The Times of India has begun marketing editorial space in its newspapers. As a result, corporates and individuals can now pay money and feature in news columns or other editorial space. Is this ethical? Will — or should — other newspapers follow suit? Is this the end of the ‘news is sacred’ concept?
Firing stingers from their glass housesThe Bharatiya Janata Party’s favourite newspaper is temporarily unrecognisable. Its first page has more colour and action than a page of Sunday comics. The masthead announces World Cup 2003 in a point size 2½ times that of the newspaper’s name, which is squashed between this and a strip of biscuit advertisements announcing butter bites, fruit bites, kesar bites and what not. Left and bottom, there are ads running along the length and breadth of the page.
On the right there is a large picture of Sanath Jayasuriya, his performance claiming to be fuelled by Servo engine oil (does he drink the stuff?). Then there is a box of highlights sponsored by Royal Stag. More pocket ads peppered all over. And this is page one?
Actually it isn’t, the paper comes wrapped in this four-page cricket special. Inside is the actual paper, poorly printed with ink coming onto Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s face from a Brian Lara headline on the opposite page. It’s that crazy season when you chase advertising with as much single-mindedness as the world follows the fortunes of their favourite team. Particularly if you happen to be a publication for which advertising is an elusive commodity.
Even as top cricketers have got to endorsing 10 products each (or at least Virender Sehwag has, beating Sachin Tendulkar), cricket coverage has gone on to becoming sponsored. What we’ve got accustomed to on television still feels a bit odd in print and on the Internet, but that does not deter the big names. Samsung sponsors the International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup coverage on NDTV.com; it also sponsored the World Cup countdown in a recent 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. (Outlook has let it be known that the suiting company came to it first offering to sponsor a story on the rich and famous, but it rebuffed the offer.)
Nevertheless, editor-proprietor Aroon Purie was expressing disapproval in a business newspaper 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. The Indian Express has taken to sponsoring the front page photograph in its Sunday edition and is now doing a similar number on weekdays with World Cup coverage. Same picture of Jayasuriya on page one, same day, with a triple column strip advertising Director’s Special and the slug, Bola tha na century maroonga! (I told you I would score a century).
So may be it wasn’t engine oil that fuelled his century, may be it was whisky. The Times of India isn’t doing any of this. It started the trend of bringing advertising up front 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, that 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.
Websites such as Exchange4media, Indiantelevision.com, and Agencyfaqs now regularly offer company handouts as news headlines on their home pages. It’s part of the ascendance of public relations-driven news. On TV, commercialisation is not creeping; it is the medium’s reason for existence. Doordarshan started this business of sponsoring every swing of the ball, and now on the sports channels the panel discussions are sponsored as much as the play. Is there so much cricket around primarily because Indians are suckers for the game, or because LG, Samsung and Onida need to get their brands into the Indian subconscious?
BBC’s India Business Report recently said that Indian companies place such a premium on the popularity of individual cricketers, that they pay more for endorsements than companies in any other part of the world. Which is why Steve Waugh washes up on Indian shores to sell MRF. As for LG India, having experienced 174-per cent sales growth during the 1999 World Cup, it is set to invest 10 times more this time round. Apparently subjecting us to Ruby Bhatia and Mandira Bedi on cricket programmes is part of the TV channels’ collective effort to widen viewership to take in women. And since Sunsilk shampoo is buying expensive advertising time on Sony Max during the World Cup series, its makers evidently believe the ploy is succeeding.
Just as the rise of PR has influenced news, the ascendance of media-buying as a separate service industry is driving the flowering of ads all over the media, and the push for unusual positioning on hitherto conservative news pages. Minute calculations are gone into to decide where to put a client’s money. A paper on the Net by Initiative Media actually describes why the ICC Trophy in Sri Lanka was a better bet for advertisers than the World Cup series is likely to be.
You look at the number of India matches, matches in the critical phase, day matches ending in time for people to watch their favourite soap operas, and weekdays versus Sundays. Total TV watching time increases as much as 47 per cent when a series is on, but you still have to strategise your buying, and weigh print against television.
Pushing advertising, then, is deadly serious business. Maintaining editorial primacy is increasingly a losing proposition.
Media critic and editor, The Hoot
When the fence starts eating the crop…
Having abandoned the missionary spirit with which most of our newspapers were endowed at the birth of an independent India, we have jumped headlong into the marketplace. Many of our leading newspapers, particularly the one that had the slogan ‘The Leader Leads’ etched over its masthead, are not leading the lemmings’ march.
