Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Publishing in 2006

Circa 2005 could have been a damp-squib year, or a mundane buffer, between 2004 and 2006 for many a sector. Save for publishing. The year was not an earth-shattering one for this industry, but it has provided enough ammunition that the following year(s) will witness explosions one after the other and the whole text could well be rewritten — for better or worse.

First things first. Publishers the world over got a bolt from the blue when Google Print decided to scan every book they could lay their hands upon and create an online repository. Which means, one can practically read any book published in Tamil to Creole — all at one keystroke — without paying a single paisa. Readers rejoice. They do not have to hunt for a particular book in dusty shelves. Publishers wail. For obvious reasons.

Does this amount to copyright violation? Authors’ Guild and other industry bodies think so and have sued Google. As it is definitions of copyright is an absolute muddle because it lapses 50 years after the author’s demise. So more and more publishers will print and publish Tagore or Orwell without paying any royalty to the original publisher or the authors’ legal heirs. Nobody seems to have a clear-cut idea over what actually is a ‘copyright’. Reproducing 500 or so words of a work for review or promotional purposes does not breach any copyright violation, but that may not be the case of a 100-word poem.

While admitting that the future of this fractured industry seems detrimental in 2006, one cannot rule out the fact that people are really getting hooked on to buying (who cares whether they really read) books. The reasons may vary (status symbol; to give an intellectual air), but crass publishers will have the last laugh.

Now, coming to the Indian publishing scene, the big, brash and bunkum ones will rule the roost. Consequently, many Chetan Bhagats will outsell an Amit Chaudhuri (he is planning a book on Kolkata and a novel on music in 2006) and Indira Goswami (a novel, a short story collection and her autobiography sequel). Ditto motivational or self-help books, whatever they mean.

From the international scene the books that will hit the Indian market (and in all probability, become a hit) will be Jan Morris’s Hav, a rare treat, and Carlos Fuentes’ The Eagle’s Throne, a fictional expose of Mexican politicians in 2020.

Another trend that will make the industry more competitive will be the setting up shops of international publishers, tapping, what they think, is a highly potential market. Prominent among them are Random House, Taylor & Francis, Disney Publishing Worldwide and Thomson. Readers are bound to benefit as the quality of the text and production will improve since competition will set in.

There wouldn’t be a marked difference in terms of the reading public’s appreciation of what is euphemistically known as “Indian writing in English published by Indian publishers”. The sure way to success will of course be, “first publish abroad (and get a fat advance and a box item news as a bonus) and then make waves in India”. Sad, but it is true that only a few independent publishers will be able to face the internecine and meticulous war led by big publishing tycoons. Thus, every middle-level publishing house is on the perennial lookout for the next Bhagat, Anurag Mathur, Shobha De or a Khushwant Singh. Well, spice it up by adding a Paulo Coelho or two from foreign land.

Mediocrity will be the catchword this year. You cannot blame the publishers as most of the English-reading public in India’s urban centres are that: mediocre. The publishers are making hay while the sun is shining. And as this yuppie generation’s aspirations have grown voluminously, they swear by and die for ‘inspirational’ books, which will remain a multimillion-rupee industry this year, next year and so many years to come, till such time better sense prevails. Till such time the space for good writing in English will remain cramped.

Books do not sell on its merit alone; it’s a product today, and it will remain thus tomorrow. Good reviews in influential publications no longer ensure good sales; word-of-mouth publicity and ludicrous plugged-or-paid interviews alone work. Or ask the PR companies that make a killing out of this new bunch of cretins who will never get published in the magazines published by the colleges they might have studied in.

One solace for the run-of-the-mill publishers would be the ensured success of cookery, fashion, cinema and children’s books. Since the advent of designer bookstores, these genres will remain the favourites for a long time to come.

Talking about bookstores, India will witness a massive penetration of fancy bookstores. Crossword and Oxford Book Store will open more and more brightly-lit bookstalls in every nook and cranny of the metros and several coffee shops like Barista and Café Coffee Day will find extra space for books — what if they are titled Who Moved My Cheese or One Night @ the Call Centre.

Two emerging trends in the Indian market will be the proliferation of books in regional languages and fiction giving way to non-fiction in English language. Penguin has already realised the immense potential in regional language fiction and more are expected to follow suit. Coelho, after Gabriel Garcia Marquez, has already found a huge market in a language like Malayalam and it is a matter of time that Rohinton Mistry and Amitav Ghosh will become household names — breaking regional barriers. The dividing line between fiction and non-fiction has almost become blurred, so you can expect more Vikram Seth-type literary non-fiction hogging the limelight.

Indian publishing, whatever its pitfalls and challenges are, will remain a force to reckon with and India will continue to remain the third-largest publisher of books in English language. If it has to withstand the not-so-salubrious climate, they have to invest more in quality and the publishing houses should realise that mediocrity alone will not stand the test of time. People mature as they think as they read.

