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Home page > English > Opinion > Selling editorial space: Changing times

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.”

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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. It’s 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 don’t 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 reader’s 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. India’s 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 didn’t 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 nobody’s 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 didn’t 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.

II

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 newspaper’s 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.”

Ninan’s 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 group’s 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? It’s 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 — it’s 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.”

III

Like father, like son. If a paper can sell its editorial space, what stops the journalists working there to do so? Hence at least three journalists working with The Economic Times, a Times group publication, were sacked for accepting money from people for writing about them (or not writing about them) in their newspaper, reportedly the second-largest business daily in the world. A photographer with Bombay Times was transferred to another non-journalistic department because he asked a film actor to shell out money to get featured on the paper’s front page. The Times’ policy, in these cases, looks like: “Hey, we are here to take money from them, not you. Don’t we give you salaries?”

Says veteran journalist P K Ravindranath: “The same group that introduced this downslide had to get rid of seven staffers from its economic daily, as they did not hesitate to follow the leader. One of them is charged with extortion, for demanding hush money to keep out unsavoury things about a businessman. I have spent 21 long years of my life [1955-76] in the leader’s flagship, The Times of India. Never during that long time had matters been as disgraceful as is being reported now. At best we heard of how a reporter manoeuvred to get a free trip to a hill station or a suit length. The Emergency rule changed all that. After all, corruption was a global phenomenon; the political leader had adumbrated. To fit into this globalised environment were pitchforked into lofty chairs as adornments that would carry out the advertisement department’s whims and fancies. Freebooters emerged to haul in whatever they could while the going was good. That some of them paraded as journalists was enough to tarnish the profession as a whole. This would have happened if only the editor had not been little more than a figurehead innocent of the role of the reader to whom his primary duty was to provide news and information objectively, truthfully and with a high sense of fair play.”

Concurs well-known columnist V Gangadhar: “The unthinkable is happening. I came to know of this several months back while being the only media representative to cover an important international conference on cardiovascular surgery in Mumbai, attended by top-ranking heart surgeons from the world over. The big newspapers ignored the event because they wanted payment to cover the conference. I was shocked.”

Not many are. Says Venkatachari Jagannathan, a Chennai-based business journalist: “It’s only facts that are sacred and not the news story per se. If the editor ensures the credibility of the facts in the story, then there is nothing wrong in monetising the editorial space upfront as the advertisement department will do the same after publication. In a way, selling news space for a price legitimises what some reporters or news editors have been doing and profiting on the sly. Maybe, as a matter of caution, newspapers should permanently freeze the slots and pages for paid news stories. Like the cigarette packets that sport the statutory warning, newspapers at the page bottom specify those stories that are sponsored ones. Actually journalists should really practice what they preach. For instance, they write reams and reams against subsidies, but are conspicuously silent when it comes to subsidised houses for them. Not a question is being asked about the rationality or justification when a government constructs houses or housing colonies especially for journalists and sell them at dirt cheap rates. Again, is the media right in clamouring for subsidised postal rates for mailing newspapers and magazines? Shouldn’t concessional postal rates be offered to publications having a limited circulation? Well, this may generate another debate.”

Not at all. Some journalists are too happy. Like Rohit Gupta, a Mumbai-based columnist, though he puts it subtly, tongue firmly in cheek: “They are selling editorial space? This is great news. I hereby offer my services to The Times of India as a columnist. I am, of course, assuming that since they are selling that space, that they will pay their writers more. Share and enjoy (wink, wink)!” There are more similar voices. Says author Abhay Mehta: “Why should news be any different from other business? After all it’s a question of self-respect, and I think the debate itself is misleading.”

Is it so? Of course not, says Mohini Bhatnagar, a Gujarat-based journalist: “Journalists like Jagannathan tars the entire profession of journalists with the same brush. A few journalists do not the entire profession make.” Adds Shoma A Chatterjee, a film writer and journalist based in Kolkata: “Journalists will be reduced to pimps and salesmen, trying to woo the firms to have them write the PR pieces for their respective newspapers. As a freelance journalist for the last 22 years, and with a record of never having compromised on honesty and integrity for the sake of money or other material benefit, I personally place my strong protest against this kind of prostitution of the Fourth Estate. What would you then call the press, pray? The Pimping Estate? Sorry, I don’t buy, though I do write for the very paper we are talking about.”

IV

And what do the ‘others’ feel, people who help ‘plant’ stories — the PR people? Sample three:

1) Rama Naidu, secretary general, Public Relations Consultants Association of India, Gurgaon: “As an association, we go by what is accepted and being expressed internationally on this issue, as we are affiliated to ICCO, the mother body of worldwide PR associations, and we follow their standards and codes of ethics. Here in India, the practice has been prevalent for some time, though out in the open only recently. We hear about trade magazines selling cover space/stories, dailies, their supplement sections and what was considered editorial space till recently. Media hungry clientele and their media fixers or service providers are to be blamed for this. We all know where there are buyers, sellers emerge. But, we need to question the ethics of journalism. Where is it going? It is a point to be debated and eventually a code of ethics drawn up for the profession as is done by the US Society of Professional Journalists.”

2) Himanshu Kapadia, chief operating officer, Concept Public Relations, Mumbai: “It is a novel concept and it was present before as an advertorial medium. The idea is interesting, as at least one is sure that by paying money your news is featured. But how the reader treats the news could be researched. But, frankly, the line between advertising and PR is totally merged with this kind of news.”

3) Kapil Rampal, chief executive officer, Creative Crest, New Delhi: “Revenue is the mainstay of any business, including the media. Irrespective of all media innovations, editorial space remains the most sought-after by businesses. It is owing to the credibility that is attached with the editorial space. If the editorial space is sold, it will dilute the credibility of the media. In the long run, it will do more harm than good for the media. In the case of Times, particularly, it has already overusing their editorial space to promote their group activities such as Femina Miss India, Times Music, and several properties of Indiatimes.com. The readers are intelligent enough to identify paid editorials and ignore them. It might benefit the competing publications. For some PR agencies, it will provide an opportunity of achieving targets at the cost of billings.

V

Finally, a newspaper is edited, printed and published for the reader. What do you say?

(Sunil K Poolani, a Mumbai-based journalist, recently edited a book, The Rape of News, which discusses the issue of selling editorial space in newspapers. He can be contacted at spoolani@hotmail.com).

Home page > English > Opinion > Selling editorial space: Changing times


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