Private entrepreneurs have the right to earn profits, but not at the expense of their accountability to their readers. They cannot arrogate to themselves the right to assert that the consumer is king only at the grocers’. They have no right to palm off advertising puffs in the guise of news stories. Selling news columns to industrialists, starlets, social parasites and beer bar owners is such material with the label ‘Advt’ or ‘Advertiser’s Supplement’ to warn the unsuspecting readers.
When selling news space to advertisers becomes a practice with management, others down the line get the cue. They launch their own private enterprises. 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 so disgraceful as is being reported now. At best we heard of how a reporter maneouvered 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.
One can only wish that is all a passing phase. I do not know if the advertisement manager provides the editorials for the daily old-time journalists still on the staff would be counting their days to get out of the organisation seeing the by-line of the advertisement manager for a report of an annual function.
Some stray editorials have the same flavour as the report in the paper.
P K Ravindranath
Senior journalist, columnist
I find this 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 checkbook 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, holding them accountable etc; witness its crucial role in the Emergency, in the Tehelka cases, in exposing corrupt politicians etc — that it is a shame, that the TOI is choosing to compromise that power simply for filthy lucre.
Letters editor, Newsweek International
A question of distrust
Absolutely not. 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 he may start distrusting news of all kinds.R Jagannathan
Senior associate editor, Business Standard
I don’t think there’s anything ethical about it. In fact, the whole idea infuriates me. There’s a sacred line that just cannot — and must not — be crossed.As for others joining in, I’m not too sure many would. I can’t quite imagine The Indian Express, The Hindu or the ABP Group getting into this racket. These are organisations that feel passionately about journalism and will steer clear — because viable business models exist to make money.Charles Assissi
Assistant editor, Businessworld
Why wake up now?
The Times of India’s is a moot issue; it began by selling the front page, including the back and several other inner pages to Indya.com. Why don’t they just stop calling it news and acquire AdMag instead?
The limit of advertisement should have been the ‘sponsored feature’ with a tag that declared it so. However, once papers like TOI started using news space to promote sister concerns (Indiatimes.com, Radio Mirchi), they might as well take money and promote other companies, too.
The threshold of ethics in the media had been crossed long ago. Why are we waking up now?
Columnist, science journalist, Mid-Day
A question of self-respect
Why should news be any different from other business? A debauched prostitute at the end of a lifetime has more self-respect than the Bennett Coleman group. I think the debate itself is misleading.
For years it has been possible for corporates and individuals to cosy up with media representatives and get themselves featured in well-placed articles. Or one could get a public relations company to do the same by paying them. One used to hear of journalists who would stand on their head for a bottle of Chivas Regal. So, it does not surprise me when The Times of India starts selling editorial space in their newspapers. There is a market, and they are capitalising on the chance to improve their bottomlines. How else would airheads and bimbettes get their sorry faces to appear in four-colour in the newspapers?The ‘news is sacred’ concept died a long time ago when newspapers started to side with issues based on their affiliations. This new trend has just ensured that the readers will not believe in the newspapers.Sunil R Nair
More harm than good
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 The Times of India particularly, it has already overusing their editorial space to promote their group activities such as Femina Miss India, Times Music, and several properties of India Times. 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.
Chief executive officer, Creative Crest
As long as the reader is informed (along with each and every such article), and that this news has been paid for by the client(!), I see nothing wrong in it. But to sell space (that is, charge in terms of column centimetres) and to pass it on as news is something I would look down upon.
Sentinel Public Relations
Despicable, stinks, rots…
There are two ways of looking at it:
The first one is the idealistic way. News is sacred; the power of the written word is sacred. It should be honest, it should expose, and it should bring the real issues to the fore. So the idea of selling editorial space is way out of line. Despicable, stinks, rots...The second way: reality. Nowadays, it is not news but hype that sells. Just take a peak at Bombay Times and you realise it.
Check the rot first
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 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 specially 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.
It’s grotesque that a ‘venerable’ organisation like The Times of India, the Old Lady of Boribunder (now a venereal organisation), is resorting to this. Even the so-called baniya or other fly-by-night vested interest people who run print media products and houses never blatantly did this (I presume). It is fairly known that Bombay Times, The Economic Times and TOI have been carrying cooked information being purveyed as ‘news’ for quite some time now.
TOI has become an in-house PR magazine for the ‘movers and shares’ of this country — most of them ‘failures,’ cheats and scoundrels. I have never trusted ET (and ToI for some time now), after I saw some stories that did not have any connection to reality.
