly acknowledging my view that serious journalism is well and truly around inspite of tabloidisation. Yes, the space has shrunk.

    But you must acknowledge the fact that there are today many other channels of information, not merely a newspaper. So, when you look at the overall space for serious stuff in all media of mass communication put together, I doubt if there is an alarming drop.

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  6. tabloidisation as a democratisation of news

    democratization, probably in the sense of free market. commercialization. and maybe individualization. wherein you won't be bothered with things which don't affect you immediately. (more concretely, would tabloidization leave room for p. sainath?)

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  7. Very well written Pradeep...And i read your post twice just understand your points:( dumb me..:)) well I did understand now..keep posting....will bounce back later to read other post...

    http://o3.indiatimes.com/worldofpickledpolitics

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  8. Anonymous,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Well, P Sainath will still have space. The only difference is that it may not be in the same place. In fact, with multiplicity of media, he would probably get more space. I mean on a variety of channels of media, which are, and would be, pursued by his readers.

    Today we should not look at one medium of communication, or one media organisation. Because we have access to multiple sources. So, we have to look at all of them on the whole.

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  9. Ekawaaz,

    Double thanks... For reading it twice! And, thanks for the kind words. I quickly went through your blog. Shall come back to your blog later.

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  10. Very interesting article. Tabloidisation is probably not bad if serious issues are not avoided. We didn't call it that, but when it became more and more prominent in local relevision I became more and more alarmed because it seemed to trvialize the news. Making serious and sometimes complicated stories understandable by all is not a bad thing, but relying on fluff for the bulk of a newscast does not allow time for the stories that really affect people's lives and that, in a democracy, could be injurious to society.

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  11. Very very interesting talk on Tabloidisation Pradeep.

    I think Newspapers are competing with other media too these days like the News Channels, so there will be an element of showmanship in the papers to keep it from becoming boring, especially when the News Channels present the news in an interesting and easily digestible format.

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  12. Nice thoughts. With so much competition for ad pie from TV and radio, you really can't blame the newspapers for taking the tabloid route.

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  13. Dick,.... Yes, I guess the proportion is what counts. A successful media should get the magic formula right.

    Silverine,.... The competition from TV is substantial. The fun is TVs themselves are facing the heat with internet and mobilephones catching up. One thing for sure, we are at a momentous period in history. Since we are part of it, we aren't realising it.

    Kishor,.... Whether we all like it or not, ads are so crucial. That's the money.

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  14. in my view,just like any thing else,a society gets the media that it deserves.

    over a period of time there has been a quantum change in life within and around,covering the spectrum of information revolution,demands on daily life,high stress life and so on.

    there is enough stress in a common mans life leaving very little time or patience for him to bother about the rest of the world. hence,today if media is to serve its purpose it needs to 'thrust' or 'dunk' it up the citizens face.hence i feel tabloidisation is an evolutionary process to serve a purpose and survive amidst the invasive electronic media.

    secondly the three S formula-makes media interesting.the common man does have an appetite for it.and media caters to that.

    thanks to a scandal,he todays knows of bofors howitzer or scorpene submarine.so the S formula serves as a the 'garnish' to an other wise boring morning news.
    so long as the media is clear about the degree of tabloidisation it would indulge in-its fine.And the discering citizen is going to judge the media by that fine line that that media draws.hence may i predict that media and the citizen would eventually settle at an equillibrium?

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  15. Pradeep,

    You make very valid points and a number of them in fact. But something tells me that the students would have gone to sleep in such a matter-of-fact speech. Not to hurt you, but just a feedback if you wish.

    My two cents: I find that the growth of media has attracted both good and not-so-good things. While they are being hurled at us as a deluge, we need to filter out what we want to see/ hear and what not to see/ hear.

    Finally, it's our choice that matters. Tabloidisation may not be entirely good but it's not entirely bad either and that's like everything else in life! :)

    Liked your post!

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  16. loved your radical and honest views on the topic, sir! am a 1st year journalism student and even my coll recently organiszed its journalism fest where we discussed topics similar to the one discussed by you in this post...

    i believe that the inherent problem lies in the fact that people "over-expect" a lot from the media! the general perception that media has the role of an activist only and completely forgetting the fact that media, like any other business has its share of profit motives....leads to a problamatic situation!

    as far as the issue of so called "tabloidisation" is concerned, i totally agree with you that the term itself is in no way negative. the fact that its thanks to globalization that the black-and-white avataar of the newspaper has given way to a more glitzy-glam avataar cannot be ignored; and all of this has been done to primarily attract more and more people. but at the ame time i dont think that the media is at all focusing its shift from real issues to "softer" stories... cuz for every page3 party that the channels and pepers cover; there's always plenty of real stories, like...the mumbai blasts, reservations, etc.. that gets its fair share of fame!

    and yeah, congratulations on coming up with such a "real and practical" write-up....

