Patrice Riemens on Fri, 27 Dec 2013 15:06:11 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Pukhraj Singh: Hacking Indian journalism for fun and profit

ExecSum (by author):

A critical inquiry into the ever-present media metanarrative and the
esotericism of conversations in a brave, new and inordinately
connected world. A comparative assessment of the dynamics which may
affect Indian journalism, post-Tehelka. A unique take on the inherent
subjectivity in all of that.

This is cyber-anthropology 101, pointing towards the effect of the
hacker counterculture of the 80's in shaping the radical ethos of
social media.

It also ruminates on the shapeshifting within the global media
industry, like the acquisitions of WashPo, NSFW; the Omidyar-Greenwald
venture; Guardian's convergence journalism in the NSA story and NYT's
Snowfall, etc.

Original to:

Hacking Indian journalism for fun and profit
By Pukhraj Singh

An average Indian journalist is like a teat pipette which spills more than
it can suck to wreak havoc on the contemporary narrative. That is how
Hunter S Thompson would have opined, if the S ever stood for Singh, which,
I believe, could very well be the case. There are times when my dehorned
scalp itches like anything to unleash the mendacity that I have acquired
lately. I am tempted to conduct elaborate cyber-infiltration operations on
these batty little boobs, exposing their gooey underbellies and scaring
them so much that they run out giving a synchronised Wilhelm scream. But,
of course, things like these have never fallen under my moral purview and,
moreover, they require some institutional backing. I do, nonetheless,
wonder if Indian journalists need to be terrorised like that, especially
when they are so good at bitch-slapping each other.

The rant would stop just about here as the priority is to delve into the
ever-present metanarrative and the esotericism of conversations in a
brave, new and inordinately connected world. Right after my friend Hartosh
Singh Bal was sacked and Tehelka fell prey to its own
demagoguery?triggering a sadistic, feudal-quality fratricide within the
cabal?I waited for that one opinion piece highlighting the plight of the
listless reader. I contemplated whether the momentous rupture would make
the journalistic community hold itself accountable to its readership more
than anyone else, conceding to the massive breach of trust that had taken
place, to preserve the sanctity of the written word and the impact it can
carry. That was not to be.

There has been a lot of talk about media biases lately. I see it
differently; I see it mainly as a clash between expression and reportage.
As an engineer, I will bet my money on the fact that if one undertakes a
simple lexical analysis of all the English-language news reports (English,
because it will serve as a global standard) published in the last century,
the one steady outcome would be that, postwar, the newspapers became
increasingly subjective. I often ask why the linguist in Chomsky never
thought of doing that before penning Manufacturing Consent.

 [James Cameron] was clear that ?objectivity was of less importance than
the truth? and ?the reporter whose technique was informed by no opinion
lacked a very serious dimension?.

? N. Ram at the James Cameron Memorial Lecture 2012.

Like my journalist friends attribute incorrectly, Twitter, Facebook and
the rest of the social media?Internet in their cargo-cult parlance?are not
to be credited for this narrative inconsistency in the information
revolution. I imagine Fitzgerald?s The Crack-Up being the first critical
departure, which Hemingway, Capote and Thompson summarily noticed,
eventually leading us here. Internet only came later, and the radical
ethos surrounding the social media, which the Indian press loves to wallow
in, was gifted to us by the hacker or cyberpunk counterculture of the
eighties. That?s cyber-anthropology 101.

I understand that the seeping Americanism in all this is a little
disappointing, but not ignorable. Let me stretch this indulgence by
mentioning a few major happenings in the media industry of the US,
completely missed by the local beat. Jeff Bezos, the founder of, acquired The Washington Post for $250 million as, what seemed
like a gratitudinous act. Pierre Omidyar of eBay set aside an equal amount
for a new media venture with gung-hos like Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras,
and Jeremy Scahill. It arose as an opportunity from the growing frictions
between the state and the press after l?affaire Snowden, aiming to tackle
the entrenched biases within reporting and submitting to the moral
scrutiny brought forth by a globalised environment. Needless to say,
Greenwald would also carry along the treasure trove of classified NSA

