Paid news and the influence of newspaper owners

Owners can influence how their newspapers report news. That is not news. What is making news these days is the "private treaties" that involve media organisations buying stakes in other companies and then subtly promoting these companies.

The rot actually set in more than 10 years ago. As early as February 2003, Vir Sanghvi, writing in the Hindustan Times, had expressed his concerns over certain newspapers offering editorial space in exchange for cash.

What Sanghvi has to say is so important that I want you to read his column in its entirety (see below) and reflect on how paid news affects readers, media students, and journalism as a whole.

By Vir Sanghvi
February 16, 2003

IF YOU ARE confused by the great media debate that seems to be dominating the opinion columns these days, let me try and make sense of it for you by positing a hypothetical situation.

Assume that this week’s column was about a politician. Let’s imagine that it was about Praveen Togadia.

Suppose I were to spend the next 1,000 words telling you that I thought that Praveenbhai was one of the great geniuses of our times; that his kindness would shame Mother Teresa; that his medical skills were equalled only by those of the world’s best doctors, that his leadership qualities left Atal Behari Vajpayee far behind and that I believed that he was the best person to lead India into the new century — how would you react?

Some of you would, I imagine, I agree with me. Most of you would think that I was on drugs. And some of you would wonder why I attributed such wonderful qualities to the good doctor.

But whether or not you agreed with me, all of you would take what I wrote at face value — as the considered (if somewhat foolish) opinion of a journalist.

Imagine now, if you were to discover that before writing the column in which I praised the kind and great Praveenbhai, I had arranged for friends and supporters of the good doctor to transfer a few lakh of rupees to my account.

And that every word of praise was, in effect, entirely paid for. How then would you react?

My guess is that you would think that I was a cheap crook, a journalistic whore, the sort of hack whose pen could be bought by the highest bidder.

You would feel angry and betrayed. Even those of you who believed that Praveenbhai should get this year’s Nobel Peace Prize would treat my praise of your herd as being worthless and illegitimate because it had been paid for. And none of you would take anything I write seriously ever again.

If you can understand the point of that hypothetical example, then you don’t need to read the thousands of words of angry prose penned by indignant editors. You’ve understood what the media debate is about.

EACH TIME you pick up a newspaper or switch on a news channel, you know that you’ll get ads and you’ll get news.

You may or may not choose to read the ads — many of us channel surf or go to the loo during commercial breaks — but the chances are that the reason you’ve chosen the paper or the channel is because of what we call programming content or editorial: the stuff between the ads.

You know, for instance, that when you see an ad placed by a mineral water manufacturer telling you that his product is completely pure, you must treat that claim with a measure of scepticism because the manufacturer has a vested interest in promoting his water.

Equally, you know that when you read a news report (or watch it on TV) which says that an independent body has found traces of pesticides in mineral water you must take that claim more seriously because nobody has paid for the report and it represents an attempt to arrive at an objective truth.

In the news business, the division between editorial (the news, the content, the stuff that nobody pays for) and advertising (the bit that is paid for) is sacred.

Every newspaper, all over the world, prizes the credibility of its editorial and sacks journalists if it finds that they are taking money to make editorial claims. (The sort of thing that my hypothetical Togadia example deals with.)

AS FAR AS advertising is concerned, however, as long as the ads are not outrageous fabrications or do not wilfully mislead the reader (and there are bodies that guard against this), we are content to let manufacturers promote their products.

All we insist is that advertising is clearly marked as such and that there is no possibility of fooling the reader into believing that an ad has the credibility of editorial behind it.

It is this distinction that is now under threat. A month or so ago, Aroon Purie kicked off the media debate by writing in his Letter from the Editor-in-Chief in India Today, that you could pay to get yourself featured in the editorial columns of The Times of India.

Business Standard then followed this up with a detailed story explaining how you could pay a PR agency to buy editorial (not advertising) space in Delhi Times, Bombay Times and the rest.

Hindustan Times then opened its editorial pages for a debate on this issue, attracting contributions from such luminaries as Vinod Mehta, Ajit Bhattacharjea and Chandan Mitra. The Statesman reprinted the BS piece. And so on.

Meanwhile, a second debate was bubbling under the surface. Many politicians (from the BJP and the Congress) who campaigned in Gujarat during the assembly election claimed that local newspapers had asked candidates to pay for editorial coverage.

