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Selling editorial space: Changing times

Sunil K Poolani

The free press is the mother of all liberties, and our progress under liberty.

- Adlai Stevenson

Stevenson should have known. He knew the power of the press. It is by now well established that he lost the US presidential election (not once, but twice) because of his irrepressible wit which the Fourth Estate failed to savour. And after seeing the political failure of such a man, American politicians seem to have, despite occasional lapses, taken seriously the advice preferred by Senator Thomas Corwin to James Garfield: Never make people laugh. If you would succeed in life, you must be solemn; solemn as an ass. All great monuments are built on solemn assess.

Whatever flaws the American press might have (remember the latest euphemistic term, embedded journalism), it adhered to at least one principle (not forgetting the recent shameful happenings in The New York Times): never sell editorial space at least not blatantly. And we, Indians, have managed to do that, too.

Stevenson knew the power of the press, and he later became careful in not antagonising the media. So do most politicians in India. So, how does one ensure s/he will get a good press? Earlier it was a bit difficult; now it is quite simple. The Times of India, a leading English newspaper in the country, has devised a strategy: marketing editorial space in the newspapers the Times group publishes. Its simple. If you are a politician who is finding hard to defend the corruption charges against you, a corporate chieftain who wants to settle scores with your business rivals, or a Bollywood starlet who wants to remain in the limelight, all you have to do is to pay money and feature in the news columns or other editorial space.

Now, Senator Thomas Corwin is wrong. You dont have to be solemn as an ass to build great monuments; you can, instead, make the common reading public a much bigger ass and rule till kingdom come. All thanks to the new-found concept of selling editorial space, and in the vanguard is the leader who guards the reader.

It took some time for the truth to come out of the closet. In fact, trivialisation of news came first. And before that came the technological advancement. With the advent of new technology, the press too underwent a sea change. From hand composing and flatbed printing, the industry moved to the linotype and rotary press. By the late eighties, photo offset laser-printing machines replaced them. And in the sophisticated nineties, one could find anyone between a sub-editor and the printer redundant, as the press room computer would do the work of a proof-reader, layout artist, visualiser, plate-maker, bromide and camera operator all at one keystroke.

Well, good layouts and vivid colour pictures started adorning the front pages of even papers coming out from mofussil cities which may have hardly a print run of 15,000 copies. Journalists from the old school, right from the nineties, started lamenting about the deterioration in quality, which, they alleged, suffered while making the newspaper an attractive, marketable commodity. And the focus turned on to trivia, because nothing sells like silly, frivolous news which discusses the readers immediate neighbourhood, sauced in gossip.

The promoters of the Times group, shrewd businessmen they are, smelled a windfall. There were lots of competitors then (in the early nineties), at least in Mumbai papers with a considerable circulation, the margins of which were then not as huge as it is today. Indias Times took a cue from London Times. It reduced the price of the paper, produced attractive and voluminous papers, and marketed with all kinds of trivial sops from film tickets to free trips to Lonavala. Many papers didnt have deep pockets, and had to down the shutters or remain in the oblivion.

The Times group grew. Then it introduced Bombay Times, and gave respectability to crass commercialisation of news. The group, in the meantime, ventured into so many media-related fields with the same approach and launched a slew of profit-making products hugely relying on mediocrity, while closing several (like the venerable Illustrated Weekly of India) which did not subscribe to its blatant business theory.

The Internet and dotcom advent further saw the closing down of several newspapers and magazines, save for the Times, which, nevertheless, thrived, and even launched the now-successful Indiatimes.com with the flagrant help of its own print publications. The group started making money like nobodys business. But it wanted to make more money without investing too much? How does one do that? For the owners, who once said selling newspapers is like selling pig iron, the way was simple: sell editorial space, considered to be sacred till now. So they set up Medianet. Launched by Bennett Coleman & Co, Medianet today sells editorial space in the editions of the Times group of newspapers. It didnt concern them that selling editorial space crosses the divide between editorial and advertising, though it still appals many a media baron and journalist.

