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Tuesday, August 03, 2021

The classified truth

Small-town stringers collect more cash than news now. That’s why our media is riding high.

Written by MRINAL PANDE |
August 27, 2011 12:41:49 am

The truth about the Indian media’s increasing reliance on revenues from news that has been paid for,has long been shrouded in half-truths,corporate denials and misleading information in carefully sifted reports sent out by regulatory bodies. While the national media,flush with high TRP ratings and advertising revenues,is patting itself on its self-righteous back for relentless coverage of the public protests against corruption in high places,it is also time for some plain speak on the actual operative ethics that are driving those ratings and revenues.

On Sunday,August 22,while the Anna andolan was at its peak,the city supplement in one of the biggest multi-edition Hindi dailies in India carried a whole page of classified advertising that extended support for the fasting Anna Hazare and his people,in its local pages. Smiling engagingly in the ads,leaders from small-town and rural India could be seen all across the classified section,extending their heartfelt support to Cause Anna and nestling cosily next to ads for reducing fat,increasing male potency and height. Almost all the ads carried the mugshots and mobile phone numbers of those that had paid for the insertions (one such worthy was even wearing a Main Anna Hoon T-shirt). Close examination revealed the ad-givers to be local builders,heads of religious trusts,educational bodies,regional organisations for migrant workers from Bihar and social workers heading various sanghs and sangathans to save Bharat (Bharat Bachao),and various RWAs.

Queries from colleagues and a bit of Internet surfing revealed that the gatherers of such ads are mostly stringers engaged by the dailies — whose main job today is not to gather news and rush it to the nearest “modem centre” servicing the area,but to identify untapped sources of ad revenue in rural and semi-rural areas . Come any major festival from Chhatth to Ganesh Chaturthi,Rakhi to Independence or Republic Day,and they are handed wads of coupons (parchees) and ordered to coax,cajole or threaten the local leader wannabes and money-lenders into paying for insertions that extend their good wishes (shubh kaamnayein) or fulsome praise (shat shat abhinandan) to their fellow citizens. Their remunerations as news-gatherers may be laughable (did you know,for example,that some of the largest Hindi newspapers in Bihar today pay those manning their “modem centres” around Rs 4,000 per month,while comparable wages for the MNREGA work in the state are Rs 5,400?),but the percentile bonuses from ad-gathering are burgeoning each day. With such bounty available,along with the clout a media ID gets you in small-town India,young men and women are queuing up to be picked up as unaccredited stringers.

Today,the cost of producing an all-colour Hindi daily with some 20 pages stands roughly at Rs 20 per copy,after adding the various commissions paid to agents and hawkers for distribution. Amazingly,the average cover price it sells at,in a highly competitive market,stands firmly around Rs 2.50. How,then,do the papers not merely recover their costs — but make historic profits? The answer lies in the team of underpaid,mostly unaccredited foot-soldiers being sent out to milk small-town India with clearly delineated revenue targets. The biggest beneficiary has been the Hindi media,straddling no less than 11 of India’s most populous states. One learns also that all other major vernacular dailies are also recording an unprecedented boom in revenues.

How is this possible,you may ask. In fact,with the roles of editor and owner merging more and more in media that increasingly go public,priorities have changed drastically in recent years. We,however,remain in denial,and have been trying to treat the bipolar disorder it has created in the media with good-natured pleas from bodies like the Editors’ Guild or the Press Council or stern admonishments from the CEC. The political animal has been quick to sniff this out and is now avidly courting the ubiquitous stringers. Gone are the days when small-town press briefings meant a few accredited journalists being invited,and given freebies like writing pads,torches or petty cash in envelopes. Today,from Bhagalpur to Chhindwara,you hear of local netas,governments and political parties donating staggering sums of money,air conditioners and TVs for local press clubs and favouring the chosen stringers with lavish gifts,ranging from motorcycles to laptops and plots of (mostly public) land. Even small-town dons with long police records are inserting ads in area pullouts on Rakhi (Bharat mata kee putriyon ko naman) or Republic Day.

The ultimate aim,you see,is no longer to gather news professionally and inform and educate the readers,but to beef up the bottomline and please the ad companies and the shareholders. Until this is understood and effectively addressed,no fervent pleas from the public or media bodies,or even that much-battered institution called the Parliament,will make a real difference to the multi-faceted phenomena that has been subject to casual scrutiny under the one-size-fits-all label of “paid news”.

The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and chairperson of Prasar Bharati

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