Within a year, online media has moved from a position of huge potential and strength to one of stretched finances. That is not preventing many new outlets from making a debut every week but that is not preventing new outlets from facing huge problems either. The market is saturated with old and new entrants but the robustness is going dim. It’s not a crisis yet but the surefire success that many foresaw for online media as the emerging alternative to professional media appears overestimated now. What exactly is going on?
The investor angle
Media investment is notoriously high investment and high connection based. Even crores aren’t enough, it’s about several hundred crores which means you have to be part of the internal network. Because you can’t make that kind of disposable money unless one is part of that network. And having made that kind of money you have to know the really big ones and have the trust of the PM no less. Which means ownership of a TV station or a newspaper is very restricted even in these days of network capitalism. Big media is not for everyone but the chosen ones of every regime.
That doesn’t mean that there is o shortage of rich people belonging to the second level. Many are very rich and want to own a media outlet but can’t handle 200 crores of black money. Others want or are capable of investing a few crores and a few are entrepreneurs who are able to bring together several investors with money looking for prestige. And so the rich but not hyper rich or connected that are fuelling the online media boom.
There is another group that is the online stream of mainstream media which continue to be the most successful performers in the market due to their clustered presence and ability to access a wide range of media and other resources at their command.
Start up dreams and recurring cost reality
The comparatively low start up cost is the biggest inducement to new investors. The result has been a long train of online media outlets birthed by the flush of owning a site. No one really knows how many are there but insiders say it runs into thousands. With a high educated jobless bulge, getting semi-professional media workers by giving them a housemaid’s salary isn’t difficult when entry is made. Problem begins when owners see that online media gets very few adverts and that means it is entirely a self-funded indulgence. And then the money dries up, standard falls, people live and that sinking feeling is high.
Barring a small professional band, who know both media and technology who from outlet to outlet, most media workers are in difficulties which means the sector is in a crisis.
Low branding means low income
For a media outlet, news is branding but when several thousand outlets operate, and the news sectors are – sex, violence, accidents and sports with a dash of sensational politics- how is the audience going to make a choice of outlet ? This tabloid formula may work with one or five giving them a brand but when 3000 do the same, the brand is diluted beyond identity. Nobody knows which is which and so media loyalty is very limited. And so clicks are limited and that means payments from the internet payment platforms are limited too.
Since publishes more or less the same news and there is no media outlet branding , the top few who are nursing a large team can’t make enough money and that means the economic suffering is across the range. The exclusive online sector is in an economic drought of sorts.
This is reflected in the strain on news collection leading to more cut –paste borrowed news. Some outlets hire columnists but the writers write elsewhere too and barring a few the hits are also limited. Thus as a whole, most media units are no longer shining.
Neither citizen nor community
Online media could have been a community voice but it isn’t so because the owners and often workers belong to groups, parties and clusters that are aspiring for bigger bucks. So for them, there is neither any attraction nor value in community representation. In the end, they are neither here nor there.
Yet the potential for being the voice of the underserved and the marginalized, the activist and the justice seekers remain as much as before. They have low presence in mainstream media and the potential to be part of the media space through online presence still exists. But online media as a digital version of mainstream large media is much more difficult and the online presence is still not that strong. And the owners want neither to be activist or community voices because they don’t understand niche media.
Online media is niche media and that is where it must live, breathe and die. Till that happens the situation will not improve much.