The leader cons the reader

BY ninan| IN Media Practice | 04/06/2004
 

 

 

 

The leader cons the reader

 

 

 

The Times of India began by devaluing editors. Devaluing journalism is the next logical step. Selling news brought the paper Rs 18 crores in 2003-2004.

 

 

 

Sevanti Ninan

 

Might may not be right, but it certainly gets away with being wrong. Even as the Times of India continues as the undisputed market leader among English newspapers, it is acquiring a reputation for astounding editorial brazenness. Two articles published in the month of May in Mid-day (11 May 04) as well as in  Business Standard’s Ice World (19 May 04)  document that the Times has if anything fine-tuned a practice that came to light last year: of charging money for publishing editorial content through a company called Medianet.

 

When it began the practice it would indicate below in a point size so miniscule that you could barely read it, that the said feature was part of Medianet. Subsequently it dropped the practice because those paying for advertising to masquerade as coverage felt that this was cheating them! It has also decided that companies promoting brands should pay more for such features and photographs than restaurants and night clubs. Mid-day actually published a rate list. The price for a 240 sq.cm. photograph on the first page of Bombay Times ranges from Rs 1.36 lakh to 3 lakhs, for categories named as Slam, Bang and Super.

 

Mid-day tells us that the new editor of  Bombay Times  was previously the editor of Medianet.  Bennett, Coleman and Co is also nurturing a new brand of  crossover journalist imbued  with marketing values and evidently immune to conventional media ethics.

 

Media buying and public relations companies think selling news is a great idea. In the Business Standard story, the president of a public relations agency (named Fourth Estate, with delicious irony) is quoted as saying it is a blessing in disguise. They no longer have to coax and wheedle newspaper hacks to get their clients the coverage they want. Motorcycle launches, pizza parlours, new masala pastes(June 4, 04 Delhi Times), you name it. All these are promoted with large pictures on Page one of Delhi Times and Bombay Times. Just paying for these pictures is far more efficient that hosting a launch party which may or may not get premium coverage.

 

The publishing house is not only reformulating media ethics, it is also refashioning the use of language. Paid content is "edvertorial" which passes through "stringent editorial filters". By demolishing the line which is expected to separate editorial content from advertising it is, in the words of the president of a media buying company, "coalescing brand and content." That’s market sophistry for you.

 

And others are beginning to think like it. While the Indian Express in its journalistic practice is the antithesis of the Times of India, its Editor Shekhar Gupta had declared at an Asian College of Journalism debate held last year on the practice of selling news,  that he did not believe that there was a Chinese Wall separating advertising and editorial.

 

The Express went on to allow all kinds of ad positioning on the upper half of page 1. Which of course it still a very different proposition from passing off advertising as news.

 

Business Standard reports that the idea is catching. A Mumbai magazine charges Rs 5 lakh for putting companies or their CEOs on its cover. The reader does not know that money influenced the cover decision. And another quote here from the head of another public relations agency saying how happy his clients are with this service. Also, the discerning reader looking at HT City will wonder why its editorial practices are following those of Delhi Times so closely. Is it going to end up going the same way?

 

That is the problem with all Times innovations. They may stretch the norm when they first surface. But sooner or later their practices start becoming the norm. What does the rest of the country’s press do in response the trends it sets? Introduce party pages, food columns, news you can use, web portals, and daily web chats that figure on the paper’s front page. Each of these was a Times initiative.  It is changing the aspirations and values of an upwardly mobile middle class. It turns the beauty queens that come off the assembly lines it has sponsored into national icons using nothing more than the sheer publishing might of the Times of India. And all other newspapers including major Hindi ones  rush to put them on page one.

 

The Times also condones plagiarism: there is a documented episode of it  on the Hoot involving Indiatimes and another website,  and yet another episode has recently surfaced, involving an indignant Outlook from whose website material was purloined.  Are the TOI’s competitors going to follow suit in this respect too?

 

The Times of India began by devaluing editors. Devaluing journalism is the next logical step. The paradox is that it is able to do so because the market values journalistic coverage more than a straight advertisement. This group has a tenacity that is phenomenal. It will enter a market and peg away at it till it is number one. It reduces its price and forces others to do the same. It gets the ads while others don’t, and even takes away from them what they have.  Its market strategy is three steps ahead of every body else’s. Its circulation is far ahead of its nearest English language competition, and climbing. In the age of Internet and television it is driving revenues towards print.

 

The group has merged publishing and show biz with its completely unabashed promotion of its other business ventures in its publications. The Times empire is overtaking the Times of India. A few years ago a business magazine quoted Vineet Jain describing the media and entertainment empire they want to build: "We want to be a Warner in infotainment, a Yahoo in Internet and an Amazon in retail."   He did not however say by hook or crook. 

 

Are market considerations only restricted to the Delhi Times, Bombay Times and Indiatimes.com? Do they really not touch the main paper? Indeed they do. A few years ago Tehelka editor in chief Tarun Tejpal socked it to the TOI in the pages of  the Hindustan Times. He said the paper  covered the cricket revelations in Tehelka’s secret tapes without naming it at all. And had  pontificated on the ethics of taping secretly. Why not name the site, an angry Tejpal asked the editor. Company policy, he said. Or so Tejpal claims. The paper then went on to carry an edit page piece which Tejpal says mentioned his website nine times without naming it once.

 

"Company policy" is seen as an euphemism for not publicising a potential rival to the Time’s own rapidly growing Internet portal, indiatimes.com. But when the price is right (as Tejpal could not resist pointing out) the paper will hand over its entire front page to a rival website that has paid for it. Indya.com announced its arrival around the same time with a full page, page one advertisement  in the Times of India.

 

The Time of India coined the line, "The Leader Guards the Reader," when it introduced its invitation price. Today this hustling market leader is indulging in practices which suggests that the leader cons the reader.  When you read a feature in Bombay Times, Delhi Times, or Indiatimes you will not be told whether it is just soft journalism or paid journalism. You will not be told whether it has been plagiarised from somewhere else. But who cares? The 21st century reader does not seem to give a damn. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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