(The writer, Sunil K Poolani, is the publisher and managing editor of Frog Books, a Mumbai-based publishing house that promotes fiction and young talent, not necessarily in that order. He can be contacted at poolani@gmail.com)

Sunday DNA, January 1, 2006

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Yehoshua Opens his Heart

Milan, Italy. January 1998. Abraham B Yehoshua was surprised to learn that the person staying next door was none other than Salman Rushdie, who carries a price on his head, courtesy orthodox Iranian Muslims.
"He didn't look like a Booker of the Bookers award-winning litterateur, but resembled a Mafiosi flanked by gun-wielding commandoes, who were, however, protecting him from Khomeini's fatwa. Notwithstanding the security, I could talk to him for quite a while. And despite his appearance I was please to learn that he had mellowed down a lot — Rushdie is not that arrogant man we have so far seen on the screen and in the books and articles he had penned," observed Yehoshua.
Yehoshua was on a short trip to India. "According to you, who is the best Indo-Anglican writer?" he asked me as we travelled together through the labyrinthine roads of Mumbai. Rushdie, who else, I told him.
"But, what about [Vikram] Seth, do you consider him a good writer?" Not by any means, I replied. "Is it so?" he cried out. In fact, I told him, the world bears the misconception that India's best writers are those who write in English. There are more talented writers than Rushdie or R K Narayan in Indian regional languages, who unfortunately do not get noticed as there are, save for one A K Ramanujan (who, alas, is no longer alive), no efficient translators like Linda Asher, Gregory Rabassa, Edith Grossman or William Weaver — the translators who made Umberto Eco, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera household names worldwide.
Yehoshua understood this. For, he is fortunate to have been widely translated into English, French, Italian, Japanese and Arabic by skilled translators. And he is the most celebrated literary figure in Israel (read in Hebrew writing) after Shmuel Yosef Agnon who shared the 1966 Nobel Prize for literature with the German-born Nelly Sachs.
Yehoshua's Indian connection, or perhaps his decision to visit India recently, is as mysterious and fascinating as he thinks India is. He has altogether written 12 books, and his eleventh book, Open Heart, was set in India. Before you ask, 'What's so great about that? Several authors, including E M Forster, John Masters, M M Kye and Dominique Lapierre, have used the subcontinent for their plot,' please realise that Yehoshua had not visited India before he wrote the book.
Still 1,00,000 copies of Open Heart were sold in Israel alone, a country with a population of 4.5 million — where the number of books published per person is among the highest in the world.
So how did he achieve it? "I read a lot about your beautiful country in literature, newspapers, travelogues, tourist brochures, history books... and of course I used my fertile imagination. Also, when I completed the first chapter, I showed it to my son, an army man who once spent two months in India. After reading the manuscript my son said, 'Dad, there is no need to waste money on an air ticket to India.' And I completed the book."
And what is the book about? A medical student, Robin, is assigned to travel to India with a hospital administrator and his wife. Robin's duty is to treat the administrator's daughter who is ill in India. After their Indian sojourn, the foursome returns to Israel. And then is revealed a shocking affair. Robin is in love with the administrator's wife!
The novel vividly portrays India's beauty and filth, its charm and inefficiency. There are minute geographical details of Varanasi and the pathetic condition of hospitals in India. Since most sequences are set in Varanasi, Yehoshua visited the temple city before he came to Mumbai. But he was in for a shock. "I discovered that some of the descriptions [in Open Heart] did not match with the life I witnessed in Varanasi. Lakhs of copies of the novel have already been sold and now I can't change anything," he said. Then he added with a grin: "Probably I can change Varanasi according to my novel."
Open Heart sold like hotcakes in the US. Yehoshua said that is where his biggest market is. "That is because my novels are a combination of American — or you can call it capitalistic — Western realism and eastern mysticism. Of course, lakhs of expatriate Jews in America are my greatest readers," he said.
Israel has two official languages: Hebrew, the language spoken by Jews who form 88 per cent of the population, and Arabic, spoken mainly by Arabs. Thus Hebrew played a prominent role in nation-making. "And, you know what, several Arabs, too, have started using the language with the same flair as us." Yehoshua, who has been teaching English literature at Haifa University for the last 34 years, said his Arab students know Hebrew better than Jewish students do.
Israel has produced many a good writer. There are the internationally reputed Shaul Tchernichovsky and Chaim Nachman Bialik. Most writers work within the traditions of their ethnic groups while others have successfully blended different styles from different sources to create a uniquely Israeli tradition. Literature in Israel, said Yehoshua, not only reflects the country's immigrant diversity but also draws upon Jewish history and religion and addresses the social and political problems of modern Israel.
"There are many impressive writers in our country. Most importantly, feminist writing has gathered pace for the simple reason that now the female population in our country is 65 per cent, whereas in my childhood women were a mere 10 per cent of our population. Another welcome change is that the present-day writers are slowly drifting away from their favourite theme — war — and have started writing about other issues," he proudly said.
The probable Nobel laureate is of the opinion that change is inevitable in any nation. "But one shouldn't forget the past. I admit that Israel imitates the West and its forms of governance. But one thing I like about India is that despite all the political turmoil, your country has been able to sustain a democratic form of government. This is absolutely praiseworthy. Israel has to follow in India's footsteps as that's the only way we can ensure peace in our region, especially at a time when religious minorities like Oriental Jews and Israeli Arabs, who were silent all these years, have raised their voice now."
Throughout our journey in the car, Yehoshua was admiring the beauty of the Mumbai coastline. "See, who will say that India is a third world country? The city matches any other world capital for its neatness and efficiency. It's better than our Tel Aviv. Am I right?" I told him his observation was not fully correct and asked him to visit certain Mumbai boroughs which are filthier than any African city.
He retorted: "I admit every city has two faces: one of prosperity and one of poverty. Even New York is not free from filth. But, my Indian friend, India is progressing, in case you haven't noticed that. Though I couldn't travel much I saw signs of changes in New Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, and now I see them in Mumbai."
Swiftly he changed the subject to racial ethnicity, which he thinks is a global problem. "A Sudanese student [in Mumbai] was telling me that Africa's ethnic problems are much worse than those of Israel. 'You are right,' I told him. Look at Algeria. The country stands as a cruel testimony of racial and religious violence. Though unjustifiable, one can understand if Aryans killed Nazis in Europe, or Jews and Arabs are fighting in West Asia, or even your Hindu fundamentalists are targeting the Muslim minority. But in Algeria, Muslim fanatics are killing their own brothers and sisters. It's a totally maddening world, I should tell you," Yehoshua sighed.
In this turbulent age the role of literature is immense, I told him. So he continued: "It can teach masses to live in peace, to love each other, and to progress… Literature is the essence of human culture and development, and if effectively used, it can change the nature of the world for good."
We were nearing the Taj Hotel. Quick personal queries. I told him about my life and work in Mumbai. He said he is happy in Haifa, a beautiful seaside city at the northern tip of Israel. He is married and has three children — two sons and a daughter. "All my children are in the army. So was I. In case you are not aware, in Israel, working in the army for a specific period is compulsory. Later you can choose your own course of activity."
We reached the Taj. Swift handshakes. When will he visit India next? "An Italian filmmaker has bought the rights of Open Heart. It will be picturised in India, and I will be invited to witness the shooting. See you then," were his parting words as he rushed to his room to change. He had to catch a flight to Tel Aviv that evening.
— Sunil K Poolani

