On Monday Sevanti Ninan, founding editor of The Hoot, wrote to the contributors that India’s first media watchdog was easing out of daily publishing.
Launched in 2001, The Hoot was the first to systematically demystify newsroom decision-making in the country. It analysed the ownership structures of the media and editorial hierarchies, revealed how advertisers were shaping news agenda, and documented self-censorship and political bias in coverage. It directed at journalists the probing and critique that they subjected others to. Similar efforts, deeply influenced by The Hoot, have followed. Today, as a result, the media’s coverage of itself is more dispassionate than in pre-Hoot years.
The pioneering website itself is changing tack, though. Running it on a daily basis is “no longer viable”, Ninan said. It has proved a struggle to find senior journalists willing to commit to the website full-time; other, better-resourced platforms have emerged; and no journalist has been willing to partner Ninan to raise funds for the site.
The website will still publish contributions that do not need to be paid for in the near future but will eventually be reconfigured into an archive, a “media research resource”.
Ninan explained to Scroll.in what is changing:
What are your plans now for The Hoot?
The plan is to change the look and emphasis of the site to have one or two current newsy reports upfront, while showcasing much more prominently the research, analysis and documentation that it contains, going back to the beginning of the 21st century. One should be able to look at media trends longitudinally by just glancing at what the site has to offer. Different kinds of searches across subjects have to be enabled because there are a lot more people studying the media now, or training to be journalists.
Secondly, there are databases on The Hoot that don’t show up prominently on the homepage. Such as the one on media ownership, and our annual free speech reports as well as financial profiles of media houses. There will soon be one on media judgements, delivered over the years by High Courts and the Supreme Court.
I guess what I have in mind is that The Hoot should become an online media research resource in the absence of an existing media research centre.
Was this change necessary? If yes, why?
The Hoot needed to change course because of the circumstances it finds itself in. It is no longer viable as a daily media news site because we (The Media Foundation, which runs it) have not been able to find seasoned and senior people willing to helm it on a full-time basis. There are very few journalists in the country who have made a career out of doing just media watch. Even as the field has broadened to cover a huge swathe of media of different kinds, including social media. Journalists who report on the media have bigger sites and publications to write for, where they can do other things as well.
Also, and this is important, the senior journalists who helm The Hoot would need to raise money to run it. Finding money to do their journalism is not something journalists are used to doing. I could not find people to partner me in this.
Back in March 2001 when The Hoot began, it was a space to critique all media, including print, because such spaces did not exist in the media. On occasions when the media itself became the story there would be hesitation in reporting that story. That is not the case anymore. So when there is a breaking media story, better staffed sites and publications have an advantage over The Hoot, which still relies on freelance contributors.
At the same time if you look at the long, researched pieces The Hoot carries, there is a need to document and critique in depth the way the media does its job. That is not something existing publications are doing. It really needs to be done out of a research centre or a university. We have hardly any media research centres in India. We should. Because the media is a highly visible and audible player, it does some outrageous things such as inciting communal responses, it has its biases, it has a potential for triggering change, and all of this should be studied.
What sort of archive or database are you planning?
One that will look at the trajectory of both media ethics as well as media coverage related to important events over the years. As covered by The Hoot.
Will the same team maintain that as well and will you add new pieces to it?
There is a very skeletal maintenance team, and the researchers and writers will remain freelance. The plan is to continue adding reports and analyses in the short term and look for sustainable university partnerships in the long term.
Will journalists, journalism students and teachers remain the primary audience?
Yes, but also sections of civil society, including lawyers who are concerned about free speech, and media researchers everywhere who already rely on The Hoot when they are looking at the media in India.