Mediaah! Are disclaimers enough to pass off paid content?

29 Apr,2013

By Pradyuman Maheshwari

 

Last week, as part of The Times of India’s announcement of its 175 years, there was a full-page edit by editor Jaideep Bose. There’s an interesting bit from this note that I would like to highlight:

 

“Truth is, we have no masters and no hidden agendas. Our dharma is to serve our readers. Which is why we take constructive criticism seriously and listen when you speak. Political parties go to the people once every five years; we seek your mandate every day of the year. The relationship between The Times of India and its readers is a nuanced one. There exists an invisible line of tension between what the editor thinks the reader should be interested in, and what the reader thinks the editor should offer him or her. It is the editor’s job to strike that delicate balance. What appears in the paper is often the product of hours of intense debate and introspection over content and tone.”

 

There is no denying that the TOI has improved hugely in the last eight years. In fact even before – from the time of the Gujarat riots to this day, the paper has taken up issues and campaigns that have one would expect a newspaper to do.

 

However, along with all this, its paid content practice called ‘Medianet’ has flourished too. The city-specific supplements may carry the disclaimer ‘Advertorial Editorial Promotional Feature’ under their mastheads, but the fact that the owners persisted with what’s clearly a regressive practice has got a lot of people questioning whether other parts of the paper are also similarly compromised.

 

When Bose, who I have much regard for, writes that what “appears in the paper is often the product of hours of intense debate and introspection over content and tone”, he obviously doesn’t mean that the city supplements are part of the main paper, or it’s possibly that paid content has been so internalized that he doesn’t really think there’s anything wrong with the practice.

 

A few years back, at the Pitch CMO Summit, Suparna Mitra, the then Titan Industries global marketing head (now business head – south) spoke about the various ways in which Titan had marketed its watches so successfully. And one of these, she said in her presentation, was Medianet in The Times of India’s city supplements.

 

What surprised me was that Mitra represented the Tatas, a business group known to not compromise on values. I was quite shocked to learn that a Tata group company bought editorial space to further its ends.

 

When I met her a few months later on the sidelines of the Indian Magazine Congress in Delhi, I told her I was surprised that Titan was paying for content. She wondered why I was saying that and then a leading publisher in the room came to her rescue insisting that there’s nothing wrong with it since it was aboveboard.

 

Calling it a legit activity is like saying there’s nothing wrong if you adulterate milk with water. When The Times of India started Medianet, the editors of many publications cried hoarse about the practice. Prominent among these were Vir Sanghvi in Hindustan Times, N Ram in Hindu and Aakar Patel in Mid-Day. While the Hindu hasn’t given in to the pressures of revenues, both Mid-Day and Hindustan Times have buckled under. Mid-Day has been in it for a few years now, albeit on the entertainment pages. The sections carrying these are tagged ‘Promotional Feature’.

 

When Hindustan Times got into the act recently, it knew the practice was incorrect. Page 3 in ‘HT Café’ is tagged ‘Entertainment and Promotional Features’ and there is a disclaimer on the front page of the supplement which states: “We would like to inform our readers that some of the coverage of events that appear on the Party pages is paid for by the concerned brands. We would like to emphasise that no sponsored content does or shall appear in any part of HT without it being declared as such to our valued readers.”

 

I think it’s great that HT says it in so many words that some of the content is paid for. However, the features inside aren’t tagged as such. Also, the disclaimers are in fine print and unless it was pointed out to them, the readers would miss them. I asked five regular and two first-time readers of the paper, and only one of them noticed it, when being told what to look for.

 

If HT is serious about its intentions it must do what the group’s business daily Mint does: put a disclaimer on the front page of the main paper. In addition, it must tag each and every article that’s paid for. Ditto with The Times of India, Mid-day and all other publications charging for content.

 

**

 

Should a newspaper be published only for social good? If it’s got to make monies, why shouldn’t it be doing so from every conceivable way, one may ask. I agree and see no harm with profit being the primary motive of any business. I don’t think it’s right to expect a newspaper to be only reporting on political, civic and developmental issues. People are interested in a reading a lot more… including news on health, sports and entertainment.

 

However, one would expect the content in the newspaper to be published based on the decision of the editor, and not an advertiser paying for it.

 

Newspaper owners ask the powers that be for several favours – DAVP ads, land allotment at discounted rates, access to various official functions and the government grants them these because newspapers are supposed to be serving a larger social good.

 

By passing off content for which it has charged and is published not on the discretion of the editor, the newspaper is cheating readers. Thankfully for the owners – and possibly because many of them are very powerful – the law-influencers (including the Press Council of India) havent’ really damned paid entertainment/glamour content. Various favours continue to be granted to newspaper owners despite them charging for editorial content.

 

In private many editors and publishers have told me that they are against the cash-for-content policies of their publications. However, it’s only in the film and party pages that are edited by an entertainment editor, they add, trying to wash their hands off the regressive practice. So on one hand, editors carry campaigns against the various wrongs of society and even write editorials on these, on the other they allow part of their paper to be used to publish paid-for content.

 

I asked a dozen readers from across four metros and the seven others I had spoken with earlier to comment on the issue. Here are the Top 3 observations:

1. They don’t differentiate between the entertainment supplements and the main paper, even though Bombay/Delhi Times, HT City/HT Café and Hitlist are popular titles.
2. As high as 60 percent of the respondents don’t trust the movie and restaurant reviews, even if they carry a disclaimer that the reviewers pay for their food bills
3. They don’t really care that the content is paid for or not.

 

The views of 19 people can of course not be extrapolated to the entire readership of these papers, but the last of these views left me wondering whether I was being a prude.

 

Perhaps, but happily so.

 

Pradyuman Maheshwari is editor-in-chief, MxMIndia. The views expressed here are his own.

 

Post a Comment 

2 responses to “Mediaah! Are disclaimers enough to pass off paid content?”

  1. Mark Em says:

    The Times now does not even try to respond to such concerns. They know they are No. 1 in the Mumbai market, and that is their only concern.

  2. Asif Syed says:

    The attitude of editors and publishers when it comes to paid content is similar to that of political parties giving tickets to criminals. It starts of with just a few constituencies but eventually the scourge becomes big enough to threaten the party itself – for recent examples just look at the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and the BJP in Karnataka.
    Similarly with the news media (newspapers as well as news television), the trend begins with paid content in the entertainment supplements moves onto sponsored sections, evolves into private treaties. And now with large corporate houses buying significant stakes in news media (Birla with India Today and Ambani with Network 18) the issue is going to be not just how much of the published content is paid but also how much was paid to ensure that some content is not published.

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