Friday, November 25, 2005

Postage Stamps: A Nostalgic Trip

My grandfather was on his deathbed. I was anxiously waiting for his death so that I could steal his collection of stamps, which he never allowed me to touch when he was alive. He had, by then, amassed an impressive collection of postage stamps; he used to work with the Brits and had travelled all over the world — from Great Britain to France to Iran to most provinces in the pre-Partitioned India. And he specialised in collecting rare and old stamps, which made his (and now mine) collection a rare and expensive one. I continue the tradition.
Conjure up those images of waiting for the postman peddling his way towards your house to deliver those mails and you eagerly waiting to tear off those stamps so that you can add them on to your fledging, brusque album. Well, one really doubts whether these days’ kids do that, as most would be busy surfing the net or opening the virtual mails which invade your lives without stamps.
Over the years I had the rare privilege to not just collect postage stamps but to also mingle with people and clubs which specialise in philately. And these years have given the strength to assess the real value and authenticity of rare specimens. And along with it you get lots of nuggets from likeminded people. Well, to start with here is an information which is not rare to find, but not many people still do not know. Which was the world’s first postage stamp and when was it issued? May 6, 1840, saw the introduction of the Penny Post, the so-called ‘Penny Black’ with the head of Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria’s head remained on the stamps for the next 60 years, in which 100 more stamps appeared.
Trivia like the above one is a staple diet for any philately connoisseur. Philately, like any other hobby, can be an obsession. And the journey of stamp collectors was not an easy one. Short after the issue of the first stamps the first collectors of stamps came to the fore. First, most people laughed at these collectors, but soon they became more and more. The first collectors collected stamps of the whole world because there were not so much issues at the beginning. These stamps were stored in the most different ways — there were collectors who collected their stamps on a string or affixed their stamps on wallpaper. This was not a good way of collecting stamps, so the first stamp books appeared. The stamps were glued with paste into the books. This was also not a good treatment for the stamps, which finally could be handled with more care with the invention of the hinge in 1889. If there are stamp collectors, what stops them from starting a union? The first association for stamp collectors was founded in 1856 in the US: The Omnibusclub.
In India, of course the postage stamps were introduced for British convenience of communication. Apart from the British India stamps, several other princely states like Travancore and Jaipur introduced their own stamps, which are a veritable collectors’ item today. Some of my priceless collections include Travancore Anchal (postal service) stamps and that of Mysore under Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali.
Nostalgia is what drives this passion. One is seriously surprised that the same passion is missing among today’s youth. The reasons are aplenty and you don’t need to probe much to find them out. But, if anyone is planning to pursue this beautiful hobby, here are some advises for free. Treat your stamps like newborn babies, and like your own babies. There are lots of ways to procure stamps. But the preferred two routes are either you get it when somebody sends you a physical mail or you could buy them from professional sellers. In Mumbai walk down the DN Road from VT Station to Flora Fountain, and you could meet at least a dozen of them. Some of the shops there sell other paraphernalia like albums, forceps and books on philately, which give an overall perspective to appreciate your new-found obsession. Once you have a substantial collection you can organise it thematically: country, flora, fauna, people, new, old, rare…
Every stamp has a bulky history to narrate. No, it is not just about the way they traversed to reach you, but aspects like the country of origin, the subject of the postage stamp, the reason it was issued, the price, the style, the design, all these make the stamp a very important aspect of history. And by saving them you are saving a tradition, a history, a culture.
I believe my grandfather would be proud of me — up there.
— Sunil K Poolani / DNA

