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On the razor’s edge, care and caution


Innovation is the key for a lively, sparkling newspaper. Something new, something different is needed everyday to catch the readers’ attention. But more than the news department, it is the advertisers who have caught on to this. They are in quest of newer and newer devices, including gimmicks, to catch the prospective customer’s eye.

They have made their inroads into the pages of The Hindu also. When I referred to the readers’ criticism of such advertisements (in a three-part column in July 2006), the official response was that The Hindu could not buck the worldwide trend of innovative advertisements and lose revenue by rejecting them. In the prevailing buyers’ market with the resulting pressures, the paper had been able to maintain its independence. I was told special positions were cleared on a case-by-case basis and they were never placed on the main news pages. Persistent demands for special and odd positions on Page 1 had been turned down.

* * *

Well, that was more than a year ago; the perspective has changed and now it is not odd positions, but the full Page 1 that has been given over to advertisement. First it was in the Tiruchirapalli edition and then came the Kerala and Andhra Pradesh editions. In all these cases, the whole space under the regular masthead was occupied by an ad. Naturally the traditional readers of The Hindu were outraged, and directed their howl of protest to me.

The Hindu is not a newspaper, it is a tradition. Please do not fall prey to the petty business field and reduce your value” (Dr. B. Jambulingam, Thanjavur); “Readers’ interest not taken care of” (Mullangi A. Subramanian, Nagapattinam); “First it was shock, then total shame” (Raja Muthirulandi, Tiruchi); “Advertisements may be regular to you, but they should not annoy regular readers” (V. Pandy, Tuticorin); “… sacrilege … meek surrender to crass commercial interests” (Rajeev Jacob, Thiruvananthapuram); “Compromising and trivialising the importance of the front page … gross deception … even The Hindu has succumbed to market forces.” (Ramgopal Koneripalli, Secunderabad). So went their comments.

* * *

“It is a one-off event, perhaps once a year. All the newspapers in the country are doing this when the advertiser makes the move,” was the official response I got to these protests.

In balancing ethical and news values with commercial considerations, responsible newspapers walk the razor’s edge. For The Hindu, the task is more difficult because of the sobriety and restraint that have, and continue to, set it apart. Against that background, a full-page ad on Page 1 was certainly a departure, and it is no surprise some readers were shocked. The reactions reveal the respect readers have for the paper. The addicts, young and old, who expect altruism, find it hard to accept the reality.

* * *

This was a new form of protest, but those against a condom advertisement on the back page of The Hindu–Sunday Magazine were not. What readers view as vulgar or obscene continues to evoke comments. I dealt with this in the column referred to earlier, and cited the official response that while The Hindu is careful in the advertisements it accepted, it could not act as a censor or moral police. Reference was also made to ads on TV, which the family watched together.

Personally, I felt the display was in bad taste and thought the readers’ had a point. Mohammed Azam C. (Ambur) “hid the paper from the teenagers at home.” Nalini Raj (Visakhapatnam), a parent and schoolteacher, wondered whether she should continue to encourage students to read the paper as she has been doing. G.E.M. Manoharan (Coimbatore) felt it would arouse carnal desires among youngsters.

The Advertisement department said it found this “neither vulgar nor obscene and in tune with the changing times. Moreover the use of condoms needs to be popularised against the background of a high incidence of HIV/AIDS in the country.” The Hindu, it said, will continue to maintain its high standards for accepting advertisements.

* * *

S. Balaji (Chennai) seeks to know “the standards adopted by The Hindu to classify between an advertisement, news and advertorial.” He gives the Wikipedia definition of advertorial: “An advertisement in the form of an objective opinion editorial, and presented in a printed publication, usually designed to look like a legitimate and independent news story.”

Two instances have been cited to buttress his case that The Hindu publishes advertorials. The first was a report, “The Hindu EducationPlus and FIITJEE (Forum for IIT-JEE) talent reward exam” that appeared in the news pages and a similarly worded advertisement on another page. There was nothing to distinguish them as news and advertisement, he said. His next note was on The Hindu Friday Page November Fest, a week-long programme organised annually. “The preview articles in MetroPlus was advertisement for the programme,” according to Mr. Balaji.

The basic question is easily answered. The distinction between news and advertisement is the way they are separated and displayed, with different type faces for each. There are no “standards” to classify them for they are dealt with by different departments working independently. There are no advertorials in the news pages; what appears in the sponsored supplements is not written by the paper’s staff. Product promotions (in MetroPlus) are based on manufacturers’ announcements. There are no gushing endorsements; on the other hand, care is taken to edit out outlandish claims.

The two instances Mr. Balaji cited are events promoted by The Hindu, one jointly and the other on its own. The talent reward exam was news because of student interest. The advertisement was by the joint sponsor, and the reporter was not aware of it. The November Fest had many new features and these needed to be explained. It was sheer news and by no stretch of the imagination could it be called advertorial. Then all the articles that appear during the music season can be called so.

* * *

There are newspapers which have “paid content.” These editorially endorse some product, for a consideration. The Hindu doesn’t do this. The marketer must pay for the space he uses, and this is clearly demarcated.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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