The importance of safeguarding the freedom of the press in the face of the growing backlash against those all over the world who dare to analyse and criticise, the alarming rise of fake news, the threat to long-established business models of the newspaper industry and the need for a collective stand against all these were messages that came through at the inaugural session of the WAN-IFRA India’s 25th Conference, held in Chennai. Susan Philips reports
Press freedom is under threat, said David Callaway, CEO of US-based financial news website The Street and president, World Editors Forum, delivering the keynote address on the subject of News Media Organizations and the Sustainable Future. Referring to the recent murder of noted journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru, Callaway said in countries like Russia, Mexico and Turkey journalists were being oppressed.
In the USA too, President Trump’s remarks against the media have led to reporters being harassed by protestors. It all starts with routine harassment, then moves into violence, he noted, adding, it was for governments to step in and uphold the standards of vibrant democracy and “it is vital we speak out each time our colleagues are targeted”.
“It is not India alone. Russia, Mexico and Turkey, where 150 journalists have been jailed without any charges, have witnessed an attack on press freedom. In the USA, President Trump’s comments against the media have led to a situation where reporters are harassed by his supporters,” Callaway said.
The newspaper industry’s business models were also under assault and, to hold authorities to account, these models must be sound, Callaway pointed out. “Suddenly, press freedom and business models are coming together in a way that makes this time more dangerous and challenging to be a journalist than any other since World War II,” he said. Referring to many publications closing, he said “every business we lose makes us collectively weaker”.
On the rising incidence of ‘fake news’, Callaway said it was a flippant term for a dangerous trend and should concern every journalist. “Google and Facebook are a constant threat to our industry and the credibility of our newsrooms,” Callaway said, adding, “the newspaper industry’s relationship with these social media giants can best be described as combustible.” Yet, he said, the World Editors Forum wanted to work with Google and Facebook. “But we have to have some transparency about what’s going on.”
However, Callaway said, in spite of the threats to the freedom of expression and the squeeze on finances, the news industry had thrived and grown. More people worldwide needed and were consuming news than ever before. Journalists had the unique responsibility of providing that news. Business had changed, new players had emerged. He pointed out that “the opportunities for us are enormous if we can work together to understand and support each other”.
On the eve of the 30th anniversary of his entry into the world of media, Callaway noted that he had been a part of all its forms – working in newspapers, for the radio, television and in digital media. During the time, “there was never a day when news media wasn’t under some sort of existential threat”. But the industry has weathered all threats, and indeed, thrived, he said. “We are the storytellers and truth-tellers from whatever platform. Our newsrooms will continue to exist in some format,” he asserted.
In his opening address, K.N. Shanth Kumar, chairman, WAN-IFRA South Asia Committee and board member, WAN-IFRA, and director, The Printers Mysore, expressed satisfaction that the WAN-IFRA India Conference had grown from a mere 50 delegates at the time of its institution, to 425 delegates from India, South Asia and around the world, making it the biggest event in the South Asia newspaper and news publishing Industry. He noted that WAN-IFRA hosting the Regional Summit of the World Editors Forum was a first.
Regarding the South Asia Committee’s activities, Shanth Kumar said many research projects relevant to the newspaper industry had been undertaken and more were either in progress or being planned, setting benchmarks in the area. Benchmarks had also been created for managing efficiency. The committee had played an important role in establishing the Printers Forum, and the World Printers Forum Conference was being held simultaneously with the 25th anniversary meet.
Talking of the challenges facing the industry, Shanth Kumar said “We live in turbulent times”. Publishers were grappling with government policy changes, structural changes in business and many hurdles in growing readership and revenue in the print and digital formats, he pointed out.
Somesh Sharma, president, Indian Newspaper Society (INS) and chief executive, Rashtradoot, India, said titanic changes had been ushered in by GST and demonetisation in India. These had profoundly influenced traditional business models of the industry. “Yet, we see consistent growth in the print media,” he said. “Literacy levels are increasing; the reach of the Internet is growing. Technology is improving. Delivery of news and analysis is witnessing explosive growth in the electronic media. We need to identify challenges and be ready to face them,” he said. On the whole, Sharma felt the outlook was positive.
INS, now comprising over 900 publications as members, has been a co-sponsor of the WAN-IFRA Conference since 1998. Earlier, welcoming the gathering, Magdoom Mohammed, managing director, WAN-IFRA South Asia, said delegates from over 22 countries were attending the conference, the first edition of which was held in 1993.
The World Editors Forum – South Asia Summit, which ran parallel to the anniversary conference, addressed issues such as journalism in the digital age, trust of news and engaging with audiences. At the World Printers Forum Conference, delegates discussed printing efficiency, innovation, business models and more. The expo in an adjacent hall had about 35 suppliers from India and abroad displaying their products and services for the newspaper printing and publishing industry.