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The New Guardian of Newsprint—Sitting Down With Jayant Mathew

Jayant Mammen Mathew, the Executive Editor of the Malayala Manorama, one of India’s most-read publications, and an MIT alumnus, was recently elected to the prestigious position of the President of the Indian Newspaper Society, the apex body of Indian publication. The MIT Post had the opportunity to interview him on his wealth of experience as a prominent journalist.

The Indian Newspaper Society is the apex body of Indian newspapers

You have an engineering degree from MIT. So, why did you take up journalism after engineering? Have you always thought about it or were there any factors that influenced you later on?

I was always interested in journalism but after I finished engineering, I did management consulting for a year and went abroad for many years. Going abroad gave me the chance to pursue my Masters in Journalism from Columbia University. That really gave me the chance to work as a journalist in the USA. However, if I rewind, I was on the MIT College Magazine Board. I’ve always liked to write but I never had the opportunity to pursue that. I don’t think the kind of degree you have matters, anybody can write. If you read and write a lot, you’ll always have an advantage. Reading gives you a lot more than any classroom can. As I said, writing isn’t exclusive to someone with a degree. Anyone can write.

You’ve mentioned that you’ve studied abroad and at MIT. What role have the various universities you’ve studied in played in your career? Do you think they’ve helped you on your journey to this prestigious position?

Regardless of wherever you are or which degree you’ve taken, each institution you’ve studied in moulds you. Each of them has its own strengths and weaknesses. Each of them gives you some kind of grounding and exposure. For example, if you look at MIT, it is very technical and that background helped me because Carnegie Mellon is a very technical and quantitative school. So, an engineering degree really helps you, just like it really helped me when I went to the US.

Could you tell us a little more about the Indian Newspaper Society?

It is the apex body of close to 1000 newspapers. All major newspapers are members of the Indian Newspaper Society. We represent the interests of the Indian press ranging from freedom of expression, marketing, revenue, and all other aspects of the print media. We have close to 800-1000 publishers who are active members of our body.

You’ve noticed a shift in readership from print media to electronic media, especially among readers from our generation. Do you think people will want to pay for printed newspapers in the future? How do you think print media can stay relevant in the coming days?

So, a media organisation must be platform-agnostic. We have to provide credible news whether it’s in printed form, television, or on the radio. As a medium, print will be threatened. As the years go by, the use of newsprint will decrease. For example, Malayala Manorama is very active on the digital platform. Migration will inevitably happen because a lot of people find it more convenient to read on a mobile/tablet. This is a natural shift that has happened all over the world. In India, it is only now that people have started paying for content. Transitioning to paid electronic media is something all of us will eventually have to do. For example, you have to pay to access both ours and The Hindu’s newspaper.

Most people already pay for sports platforms like Hotstar and ESPN. People will get used to paying and I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before that happens.

While we wait for this transition to happen, there are still a lot of sources of free news, even now. Why would people want to pay for news when free news exists?

People do not understand that we have to pay 300-400 reporters. Similarly, most media bodies have a large staff of journalists who go out and get the news. Unfortunately, a lot of these sites which offer free news copy it from existing news sources. This will have to stop once credible news organisations come to know that their content is being copied. Otherwise, how will these sites being run by a crew of ten get news? It is a process which will take time, but eventually, credible news sites will get their place back. This is a trend which you’ve already started to see in the West. In the last quarter, the New York Times has gained nearly 250,000 digital subscribers. People have started paying for news because this is the only way to get reliable news. 10-15 man operations do not have reliable reporters across the country. They sit and cut-and-paste news from a lot of sites. That is not credible, quality journalism.

Of late, there has been a lot of controversy about biased reporting, especially considering the political scenario now. What is your take on how difficult it is to maintain unbiased reporting standards?

The editorial policy of a channel is up to them. However, I feel that the facts on the ground cannot be fudged. Opinions, on the other hand, might vary. I feel the sanctity of facts must be maintained.

You’re the Executive Editor of Malayala Manorama and you’ve written for The Week in New York for several years. Do you see any significant differences in the standards of reporting in India and abroad?

I don’t really see much of a difference. Everybody wants to report what is right. Of course, there are a lot of people who want to sensationalise, but we do not fall under that category. In India, I do not think that we have tabloid journalism that one finds in the UK. However, as I said before, facts are facts. They’re extremely important and you cannot fudge facts.

So, the difference in the revenue model between printed and online newspapers is that they get their revenue from online ads. What do you think about this? Can you tell us what your take is on the business prospects of newspapers in India?

Online newspapers cannot survive only from ad revenue. 80% of that goes straight to Google and Facebook, who newspapers and websites have to engage with. This is something that is happening in the West and has to happen in India too. Facebook and Google have no reporters of their own, yet they get a disproportionate share of the revenue for basically doing nothing. Going forward, people should ideally pay for content. Only if people pay for content, will journalism survive. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and there has to be a cost for quality journalism.

You’ve mentioned earlier that the INS plays a very important role in protecting the freedom of speech of newspapers in India. As the head of the INS, do you think there is a need to regulate this freedom so we can have more transparency when it comes to news reporting?

No, we should never regulate the freedom of expression. Let’s say there’s a match which India has won by five wickets. That has to be reported by everyone as a fact. The analysis of how India won might vary depending on who’s written it. The fact that India has won cannot be disputed. However, the strategies by which India won might be discussed differently by different media outlets.

As the President of the INS, what do you think are the biggest challenges/threats to the Indian media today? Which areas do you think they can improve in?

The challenges are, of course, digital. In the next five to ten years, there is going to be huge pressure on newspapers, and the transition from print to a digital form is something that newspapers have to seriously consider. Besides, we also have to try and figure out a way to be relevant in society as credible news vehicles.