Archive : June, 2012
I knew Slogan Murugan before I knew about Gopal M.S, the alter ego (I still wonder which is which!). Gopal’s Which Main? What Cross used to be a daily staple for me, and now that he has moved to Mumbai, his blog Mumbai Paused has become the new rage. Couple of hours ago, I had a chat with Gopal. He was giving me an ‘insight’ into good story telling. I had to share it – the conversation with Slogan Murugan.
A caricature of M S Gopal by Santhosh Patil
SM : Understanding story telling and writing a story is probably more useful in the long run and very essential skills in any field
me : I can’t write to save my life. Which is why I’m slowly trying to get back to blogging. So I’d be forced to write.
SM : You wrote a nice piece about social media and hard news
I’ll tell you one trick. Take two things and connect it. For example: To make writing interesting…you have to first think of an idea that will run through. Then find a thing to connect with it
me : The idea being your opinion about something? Didn’t understand :(
SM : Could be an opinion but it’s best if it is an insight. A simple example http://mumbaipaused.blogspot.in/2012/06/chuim-village.html This is an image of a man in lungi. But to make it a slightly more interesting story, i connected it to the insight that most trades in Mumbai are caste, region based. So that insight is the idea and I connect it to the images to create a simple story. Having a word like Stereotype helps. To make it scream. More than ideas, I think the right word is insights.
me : Ah! So what happened first? The insight or the pictures?
SM : The pictures. I can just put man in lungi or unbeatable stylish Indian men. Many ways to tell the story
me : But you must have obviously thought about it. Insights don’t grow on trees!!
SM : They don’t. But if you think, you will find it. In advertising we use it a lot. Insights. And sometimes when we get none, we take something not even remotely connected and then build a connection.
me : Ah quite difficult I’d say.
SM : No. You do it already
me : Eh? When?
SM : For example. You were doing a series on single girls in Bangalore. That’s an idea.
me : Yep. So what?
SM : And the things you point out from their lives are insights into their lives. That is why the story is interesting. You are spotting it and showing them as images. But if you were to write a 1500 word piece on that for New Yorker while using the images you will pick up one such insight…and build a story to connect the whole series. For example it could be…clothing. Or it could be Freedom
me : Ah! You see I think the problem probably lies from the fact that I don’t structure my thoughts this way. Visually, am intuitive. But tell me to articulate what I just did, and am drowning already.
SM : Well, don’t think too much. It comes naturally when you have a deadline. Just look at your images long enough and you will get it. The key is not to think that I should think of an idea.
me : Lol! That’s true. Deadlines do work. Work best under pressure
SM : Think of how can i make the story fun or interesting.
me : Hmmm… Lemme try that!
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“Chinese whisper is what it was,” says Harish Iyer, a New Media and Equal Rights Activist (of Satyameva Jayate fame) based in Mumbai. “The passengers in my train were talking about a bomb blast in a mall in Navi Mumbai. I just had to check twitter to know that it was in fact, a mock drill going on there.” For Harish, Twitter and Facebook are tools for validation. “Why would I wait to hear from a media organization when I have people I know who are physically there and tweeting about it?”
Journalists, however seem to have a hard time authenticating content shared on social websites. “We tend to be suspicious of single images from a user documenting an event. A series of images from an event is more believable and so is a video,” says Sreevisakh K G, Photo Editor, Yahoo India. “Its common for users to upload unverified and/or unauthorized content. Even manipulated images. The nature of retweets on twitter is such that it makes it almost impossible to trace the original tweet. The challenge is to sift through content out there and filter out the real news. Missing a breaking news would mean missing out on a 50-60% hike in traffic.”
Media organisations, in an effort to keep up their credibility, still relies heavily on news agencies like AP, Reuters etc. According to a source in AP (who didn’t want to be named), on occasion they distribute content with disclaimers stating that the source could not be verified. These items are at times picked up by media outlets and sometimes, they are not.
Yet, social media becomes especially useful in countries where journalists are not allowed to enter or work in. As we have seen during the Arab Spring in the past year, Facebook and Twitter has played a major role in bringing awareness to the atrocities that were happening in their countries. In the case of Neda, the video of her death became the icon of Iranian struggle against the disputed election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. Perhaps, social media alone cannot bring about change in the world. But it can definitely persuade people into action.
For many journalists, social media is something that they would always monitor. But not something they would take at face value. Jason Overdorf, a senior correspondent for Global Post says that his organization mandates that he tweet about his stories. A dedicated team of 4-5 people then works on spreading the story (on social networks) as far and wide as possible. According to Jason, the amount of effort an organization puts in social media exercises is inversely proportional to their relevance in the media industry. For example, an organization like New York Times will have their articles shared online by users even if the journalists themselves didn’t tweet about it.
Julien Bouissou, a staff writer for Le Monde, Paris, thinks that trudging that invisible line of personal and professional persona is considerably dangerous. Le Monde has a circulation of 350,000 per day and 1.2 million readers. When the website and all media are put together, the numbers will scale upto 2 million readers. Julien is not a member of any social media and hopes to remain that way in the foreseeable future. “To me, social media is best used to ‘give’ news. Not to ‘get’ news,” he says.
Media organizations, however, seem all eager to jump into the bandwagon of social media. Some have automated updates of news articles directly fed to social media sites, while others have dedicated staff feeding the public with their content. For smaller media organizations, the latter strategy seem to have worked very well. Because readers like the idea of interacting directly with a media personality rather than have an impersonal robot feed them with content. Like Rajiv Verma, the CEO of HT Media Limited, India said, “Making stars out of editors and writers seem to be the way forward”. Nevertheless, a few organizations have social media policies in place. For the ones who has a guideline in place, they agree that the policies are evolving.
I have 700 odd friends on Facebook and I follow 100+ people on twitter. This network of people and a million others in secondary or even tertiary connections have been my primary source of news for the past two years. As I talk to more people, I realize that I’m not an exception in India. Rather, I’m the rule.
Gopal M S, a prolific blogger and advertising professional, uses his Facebook and Twitter feeds as his primary sources of news. Almost all the breaking news in recent times were first read in a social media. But the distinction lies in the scale and proximity of the news itself. When a local news happen, the user tends to look for people known to him/her in that particular location. If a personal connection is able to verify a rumor, the news is readily believed. Whereas, in the case of news of national or international importance, the user tends to wait to hear from a traditional news outlet. Either ways, Gopal says that experienced social media users tend to build a network of trusted sources around them. This could be a network of friends and professionals who work in areas of your interest. Here again, Gopal stays away from feeds from a media organization, but would any day follow the personal feed of the editor who runs the media organization who’s feed he declined.
In a segment of 121 million Internet users, the 43,497,980 Facebook users in India (as of Feb 2012) are hard to ignore. However, in a country of 1.53 bn, 70 m social media users (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Orkut, the 4 most popular social networks in India put together) still make for a small number. While the newspapers businesses flounder in the US and Western Europe, and slows down in Japan and Korea, it is growing in China, India, most African countries and some Asian ones. The common factors shaping these businesses are technology, lifestyle and literacy levels. This gives Indian newspapers a better promise for the future and also a different set of challenges, leaving online news websites to compete with social media.
So should news organizations embrace social networking to enable them to compete with the public on breaking news stories? Yes, but with the same restraint, caution and honesty as would be exercised in traditional media.
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“In Mongolia, only the tough can survive.”
- Prl Jay aka Pearly Jacob
(about life in Mongolia)