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Ramayana — The US Version

A young second generation Indian in the US was asked by his mother to explain the significance of "Diwali" to his younger brother, this is how he went about it... "So, like this dude had, like, a big cool kingdom and people liked him. But, like, his step-mom, or something, was kind of a bitch, and she forced her husband to, like, send this cool-dude, he was Ram, to some national forest or something... Since he was going, for like, something like more than 10 years or so.. he decided to get his wife and his bro along... you know... so that they could all chill out together. But Dude, the forest was reeeeal scary shit... really man... they had monkeys and devils and shit like that. But this dude, Ram, kicked ass with darts and bows and arrows... so it was fine. But then some bad gangsta boys, some jerk called Ravan, picks up his babe (Sita) and lures her away to his hood. And boy, was our man, and also his bro, Laxman, pissed... And you don't piss this son-of-a-gun cuz, he just kicks ass and like... all the gods were with him... So anyways, you don't mess with gods. So, Ram, and his bro get an army of monkeys... Dude, don't ask me how they trained the damn monkeys... just go along with me, ok...
So, Ram, Lax and their monkeys whip this gangsta's ass in his own hood. Anyways, by this time, their time's up in the forest... and anyways... it gets kinda boring, you know... no TV or malls or shit like that. So,they decided to hitch a ride back home... and when the people realize that our dude, his bro and the wife are back home... they thought, well, you know, at least they deserve something nice... and they didn't have any bars or clubs in those days... so they couldn't take them out for a drink, so they, like, decided to smoke and shit... and since they also had some lamps, they lit the lamps also... so it was pretty cooool... you know with all those fireworks... Really, they even had some local band play along with the fireworks... and you know, what, dude, that was the very first, no kidding..., that was the very first music-synchronized fireworks... you know, like the 4th of July stuff, but just, more cooler and stuff, you know. And, so dude, that was how, like, this festival started."
(Forwarded by my colleague, Pranali Patil)

Bush and Chimp: Made for each other

Graduate in a Day

Course: Bachelor of Arts (Economics)
Duration: 24 hours
Fee: Rs 2,000

First Term: “Tell me,” says a former school chum (let’s call him Prakash), “if you need an education certificate — BA, BSc, BE, MA, MSc, MBBS — from Bombay, Poona, Calicut, Delhi universities… you name it, I’ll get it for you. Or for your friends. Since you are a friend, I’ll take minimal commission.”
Prakash, who deals in smuggled electronic goods in uptown Bombay, explains how he met a person (called Thomas) at Byculla in south-central Bombay, who is in the certificate business. Prakash has apparently struck a deal with Thomas, by which Prakash can charge his ‘clients’ as much as he wants, as long as Thomas gets his fixed rates.
“Sorry,” I tell Prakash, “I don’t think I need a degree certificate. I have a bona fide one from Calicut University and it serves me fine, thank you. As for my friends, sorry again, I can’t help you as I have reputation to protect.”
Second Term: But soon enough, my journalistic senses are atingle. “If you can show me how this racket is run, I can probably pay you, and, of course, your identity will be protected,” I tell him.
Prakash is smarter than I expected. “I know,” he says, looking at me slyly, “you want to write a report. Then I suggest you get a certificate made in your own name, which will definitely strengthen your report.”
“Brilliant,” I say, “then get me a degree certificate from Bombay University in Economics in the year 1991. And, yes, charge me the least you can.”
Prakash says he will charge me only Rs 2,000 from me though his current rates are Rs 3,000 and above for bachelor’s and master’s degree certificates, which are supposed to be “straight from the campus.”
Third Term: The next day we meet at Byculla. “I will take you to the place provided you don’t mention that you are a journalist,” Prakash warns. I nod. He takes me through some labyrinthine lanes and we enter a dilapidated building, climb three floors, and Prakash knocks at a door. A 40-plus Thomas greets us and takes us into his parlour.
The parlour is a certificate-aspirant’s delight. An open rack is crammed with certificates for different degrees and courses, supposedly from various Indian universities. A table is cluttered with rubber and imprint stamps, bottles of various shades of ink, a wide range of fountain pens, and other paraphernalia.
I liked Thomas’ sophisticated way of functioning: apart from the predictable telephone, fax and the answering machines, there are a PC, a TV and other electronic gadgets required for giving an authentic touch to the products manufactured here.
I was delighted when I saw the parlour walls, which were decorated with samples of various certificates Thomas can deliver, and the chronological lists of chancellors of almost all important universities. Against the chancellors’ names are the period they served and their specimen signatures.
Fourth Term: Thomas demands: “Your requirement?” Prakash gives the details. Thomas asks: “Obviously, you will want a first-class degree, eh?” He is quite amused when I say I would prefer a second class. “You seem to be smart and informed. So, no employer will raise an eyebrow when he peruses a first-class BA Economics degree made in your name.” I convince him a second class will be more than enough.
Thomas’ next query: “Fake of original? Prakash might have told you, fake will cost you around Rs 1,000 and original, Rs 2,000. This doesn’t include the commission you pay Prakash.”
What’s the difference — between the ‘fake and the ‘original’? “Fake is something we print at one of our presses in Thane. The original is a certificate on genuine bonded university paper with an imprint stamp — directly from the campus. Only the writing will be by us, as also the signature of the chancellor.”
Thomas also tells me that ‘original’ certificates are available only from Bombay, Poona, Calicut, Gandhiji, and Kerala universities. Why? “We have our men there, not in other places.”
But how can I ascertain that the one I am going to obtain is ‘original’ and not a ‘fake’? Thomas is obviously annoyed. Throwing a glance at Prakash, he says: “Ask Prakash, I have never cheated (sic) anyone in my life. I have been in the industry for more than seven years, and none of my clients has complained about my goods. As for your certificate, my contact in Bombay University is none other than my brother-in-law, whose name, obviously, I cannot mention. Take it or leave it.”
Fifth Term: I plan to take it. An intercom buzzes. Seconds later a lean man with thick glasses enters. “Give him the details — accurate, because I can’t waste any ‘certificates’; they cost money,” Thomas says. I oblige. In a spidery, slant hand, the bespectacled man writes my name, the college I ‘studied’ in (Thomas suggested the Maharashtra College of Arts and Commerce, as the “risks there are less”), the day, month and year I was ‘awarded’ the degree, the subject, and, finally, the chancellor’s signature, for which he refers to Thomas’ list.
Thomas appreciatively looks at the ‘graphic artist’ and confides to me: “He is the best in the market. He does his work much better than the ones in any university. You know, Rs 600 of the Rs 2,000 you pay me goes to him.”
In a matter of minutes, the certificate is ready. Thomas hands it to me to appreciate. I look at it in awe, like a fresh graduate. It looks better than the real thing my cousin, who had actually passed out in 1991 from Bombay University, had. The printing and writing are difficult to differentiate, the then chancellor’s signature impeccable, and the imprint perfect.
Sixth Term: “If you need a mark-sheet, it will cost you another Rs 1,000. But since you’re a friend of Prakash, I can tell you that to procure a job in the Middle East or in any private sector firm in India, this certificate is quite enough. Though chances of discovery are minimal, it is advisable to avoid the government sector,” cautions Thomas.
Thomas also says that if ever I try for a job abroad, for which educational certificates have to be attested from Mantralaya, the state government headquarters in Bombay, he can get it done in a day. How? “We have excellent contacts there. But since they are attesting a fake certificate, you may have to pay Rs 2,000 more.”
I say I’ll contact him in a few days and leave with Prakash. Back on the street, I feel honoured. I am a double graduate now.
— Sunil K Poolani