The fluffy idealism of tech billionaires does sound liberating at the
first go, but speculations began doing the rounds of their intimacy with
the law-enforcement and intelligence setup, the very catalysts of this
upheaval. That charge was led by a spunky breed of writers spewing fire
through their pens, the haggard pirates proudly holding the last-surviving
bastion of gonzo journalism that was NSFW Corp.?recently acquired by
PandoDaily, a Silicon Valley upstart backed by top venture capitalists.
NSFW bears its leanings from the hallowed school of The eXile, an
?outrageous? yet highly-readable tabloid published from Moscow. The last
piece of the puzzle that I am trying unravel here is the hiring of
seasoned TV broadcaster, Katie Couric, as a ?global anchor? for Yahoo!.

What?s with these dollar-fuelled interspersions at the borderlines of
media? The simple answer being: the power of content, a heady cocktail
undoing the sensory deprivation that comes with news. Content is the new
world order, as The Cluetrain Manifesto foresaw in 1999? ?markets are
conversations? and ?hyperlinks subvert hierarchy?. It is the same
conversation that the NSA is trying to snoop and Google wants to
capitalise on. It alters the media metanarrative by leveling the
discourse, putting the spotlight back on the studios and newsrooms.
Radiagate was its first nudge and Tehelka the baby-step. The Indian
industry must learn that.

There have been some interesting experiments in the regional mediascape as
well. is an online retainer of left-liberal tradition, but more
feisty, interactive and wide-reaching than its print counterparts.
Newslaundry and The Caravan are making decisive interventions into the
metanarrative, but monetisation remains their primary woe. Firstpost is
basically a newspaper over the net, harbouring little scope for
innovation, and is backed by the same opaque funding sources that the
readership is so wary of. While I was confounded by the math of
sabremetrician Nate Silver, when he weighed-in on the $315 million
takeover of the news aggregator and blog Huffington Post back in 2011, I
am sure some lessons for a successful exit lie hidden in there. Few more
can be picked up from ProPublica?s profitability. Closer to home, not much
value-creation has been witnessed since the 2008 buyout of ContentSutra by
Guardian Media Group for roughly $30 million.

Beyond the number crunching, the larger argument to be made here is the
news generation becoming more socially and contextually aware, almost
sentient, to the extent that it?s leaping out of the screen. One of the
major challenges faced by the Guardian in presenting a story as complex,
path-breaking and rapidly evolving as the NSA leaks was to keep the lay
audience abreast. It pushed the boundaries of ?digital storytelling?,
learning from the past tryouts in convergence journalism like Firestorm
and The New York Times? Snowfall. The underlying plot glided over a
vignette of multimedia and textual mash-ups to bring alive the
subjects?with the message truly upending the medium. In this era of
Human-Computer Interaction, the newsroom and ?skunkworks? will have to
collectively engineer the content.

It is time to move over from the off-putting Content Management Systems
and understand that the news-cycle doesn?t stop at merely commenting,
sharing, liking or trending. Bidirectional, community-driven ecosystems
will have to be created around conversations and journalists should stop
acting like the vanguards of objectivity. The old-fashioned structures of
control and moderation need to be pulverised. NDTV and even Tehelka
initially leveraged this symbiosis to a limited degree, but they have
served their purpose. De Correspondent, a crowdfunded online journalism
startup based in Holland has raised an impressive $ 1.7 million,
coincidentally aspiring to meet the same ideals of New New Media. The
consumers will become the producers, the global would have to exist in
harmony with the local?allowing the news to breed virally, fostering a
grand unified meme-fication of the discourse.

The title of this piece is inspired by a 1996 paper ?Smashing the Stack
for Fun and Profit? by Aleph-One AKA Elias Levy, published in the
underground hacker e-zine, Phrack. It revealed a pioneering new computer
exploitation technique that still holds the Internet at ransom. The author
had the honor of briefly working with the same research team as Levy at

Pukhraj Singh (pukhraj AT occasionally taps into the cognitive
dissonance that arises from being a cyber-warfare analyst, a media
observer and a social activist. He is the founder of Abroo. The opinions
expressed in this piece are personal.

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