If a candidate did not send over a briefcase containing a few lakh, the papers would black out his campaign. In many ways, this was even more worrying than the suggestion that you could buy your way on to page three. It was, in effect, the distinction between a whore and a blackmailer.

AS THE EDITOR of a newspaper that is The Times of India’s principal competitor in Delhi, I’m not going to fall prey to the temptation to try and score cheap points off the Times’ alleged lack of ethics.

From my perspective, there’s been enough Times-bashing already and to focus the debate on a single newspaper is to lose sight of the bigger and broader issues.

But there are two big questions here and both need to be answered. The first is the ‘why’ question. You don’t have to be a genius to see that editorial and advertising must be kept separate.

Not only is this one of the basic rules of the newspaper business, it is also a policy that every newspaper of consequence, everywhere in the world, swears by.

So, why then are some Indian newspapers willing to sell editorial space? Why are they so ready to cheat their readers into believing that stuff that has been paid for has the credibility of news?

And why are papers turning into blackmailers, demanding money from politicians before agreeing to cover their campaigns?

The explanations that have been offered — the profit crunch, the need to open new revenue streams, etc — strike me as being inadequate.

If a small newspaper that is in financial trouble surreptitiously sells space in its news columns, I would disapprove of the practice but understand the motivation. But that’s not what’s happening today.

The people who are selling off their news pages run some of the most profitable papers in the country.

The only explanation that makes sense is this: greed. Newspapers prostitute their pages because they can.

The people who run them have no commitment to the truth; no interest in the greater good; and no respect for the readers.

As far as they are concerned, they are in this business to make money. And if they can increase revenues by blurring the distinction between editorial and advertising, by accepting money from politicians to feature them — then they don’t see why they shouldn’t go ahead.

It is as simple at that.

BUT IT IS the second question that is more difficult to answer: Why don’t readers protest? Why do they allow newspapers to feed them tainted ‘news’, stories that have been paid for?

There are broadly two answers to this question. The first is the one favoured by many of today’s proprietors.

This says that the reader doesn’t really care about editorial integrity, that only “journalists worry about this ethical rubbish”. According to this view, the new generation of readers has virtually no interest in reading papers, anyway.

All they want to do is skim-read page one, look at the pictures and put the paper away. What do they care if a story on a new car or a new shop has been paid for? It is all bubblegum for the eyes.

But there is a second answer. And it is the answer that most journalists who have contributed to the media debate have given.

The truly insidious thing about accepting bribes to carry news stories is that the reader doesn’t know that he’s being taken advantage of.

When he reads that a newspaper regards a new car as being the best in its range, he has no reason to suspect that the paper has accepted money to make this judgement. He believes that it is an objective opinion.

Proprietors who don’t tell their readers that they take bribes to manufacture news stories are like thieves who pick your pocket. Until you realise that your wallet is missing, you won’t make a fuss.

And the pickpocket will be as entitled to claim that you don’t mind the loss — because you don’t know you’ve been robbed — as proprietors are to say that nobody is claiming about the bribes that their papers take.

Nobody objects to being robbed or cheated — till he finds out that he’s been robbed or cheated.

That, I suspect, is what we’re seeing in the Indian media. Readers don’t realise that newspapers are cheating them, that credibility is now on sale in the market place and that bribery is an established corporate practice at some media companies.

THE GOOD THING about the current media debate is that journalists are finally placing the facts before the readers.

After that, it is up to you to decide. Are you the sort of reader that some proprietors think you are — who doesn’t care about integrity or credibility?

Or do you want to read news that you can trust?

Journalists can’t answer those questions. Only our readers can.   
  • Courtesy: Hindustan Times
  • Go here for Outlook editor Krishna Prasad's posts on "the selling of editorial space to advertisers by rapacious Indian media houses".
  • And read this special section in Outlook's 15th anniversary issue to understand what is really wrong with our newspapers, magazines, and television news channels — and how we can fix it: "Outlook's peerless issue on the Indian media crisis".

If you want to know how owners can be a positive influence on their newspapers, read this excerpt from Good Times, Bad Times, by Harold Evans, a former editor of The Times and The Sunday Times of the UK. (Evans was one of the greatest editors of his generation; his book is available in the Commits library.)

Roy Thomson [the owner of The Times] was assailed by politicians and others when we attempted difficult and contentious journalism…. He always had an answer. It was printed on a card he carried in his pocket for twenty-five years. He called it his 'creed':

"I can state with the utmost emphasis that no person or group can buy or influence editorial support from any newspaper in the Thomson group. Each paper may perceive this interest in its own way, and will do this without advice, counsel or guidance from the central office of the Thomson Organisation.