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Write well or die

C P Surendran is 40 and doesn’t like the country he lives in a bit. For a writer, he says, there is no future in India. “Money, fame, satisfaction, everything is in the West….”
Most of his friends and readers think this bearded and bespectacled Keralite is a rebel. “It’s wrong,” CP (his friends and colleagues call him that) wants to clarify. “I believe in compassion.” He doesn’t want to be termed a rebel, but the words he speaks betray his own belief that he is compassionate.
CP taught in a college in Kerala before he took a train to the then city of Bombay in the late 1980s to become a freelance journalist. He did pretty well, thank you. Almost every English newspaper and magazine in this city of swarming millions has carried his articles or columns.
I went to meet CP, just like that, in 1992. He was sitting behind a heap of books, magazines, and useless press communiqués, at his office in the Old Lady of Boribunder. The Bal Thackarey-worsened communal riots hadn’t started then. And CP had just started writing poems.
After his first wife, Usha Zackarias, walked out of his life, CP became terribly lonely. Then he embarked on a junket to Kashmir along with several journalists. “The trip,” CP reminisces, “changed my life. I was minus a companion. I needed companionship very badly. I touched ice there. I came back to Bombay. Then I told myself, ‘Mr C P, now you should start writing poems’.”
For CP, the Kashmir trip became the impetus, or inspiration, to become a poet.
CP was looking for a companionship. Did he succeed? “Of course, not.” The search continued for almost six years. Then, I met Manjula Narayan, who was a colleague of mine at Bombay Times, and I got married to her, and I have two sons now.
“Where did we stop…? Yes, I started writing poetry. I took a month’s leave from The Illustrated Weekly of India, and went home and slept. I used to wake up in the middle of the day, and type out my poems, all of which had a basic theme: Usha’s love towards me, my love towards her, how she betrayed me and walked away from my life, my loneliness, my disillusionment.”
CP wrote 39 poems, and didn’t know what to do with them. So he went and met Dom Moraes, who has then advising David Davidar, Penguin India’s publisher then. “Dom liked my poems and told me that he will ask Davidar to publish them under the title Gemini-II along with verses penned by Jaitirth Rao, a banker.” (Gemini-I was a collection of poems by Jeet Thayil and Vijay Nambisan). “In fact, Rao’s poems play a very insignificant part in the book,” CP says, while mixing rum with water at the Bombay Press Club.
CP’s poems received critical acclaim. I liked his words immensely and the feelings they created. I identified myself in those poems; maybe because I’m from the same district he hails from, and I too live in Bombay as an intruder, eking out a living as a journalist, most days travelling my last trains and knocking at my own door only to realise that there is no one inside. Some of his later works were published in the now-defunct Biblio, a literary quarterly edited by Dileep Padgaonkar. CP reworked all these poems, and lots more. Penguin India, who had decided not to publish any poetry four years ago realising verse doesn’t sell in India, lifted the ban and came out with CP’s book, titled Posthumous Poems.
Posthumous poems? “Yes, that’s the title. And for your information, I’m still alive. The present collection in an effort of two and half years, and it is proof that anyone, even you, can write poetry. The only virtues you require are luck and strength to get a shape to the words you write. With the kind of history we have and the kind of things happening around us, I am surprised there are few poets in India. But things are changing; poetry will outrun and outsell fiction. The future is in poetry.”
CP is now a senior assistant editor with The Times of India, Mumbai. He handles a supplement and writes column, called ‘Brief Grief’, with a droopy-eyed picture of his. The best thing about the column, which sometimes I don’t like, and which I read first thing when I wake up in the afternoon, is that it reads more like poetry than a commentary piece. And CP surprises me with: “In my latest book [Canaries on the Moon, published by Yeti Books, Kozhikode] I have used some of the passages from some of my columns, verbatim, as poems in my collection.” The anthology, dedicated to — what else — Bombay, is different from his earlier one because it muses a lot.
Sample some more his gems:
“The bad thing about Indian writing is we are used to Girilal Jain kind of writing: political correctness, seeking redress. It’s nothing but a pain in the ass and it has to change.”
“Write well or die. If you can’t write well, go commit suicide. But keep your sanity while you write or die.”
CP appreciates that there is more money in writing English these days. And if books are published abroad, one can earn crores of rupees, and worldwide recognition comes free. “Yes, I want lots of money. So I will write more [CP is writing a novel now] and I want to leave this lousy country and live aboard, in England or in America, and lead a decent life. There is no life in India; it is dead, all regional languages are dead, the future is only in English. I’m not going to teach my son Malayalam, but I don’t want him to write poetry. I’ll kick him if he tries to do that.”
CP is six drinks down, and he can’t make up his mind. He wants to leave India, but doesn’t want to. He wants to leave India because there is no future here. But he thinks India has a future only if English becomes the national language. But India is senile. But, when he was in England, he was punched by the natives just because he was an Indian. But he wants to go and live in England….All this is CP’s poetry — his life and words. And the drinks, and the job he does, too are his verse. And he doesn’t believe in following norms while writing poetry. Even if he wanted to, he doesn’t know how to use them. But he has a good constituency of readers who read whatever he writes, even when he wrote only Zzzzzzzzzz… Zzzzzzzzzz.. Zzzzzzzz…, which was supposedly a profile on H D Deve Gowda.
— Sunil K Poolani / The Sunday Observer