IT consultant and columnist
Prostitutes are more honourable
I am totally against the concept of newspapers marketing and selling editorial space to private enterprises and corporate firms. I am shocked to know that the same country that produced journalists like S Sadanand (the founder of The Free Press Journal) now have to deal with the prostitution of the news media itself. The prostitute, in most cases, does not really have a choice for the profession she is in. The newspaper has ample choice to choose the way it would like to use its editorial space. Newspapers in our country are privately owned. That is enough to place hidden or open curbs on the editorial content that goes into the paper. If the same ownership now insists on selling the space exclusively used for editorial and reporting matter, then the entire newspaper will be reduced to an advertising supplement like Free-Ads or Ad-Mags.
Journalists would be reduced to pimps and salesmen, trying to woo the firms to have them write the PR pieces for the respective newspapers. As a freelance journalist of 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.
Shoma A Chatterji
Film journalist and author
I definitely feel that it is totally unethical of newspapers to sell editorial space. It is probably worse than the commercialisation of the medical or teaching profession. It is the moral duty of an editor to give his unbiased views based on pure facts to his readers, as it acts as a major influence on the masses. This crass commerce will totally misguide the common man who wouldn’t know whom to turn to for honest interpretation of news.Dolcie Fatima D’souza
Selling the editorial space kills the very essence of the credibility that is associated with the print media. Editorial space carries a great credibility in terms of information, which should be, by all means, a genuine piece of information to the readers. Let them tap the advertising market; why interfere with the editorial space? I feel the idea to sell the editorial space should be opposed collectively.
Et tu Brutus?
From the much intriguing propaganda machinery of Hitler to the post World War propaganda of triumph of good over evil we have slowly witnessed the sad demise of the ‘sacred trust’ we reposed in the power of information disseminators, the Press, our newspapers. For a while now, I had this futile empty feeling on picking up the newspapers which formed such a compulsive part of my morning chores. There was this sheets piled over sheets piled over more sheets, each getting a little more sheen with each passing day but sadly, the substance it had to offer getting old, soggy and repetitive each day. I had often enjoyed watching CNN till I started to see an American face there that spoke of the same holy war and triumph of capitalism over the lesser worlds, sorry I mean good over evil.
And now, you see the sacred newspaper fall form grace first as a propaganda machine and now to a cheap pimp with no heart of its own, no soul to speak of, all bartered for an extra greenback. I vehemently oppose the sacrilege of selling the heart of the newspaper and the soul of its editor for propagating the power and nuance of a capitalist regime. For it might make Darwin proud of his theory of “powerful over weak,” but will kill an institution by denying it the very essence of is existence, “truth at all cost.”
Masses are a gullible lot, form Mark Anthony to Hitler to the cold war Americanisation, the Press has used, abused and discarded at whim the power of the common man by making a mockery of the press. It will not make much of a difference to stab an old dying man with wounds all over, but such show of naked disdain will bury for good the last remnant of trust we repose in our so called free press.
I am of the view that this is totally unethical. The media has a duty — that of unbiased reporting. People who want to make their presence felt in the media can buy advertisement space. If a corporate is paying money to a newspaper to promote itself, what right will the newspaper have to later publish unpalatable information about it? If media persons want to make money, they can find another business. But a newspaper is certainly not for selling at least editorial space.
The main reason why the media should remain sacred and untouched by this kind of commercialism (there is enough commercialism anyway rampant in the industry) is that the media can sway and has always influenced public opinion. So, and keeping its power in mind, I think that papers should not sell editorial space.
Member, editorial team, ICFAI PressHyderabad
Horror. That is what I felt when I read your question. I thought this would never come to pass. I was thinking of writing a strong letter to Samir Jain and Vineet Jain about the pollution of editorial space by their articles about Indiatimes and Radio Mirchi. But the news that they are selling editorial space in their newspapers is absolutely horrid. Editorial space is the sacred space meant for writers, reporters and journalists.
I know there is a certain amount of pressure to write “good stories” about a few personalities and companies. But how can they blatantly break the rules to this extent? That would mean that what you read as news is no longer sacrosanct. Poor gullible readers will be informed that Mrs X lost so much weight by using ‘slim capsules’ and suddenly there will be a spurt in sales of ‘slim capsules’ without the public realising that they have been taken for a ride. The possibilities are endless. You can buy space and plant a story about your enemy.