"I do not believe that a newspaper can be run properly unless its editorial columns are run freely and independently by a highly skilled and dedicated professional journalist.

"This is and will continue to be my policy."

When anyone protested to Roy Thomson about his newspapers he would produce his creed or calling-card from his pocket and silence the critic by adding, "You wouldn't expect me to go back on my word, would ya?"

He never did.

On his death [in 1976] Evans wrote in a leader for The Sunday Times:

"He chose to detach himself from the editorial conduct of his newspapers and that is often seen as his principal virtue, because there have been too many owners, here and in North America, who have been erratic meddlers with no scruples about the loftier pretensions of journalism. Roy Thomson's distinction is that he created a new kind of ownership. He never once imposed his opinions on The Sunday Times, nor, remarkably, ever once sought a single editorial favour for himself, his friends or any of his companies.

"He was the antithesis of the bully or the manipulator. He was a free trader in ideas and enthusiasms. He was the most uncorrupt and incorruptible of men. But, above all, there was his homely regard for truth, the source of journalism's moral energy and the precept we love and remember him by."


The founder of The Week and Chief Editor of the Malayala Manorama for 37 years, died in Kerala on August 1, 2010, at the age of 93. Very few of us are aware of the influence K.M. Mathew had on a generation of journalists and readers in his home state, and in the country and abroad. Here, from the tribute in The Week to this doyen of Indian journalism, is an insight into the principles by which he lived his life:

[And] he was considerate, even to competitors. When the Malayala Manorama started an edition in Kozhikode in 1966, its circulation there was only one-third of its main competitor. In the early days of our Kozhikode unit, the competitor was hit by a prolonged labour strike. Many Manorama employees, including me, wanted to make the most of the opportunity and grab the rival’s readers. Mathew would have none of it. “We will not print even one copy more than what we printed yesterday,” he said. “This order stands for the duration of the strike.” He was such a person who sent his engineers to repair his competitors’ presses when they malfunctioned. He ensured that his colleagues, too, adhered to his code of fairness.

The concluding paragraph tells us why Mathew will always be remembered:

Mathew’s contribution to journalism is not limited to the many successful publications he edited or to the human touch he introduced in the cliche-ridden media world. His biggest contribution is even nobler. ... the need to strengthen the fourth estate to protect democracy. One good newspaper alone will not do to fight ills plaguing society, he had realised. It needed teamwork. That is why when he brought an editorial consultant from the International Press Institute (IPI) to Kottayam in the sixties, he invited representatives from all other newspapers too for a week-long interaction with him. He believed that the Manorama would grow only if the competing newspapers too remained competitive. After the workshop, he gave his company’s only car to the consultant from the IPI to visit the offices of rival newspapers! Mathew breathed professionalism into journalism like nobody has done before him and that alone will ensure his place in history.

K.M. Mathew was a media proprietor, but he was also a gentleman, and an editor with a human touch. When will we see the likes of him again?
  • Illustration courtesy: The Week

TAILPIECE: Ironically, the Sunday Times of India published this question and answer in its Open Space column on October 24, 2010

What is paid news?
Paid news or paid content are those articles in newspapers, magazines and the electronic media, which indicate favourable conditions for the institution that has paid for it. The news is much like an advertisement but without the ad tag. This kind of news has been considered a serious malpractice since it deceives the citizens, not letting them know that the news is, in fact, an advertisement. Secondly, the payment modes usually violate tax laws and election spending laws. More seriously, it has raised electoral concerns because the media has a direct influence on voters.
    — Ashutosh Nandi, Cuttack

UPDATE (April 2, 2012): Commitscion Swagata Majumdar (Class of 2006) has sent me a link to an excellent documentary on the phenomenon of "paid news". The documentary was made by media veteran Umesh Aggarwal for the Public Service Broadcasting Trust. You can watch it here: "Brokering News: Media, Money, and Middlemen".

UPDATE (September 1, 2013): Read "Bravo, Viveck Goenka!" and "Bravo, Shekhar Gupta!" to understand why good journalism is good business.

UPDATE (November 1, 2013): Outlook editor Krishna Prasad has published an interesting and relevant post today on his blog, sans serif: "Not just a newspaper, a no-paid-news newspaper!"