The newspaper world has been cast into turmoil over the last few weeks. First, there was the furore, within media circles, over The Times of India group deploying 'paid content' -- or what in plain words means -- selling news.
The group has a division called Medianet (http://medianet.indiatimes.com), complete with a rate card for the sale of news.
For lay readers, it must be clarified that the sale of news is different and distinct from paid advertisements, advertorials or special supplements, all of which are clearly identified as 'sponsored features,' while paid news is not.
Such spurious news has included gushing endorsements of flop movies, fashion and lifestyle products and the promotion of hotels and restaurants that enter into a payment arrangement with the organisation.
The reader has no clue that the adulatory report is nothing but a paid advertisement masquerading as objective reportage or opinion.
Even while the debate over the ethics of a newspaper 'selling news' was hotting up into a regular war of words between two of the country's top-selling English dailies, journalism was dealt another stunning blow.
Last week, the Mumbai police arrested Rishi Chopra of The Economic Times along with an accomplice (a former journalist with another business daily) in an alleged extortion attempt.
The duo was trapped accepting a Rs 700,000 bribe which was the second installment of a Rs 2.5 million payoff to kill a report about the shenanigans of one Poonamchand Malu of Malu Financial Services. Worse, the pay-off itself had apparently been haggled down from an initial demand of Rs 10 million to Rs 2.5 million.
Although corruption in the media is no longer news, the actual arrest of two scribes and the sums involved, marked a new low in this once honourable profession.
The two issues are not unconnected -- and not merely because they involve the same media group.
A little before Chopra's arrest, Ravi Dhariwal, an executive director of Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd, which owns The Times of India and The Economic Times had pointed out in a signed article on the edit page of The Economic Times that -- 'all those shouting from the roof-tops admonishing sponsored stories have also turned a blind eye to the fact that some stories get into their newspapers, after veiled deals between public relations agencies and large sections of the media.'
This may be true. Indeed, some TOI journalists believe that blatant 'planting' of news and photographs by journalists acting in cahoots with PR agencies had triggered off the Medianet initiative.
Dhariwal's article labels Medianet an attempt to 'bring about more transparency and disclosure to the entertainment and lifestyle supplements' of the group. But Rishi Chopra's arrest would suggest the problem is not restricted to the entertainment and lifestyle segments.
Chopra was a business journalist, that too connected to the research bureau. Also, he is the third ET scribe under a cloud for shady links with speculators in the last two years.
Two others were asked to go after investigations by the market regulator revealed substantial allotment of cheap 'preferential' shares at the behest of tainted market operator Ketan Parekh.
This suggests that the answer to corruption is not the official sale of news, but a serious attempt to tackle and eradicate corruption.
Let us look at the issue from another perspective. TOI is the world's largest selling English language newspaper and sells more copies per day than The New York Times or USA Today.
It has also been at the forefront of breaching the 'walls' that separate advertising, management and editorial in a newspaper organisation. The group has frequently shuffled senior employees on either side of the 'wall.'
For instance, Chopra, the recently arrested journalist was designated 'Deputy Manager' in the ET Intelligence Bureau.
A couple of days later Pradeep Guha, a senior director of the company and its top marketing executive, had turned 'reporter' and covered the Filmfare Awards for the TOI.
The group believes the newspaper business is no different from any other business and likes to refer to its various publications as brands or products.
However, this logic should work both ways. A reader, as the consumer of these media products should have the same rights and expectations.
While readers know that advertisements keep the product cost low, they still buy a newspaper for its editorial content and not for its advertisements.
This means the reader has a right to expect that advertisements and news are distinct and segregated. The Times Group claims each of its paid news items carries the words 'Medianet promotions' at the bottom. But without proper disclosure to the reader about what the word Medianet implies, the disclosure is meaningless.
In the absence of such clarity, the reader ought to be outraged at the attempt to pass off paid news as the real thing. But readers either don't care, or newspapers are so habit-forming that they refuse to dump the product despite their irritation.
In such a situation, the consumer, far from being king, is totally irrelevant. The entire debate over the ethics of 'selling' news has revolved around this simple fact.
Every senior journalist writing on the subject has lamented the readers' apathy. Even in private e-mail groups, it is journalists who seem outraged, anguished and disheartened at what has been described as the 'prostitution' of news; the reader response is always lukewarm.
Some discerning readers have written to the newspaper in protest, others gripe privately about the degeneration of the media, but neither category is willing to go so far as to stop buying the newspaper.
It is this reader apathy that allows Ravi Dhariwal of The Times of India to dismiss the debate in The Hindustan Times and other publications as the reaction of 'disgruntled rivals who have failed to compete every step of the way' and are 'maligning The Times of India by their ideological rhetoric.'
Dhariwal's frenzied defence is rather telling: 'If anyone is committing rape, it is publications that are doing it (probably refers to sponsorship of editorial pages and reports) under the cover of darkness. For The Times of India, it's but a torrid affair with the advertiser, one that can only culminate in a happily ever after,' he writes.
Clearly, the reader, who pays less than the price of a cigarette, a cup of tea or a paan, is totally and completely irrelevant and the group probably expects him to be suitably appreciative.
When the reader is not discerning, his/her loyalty can always be bought through low 'invitation pricing' of the publications or cross promotions, titillating photographs and stage-managed events.
The paper's self-confessed love affair is with the advertiser and its flourishing bottomline gives it the power to desecrate editorial space and express the confident view that all other media houses will soon follow its example.
Did someone say the leader guards the reader?
Sucheta Dalal earned a fearsome reputation as a top financial journalist when she unearthed the securities scam while working at The Times of India. She is now a freelance journalist and author.