I think somebody should petition the Supreme Court and ask TOI to stop this blatant violation of the code of journalism and newspaper publishing. Just now I was reading Suma Varughese’s article about how bad news in newspapers and the audio-visual media affect our lives. This move by TOI could take it one step further.
John P Matthew
Nothing wrong about the concept
First of all, I don’t think I am a qualified person to comment on TOI's initiatives though I am an ex-employee of TOI. I believe in quality content unlike many. As long as you maintain quality, whether TOI or The Hindustan Times or any other media, you attract business (advertising subscription of any other streams). We need to understand whether this service is part of a paper’s business strategy or editorial policy. If TOI is doing this as part of its business strategy, yes, it is ethical. If it is doing as part of editorial also, it is a positive step. Will or should? I don’t think any other newspaper will follow suit. For one to start this kind of business, initially, they need to be strong in the market.
For TOI, experimenting new ideas in its own newspaper is not new. Right from introducing Re 1 a copy in Delhi (subsequently in other cities) to outsourcing pages for content from outsiders, it has taken major initiatives. But there is a lot of business beyond advertising in the media. Corporates want to convey their messages effectively to their audience but not through advertisements. This is a multibillion-dollar market in India. Going by your information, TOI may be exploiting this. This is not the end of the ‘news is sacred’ concept? I see a challenge for others.
Look at the realities involved
The question must be addressed at three elementary interrelated levels: ethical; that of existence; excelling in an e-age. Frowning upon TOI for what it does now will be a bit out of place. Of course we are not living in age when Caesar prevailed over a mass or the half-naked fakir strode the length and breadth of the country. One word that has generated (and will continue to generate) so much of interest in the race of humanity is nothing but ‘influence.’ Emperors, ideologies, personalities, no longer hold sway over a vast multitude. And more interestingly they themselves are being influenced by a number of incidents, aspirations, and undergo change. And when you compare the old with the new, as in the case of China’s communism, you will exclaim ‘what a sea change!’One need not look far and wide to identify the villain this process. It’s the communication revolution. When one door gets closed in front of a person, a thousand others are opened nearby. Hundreds and thousands of messages are streaming in to influence the decision-making of a person, on various. It’s simply amazing and any elaboration would amount to producing a treatise on communication. It’s the guerrilla tactics by ad men these days to drive home a message to a target audience, is what is actually the subject of debate. A newspaper house politely obliges it. For both of them, the end justifies the means, and that is their ethics. It’s a question of existence and survival and moreover excelling in an electronic age.The important aspect of this age is that a person has the freedom to switch off a channel, a computer, reject a newspaper, a soft drink etc. If a vast majority stick to their tastes and aspirations, the companies can be brought to their heels. And TOI is no exception. One simple example is the Coca-Cola company’s move to bottle the coconut water. People in Kerala are not interested in soft drink, so the cola is trying to package their own coconut water for them and can market to other places as a healthy drink. Another case is the sudden interest in ‘old’ ayurveda. But if people become snobs as happened in the west and drink the nasty synthetic soft drinks, (lose sense to know right from wrong,) it’s irredeemable. However, due to the emerging consciousness regarding health (thanks to communication) people all over the world are returning to their senses.As regards TOI’s newfound style, it is of course undermining its own interests in the long-term. Of course, the guerrilla tactics swept the readers of their feet. But the display seriously affects reading as such. Matters are coming to such a head that people will view papers like ad hoardings and the coming generations will just take a quick look and throw away them every morning, only to logon to the computer or switch on TV. They will say “we have better ads, better fun on TV and computers!” Editorial one full page will look outdated and sheer waste. To quote an old saying: “They are cutting the branch of a tree on which they themselves are sitting.”
Senior sub-editor, The New Indian Express
It’s owners’ discretion
The owners of a newspaper are free to sell whatever space they see fit. It is advisable 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.
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.
A stain on journalism
Now, voices are being bought? Freethinking is now being eaten by commercialism. Editorials have been a statement, an enquiring mind, a debate, and a renaissance feature ever since I can remember. To steal this delight of the readers and sell it to some power hungry and fame-starved individuals or corporations would be a stain on the name of true journalism. There would be no difference between the corrupt depths of the present world and the ray of truth that the editorials present today.
The ‘news is sacred’ concept died, or rather was snuffed out, long ago. Nothing is news unless it is sensational or personality-oriented. This can be seen as the broad consensus operating across the spectrum of the mass media.
