How we journalists killed news TV : The Tribune India

Join Whatsapp Channel

How we journalists killed news TV

During this period,even the most profitable news channels had relatively low returns on investment. A majority ran on losses. The only way they could survive was by raising more money in the form of equity and debt. But equity investors were increasingly sceptical of the earning potential of news TV. This prompted the networks to expand into the entertainment space. The market capitalisation of listed news companies shot through the roof. Then came the crash of 2008.

How we journalists killed news TV

Photo for representation only

Aunindyo Chakravarty

Former Sr Managing Editor, NDTV India and NDTV Profit

I WORKED at NDTV for nearly two decades, and continue to be associated with the brand as an occasional contributor to its opinion section. Whatever I write about the bid to take over NDTV is bound to be one-sided. It is a topic that is best left for other, less biased commentators. What I will write about is the larger story here: that of the corporatisation and financialisation of India’s news media, especially TV news. It weakened journalism and turned it into a commodity.

This is not meant to be an exercise in pointing fingers at others. Instead, I will turn my gaze inwards, towards my own culpability in the assassination of TV news.

I joined NDTV in 1999, at a salary of Rs 10,000 a month. By 2004, it had increased at a decent pace: my monthly salary rose to Rs 85,000 and I was given a car as a perk. These were the early years of the global stock market boom that would last till the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008 brought everything crashing down. Media companies began tapping the stock markets and raised large amounts of money.

Established faces in TV news, many from the NDTV stable, were approached by other media houses to branch out and launch new channels. They were given significant ‘sweat’ equity, which ran into tens of crores. As these new channels began taking baby steps, they had to poach people from established networks, like NDTV, to run their operations. I was among those who were offered positions in these new channels — a significant jump in designation and seniority on top of a salary that was three times of what I was earning.

NDTV, like other older networks, had to match these fabulous pay packages being thrown at their employees. Overnight, salary bills more than doubled. This moment, in mid-2005, would forever destabilise TV news companies, since they were already paying much more than what the print media was paying while earning much less.

Once journalists got used to the corporate salaries, they expected handsome raises every year. Their aspirations were driven by the path shown by senior editors — some had become entrepreneurs, while others were getting CEO-level salaries.

Till early 2008, TV news was one of the most lucrative professions to join. Channels were being launched every other day, and the talent pool was small. As an editor, half my time went in protecting the flock and trying to convince people against leaving for the promise of better pay. The only way to hold on to people was to reduce their workload drastically. This meant increasing the headcount without any change of output.

By 2007, freshers had to be paid three times what new entrants were paid just a couple of years earlier. Hiring became a farcical exercise. I recall one case where we were so desperate to hire that we told a prospective interviewee what we would ask her a week in advance. She had no experience and rejected our offer of Rs 45,000 as starting salary. In today’s value, that is nearly Rs 1.3 lakh a month!

This had a transformative effect on the lives that journalists lived. From being the upper middle class, they moved into the category of the super-rich. It became normal for editors to be seen in five-star hotel restaurants or flying business class for foreign holidays with their families. Their homes were strewn with curios from across the world, while they sipped tea from Good Earth mugs. Many swapped their Fabindia kurtas for bespoke couture.

During this entire period, news channels were barely breaking even. Even the most profitable channels had relatively low returns on investment. A majority of the news channels ran on losses. The only way they could survive was by raising more money in the form of equity and debt. But equity investors were increasingly sceptical of the earning potential of news TV. This prompted the proprietors of news networks to expand into the entertainment space, to attract institutional investors and strategic partners. The market capitalisation of the listed news companies shot through the roof.

Then came the crash of 2008, which triggered a recession in the developed world and a crisis of liquidity across the globe. The valuation of TV news networks collapsed, which meant that it became tougher for them to leverage their assets and raise debt. Instead of focusing on the market cap, they had to redouble their efforts to raise revenues. This is where the already unhappy relationship between journalism and ratings became toxic.

Senior journalists, earning massive salaries, were tempted to tailor their news content to whatever drove the ratings. News had to be entertaining to attract eyeballs and make viewers stick to the screens. The best way to do that was to focus on emotive issues and entertainment.

Opinion TV took over prime time slots as star anchors perfected the art of generating ratings through noise. Newsgathering suffered as channels cut back on travel and pruned or even shut down bureaus.

Those who resisted this slide had to pay in the form of a drop in their ratings, and, therefore, revenues. Big corporates stepped in by either taking over networks entirely or providing finances to prop them up.

Senior journalists were aware of this turn towards the corporatisation of news media. Most not only accepted it, but also went out of their way to build bridges with the corporate world. Other editors established regimes of self-censorship where stories that questioned big businesses went through fatal editorial scrutiny, such that they never made it on air.

Very few senior journalists were bold enough to take on the corporate power. But even they often capitulated, after a few ineffectual protests, because they knew which way their bread was buttered.

Today, the corporate control of news media is almost complete. It is the culmination of a process which trapped journalists in a valuation bubble, where they believed they deserved management-level salaries. It is we who must take responsibility for what happened to journalism. We killed it. 

Top News

Bihar, AP get lion’s share; ‘bribe’, says Opposition

Bihar, AP get lion’s share; ‘bribe’, says Opposition

Assistance promised for rain-affected Himachal Pradesh, Utta...

Union budget 2024 Live updates: FM Nirmala Sitharaman set to present her 7th Budget, major reforms expected

Budget 2024: New tax regime slabs changed, standard deductions hiked by Rs 25,000

Mobiles, gold, silver to be cheaper; fiscal deficit is estim...


View All