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  17. hello sir,
    sheetal here. i attended this seminar too..i agree with what you said but with all due respect i want to tell you that personally i was not really satisfied with the answers that we got...it was more like we see a small lamp burning somewhere really far and we approach it, go closer and closer, and when we are just two steps from the actual place we turn our backs and walk off...well we all just kept beating around the bush. I was really disappointed. the questions that i kept asking people everywhere i went remained unanswered.every seminar, every talk and lecture i attend i have the same question to ask but unfortunately no one answers it for me...well if the truth out there is something else, when what principles we learn in class and what we actually use in the actual world out there are completely contradicting then why do we have to learn about all those ethics and codes of journalism at all coz at the end of the day the truth remains that everything one does should directly or indirectly aim at higher TRP???
    isn't there any value for truth nowadays is it all just money???
    people there said that "we give out what sells, we show what people want to see". well do you think the people are intelligent enough to decide what they want for themselves?
    shouldn't media be a mediater between the people in power and the comman man?

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  18. Rajesh,.... Good to hear from you after a long time. To say society gets the media it deserves may be a bit too blunt, but quite close to the truth, especially in a democracy where there is freedom to publish and freedom to buy.

    Mysoean,.... It didn't look like lots of people went to sleep! You are right, finally it's our choice that matters.

    Soojie,.... Glad to know that you discuss similar topics. That's the way new ideas evolve, are implemented and that's the way society evolves.

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  19. very interesting!
    Am using somepoints from this for a presentation on media for the french diplome class, with your permission

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  20. Sheetal.... When I was doing my PG in Mass Comm and Journalism, I too had very similar doubts. We used to be horrified at what media was doing. And those were the pre-computer, pre-cable TV days. Just the newspaper, radio and Doordarshan! The sort of "trivialisation" we are talking about wasn't there. Still, we were upset as students! But, when I joined the media, a number of misconceptions were removed, and things began to get much clearer for me.

    If you have doubts, I will be only too glad to clarify them for you, any number of times, to the best of my ability. It'll be great if you could please specify the cases.

    Why should we study theory if it has no practical use, that's one question which is often asked. Academic concepts are essential. That is the foundation on which practical knowledge is built upon. When you become a professional, you are much better off if you have a sound academic background. So, take it from me... the time you spend in college with textbooks DOES you good. I am telling this from my own personal experience and from seeing the experience of others.

    We have Doordarshan which is quite matter of fact and shorn of hype. How many of us, who criticise the sensationalism of mainstream TV channels, regularly watch Doordarshan? I am sure very few. There is no shortage of TV channels which telecast serious programmes: from National Geographic to 24-hour educational channel of IGNOU... I think it is unfair to expect all media organisations to be of the same type. We need diversity so that we can choose what we want and what we like.

    You mention about media being a mediator between people in power and commonman. I guess that is happening on a day-to day basis on newspapers and TV channels. Today's decision of Karnataka education minister to allow students to continue in schools which have charged with violating state's language policy is a classic example of how media takes up people's issues, campaigns and gets things done. One newspaper in Bangalore broke that news, and the entire media, including national TV channels, took up the issue... and forced the govt to act... There are so many examples...

    At the same time, I do agree that the amount of serious news coverage has reduced, not just in Indian media but abroad also. There are a number of reasons for it, like the ones I mentioned during the seminar.

    Conflict between theory and practicals is not restricted to media. It's very much there in almost all professions: medicine, teaching, engineering, management, banking, business admin, etc. The relationship between academics and industry is often confrontational, but it is always symbiotic. All through the ages, each has gained from the other.

    My small suggestion to you is: do not get disheartened because because of this divergence. Often what is ideal is not practical and what is practical is not ideal. We need to face up to this and tackle it in the most judicious manner. That's where our success lies.

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  21. Usha,.... Please go ahead... Je vous done la permission......!!!

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  22. Superb article...Absolutely loved reading it. I also had the feeling that our media is becoming like a tabloid (presently working in UK..so do get a chance to read SUN, DAILY MAIL, DAILY EXPESS - 100% crap)...

    Good to know that there is a difference.

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  23. Balaji..... Thank you so much. In India there are more broadsheets than tabloids in English. But in local language there are lots of tabloids.

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  24. Dick McMichael has put up a post on his blog on the topic of tabloidisation and he gives valuable insights from his personal life on the subject. Read it here: http://newsmanbook.com/?p=133

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  25. Hey Pradeep,

    Thanks alot for visiting my blog and sharing your thoughts, I guess it time now for you update blog:)) I will bounce back again tomom..till then be cool and chill..

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  26. Thanks. Another change that happening in journalism is that its no longer the news (plain data), but its the stories that people expect. NOt just what happened, but joining the dots with imagination, creativity and statistics. This can also be called biased journalism, but it is definitely on the rise. See "Fair and Balanced" from a friend of mine -
    http://vkn.blogspot.com/

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  27. Me,.... Yes, you are right, it is no longer the old style of reporting. It's more imaginative, insightful, interpretative, analytical... At the same time, these are different from being opinionated.

    When there is a disaster, it's no longer the number of people who are dead which is in the headline, but the mood of the people. Times are changing.

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  28. From Tinotenda Mutubuki (Zimbabwe)

    This was quite an interesting talk and presentation on tablois and was highly enlightened abt the difference between tablodisation and tabloids. Was very analytic and segmenation prooved helpful and explaining. Keep it up

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  29. Tinotenda Mutubuki......: Thank you very much.

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  30. The concern of the students about where the media in this country is headed is not without reason.
    The article makes informative reading and is an eyeopener on the issue of tabloidisation. My experience with one of the television channels made me more cynical about the industry.
    I have penned it down on my blog.

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