Milwaukee, on the western coast of Lake Michigan is a mid-west town famous for its breweries and beers- a cultural hand down from the German migrants who crossed the Atlantic more than two centuries back in search of livelihood. Politically, the city and the neighborhood are considered a Democrat stronghold.
Ironically, Milwaukee, has also been home to perhaps the most controversial Republican politician of the last century- Joe McCarthy- the father of American demagogy; the US senator, whose reckless allegations and theories on Communist subversion ruined many lives and destroyed families in the 1950s.
On the walls of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel- the largest selling English daily in the city- hangs McCarthysm in its prime- a signed letter by the Senator to the editor accusing the latter of misrepresenting facts in one of the editorials.
Seventy years since this diatribe was penned and delivered, the paper proudly displays this missive in its newsroom as a testament to its commitment to its readers and not the powers that be.
In the heydays of penny press, when media could cross-subsidize every word it published with ad- revenue, editorial remained largely insulated from business and the political executive. The sustainable revenue models thus evolved helped developed in the evolution of an independent media, an accountable executive and an informed citizenry. There was space of for both large and local media to co-exist and survive in this milieu.
And then the digital disruption happened. In the altered paradigm where winner takes all, there was little space for small publishers.
Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the US which owns more than 100 brands across the country, announced massive layoffs last week in the face of rising costs and falling revenues. A host of papers and the editorial staff- from the west to east coast- faced the axe, including some at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
India’s media paradigm has been a little different from that in high income western democracies in Europe and north-America. English is the common connecting language, but vernacular press is as popular and powerful as the national media.
Till the dawn of the new century, local and community press in the US could sustain and survive on audience loyalty without having to couple up with large conglomerates. In India though, local and community media is controlled by big brands- both in English language and vernacular press. Market leaders have sought expand their footprint by going hyper-local- publishing separate editions at district and sometimes at tehsil level. As such national became local and vice-versa.
Indian public, has never been conditioned to spend on content. It’s a behavioral issue. So when advertisers left legacy media in a lurch with the change in consumer habits, ad revenues tanked- the state filled in the void by becoming the biggest advertiser and influencer. The biggest causality in this transition was media credibility.
About three decades back, brands like Northern India Patrika published from Allahabad and Indore’s Nai Duniya had a committed reader. Most of these brands have either had to fold up or have been acquired by big publishers.
A few blocks from where Milwaukee Journal Sentinel office is where Andy Tarnoff sits with his small team of reporters, coders, graphic designers and sales executives. Tarnoff is the founder of www.OnMilwaukee.com , a digital only platform which dishes out niche content on life and lifestyle.
His small team survived the Covid years without lay-offs. Over the years, the digital startup they have had to innovate and improvise to survive a cluttered market space. To supplement their revenues, www.OnMilwaukee.com organizes food and cultural events in collaboration with local food and beverage brands like Food Truck Festivals. Their clients include Miller, the international beer brand which is based out of Milwaukee.
Gun Violence Archive is yet another example of how even not for profit digital startup have managed to remain afloat. The Archive which collates and reports exclusively on gun violence in the US. Data and reports from the platform were quoted by the three Supreme Court liberal judges in their dissenting note on the New York Gun Law.
As internet connectivity in India crosses a threshold limit, content and news consumption will concomitantly shift predominantly to mobile screens. Like western democracies, media back home will have to find new revenue models to sustain and survive. Thus far, state sponsored advertising has offset the losses being incurred due to changes in consumer habits. This model has its own pitfalls. The trust deficit in public at large about journalism and media poses long term challenge to the industry struggling to find its feet in the midst of digital disruptions.