What exactly is the news?

We’ve seen it 24 hours a day on our TV screens for the past two decades. It slips under our door in the mornings. It is updated by the minute or the second in social media. When we say ‘news’ each of us has a certain image in our minds. But to a generation brought up on access to information in a hundred spheres as it happens, the newspaper and the television are poor substitutes and relics belonging to another era altogether.

The news is one of those words everyone knows but no one can accurately explain. Is it about politics, development, disasters, entertainment, culture, sport, business or crime? What constitutes a news story depends on what you are interested in. On a daily basis, we only wish to know what we care about. So if you are interested in what goes on in your college and your social circle, that is all you would read about. In Clay Shirky’s wonderful analysis of the state of news gathering and publishing, there’s a big insight – So long as newspapers faced little competition for advertisers or readers, this was a distinction without a difference, but as papers are being sundered by the internet, we can see how tangled the system always was. Outside of a relative handful of financial publications, there is no such thing as the news business. There is only the advertising business.

Such a telling statement. Advertising is the only glue that held newspapers together for over a century. We came to believe that the system would be able to withstand any intrusion or fragmentation. The moment the internet unbundled whole sections and created separate interest groups around them, the validity and the very premise that newspapers were built upon has begun to disintegrate. The existence of newspapers in a form that the earlier generation was accustomed to is in doubt, at least in the West.

In India, however, the march of the internet has not been as sweeping or as inclusive. Move out of the major metros and broadband access is patchy at best. So the press, especially the vernacular is thriving, not just surviving. It will be interesting to see if the same pattern plays out as the rate of internet penetration increases in the country, given the speed at which mobiles have cut through to every single social sector in the country. Right now, it is just used for calls and texting, but give it a few years and we will see the newspaper competing with the mobile – and no prizes for guessing who is in for a bruising

Our consumption patterns are skewed. We spend tons of money on things that make us feel good, like beauty creams and lavish dinners, but for the majority, books are reluctant purchases and happen usually when mandated by colleges or airport delays. The news comes very low down on our list of the things we want to pay for. It doesn’t make it feel very good on most days, with major coverage about scams and disasters. And the small section of the aware and informed public that wants to know has several sources from which to choose from now. What’s your take on where the news is going?