Savour two of his poems:

First light on the kitchen table
Breakfast for one. Beer and wine.
Feline eyes kiss fallen tart.
Lunch's a conceit of three. My cat,
Your snapshot and me. Secret rum
In mint tea. Invalidation of the sea.
Last light comes to sup. Dinner's a feat
In Rectitude. Water and Whisky.
Campaign of shadows. No despair.
A sliver of music around the ankles
In a dream's corridor.
Endless retreat of inaccessible feet.

While you were sleeping
A dog yawned in the sun
And in the distance,
A train, blindfolded by a tunnel,
Window by window
Regained vision.
I thought of all the things
That could happen
When we are looking away,
The universe we miss in a blink.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Second-hand? Yes. Second-best? No

They may be second-hand, but definitely not second-best. We’re talking books here. Mumbai’s obsession with old and rare books is now at its peak. There are at least two dozen bookshops — and no, we’re not including raddiwallas — in the metropolis that deal exclusively in such books. Leading the pack is the legendary New and Second-Hand Bookstall (NSB), near Metro Cinema.
Established in the early 20th century, NSB continues to be the favourite haunt of every resident and visiting literary aficionado. And the bookshop is virtually a literary minefield, where a customer is expected to hunt for the books he seeks on his own. The staffers are rarely of any help since few of them know about the treasures the shop contains.
Walter Z Sodenberg, a German national who lives and writes in Cambridge, was in Mumbai recently. He talks of NSB: “I have come across the most amazing collection of books [at NSB], and the prices are unbelievably reasonable. For instance, I’ve managed to lay my hands on the first prints of H G Wells’ works, which I don’t think I could find anywhere else in the world. Here I found not only reprints, but also first editions, for just Rs 125 each. That’s just US $3.50. It’s amazing.”
On a recent visit to the city, Olivier Todd, celebrated French writer and Albert Camus’ official biographer, said: “In Bombay (oops! I can never pronounce the new name), I could find a great variety of books, including French classics, which I bought for a very reasonable price. I might have had to shell out an astronomical sum if I had to purchase these from Milan or Paris — that is if they are available there at all.”
And the tribe of Sodenbergs and Todds is on the rise. In a survey conducted by some students of St Xavier’s College recently, the demand for second-hand and rare books went up by 30 per cent in just last year. Most people who were interviewed for the students’ project said they bought these books more as collectors’ items, rather than just to read them.
Sample some of the gems that have changed hands, courtesy these bookshops:
1) Complete bound issues of National Geographic and Playboy magazines from the date of their inception — Rs 50 for a 12-volume set
2) The first prints of James Joyce’s unabridged and uncensored Ulysses — Rs 50 each
3) An early 19th century biography of Chhatrapati Shivaji by an unknown Marathi author — Rs 200
4) An original copy of Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch — a mere Rs 5.
Incredibly cheap, one would say, but these books find their way into the international markets, including major auction houses in London, the city of book-lovers, where sometimes a single title could fetch the occasional buyer-seller a fortune. And the books that find their way outside are not just rare books published in India (in languages as varied as Pali, Sanskrit, Mythili and Chentamil), but books published from practically every nook and cranny of the world.
Curiously, the shops buy these books at dirt-cheap prices or, as in several cases, the books fall into their laps free of cost. Says Meher Mistry, 71, an avid book collector who has spent a considerable chunk of his earnings to build up a library of rare books, magazines and other memorabilia: “[Most of these books] really belonged to several old mansions in south and central Mumbai, which have been demolished over the years. Books, unlike other art and artefacts, are literally thrown out as garbage. And a major collection of my books are this garbage.” The worth of Mistry’s collection is pegged at more than Rs 1 crore, though he is unwilling to sell even a single title.
Apart from the bookshops, the biggest delight of second-hand book buffs is the roads in and around Flora Fountain. In a stretch of about two kilometres — on which educated, Shakespeare-quoting street vendors have hawked books for the past 20-30 years — around 200,000 books are up for grabs. Every day. About 80 per cent of them are used books. All types are available here: fiction, non-fiction, technical, non-technical, you name it, you grab it.
The Mumbai book market has generated so much interest that the Internet is full of praise. One enchanted traveller once wrote on a site: “Any self-respecting Bombaywallah would have bought at least one book from [the vendors around Flora Fountain] at least once. I should mention, however, that the favourite haunt of book maniacs would be the thousands(!) of street vendors or stalls well littered all around Mumbai.”
“It is at these book stores that one can get the best bargains or choices and the joy of finding a rare book that one has been searching, for a throwaway price — not to mention the atmosphere in which one can chat with other hunters while browsing through the books,” says Suma Josson, author and filmmaker.
Now, it is not just individual collectors who are throwing their hat into the ring. Big corporate houses and hotels are also stacking up old and rare books — of course, in good condition, and preferably gold-rimmed — in their showcases. The money at stake here is definitely higher.
Predictably, several of these collectors’ items are found in bad condition — due, in the main, to poor handling (even in bookstores) and weather conditions — so, they require professional retouching, which itself is a business on the rise, but that is another story, and will save for another day.
— Sunil K Poolani

