Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Media Are Asian

The most credible assessment of American media’s decline and rise of Asian media comes from Western scholars themselves

So we have once again successfully voted a native girl’s story to be told via CNN, helped her earn some global recognition, and garner support (moral and financial) in the rescue and rehabilitation of children languishing in our jails. The latest CNN Hero of the Year, Pushpa Basnet (‘012) is a reminder that change-making deserves some news-making on a global scale.

If only major newsmakers always pursued stories on change-making in that way.

For many in Nepal and around the world, CNN Hero is a bigger deal today than even CNN News. This is not our first time; there was Anuradha Koirala (‘010) before Basnet. It may be easier to win the hero title yet again than to get a socially significant story from Nepal covered as part of CNN’s regular newshole. Bulk of the stingy news about Nepal on the cable news channel has usually comprised avalanches, mountain rescue efforts, Tibetan refugees, political conflicts, or things like coup rumors.

By showcasing change makers working to serve those on the fringe of society, the CNN Hero initiative compensates for the network’s deficiencies in news making dictated by constricted routines and deadlines. The charitable event is also a creative shift in branding its newswork based on popular engagement via new media. The subtext of the event tells as much about the declining power of this and other traditional media organizations as it does about the existential adjustments made by the “world’s news leader” in the face of continued new media disruptions.

Anyone who has read the book The Media Were American (2008) by British sociologist Jeremy Tunstall can see that the US control of world news flow has declined considerably giving way to a global “media structure composed of interlocking national, regional and cultural systems”, as seen, for example, in the rapid rise of Chinese, Indian or the Arab media in recent years. The book is actually a follow-up to The Media Are American (1977) that he wrote almost forty years ago.

Tunstall suggests that the argument that media have become more globalized or Americanized is not true. In his view, it’s more like the media today are “Euro-American” than global, although Asia increasingly plays salient media role. He points to the resilience and rise of national media especially in Asia, and more particularly in China and India where half of the world’s people live. So today among individual continents, does it stand true that it’s Asia where the media action is?

Think of the increasing volume of content in native languages and formats globally, including local or regional language editions of national or global brands. It’s happening, sometimes at a breath-taking pace, for example in south India. Tunstall says given the greater choice in content and access, audience almost universally prefer local over global. At one point in the introduction chapter, he even questions the relevance of “global” media giants: “CNN is indeed available around the world. But who, apart from American tourists, is viewing CNN?”

The most credible assessment of the declining power of American media and the rise of Asian media comes from Western scholars and critics themselves. Asian or other continental media growth, such as in Latin America, has been acknowledged if not for the quality of journalism then for the improved business prospects.

Take India, for example. Its increasingly market-driven journalism was recently profiled in a leading American magazine. Ken Auletta piece “Citizens Jain” (The New Yorker, Oct 8, 2012) explored the approaches adopted by publishers of The Times of India (TOI), and emulated by many other media outlets in the country. “We are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business” are the words by Vineet Jain, the managing director, to Auletta. The article subtly attaches significance to the expanding business opportunities while the print markets in the West are shrinking fast.

In fact, TOI today has the largest number of subscribers (more than four million) for any English-language newspaper in the world, followed by The Economic Times as the world’s second most widely read English-language business newspaper, after the Wall Street Journal. Both China and India have a combined daily subscription base of 220 million copies of newspapers. Compare that with the combined 50 million daily print newspapers’ circulation in the US in 2010.

Thanks to increased literacy rates and reading habits, both countries’ print media industry is poised to grow by over 10 percent in the coming years. The projected figures for radio and television are higher than that. China’s end to government subsidies to most media organizations since 2003 has forced outlets to seek ways to expand business, survive competition and be self-sufficient, something Indian media outlets have already been doing.

Add to this the expansion of Spanish-language media, and Arab media, especially the Al-Jazeera brand, many transnational newspapers across the world, and notable new media initiatives in China, India and the Gulf region. Indeed, the media landscape is dotted by new arrivals and actors, primarily driven by market forces and new media possibilities.

So what difference does all this make to us in Nepal? True, China and India are big countries, they are growing faster; we have not been able to catch up with our neighbors, who increasingly embody the future of news. However, today, being a part of Asia means media are Asian, and perhaps somebody should do another follow-up on this topic, properly highlighting national accents characterized by shared sentiments and cultural systems.

Just as the Murdochs, the Jains, the Jimmy Lais and others are trying to adapt to the emerging news paradigm, sooner than later our own Gyawalis, Sirohiyas, Dixits and others will have to explore new models to navigate through the new media terrains. Otherwise they risk being constantly stalked or overtaken by new start-ups. Already, individual-operated blogs or websites like, or compete with mainstream news websites in their hits and clicks.

Let’s not forget that the growth of print media in China and India is attributed to a rather modest Internet penetration (10.2 percent in India, 42 percent in China). It is only a matter of years, until most people, if not everybody, become netizens and the digital deluge will finally sweep away the print. And we, with Internet penetration of 18.28 percent (June 2012) cannot escape that reality either.

Many of the developments in these countries directly affect our media use habits and our perceptions and understanding of the world. The global or regional media currents intertwine national, local or hyperlocal realities enabling a hybridity of native and alien values.

Unfortunately in Asia, change-making, news-making and money-making, as illustrated by the “paid news” controversies in India, and recently in China, often collide, with the latter winning over the rest. Good business, bad journalism. Can do without a Hero initiative.

On self-introspection, what interlocking systems of media and assorted values are we developing or projecting right next to China and India, two of the most important countries of the twenty-first century? Following Tunstall in reverse, a long-term vision, say 20-30 years, may help envisage the Nepali share in the emerging era of Asian media.

In thirty years, it is highly probable that we will have one hundred percent literacy rate, with one hundred percent mobile, and (maybe that much) Internet penetration. In my next column I wish to examine our emerging media paradigms, how they will affect the way we learn, work and entertain ourselves well into the future. It is not unrealistic to imagine Nepal establishing herself as a regional hub of media innovations and practices.

Published Dec 05, 2012 in Republica


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