Newspapers Must Stop Cheating Readers

17 Mar,2021



By Sanjeev Kotnala


Sanjeev KotnalaMy Twitter timeline tells me that newspapers are cheating their readers with what is necessarily advertisements masquerading as news. Maybe it is their necessity with dropping advertising revenue. Unfortunately, it is weaning away discerning readers.


The Truth Remains Unchanged

Readers buy newspapers for news/ infotainment and not for advertisements. Many readers depend on news and other content in the newspaper to take decisions in their lives. I may be exaggerating the last bit, but even in the digital age, it holds true at least in the Tier-2 and 3 towns. Print still has a role to play.

Native advertising was earlier considered a digital news problem. Today, it finds itself in newspapers, what they claim to be advertisers-influenced behaviour.

A reader expects their newspaper to highlight the sponsored content, disguised advertisement, advertorial, or native advertising. Not doing so is breaching the reader-newspaper trust.

The lack of clear and well-regulated norms/rules/guidelines for such disclosure is in many ways responsible for readers’ failure in identifying native ads.


Is the Bold Editorial Dead?

WNP;-What’s new in publishing laments the fact that the old editorial guards are dead and buried. The kind that believed in preserving the objectivity in newspapers. They would never think of collaborating with brands to help them mask their advertisements as editorial content. From their perspective, native advertising is unethical and deceptive. It only shows disrespect for media consumers. They fear it might push journalism over the edge, to the point of no return.


The Ugly Side

The same article points out. Some editors don’t have anything against native advertising. On the contrary, they believe, if appropriately incorporated, sponsored content could bring significant financial benefits and help publishers protect their businesses while also bringing value to readers.

A two-year-old estimate says that native advertising generates 18% of overall advertising revenues, and publishers expect it will reach 32% by 2020.

Now is that not alarming as a reader.


The Breach of Trust

I further quote from the above report. ‘Journalists are expected to unbiasedly report, with their end goal of accurately informing the public. When sponsored content comes into the picture, the motives change as their goal becomes profit-oriented. Journalists then agree to tell stories that fit a brand’s marketing objective. They do so in exchange for money, which automatically undermines their professional role’.

If that not a breach of trust, then nothing is.


Secular Guidelines Should Apply to All Media

There is a high decibel demand on social media influencers to specify if the content is sponsored and paid. Ironically, the coverage of ASCI (Advertising Standards Council of India)  guidelines for such acts in digital content on platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram is in the newspapers known not to follow the guidelines. The industry is applauding ASCI for the welcome step.

It is beyond my understanding why should similar guidelines not apply to all news media. Why newspaper as a respectful infotainment provider not be hauled for this breach.

ASCI is trying to control digital when it has failed to control it in newspapers.

I found an advisory for TV advertising but failed to see one for print.

I am sure the guidelines exist. But, how often have they been used to bring errant newspapers to the task? My tweet request to ASCI on the subject went unanswered.


Native Advertising/Sponsore Content – Not New

Native advertising is not a new format, as many newspapers would want us to believe. Wojdynski and Evans (2016) define native advertising as “any paid advertising that takes the specific form and appearance of editorial content from the publisher itself”. It is considered effective if the media can mimic the content produced by journalists and, through such advertising, gain the same credibility as news.

A study across five European counties observes that news outlets do not follow a consistent way in disclosing native ads visually, negotiating the balance between transparency and deception. In this balance, news organisations do not boldly push for transparency and instead remain ambiguous. Their analyses showed that both national and organisational characteristics matter when shaping the visual boundaries of journalism.


The Root Cause

The problem is newspapers over-dependence on advertising revenue. And advertisers desire to see enhanced efficiency/ROI for newspaper advertising. Everyone getting on the bandwagon cannot be an excuse for other newspapers to follow it.

Really what defines such unethical behaviour is the organisational ethos and an understanding that they can get away with it. Each newspaper is trying new means to avoid flagging such content.


No One Will Bite The Bullet

The newspapers must bite the bullet of upping their cover price even at the cost of losing the fringe readers. It may seem a dangerous strategy, and maybe it is when done in isolation. But, collectively executed, it is what the doctors prescribe. The business model needs an overhaul.


Alarm Bells

No surprise that a 2017 report by International News Media Association (INMA) and The Native Advertising Institute (NAI) found something alarming.

• Slightly more news media companies are offering native advertising as an option, 51% this year compared to 48% last year.

• Last year, 35% of publishers surveyed described native advertising as “very important” to their companies. This year, 50% did.

• Last year, 26% of publishers were working with an external agency to deliver native advertising. This year, that number is half at 13%.

• 27% of news media companies surveyed have a dedicated native advertising team, up a bit from last year’s 20%.

You realise how alarming the issue.


The End

There is no denying that it is becoming more difficult for readers and regulators to identify the advertising content masquerading as news and, therefore, misleading and deceptive. It is challenging to regulate, as there is no standard format. Newspapers find new ways and captions to sidestep the issue and need to flag such content.

It is time for ASCI to focus on it. It will help the readers and the industry.

Why pinpoint social media influencers and expect them to flag the sponsored- paid-for content and allow newspapers to continue having a ball. Some visible practical steps will help.


One may further read this report; native Advertising in India: How one company set the benchmark.


Sanjeev Kotnala is a senior business and marketing strategist and educator. He writes on MxmIndia every Wendesday. His views here are personal

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