Hacking Indian Journalism for Fun and Profit – Seminar

Originally published by Seminar and National Interest: https://web.archive.org/web/20140209070322/http://broadmind.nationalinterest.in/2013/12/26/hacking-indian-journalism-for-fun-and-profit/.

An average Indian journalist is like a teat pipette which spills more than it can suck to wreak havoc on the contemporary narrative. That is how Hunter S Thompson would have opined, if the S ever stood for Singh, which, I believe, could very well be the case. There are times when my dehorned scalp itches like anything to unleash the mendacity that I have acquired lately. I am tempted to conduct elaborate cyber-infiltration operations on these batty little boobs, exposing their gooey underbellies and scaring them so much that they run out giving a synchronised Wilhelm scream. But, of course, things like these have never fallen under my moral purview and, moreover, they require some institutional backing. I do, nonetheless, wonder if Indian journalists need to be terrorised like that, especially when they are so good at bitch-slapping each other.

The rant would stop just about here as the priority is to delve into the ever-present metanarrative and the esotericism of conversations in a brave, new and inordinately connected world. Right after my friend Hartosh Singh Bal was sacked and Tehelka fell prey to its own demagoguery—triggering a sadistic, feudal-quality fratricide within the cabal—I waited for that one opinion piece highlighting the plight of the listless reader. I contemplated whether the momentous rupture would make the journalistic community hold itself accountable to its readership more than anyone else, conceding to the massive breach of trust that had taken place, to preserve the sanctity of the written word and the impact it can carry. That was not to be.

There has been a lot of talk about media biases lately. I see it differently; I see it mainly as a clash between expression and reportage. As an engineer, I will bet my money on the fact that if one undertakes a simple lexical analysis of all the English-language news reports (English, because it will serve as a global standard) published in the last century, the one steady outcome would be that, postwar, the newspapers became increasingly subjective. I often ask why the linguist in Chomsky never thought of doing that before penning Manufacturing Consent.

 [James Cameron] was clear that ‘objectivity was of less importance than the truth’ and ‘the reporter whose technique was informed by no opinion lacked a very serious dimension’.

— N. Ram at the James Cameron Memorial Lecture 2012.

Like my journalist friends attribute incorrectly, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the social media—Internet in their cargo-cult parlance—are not to be credited for this narrative inconsistency in the information revolution. I imagine Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up being the first critical departure, which Hemingway, Capote and Thompson summarily noticed, eventually leading us here. Internet only came later, and the radical ethos surrounding the social media, which the Indian press loves to wallow in, was gifted to us by the hacker or cyberpunk counterculture of the eighties. That’s cyber-anthropology 101.

I understand that the seeping Americanism in all this is a little disappointing, but not ignorable. Let me stretch this indulgence by mentioning a few major happenings in the media industry of the US, completely missed by the local beat. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, acquired The Washington Post for $250 million as, what seemed like a gratitudinous act. Pierre Omidyar of eBay set aside an equal amount for a new media venture with gung-hos like Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill. It arose as an opportunity from the growing frictions between the state and the press after l’affaire Snowden, aiming to tackle the entrenched biases within reporting and submitting to the moral scrutiny brought forth by a globalised environment. Needless to say, Greenwald would also carry along the treasure trove of classified NSA documents.

The fluffy idealism of tech billionaires does sound liberating at the first go, but speculations began doing the rounds of their intimacy with the law-enforcement and intelligence setup, the very catalysts of this upheaval. That charge was led by a spunky breed of writers spewing fire through their pens, the haggard pirates proudly holding the last-surviving bastion of gonzo journalism that was NSFW Corp.—recently acquired by PandoDaily, a Silicon Valley upstart backed by top venture capitalists. NSFW bears its leanings from the hallowed school of The eXile, an ‘outrageous’ yet highly-readable tabloid published from Moscow. The last piece of the puzzle that I am trying unravel here is the hiring of seasoned TV broadcaster, Katie Couric, as a “global anchor” for Yahoo!.

What’s with these dollar-fuelled interspersions at the borderlines of media? The simple answer being: the power of content, a heady cocktail undoing the sensory deprivation that comes with news. Content is the new world order, as The Cluetrain Manifesto foresaw in 1999— “markets are conversations” and “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy”. It is the same conversation that the NSA is trying to snoop and Google wants to capitalise on. It alters the media metanarrative by leveling the discourse, putting the spotlight back on the studios and newsrooms. Radiagate was its first nudge and Tehelka the baby-step. The Indian industry must learn that.

There have been some interesting experiments in the regional mediascape as well. Kafila.org is an online retainer of left-liberal tradition, but more feisty, interactive and wide-reaching than its print counterparts. Newslaundry and The Caravan are making decisive interventions into the metanarrative, but monetisation remains their primary woe. Firstpost is basically a newspaper over the net, harbouring little scope for innovation, and is backed by the same opaque funding sources that the readership is so wary of. While I was confounded by the math of sabremetrician Nate Silver, when he weighed-in on the $315 million takeover of the news aggregator and blog Huffington Post back in 2011, I am sure some lessons for a successful exit lie hidden in there. Few more can be picked up from ProPublica’s profitability. Closer to home, not much value-creation has been witnessed since the 2008 buyout of ContentSutra by Guardian Media Group for roughly $30 million.

Beyond the number crunching, the larger argument to be made here is the news generation becoming more socially and contextually aware, almost sentient, to the extent that it’s leaping out of the screen. One of the major challenges faced by the Guardian in presenting a story as complex, path-breaking and rapidly evolving as the NSA leaks was to keep the lay audience abreast. It pushed the boundaries of “digital storytelling”, learning from the past tryouts in convergence journalism like Firestorm and The New York Times’ Snowfall. The underlying plot glided over a vignette of multimedia and textual mash-ups to bring alive the subjects—with the message truly upending the medium. In this era of Human-Computer Interaction, the newsroom and ‘skunkworks’ will have to collectively engineer the content.

It is time to move over from the off-putting Content Management Systems and understand that the news-cycle doesn’t stop at merely commenting, sharing, liking or trending. Bidirectional, community-driven ecosystems will have to be created around conversations and journalists should stop acting like the vanguards of objectivity. The old-fashioned structures of control and moderation need to be pulverised. NDTV and even Tehelka initially leveraged this symbiosis to a limited degree, but they have served their purpose. De Correspondent, a crowdfunded online journalism startup based in Holland has raised an impressive $ 1.7 million, coincidentally aspiring to meet the same ideals of New New Media. The consumers will become the producers, the global would have to exist in harmony with the local—allowing the news to breed virally, fostering a grand unified meme-fication of the discourse.

The title of this piece is inspired by a 1996 paper ‘Smashing the Stack for Fun and Profit’ by Aleph-One AKA Elias Levy, published in the underground hacker e-zine, Phrack. It revealed a pioneering new computer exploitation technique that still holds the Internet at ransom. The author had the honor of briefly working with the same research team as Levy at Symantec.

Pukhraj Singh ([email protected]) occasionally taps into the cognitive dissonance that arises from being a cyber-warfare analyst, a media observer and a social activist. He is the founder of Abroo. The opinions expressed in this piece are personal.