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Cycling in salubrious dales to make history

The eddying mountain breeze and the dizzying heights did not dither their enthusiasm and courage. In fact they were the accentuated factors in the salubrious terrains they were cycling — yes, cycling, not traipsing. But victory never comes on a platter. You have to puff, huff and struggle to achieve it — and make history, too, in the bargain.
We are talking about the recently-held mountain bike racing, a first in India and only the third one of its kind in the whole universe. The Hercules MTB Himachal championship was a mountain cycling adventure and an endurance race where 23 amateur and professional Indian and international riders employed all their verve, zest and skills over the mind-blowing landscape of the Himalayan backcountry of Himachal Pradesh. They bounced, grunted and pedalled through 480 kms of wilderness trails.
This was a perfect test of physical endurance and mental determination for mountain cycling enthusiasts. It should be. For, mountain biking experts Cara Coolbaugh from the US and Cass Gilbert from the UK spent over three months designing the track — and they are difficult taskmasters.
The starting point of the eight-day event was the Historic Peterhoff Grounds in Shimla and the end point on the first day was the Sports Authority of India training centre in Shilaroo. The route then followed the famous apple orchards of Kotgarh — crossed the mighty Sutlej at Dutt Nagar and camped alongside the river at Bayal.
The third to the eighth day took the riders to the picturesque villages in the interior parts of Shimla, Mandi and Kullu districts of the essential Himalayan backcountry. The event passed through the venue of the celebrations of the famous Kullu Dusshera on the last day. The event rode trails, single tracks, dirt roads, and rivulets of the Hill State spanning these three districts. After the final stage, times were calculated to determine the champion.
Riders, including three women, were from the US, Belgium, Hungary, South Africa, Denmark, Singapore, the UK, and India. Norbert Szenthihlosi from Hungary won the championship title after beating the 22 other spirited challengers. The runner-up was Franc Nel from South Africa, followed by Per Nilesen from Denmark.
Says Mohit Sood, the president of the Himalayan Adventure Sports and Tourism Promotion Association, which conceptualised and organised the event: “We are working towards promoting Himachal as the best adventure tourism destination in the world and through this event we want to present to the world the potential of the Himalayas and how it can be nurtured by way of promoting the ecologically and environmentally friendly sport of mountain biking which has tremendous potential to grow in this part of the Himalayas.”
In fact, the championship was organised as a wilderness mountain bike race, where participants slept in tent villages that were set up prior to their arrival and broken down immediately after the start each morning. During these eight days, enthusiasts endured the climate and physical challenges of the Himachal Himalayas. Stages included breakfast, a pre-designated lunch area, beverages along the route, dinner and an awards ceremony each night where the winners were awarded Leader Jerseys.
Ashok Thakur, the tourism secretary of Himachal Pradesh, was confident that the event will surely boost cycle tourism in the country. “And I am sure this event will set new trends in cycling and spark off many more such challenging and exciting events for biking.”
And glimpsing this spectacular extravaganza which gave an idea of the beautiful, punishing but enjoyable trail one tends to believe so.
— Sunil K Poolani

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Hi pals, I rarely save and keep any Internet jokes that bombard my email box. But this is really cool, I have to say, please try looking at it and you will never regret the decision.