The term used to be ‘dumbing down’ of the media as a trend to pay money to feature in news columns will continue to such ludicrous lengths. Newspaper barons are satisfied not just with edging out news to advertisements, or letting the marketing department dictate editorial policy, now they are auctioning news to the highest bidder. Whoever thought that the term ‘manufacturing consent’ applied to the media by political analysts would be taken to such literal lengths.
Executive editor, One India One People
Look at the other issues involved
As an association (Public Relations Consultants Association of India [PRCAI]), 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. Internationally, more so in the UK, the broadsheets — and tabloids to a 98-per cent degree — do not place any advertorial in their main space. So the content of NEWS is pure. The trade mags live off advertorial (90 per cent), and anyone can buy space knowing that the ‘Anglers Weekly ‘ will extol the virtues of the ‘ABC’ one week and the ‘XYZ riggler’ the next; but knowing that this space is bought advertisement.
Here in India, the practice has been prevalent for some time, however, 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. The Editorial Guild in India needs to wake up to the situation and take some drastic steps. Why should the preferences for the bottomline by a select few disregard and tarnish the image of those who still understand and respect the reader and the profession?
So if the trend continues we will be left scratching to find ‘pure news’; it is bad enough today. The media is more concerned about foreign direct investment and editorial control being in the hands of Indians... wonder if a shift here would benefit the industry. This, however, is a personal view and not that of our association. The trend is limited for now, and maybe all this noise will be a warning for those who have intentions to venture into the area. The pushers of this trend needs to respond to the issue they have raised and justify their actions to the reader. The media cannot be just a commercial enterprise; they have a responsibility towards the reader and public at large as well.
Rama NaiduSecretary general, Public Relations Consultants Association of IndiaGurgaon, Haryana
The influential call the shots
I think it is the ultimate question of the modern times — should the media stay always neutral and ‘sacred’ as you call it, or put their financial interests at the top of their priorities. I think that even though the media, and especially the news, seems objective to most people, they seldom are. In short, the democracy should allow different opinions and different people express themselves, but there must be a line drawn between what the public is writing and what the professional writers submit to their papers.
In Israel, if there is an editorial space that is sold, it is usually marked at the top, but I believe that the editors of the newspapers are on someone’s pay-role and the most influential people in the country hold the main editors under their hand anyway.
Tel Aviv, Israel
Shame on the paper
The answer is a big NO. Selling editorial space is like prostitution. I do not think there is nothing sacred about news, but selling a part of your body, that too, your soul for money (the editorial space can only be comparable to soul) is one of the most abominable acts that a newspaper can perform. Shame on the paper!
Writer, freelance journalist
Should papers sell editorial space?
The question is a matter of a professionals’ concept in ethics, or is it? Ethics is a commodity that seems to drift more and more to the negative side of life with each passing generation. Ideals of old which we all cherished as children, as tradition, are bending and slowly give way to a venue known as progress to some and depredation to others. Sometimes in this progress, the values we learned in our past are not always viewed in a contemporaneous manner which allows us to drift into uncertain spectrums. Where our value then becomes an idea fixed on an exchange rate in the many banks of the world.
Freedom of speech, as well as the written word, should never be hindered and thus an infringement could also be contemplated in the space for hire. The question then arises; will the truth be that which is purchased? In a future world where, unless the written word is paid for, can no truth be derived? No honesty can come from the silent. Hmmm, this is truly going where no human has gone before: without the purchase of a purse, a world where the commentator’s thoughts go to the highest bidder, that doesn’t even have a nice sound to it. Thinking that our influenced deliberation would hinge on the grandest production and the higher the cost the greater the truth shall be dubbed? Unaddressed, this concept is as dangerous as any new idea that is unproven. In this presented concept the rich shall prevail and the have-nots will have even less.
In this modern world our Forum is the many types of visually presented or type written presentations found around the planet giving commentary. Media presentations printed or otherwise, should hold themselves duty bound to present that which is creditable, unhindered and forthright to hold the trust of the recipients, first, last, and always. A forum that allows anything less will be breaking the trust of so many for the dollars of so few. Accepting these mediums of exchange for viewed or printed material just may cause the clock of change to tick in a negative direction.
In nature it has been found that to keep a perfect balance, there has to be a positive for every negative. This law can be found throughout the planet, not only in physics but in every facet of existence. Two like forces repel and the unlike attract. How do these simple laws of nature fit into this debate? The paid for column is presenting a point of view, but keep in mind, it is paid. Does it make this column any less truthful than the commentary of the editor’s choice? One is guaranteed access to the eyes and ears of the subscribers and the other is left to whims of choice. Conjecture arises from these thoughts and to that end we have to ask; how do we solve this dilemma?
