Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Budget 2012 coverage prompts a re-look at editorial strategy

From the late 1950s until 1994, one looked forward to Nani A. Palkhiwala’s post budget analysis through lectures to de-mystify financial jargon for the common man. Then came the era of cable TV networks where expert analysis of the budget was made available almost instantly. We are currently in the era of social media where information is not just available at the click of a key but it is also focused towards individual concerns. Despite the changes spanning these 50-odd years, the financial dailies’ approach to covering the Union budget has changed little.

Does the budget still need to be covered the way it is? Definitely not, if newspapers intend to make an impact. There are three ways in which the coverage can be improved to suit the needs of new age readers.

1. Focus – Most newspapers are unable to identify the key outcomes of the budget and consequently identify a list of stories. Instead, they are in rush to give space to every piece of information connected with the budget, no matter how small or big. A case in point is the fact that reams of newsprint is dedicated to covering the impact of the budget on investors. This year, all financial dailies dedicated at least 4 pages to covering this aspect, when less than half of India’s tax payers are investors. (The Income Tax Department puts the number of tax payers in India as of 2011 at around 3.5 crore. The National Securities Deposits Limited, which maintains demat accounts of all investors in India, says there are around 1.2 crore active accounts as of March 2012). Unless the newspaper’s subscriber base comprises largely of those actively trading in the stock market, such news can possibly be wrapped up in a page at the most, focusing on the key impact such as I-T deduction of 50% to first time investors in shares and the removal of exemption on infrastructure bonds. Instead the impact of the “no-show” budget was detailed across sector specific stocks, with traders saying how they were neither positive nor negative outcomes in the budget.

Amidst the clutter of advisories made available by brokerage houses or other private advisors, the editorial team needs to indentify a set of meaningful questions to probe potential interviewees with. These questions should go beyond the routine “how do you think this move will impact the investor”. This story is a good example of how such news should be researched and covered. Not only does this story give the reader options, it also explains the modus operandi of why they may consider these options. One such piece can substitute a dozen other views from experts.

2. Structure stories better – In the enthusiasm to cover as many views on the budget as possible, newspaper often carry similar opinions voiced by multiple industry bodies and business leaders. A little bit of time spent by the editorial team looking at the stories filed by reporters, will help identify similar stories and club them into one article. Further, if the stories offer differing views on the same topic, those too can be combined into a larger sector focused story.

For example, these two stories on recapitalization support to banks could have been combined into one comprehensive story by seeking views from other banks and exploring how many banks would really need this support and if adequate CAR would indeed make banks competitive. This story could have been made more compelling to read if the reporter had probed the interviewee further on his views.

An expert usually has responses to most questions backed by data and is often happy to connect the reporter to other sources who can provide more information on the subject to make a story interesting. If not, the reporter can be assured that he/ she is talking to the media primarily to gain publicity and not to offer meaningful insights. In such a case, it is best to avoid quoting such people.

3. Link online content to offline content –The online editions of newspapers can be used for more than just relaying news faster. For budget day coverage and analysis, online polls can be hosted on the newspaper’s website. Questions such as “how would you rate the budget on a scale of 1 to 5?”, “what is the most significant outcome of this budget?” and “If you can change one thing in the budget, what would it be?.” Questions can be developed to include industry as well as individual perspectives and these poll results can be published in the newspaper. The Economic Times, had a module on their website for users to share their opinion post budget. However, none of these opinions were carried in the print editions and nor was there any mention of such a module. None of the other financial dailies had any polls/ interactive modules on their websites.

Along with news reports, the online news team can also have charts/ infographics to make it easier to understand the implications of the budget. Such charts can be imported into the print edition replacing verbose articles. Newspapers currently use graphs and charts only to supplement a story and not as replacements to a story. But news organizations such as CNN IBN have shown how infographics can be the story itself. The New York Times has used a comprehensive infographic to showcase the US budget 2012.

Blogs are an underutilized area for newspapers. A contest could have been organized inviting all experts to write a blog on the impact of the budget. The editorial could then pick the three best blog posts for publishing in the newspaper.

Besides these measures, newspapers can reach out to different cross section of people/ entities for their views on the budget. These include B-School students, foreign business councils and Ministries which are impacted by the budget such as Ministries of Coal, Shipping, Chemicals etc.

To stay relevant in the era of social media, newspapers need to offer more than just information, especially while covering critical events such as the Union budget. They need to shape perspectives. This can be achieved with a re-think of the current modus operandi and by actively leveraging social media elements in their coverage.