Friday, November 04, 2005

A Critical Review of BF Skinner's Philosophy

Dear Friends, Romans and Countrymen, lend me your ears
I have come across an interesting site, thanks to my friend Anil C S Rao, an august author of Frog Books. Here goes the URL: http://home.comcast.net/~erozycki/Walden.html
I would like to have your feedback on this. More the merrier!
Sunil K Poolani

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Church luring Gujarat tribals to Christ

Sunil K Poolani in Saputara (Gujarat)

Bhavarsinh Hasusinh Suryavanshi is a king. No buts about it. But his subjects respect another king: Jesus Christ.
Suryavanshi, king for the last 13 years, is the 22nd in the line of Bhil kings who ruled Linga, a village 28 km from Saputara, in Gujarat. He still receives a monthly privy purse of Rs 3,400, and the two sipahis appointed by him are paid Rs 1,800 a month by the government. Moreover, he has 48 acres of land allotted by the government where he grows crops and is the proud owner of a colour television set - so what if there is no electricity in the village!
Despite all this, Suryavanshi's life is no better than any of his subjects': he moves around on foot unlike his predecessors who travelled in a palanquin (a sipahi was seen resting his leg on the. "throne" while the king was seated), and - gravest of all the ruler doesn't have any powers over his subjects, though once in a blue moon he holds court in his patio to resolve petty quarrels.
Says he ruefully: "Most of my men [there are about 250 families in his village] have ditched me. Notwithstanding my plea, every family, except mine, has converted to Christianity. "
Linga's case is not an isolated one. Traipsing through the tribal villages of south Gujarat, more incidents of conversion by Christian missionaries came to our notice. And we found a slow but steady revolution taking place - unreported and unlooked at.
Keshu Pawar and his family in nearby Malegaon hamlet embraced Christianity two years ago. What prompted him to do that? "Once when I was suffering from fever and headache, a couple of Keralite nuns who were on a visit to our village gave me a white powder. I consumed it and felt better. They told me it was God's prasad which can cure any illness. They, visited us often, held catechism classes, and told us about Christ and his supernatural powers. Convinced, we joined them."
Chanduram, Keshu's brother, was next in line. His daughter had some "incurable" disease and the nuns took her to their monastery, and two weeks later, says Chanduram, "she came back home walking on her feet". Seventy-five per cent of the families in the village followed suit.
If a major chunk of the villagers we talked to converted to Christianity as the church offered them money and free medicines and clothes, some of them were influenced or intimidated by neo-converts. Soon church bells started tolling in the village where electricity and primary education are unheard of.
It is not that the church is not doing good to their lives. Says Keshu: "After I became a Christian, I stopped drinking and chewing tambaaku. They [the nuns] talk to us so endearingly that we get a feeling that someone is there to care for us... they help us in all possible ways." A priest who visits them once a week tells them that "bad habits are Hindus' prerogative and those who reconvert to Hinduism will fall into the putrefied life again".
Interestingly, Chanduram, who is not as obsessed with Christianity as his brother is, admitted that he is seriously thinking of reconverting to Hinduism. Why? After much persuasion he says: "Pandurangshastri Athavale's followers approached us a couple of weeks ago asking us to reconvert. They said they would give us more benefits than what the church gave us."
Suryavanshi is optimistic: "My men are lured by cash, kind and help. But I'm sure they will reconvert to Hinduism if some Hindu group offers the same benefits. Also, the government should chalk out some measures to curb this practice. "
Surya Goswami, an artist working in the tribal belt for the last 17 years and founder member of Gandharapur Artists' Village in Saputara, says: "The church uses weird ways to lure tribals - like giving powdered Crocin or other tablets for various illnesses, saying it is God's gift to mankind. One of their lures is: a Hindu idol in a tribal temple will go down under a flood, but not the cross on top of a church. Then they ask the tribals: 'How do you expect a god to save you if he is not in a position to save himself?'' And the poor, illiterate tribals, often failing to find a suitable answer, succumb to the church's exhortation."
Says a confused Suresh Gadvi, a neo-convert: "I'm aware that the church is now adamant that we shouldn't reconvert, because, as the priest keeps telling us, Christ will never pardon us if we do. But for us, religion is immaterial - what is important is we should get basic amenities. "

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Ethics (or the lack of it) of selling editorial space

The theme:
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?

The debate:
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.
Sevanti Ninan
Media critic and editor, The Hoot
New Delhi

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

Filthy lucre
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.
Vibhuti Patel
Letters editor, Newsweek International
New York

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?
Rohit Gupta
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.
Abhay Mehta
Author, consultant

No comment
No comment!
Dilip Raote
Columnist, Mid-Day

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
Poet, writer

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.
Kapil Rampal
Chief executive officer, Creative Crest
New Delhi

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.
Mitesh Kapadia
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.
Merril Diniz

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.
Venkatachari Jagannathan
Business journalist

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.
Probir Roy
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

Crass commercialisation
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

Oppose collectively
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.
Pradnya Malushte
Communications consultant

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.
Jasmeet Chhabra
Writer, novelist

Totally unethical
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.
Abhishek Agrawal
Member, editorial team, ICFAI PressHyderabad

Absolutely horrid
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
Writer, publisher
New Mumbai

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.
T Radhakrishna
Freelance journalist

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.”
Vinod Nedumudi
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.
Aakar Patel
Editor, Mid-DayMumbai

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.
Sabitha Harinath

Pay-and-park journalism?
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.
Susan Abraham
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.
Yael Springer
Film Producer
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!
Shobha Warrier
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.
Warren Anthony
Writer, journalist

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.
Sridhar K
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?
Shahana Chaudhury

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)!
Rohit Gupta

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.
Jaideep Shergill
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

Editorials, anyone?
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
Creative professional

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.
Himanshu Kapadia
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.
Margaret Mascarenhas
Consulting editor, novelist
Panaji, Goa

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.
Monish Mazumdar
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