Sucheta Dalal :Show Me The Money And Select The News (3 February 2003)
Sucheta Dalal

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Show Me The Money And Select The News (3 February 2003)  

It happened sometime in October 1999. Leading American newspapers reported that the Los Angeles Times (LA Times), one of America’s four best newspapers, had done a quiet deal to share revenue with the Staples Center (a sports complex) on advertisements that would appear in a special 14-page supplement on the Center. In return, the newspaper got access to billboards inside the stadium and other perks. All hell broke loose when the deal became public knowledge. The LA Times journalists signed a protest petition and each new development became grist for the media mill.

When protests were at their peak, Otis Chandler, the legendary former publisher and major stockholder of Times-Mirror Group, whose 20-year reign made the LA Times one of America’s best newspapers, pitched in with his support. In a scathing denouncement, he called the deal unbelievably stupid and one which had abused and misused the staffers. Importantly, he said that the deal was the result of people with no newspaper experience being put in charge of running a newspaper.

The controversy ended with LA Times issuing a front-page apology by publisher Kathryn Downing and editor Michael Parks. This was accompanied by a special 30,000-page report, which was a harsh investigation into the controversy by its own media reporter. The paper promised that editorial integrity will always come first and the episode, which was intensively analysed by media schools, drew public attention to media ethics and the unbreachable wall that ought to exist between editorial and advertising.

The Staples imbroglio ended a phase when business interests dominated the LA Times. Mark Willis, CEO of Times Mirror Group and a former cereal company executive, had famously shocked the media saying he would take a bazooka if necessary to break down the wall between editorial and advertising. Downing, the publisher, was a former lawyer who later confessed that she didn’t understand journalistic ethics.

Cut to India, circa 2003. Media reports say that Bennett, Coleman & Co, India’s largest and most profitable media house, has gone way ahead of the LA Times in breaking down the “wall” altogether. Probably for the first time in the free world, it is selling news, along with advertisements. The group, which publishes The Times of India, has a regular rate card for news items and photograph space that is on sale, depending on the length and positioning of reports. And it is actively pitching to companies and PR agencies to ‘buy’ news stories.

For the record, it is claimed that so far the sale is restricted to commercial and lifestyle products. It is supposed to be a vehicle for companies to get their publicity material into the newspaper. But isn’t that the role of advertising? To get publicity for a product? What the Times is now doing is to put a price on the credibility of a ‘news report’. After first making a product of a newspaper, we now have news turned into a saleable commodity. Readers will read what is paid for, not what is important, relevant or interesting. Apparently, the sale is a two-step process. You pay to have the news item posted on a website from where it is then sent to the city supplement of the newspaper and if it is considered newsworthy and published, there is another payment.

Company insiders say that the genesis of the idea is the realisation that companies and socialites already pay big money to scribes and photographers for free publicity.

Although Times Internet CEO, Mahendra Swarup, insisted (to the Business Standard) that editors are free to reject a paid news item, insiders say that there is no such freedom and the ‘management’ would frown on editors who dared to question or refuse. While Swarup insists that the sale of ‘news’ is restricted to lifestyle products, insiders say that the definition of what is classified as a lifestyle product is very flexible.

However, let’s not get sidetracked by what ‘news’ is considered saleable. The bigger issue is that the wall between editorial and advertising has been breached and ethical boundaries that are the bedrock of journalism all over the world have been crossed.

Look at it another way. If ‘news’ is a commodity and the reader is either blissfully ignorant or irrelevant, then ‘news’ would be easier to sell than advertising space. Today, the Times is apparently charging only nominal rates for the news it sells, but that is probably just an ‘invitation’ price!

So, once it is clear that the reader is unconcerned about the distinction between news that is ‘fit to print’ and ‘news that is paid for’, the price could easily rise. Companies may discover that they need no longer waste money on press conferences to launch products or announce results — all they need to do is to pay for the news coverage itself. The innumerable seminars held by industry associations may also have to factor in a cost for media coverage — the flip side is that businessmen would no longer wriggle out of bad situations by claiming they were misquoted. Also, if commercial and lifestyle products can be sold, then political coverage is equally saleable. In fact, during the Gujarat elections, several Gujarati dailies blatantly charged for news reports (even fake reports were planted); the difference is that these were shady unaccounted transactions.

Where does the reader come into all this? It is a fundamental rule that readers should always know what is for sale and what is not for sale in a newspaper but most readers will make the disquieting discovery that there are no rules to force newspapers to recognise the difference.

While advertising interests around the world do attempt to swamp editorial freedom, we in India are discovering that there are hardly any laws, regulations or ethical codes to prevent this from happening. The Press Council is toothless and media bodies such as the Editors Guild or various journalists unions are fragmented and impotent against powerful newspaper owners. In fact, the newspaper owners do pretty much as they please.

The irony is that many media groups that have scant regard for editorial integrity or their readers, have led the battle against the entry of foreign media houses in the name of national integrity!

-- Sucheta Dalal