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Like it or not, the media are here to stay

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-10-19

IF you don't like what your newspapers are serving you, or your favourite magazines, or, for that matter, your television networks, or even the Internet, I suggest that you should blame the Romans of antiquity. After all, they founded the media.

It was in 59 B.C. that the Romans started publishing on a daily basis the Acta Diurna. Posted all over the imperial city, the world's first known news medium was intended to inform the citizenry of important political and social developments. Romans would argue about what the Acta Diurna would disclose, they would shriek with delight at times, and occasionally their disputes would degenerate into fisticuffs. But they would seldom believe much of anything that the publication had to say. Some Romans, in fact, despised it and the authorities that brought the news to them because they thought that the contents of the Acta Diurna weren't news at all but government propaganda or, worse, figments of the writers' imagination.

So things haven't changed all that much in the two millennia since the height of the Roman Empire, have they? According to a recent Pew Poll in the United States, 68 percent of Americans believed that journalists are biased. Other polls - including one in India last week - have shown that of some 50 professions, only lawyers ranked lower than journalists in the public's esteem.

The Romans could scarcely have foreseen how the Acta Diurna would evolve over the millennia into, say, the Web, or those ubiquitous hand phones that can transmit news pictorially as it happens. But like it or hate it, the media are here to stay. In fact, according to a new study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the global entertainment and media industry is growing hugely in revenues, notwithstanding the recent world economic downturn. In 2003, industry revenues were US$1.3 trillion. That figure will rise to nearly US$2 trillion in five years.
And the Asia-Pacific region will be the "hottest" for media growth. "We're expecting Asia-Pacific to be the fastest-growing region in the world during the next five years as a result of several exciting opportunities for industry growth and expansion, particularly in China and India," said Mr Marcel Fenez, Asia-Pacific leader of PricewaterhouseCoopers' Entertainment & Media Practice. "Although piracy remains a negative force, efforts to stem its affects combined with domestic and foreign industry investments will drive growth in the region," Mr Fenez said.
The growth is Asia-Pacific is projected to average 9.8 percent annually, increasing to US$366 billion in 2008, or more than a third of the global media industry revenues. Media stocks, anyone?
Here's what PricewaterhouseCoopers has to say about the specifics of the media industry:
*Newspaper publishing globally will increase from $155 billion in 2000 to $197 billion in 2005. The Internet is proving to be an engine of growth and an effective companion for newspapers, attracting new readers and additional advertising, and driving print subscriptions.

*Magazine publishing will grow at a 5.8 percent CAGR, increasing from $84 billion in 2000 to $111 billion in 2005.

*Internet advertising will jump from $40 billion in 2000 to $90 billion in 2005.

*Book publishing will expand at a 4.2 percent rate, rising from $85 billion in 2000 to $105 billion in 2005. Latin America will be the fastest-growing region, as governments make a concerted effort to promote education and literacy.

*Recorded music will grow at an estimated 5.1 percent compound annual rate over the next five years, reaching $49 billion in 2005.

*Filmed entertainment spending worldwide will rise at a 6.6 percent, reaching $93 billion by 2005 from $68 billion in 2000.
*Television markets for broadcast and cable will reach $168 billion in 2005 from $107 billion in 2000, growing at a 9.4 percent compound annual rate.

*TV distribution spending will reach $221 billion by 2005. Asia/Pacific ($36 billion in 2005) and Latin America ($9 billion in 2005) will be the fastest-growing regions, fueled by large increases in multichannel penetration.
But there is, well, a problem. What's happening in the media industry doesn't quite fit in with the basic tenets of the growing globalisation of our interdependent world. Those tenets emphasize transparency and the free flow of capital and information, among other things. They assume diversification of ownership. Globalisation is predicated on a fair and level playing field. That, at least, is the central arguments of globalisation's proponents.

What's happening instead is convergence - the relentless gobbling up of smaller media firms by established giants, and mergers among the giants themselves. Try starting and sustaining a newspaper in Mumbai, or New York, for that matter. I should know: I published a small tabloid in New York for a dozen years, and each year had to beg and scrape around for funds. (Unluckily for me, that was before convergence became a buzzword; no media conglomerate offered to buy me out. Otherwise, this column would have been written from some Himalayan aerie.)

Professor Robert W. McChesney of the University of Wisconsin points out that the global media market has come to be dominated by seven multinational corporations: Disney, Time Warner, Sony, News Corporation, Viacom, Vivendi, and Bertelsmann. None of these companies existed in their present form as media companies as recently as 15 years ago; today, nearly all of them will rank among the largest 300 non-financial firms in the world, according to Professor McChesney.

I asked Mr Ken Auletta of the prestigious New Yorker, who writes extensively about communications, about what concerns him about the convergence phenomenon at this time of globalisation. Here's what he told The Straits Times:

"The concentration of ownership into Big Media disheartens me. It means fewer voices, less localism. It has happened because the US federal government has moved to de-regulate media, which has also freed media companies from much of their public service obligations. Media giants now own journalistic divisions that comprise the bulk of television, radio, newspaper and magazine news. And they then do what businessmen do reflexively: push to improve profit margins by cutting costs, to boost circulation by providing more entertaining news, to create what they call synergies and journalists call shilling between the corporations various divisions. This robs journalism of its authority.

"This trend, coupled with the rise of Fox News and egregious journalistic mistakes and arrogant TV talking heads, has contributed to the erosion of the media's influence," Mr Auletta said.

