Vanita Kohli-Khandekar: Church and state

Last Updated: Mon, Nov 05, 2012 19:14 hrs

Last month Jindal Steel sued Zee News for extortion. It claims that Zee News’ reporters were demanding ad money in lieu of easing off on a story around Jindal’s involvement in Coalgate. Zee denies the charges vehemently and has counter-sued. The truth is yet to be established.

This, then, is a good time to focus on the blurring lines between editorial and advertising, and the grievous bodily harm it is doing to journalism and to news media.

Why does the line matter? Because newspapers, magazines or news television don’t just offer news, opinion and analysis. They impact your social, cultural, financial and political choices. Therefore, any adulteration of content could have disastrous results. Would you vote for an MP if you knew that that nice glowing story about him was paid for? Similarly, would you spend Rs 10 lakh on an MBA degree for your kid if you knew the institute the newspaper ranked at the top was all wrong?

The wall between editorial (church) and advertising (state) was never constructed by anybody. It was formed by itself over the years. It nurtures the biggest selling point of a newspaper or news station: its credibility. Any news brand trades on that.

On the other hand, advertising accounts for 70 to 80 per cent of the revenues of the Indian news media. So it is important that it should keep coming in if the news brand is to remain healthy and viable. For most part of the last two decades, some of the best media houses in this country have been wonderfully steady about not mixing advertising and editorial.

Sure, editors and marketing directors sit in on top-level meetings — much like manufacturing and sales would in consumer products. But operationally, most media companies kept them apart. Reporters never discussed business with interviewees, even if they happened to be advertisers and vice versa.

While some amount of paid news was happening in print, it was limited to small towns or a few trade newspapers and magazines.

By the late 1990s “advertorials” or sponsored features became common. These were features about the advertiser’s company or product. They mimicked the editorial look. Most magazines and newspapers usually labelled them clearly so that readers knew these were sponsored. Then some media companies started doing paid news for their entertainment pages, and others for the main pages.

“Edit support” became a term that advertisers threw in to get a better deal from media companies. Soon this mushroomed into complete shows on business channels or features in newspapers sponsored for – and dictated by – advertisers. This was not always communicated to readers.

To this add two things.

One, the hyper-competition after the news-channel boom and the spread of the language press in 2003. It changed the nature of the game. For instance, in news TV roughly 40 per cent of India’s 133 news channels are owned by people who have no interest in the news business or its sanctity. They launch it for extortion, influence or nuisance value. For them the distinction between journalists and ad sales people does not matter. The editor for a brand can also double as the business head. This is a company’s way of telling advertisers that you can discuss anything with our editors. You could argue that the owner wears both the editor’s and the CEO’s hats in several large companies. Sure, but in a good company this person can ensure that the church and state remain separate.

Two, the fact that marketing in many print media companies is, arguably, the weakest function. You may hire the best writers and editors, who create a good product. But it does little for your bottom line if the marketing guys don’t read it, decode it and figure out how to sell it. This is true for several well-written brands in India. In a hyper-competitive market, this weakness led to the use of editorial content as a lever.

Much of this has spoilt advertisers completely. A whole generation of media buyers and advertisers believes there is nothing wrong in demanding “editorial support” or doing a sponsored corporate show without telling viewers. They think that any company that does not provide such support – there are many of them – is not with it.

This is typical of advertisers’ schizophrenic attitude. Their need for edit support comes from their need to associate the brand with a credible product. But by demanding such support they undermine the very quality they seek: credibility. An advertiser happily criticises a paper or TV channel for being boring or unreadable. But he has no qualms about contributing to that unreadability by forcing paid content down the throats of readers.

By indulging advertisers, some media owners make short-term profits for a long-term loss of credibility. Once that is exhausted, what will they trade in?  

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