A primer to help you understand the finer nuances of media financing…

Is it a sign of the times that there is a media-ethics related discussion in the capital city every week? Having been to three in as many weeks, one now feels equipped to come up with a handy primer to help you understand all the delicate new nuances of media financing. In all the brouhaha over paid news, a lot of different categories are getting lumped together. So to begin with folks, let's sort them out.

Paid news is what everybody is talking about. This is coverage that is paid for, but not labelled as advertising. Meaning, it kind of looks like a normal newspaper story, except that everybody at some time or the other carries the same story in roughly the same language. There is political and general paid news. In the political genre, this not-so-smart practice had a major outing in the Lok Sabha elections of 2009, though it started much earlier. It became full blown with the Maharashtra elections last year, as this newspaper has told you, several times over. What does it cost, at its maximum? According to the leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj, citing her personal experience in Madhya Pradesh last year, figuring in a positive light in all the papers that matter is ensured for a rough total of Rs. one crore. Another venerable MP from her party in a private conversation cited exactly the same figure for another state, Jharkhand. Does it win you an election? Not necessarily because your opponent is being offered and probably accepting, exactly the same deal.

General paid news is when you see a distinctly non newsy individual or event getting a splash on the front page of the city supplement of your morning paper or on a channel like Zoom. This began a long time ago, and nobody bats an eyelid any more when the practice persists. The Bennett Coleman media group began the practice through a company called MediaNet, some years ago. Initially it indicated which items were paid for. Now it does not.

Advertising clout

Then there is advertising, which is the life blood of the media industry, and which enters the realm of media ethics when it is used as a pressuring tool. Write nicely about us, and we will give you advertising. If your pesky reporters write not-so-nice things, we will withdraw ads. This particular aspect of using money to influence news is rather old but becomes potent when there is lots of media chasing fewer ads, particularly in a recession year. It also impacts entire segments of reporting. As Outlook editor-in-chief Vinod Mehta said at one of the discussions mentioned above, corporate life in India goes unexamined with the same kind of zeal and enthusiasm with which we take on political honchos. Why? Because they are the big advertisers.

The third category is public relations, which is described in lots of civilised ways by those who practise it. “We don't do spin-doctoring. There is a new generation of highly under pressure, under-researched individuals becoming journalists. We have to hand-hold clients through this.” Meaning through interviews with them. “PR is looking for the right chinks through which the client wants to push his or her message through. Chose the right story, right vehicle, right time — seven in the evening.” “PR is something through which different kinds of voiceless, can get a voice. It is about providing opportunities to people.” All this from my friend Dilip Cherian who describes himself as an image guru. Put like this, it means there is nothing cheap like paid news involved in this brand of persuasion-for-a-fee.

But the fact remains that PR is also instrumental in getting not-always-newsworthy people and events coverage, and if you are wondering where money comes in, here is where it does . Public Relations professional Anshu Khanna says that when you find a page three item not naming an individual or an event, but writing about it without names, you should know that the paper or magazine is signalling that the needful has not been done. Or when the opening of an artist's show or a book launch is covered like an ordinary party with no focus on the paintings or on the book.

Then there is underwritten news, which is simply a matter of picking up the tab for coverage on location. Pick up Harpers or Vogue, or Marie Claire and look at the wonderful locations shoots for jewellery or clothes. If there are lavish layouts running into several pages, rest assured that the magazine has not been splurging out of its coffers for the love of its readers. But nowhere does it say ‘advert' or anything like that. The brand being showcased pays for everything: the shoot costs, and giving the writer and photographer a very comfortable trip to the location. Plus, in some cases, for the story's publication, at a per page rate. So you have glossies where it is impossible to tell where the ads end and where the text begins. The latest entrant in this genre is a fashion glossy called Flamante, which the Times of India group has just launched.

Similarly, some lifestyle TV channels may be particular about paying for trips to spas and holiday destinations that their reporters cover, but the Indian ones are not. And as for covering soft news events at locations abroad, news channels like NDTV 24x7 are quite clear that the organisers must pick up the tab for the entire crew.

Changed times

So what are the honchos in charge saying about all this? “We live in hard times,” said Vinod Mehta, adding that paid advertorial in Outlook was called Spotlight, and he played very little role in what went in there. At a meeting on election-related paid news organised by four media bodies including the Editors Guild, the wisdom was that the best you can hope for is disclosure. We will take money for coverage, but we will indicate that it is paid coverage. We have to do it, said Rajdeep Sardesai, the current president of the Editors Guild. “We are listed quarter by quarter. We have to show profits.” “Editors find it difficult to stand up to proprietors who want to charge for election coverage,” said Mrinal Pande, former editor of Hindustan.

“You cannot run a media company without money,” said Pankaj Pachauri of NDTV. “But there are editors who stand up to media marketers. I have 150 advertisers. You spread your risk.”

Bottom line: the age of innocence is over. Learn to live with it.

Keywords: media-ethics