The Indian newspapers (other than the Times, of course) took sometime to react to this new phenomenon. And when it did (Business Standard first discussed this issue, and later The Hindustan Times carried op-ed pieces by top editors on the subject), it laced seriousness, and the issue fizzled out very fast. Again, the age-old practice happened: not to discuss the rot in your house to the public. Is it fair? Is this ethical? Will or should other newspapers follow suit? Is this the end of news is sacred concept? Of course not, cried many a senior editor, journalist, writer and even public relations professionals. And there are, not curiously, some journalists who even defend it, or opt not to challenge it.



C P Scott, the founder editor of The Manchester Guardian, once said: News is sacred, opinion is free. In India, news in a written format was always been considered the truth and has been more powerful than the spoken word. Not anymore.

Aakar Patel, the chief editor of Mid-Day, which is the second-largest selling daily in Mumbai, is of the opinion that the owners of a newspaper are free to sell whatever space they see fit. Many may object to it. It is advisable, Patel argues, that they inform the reader if certain content is paid for, but they are the final arbiters on this. India is the only market in the world where newspaper readers are subsidised by newspaper owners (Sri Lankan and Pakistani dailies, for instance, retail at Rs 15 or more per copy), and therefore the ethical right of the reader to determine how the product should be constructed is greatly reduced in the eye of the owner.

Reacting to this, Frederick Noronha, a Goa-based journalist, says: Subsidised by owners? Are they running newspaper businesses as loss-making enterprises? Newspapers across the globe have circulation costs partly offset by advertisements. Some, like the free-sheeters of Chennai or Goa, make their publication available at zero-cost to the reader. But does that mean they can dish out just about any trash? If they did so, they would have to start paying the reader to take their product.

Patel, nonetheless, says: In the long term, this sale of news space is severely damaging to the credibility of news reporting and its delivery, and I do not think too many papers will wish to follow suit.

Good. At least some of our best editors, like Patel, think so. Says R Jagannathan, senior associate editor, Business Standard: No newspaper should sell space for advertisers in the garb of news. If they do this, it would be a clear case of cheating the reader. Readers will very quickly lose faith in the credibility of news. Readers read news on the assumption that editors are the ones choosing them. They may make mistakes and bad choices on news, but they know that these are bona fide errors. Editors may also have their biases, but readers at least understand that human beings have their biases. But if advertisers push promotional material in the garb of news, the reader has no way of knowing which is which, and soon s/he may start distrusting news of all kinds.

Sevanti Ninan, well-known media critic, has a pertinent argument to make. She says: The Times of India started the trend of bringing advertising upfront long ago, and having made its point, and its money, is moving on to push the boundary on frontiers that the others have not yet got to. It now has an online company called Medianet to negotiate rates for editorial space on different sections of the newspapers online edition. If the print supplements also pick up the same stories from the online edition, it is an extra bonus for the party that has placed the paid news. Look for a very tiny legend in the bottom right corner which says Medianet promo.

Ninans reasoning is that most Indian publications too do somewhat similar things, but in a different garb. Samsung sponsored the International Cricket Council World Cup coverage in an issue of India Today, which declared as much above its cover masthead. No big deal, considering that a couple of issues ago, its entire cover story was sponsored by Reid and Taylor. Nevertheless, editor-proprietor Aroon Purie was expressing disapproval in a [Business Standard] feature on the Bennett Coleman groups decision to fix rates for news space on its news portal. But is sponsoring cover stories that far removed from selling news space? Will news that gets sponsors begin to find priority over news that does not? Its getting competitive, this business of saying, Hey, come and stick your product on any part of my news page, and sponsor the whole thing if you like.

Vibhuti Patel, an editor with Newsweek International, finds the entire business shocking. I think it is highly unethical to sell editorial space its a complete conflict of interest. How can a news publication report in an objective, unbiased way if it is accepting money from corporations? How is this better than check-book journalism? I strongly believe that editorial and advertising should be separate and independent of each other and am deeply saddened that a venerable old newspaper like The Times of India should stoop to such crass commercialism. The press in India has historically wielded so much power toppling governments and holding them accountable. Witness its crucial role in the Emergency, in the Tehelka cases, in exposing corrupt politicians hence it is a shame that the Times is choosing to compromise that power simply for filthy lucre.












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