We must realise that all presentation passed to the consumers are an attempt to gain revenue in sufficient quantity to present another days’ world. Therefore lays the answer. So, how is the question of paid for Editorials answered? Easy, it is already being handled by ample presentations I know we have all stopped to sneak peeks at. They are the scandal sheets, rags, tabloids or many other named presentations.
Perhaps my summation is a trifle unfair by comparing Editorials with the Tabloids and I will recant some. The idea is to make money and hope for a steady supply of revenue to keep on hopefully with the printed truth. I feel that if individuals or corporations wish to pay for presentations, a business should accommodate the customer. Keep it in a separate section and so listed as Paid for Editorials. In this manner, they who read this material will know that the author of the work being read thought it important enough to pay for it, whether it is Truth or Lie.
It’s a great idea
I don’t think it is a bad idea. Editorial space in most Indian newspapers is not very informative. Some local newspapers’ editorial content adds no value to readers. Instead if you give a chance to others, who have their own valuable topic to put forth, it will benefit the public. I don’t think it is unethical. I, being a management guy, look at it this way:
1. Editorial columns are the most valuable space in any newspaper. So only good thoughts have to be placed in that area. We can find many good thinkers who are competent enough to write an article and publish. If they publish the same article in some other space in the paper, it may not get noticed.
2. As the Press is concerned this adds value because most businessmen, pedagogues, top government and non-government officials do make a point to read these articles. Good articles in these areas increase the loyalty of the customer who reads it.
3. Increased loyalty increases the circulation; so cash flow from the readers’ end will be more. As we know editorial space is a special place where you can charge a premium rate, hence the newspaper will get good returns out of this.
4. The ‘news is sacred’ concept is not right, the question is whether we can print more news.
Senior executive, MindtechBangalore
Everyone gets a fair chance
I think the details of this venture are a bit sketchy and therefore it would be a bit premature for anyone to debate in earnest on this matter. From the marketing point of view, it seems like a good idea provided the space sold is not a considerable fraction of the whole. I personally doubt it. I feel the third page will be the victim. Everyone, yes even the publications, know that the consumer is not a moron. People do not pick up an AdMag when they want to follow the Gulf issue.
I have no problems with ethics either. If you get down to basics, the newspaper is also a forum to air one’s views and reach out to people. I see no problem in putting money where one’s mouth is. But what’s important is that the newspaper should not be the author of the articles. That is TOI should clarify right at the beginning that the content is third party and not reflective of the publication’s own stand. Look at it this way: lets say a consumer wants to gather public opinion against an MNC. He can buy space and present his case. The reverse is also true, but hey everyone gets a fair chance! The possibilities are endless.
You ask me other newspapers will also follow suit. What remains to be seen, however, is how will the consumer react. The deciding factor will be the quality of content. That’s where the danger lies. It would give me sleepless nights if I were the editor. The newspaper does not have control on the content of an ad. I presume the same will hold true for the articles?
End of the paper?
The news that The Times of India is selling editorial space is shocking to say the very least. As it is, nearly half the paper comprises advertisements and one has to wade through huge full-page and half-page ads to read a tiny news report. And now it comes to light that even these aresponsored write-ups. In the long run when readers begin to realise that they are just going through various plug-ins they will stop trusting the paper and may just stop buying it.
Instead why don’t they rename the paper as ‘Public Relations Times of India’ or ‘Advertisements of India’ and then carry all the plug-ins? At least that would be a more honest way of doing things. I also feel that other publications should create some awareness of the degeneration of one of our oldest and most trusted of publications: the ‘venerable’ TOI. This may just be the beginning of the end of the paper.Mohini BhatnagarBusiness writer Vapi, Gujarat
Me too, me too!
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)!
Don’t open the closet
Firstly, news as we know it today is not sacred... there are any number of corporates which own media houses and vice versa. Similarly political parties have — and will — always have mouthpieces in the form of new media. What The Times of India has done is to come out of the closet. And, of course, nobody likes anything once it’s out of the closet; skeletons are best kept when they are in the closet. Of course it’s not ethical... by far.