If, as Mr Auletta puts it, contemporary journalism's authority is being diminished, so is its traditional expansiveness of news coverage.

"There is a desperate need to have more national and international news coverage, but in a cost-conscious, profit-oriented media, enough resources aren't allocated for news bureaus in different foreign capitals, or investigative reporters and documentary producers," Ms Ponchitta Pierce, a New York-based TV talk-show host and veteran magazine writer, told The Straits Times.

"Greater coverage of news beyond our borders would help to balance the focus on ourselves, enable us to understand and appreciate the lives and cultures of other people, and make us more informed partners in an increasingly globalised world. I don't see this happening, however, in a media world that is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few mega corporations where the bottom line is more important than news, the diversity of thought and opinion," Ms Pierce added.

While it's generally true that media convergence translates into consideration for the bottom line and not for breadth of coverage, there are exceptions. Of these, certainly the most outstanding is the New York Times.

It has unabashedly set out to extend itself into a global multi-media brand, but it prides itself on expanding - and not contracting - its news columns, particularly those concerning international affairs. Many years ago, the paper's then executive editor, Mr A. M. Rosenthal, liked to say that one reason the Times survived the advertising slump of the 1970s was that "when times were tough, we put more tomatoes into the soup, instead of diluting it" - meaning that the paper increased its news coverage and not pared it even when the ad pages were fewer. Readers appreciated this, and remained loyal to the Times - even as other New York newspapers were losing readership and some ultimately even shut down.

Because of the global economic downturn that began in late 2000, times have been again tough for the New York Times. Yet, it has flourished. And this is mainly because of the extraordinary stewardship of its Chairman and Publisher, Mr Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. It is widely acknowledged that the paper has never been livelier or more wide-ranging in its coverage. Not surprisingly, its shares have been performing well on the New York Stock Exchange.

Over the weekend, I asked the 50-year-old Mr Sulzberger Jr. what was it that explained his newspaper's survival and success.

"Over the last decade, the New York Times has become the only seven-day-a-week national newspaper in the United States," he said to The Straits Times. "Just as importantly, we also launched what is now the largest newspaper-owned
Website in the world, purchased full control of the International Herald
Tribune and, in partnership with Discovery, created a television cable station called Discovery/Times."

And what was the driving thesis behind such expansion?

"Behind all these actions is a simple thought," Mr Sulzberger said. "We hope to distribute our quality news and information to a worldwide audience using whatever medium we can. We believe that all citizens, wherever they live, deserve to be well informed about the events which move our world, and we hope that the Times can deliver on that promise."

There's little doubt that the Times under Mr Sulzberger will keep his pledge. But there's an important factor in its favour that doesn't necessarily apply to other media organisations: the New York Times has credibility. In recent years, it took a hit or two because of unscrupulous reporters who made up stories - but those were aberrations. And equally important, the Times's news columns are totally free of ideology.

"Despite the contention of many Arabs that the newspaper is biased toward Israel and Jews, that's simply not the case," says Mr Louis Silverstein, former assistant managing editor of the paper. "In fact, the news editors bend over backward to ensure that there's no partisanship in the news columns." Indeed, even the opinion pages - featuring what are called leaders in Singapore - are frequently more critical of Israel's occupation of Arab territories than even most European and Third World publications.

That sort of nonpartisanship in news columns, however, is distressingly absent in many developing-country newspapers, according to Mr Rahul Singh, former editor of the Indian Express.

"India probably has the freest press outside the West and Japan, certainly in the developing world," Mr Singh told The Straits Times. "Freedom of expression was enshrined in the Indian constitution, since India got its independence in 1947."

But he also points out that because big business families - whose primary revenues flow from non-media enterprises - own the major national dailies, partisanship inevitably surfaces in news columns. For example, it's hard to read the Hindustan Times, the premier English-language newspaper in the capital city of New Delhi, and not come away with the impression that it's an ardent supporter of Mrs Sonia Gandhi's Congress Party, which leads the leftist 14-party ruling coalition known as the United Progressive Alliance. Similarly, the Indian Express was almost stridently for predecessor government led by the rightwing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

"The government still plays a very dominating role and can still influence the press," Mr Singh said. "Both the Times of India and the Hindustan Times are owned by business houses that like to keep on the right side of the government in power. In addition, government withholding of advertising can cripple the smaller newspapers, since they depend for their survival on government advertising. The government can also sometimes be vindictive. In 2001, a brash online Website venture, Tehelka, run by young journalists, did a sting operation on the then Defence Minister, who was shown to be in a situation where bribes were being offered. The Website was forced to close down by the government."

The New Yorker's Mr Auletta sees the Internet as the one genuinely encouraging development in the global media. Why?

"The rise of the Internet heartens me, for it empowers citizens to fetch information when they want it from a wide variety of sources; the introduction of digital cable, which expands the menu of news and entertainment choices available to most; and the public backlash against Big Media, which last year compelled the Bush administration to back off from its plans to encourage further media consolidation," Mr Auletta said.

But the Web encourages disputatiousness as never before, and veteran print journalists worry that information sent unfiltered through cyberspace can be both hurtful and misleading. The Web can generate a cacophony of dissent.

Dissent, did I say? Well, let me tell you about when the Romans launched the Website of their time in 59 B.C., the Acta Diurna...

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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