Principal consultant, Hanmer & Partners Communications
An explosive concept
Not sure what exactly The Times of India is offering but basically the concept is an explosive one. Might as well shut the newspaper down, because isn’t that what it is supposed to do, offer unbiased opinions and news? OK, well, sometimes it isn’t exactly unbiased coverage but usually readers know if the paper in question toes the party line or not.In the Straits Times, Singapore, companies can buy ad space and use it to write an editorial type article themselves, but they distinctly have the word 'advertisement' on it.Sangeetha Madhavan
The Times of India has always been known for doing things that are shockingly different. It is expected that deviations from traditional beliefs are met with loud protests. That’s because we try to rationalise it from within our established value systems. I am told by an old editor that advertisements on the front page of a newspaper were a big no-no long before my time. I see today that it is an accepted practice. Things change. My way of protesting against (what I thought was) ToI'’s declining editorial quality was to switch to The Indian Express. I’m not about to pass judgement on ToI’s ethics, but I’m excited about their latest decision. Here’s one more avenue for me as a writer to earn some money. Editorials, anyone?Mahesh Shantaram
The line is blurred
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.
Chief operating officer, Concept Public Relations
Corrupt journalism legitimised
It seems obvious that with the sale of editorial space news consequently becomes defined by who can pay to get featured and not necessarily because an item is newsworthy. This is merely advertising masquerading as journalism. I do not believe it is ethical for any organisation that calls itself a newspaper to engage in this practice, but it is one that has been already going on for quite a long time, with editors/journalists favouring a particular party in terms of coverage or cover-up. The only difference now is that this form of corrupt journalism is now being legitimised.
Consulting editor, novelist
Work out some alternative
The Times of India has always been a leader in appeasement for business interests, and it always adhered to unethical practices like selling editorial space. I really wonder as to why The Hindu is not prepared to take on TOI in Mumbai? Or we will have to work for some better alternative, isn’t it?Sunil Tambe
Let readers know this
Would anyone reply in the affirmative? If yes, then we may as well rename the newspaper ‘The Advertising Times of India.’ Articles are often planted but to do so blatantly would be…!!! Hope the ordinary reader is kept informed of this tamasha.Anju Makhija
Journalist, media critic
Please go ahead
Newspapers and publications can sell their advertisement space but not the editorial space. For, it is in breach of confidence that readers have reposed with the publications over the years. When the revenue pressure increased, we saw the trend of selling editorial space in the name of advertorial. The justification offered is that readers are explicitly informed that it is not editorial but it is influenced by or biased towards particular commercial or ideological interests. What the micro-level modalities of The Times of India’s strategy are going to be in regard with the present scheme... I don’t know. And more than the opinions of the journalist community or publications, the judgement of the general readers is going to matter.
I K Gujral, talking at a recent Press Institute function, said people will slowly cease to believe the media (in my personal observation a significant section of readers had long back stopped believing it). They know what to take and to what extent to take, and from whom to take what. And probably, they don’t expect factual content (for which they may look elsewhere) but the content what they expect various publications are supposed to offer. Working journalists, at least those who represent Page-3 press, also know that they need not to worry about the authenticity or credibility of the story as much as about the entertainment value or controversial element or revenue prospects of the story.
After all, media is business and its products are priced cost-minus. So TOI’s new(s) strategy is to be seen more as a business strategy and not the journalistic one. TOI has always said, right from the Jains’ time, that is, that newspaper is a product and press is a business. In the market place, the competitors of TOI, may criticise its scheme, (a senior Hindustan Times representative was quoted as saying that its competitor [with obvious reference to TOI] seems to be “prostituting the news columns”). The competitors tell that it is ethically and morally wrong to sell editorial space. But the fact could be that even if the competitors wish to follow the TOI model, they may not do so as effectively as TOI, which claims a reach that is almost double that of its nearest competitor.
TOI is in a position to play with such experiments, in the name of leveraging its national presence and setting trends in the media business. It can afford to do that and hence let it do. It is not fair on the part of publishers to criticise or single out TOI. With very few exceptions, it is actually very easy, much accepted and informal as a practice to buy news columns in other publications. TOI has just formalised it. Everyone has equal rights to define journalism in his or her own way. Gandhi, in a journalistic career spanning nearly four decades, edited six journals, one of them was Indian Opinion. The newspaper did not carry any advertisement nor try to make money. Instead he sought subscribers who would give donations.
His last words on the Indian newspapers came at a prayer meeting in Delhi on 19 June 1946: “If I were appointed dictator for a day in the place of the Viceroy, I would stop all newspapers.” He paused and added with a mischievous wink: “With the exception of Harijan, of course.” But none, including Harijan and Navajivan, could boast a circulation of more than a few thousand copies. Whether it is a reader or advertiser or publisher or journalist, everyone wants to associate with a respected publication. The reach alone is not important. If this recent move were to damage the respect of TOI, then it will damage the organisation, its profits and the morale of its employees. It is a very delicate path that the Jains are stepping on. Best of luck to them!
G SankaranarayananBusiness journalist
Leave editorial alone
It’s really horrifying to see how low people can stoop only to serve one single purpose: money. I strongly feel that we all should suggest other avenues of generation of funds — including quizzes and wordgames, having entry fees, to get money to run the newspapers. But editorial must retain its place of glory — as it used to have during the freedom struggle.
Dr Sushama Date
Fine print disappeared long ago
The advertorial is a legitimate mode of advertising as long as it announces itself as such in the fine print. The copywriter, however, has poetic licence to disguise it in euphemistic terms — ‘sponsored news’, ‘InfoSite’, ‘response feature’ and so on. While news can state facts, ads can only make claims. Thus, if an ad is presented in news form, it may enjoy credibility. This is the logic of advertorials. But — a lack-a-day! — the fine print would give the game away.
But there are ways of erasing the fine print. Instead of briefing the copywriter about the product, show it to a reporter. Or stage events for the media. PR professionals know how to draft persuasive press releases and plant stories. And when reporters write, there is no fine print, because what reporters write cannot be called advertorials; what they write is of course called the news. This is a double blessing for business folk as they not only save on advertising costs but also gain credibility for their products.
The going was really good until Medianet stepped in. Launched by Bennett Coleman & Co (publishers of The Times of India and other newspapers), Medianet sells editorial space in the online editions of the Times group of newspapers. According to a Business Standard (29 January 2003, written by Shuchi Bansal with additional reporting by Bhupesh Bhandari and Parul Gupta), this crossing of the divide between editorial and advertising is something that appals some media barons and journalists.
But why? The report says: “The distinction between advertisements and editorial content has been sacrosanct in the media. With good reason too — news or features that advertisers pay for may not necessarily be impartial and so can’t be completely trusted by readers.” In simple terms, the argument is that without the fine print, the readers will be completely at sea. Medianet, though it marks the abysmal depths of decadence, is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Media barons and journalists need to be told that the fine print disappeared long ago.N Watson Solomon Senior sub-editor, The Hindu
Matter of credibility, not public outcry
The debate will continue based on the current scenario and other issues like foreign direct investment in print. To remind the media fraternity that in the present context of customisation and demassification of the media content will only create clutter in information dissemination. If the media, particularly the oldest form, ‘print media’, is to remain credible, the only option is to follow the guidelines of the watchdogs like the Press Council of India. If ‘objectivity in reporting’ is considered to be an asset as well image, then it is high time to look at the ‘editorial policy’ of each particular media and let the vox populi decide the fate of this issue.
Failure of communication theories like ‘propaganda analysis’ has led communication researchers to analyse a particular phenomenon as a hypothesis and conclude with new theories like ‘diffusion of innovation’ and the likes. I am sure that this issue will also conclude with a sense of ‘public good’ and not in its name. I would like to request the present and future students of journalism and communication to follow the debate and redraft ‘Ethics in Journalism’ in the present context.
Content writer, Mutual PRNew Delhi
End of unbiased journalism
Selling editorial space by newspapers would remove the line between journalism and public relations and the readers would probably stop believing any news however authentic that they read. This step would, therefore, confuse the readers more than anything else.
Secondly, journalism has always been attributed with qualities of courage, non-bias and honesty — at least that is what the original ethics of journalism is all about. People fear or are wary of journalists and that is what earns them the respect they get in society. The selling of editorial space is going to change all that. Many readers still believe that a creed of honest, committed journalists still exist who believe in conveying the truth to the common man.
However, and on the contrary, selling editorial space could be seen as a more straightforward way of earning extra money, instead of tacitly doing so. This could be tantamount to following a more transparent method. This could be another alternative of generating a viable revenue stream in a depressed market, where ad revenues are hard to come by. This is a point to ponder.
But selling all editorial space would mean that the days of crusading for truth, hardcore investigative and unbiased journalism are over. Journalists as a creed would, therefore, lose their special status in society and their work would be indistinguishable from those working as PR or marketing professionals.
Shehla Raza Hasan
Freelance journalist, Kolkata