Two Coins of The Same Side : The (not so) Great Editorial-Marketing Tussle
It’s that great ‘Balance of Power’ thing that runs its corrugated fingers through the bristly hair of marketing and editorial departments of all media organisations – no matter how grandiose or dinky, regardless of their cash flow or job freeze. The very fact that my fingers hovered over the keyboard just after I wrote ‘marketing’ before the word ‘editorial’ in the previous sentence betrays the inherent bias drilled into the DNA of every journo worth his namak (to haram or not at some stage).
The usual contention from our side of the fence – the editorial end, that is – is that we write, package and present content that should, by its very existence, draw readers like bees to honey. That munchkins, isn’t how it is. Especially not in these times when how you present the news and views is thankfully as important as the news and views you’re showcasing. But show me a journalist who thinks that his copy, his editing job, his headline or packaging job is bland, and I’ll show you a freshly-hatched dinosaur who doesn’t think that the bearded man in front of it isn’t its mother.
Unlike news television, which has the relative advantage of being ‘inside’ the TV set for the viewer to choose channels from, the newspaper or news magazine involves the more tricky business of trying to get the reader to first want to see the publication even before he actually gets to see it. Deciding whether it’s worth his while to continue seeing it on a daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis comes much later. In a way, in this highly competitive market, selling your paper is like selling toothpaste to a tiger who doesn’t automatically see the point of having shiny teeth.
Which is where the marketing guys play such an important role. Apart from trying to hook readers by dangling some bait through ads and promotions and various other Pavlovian tricks of the trade – “We cover your neighbourhood like no other paper”, “Discount coupons for cinema tickets exclusively for our readers”, “Award-winning journalism”, “Our readers are the top-end spenders that high-end advertisers have wet dreams about” – the job of the marketing jocks are also about highlighting desirable elements already in the paper that are ‘invisible’.
But surely, that’s something the editorial guys, equipped with heuristic skills of knowing what to bump up and flash around in ‘Hollywood’ sized headlines already do? Right?
The truth is that content is too important to be left to journalists.
Things have thankfully changed in the last decade or so. Editors now increasingly stir brain matter about how to make ‘Make Delhi safe for women’ or ‘Make India Corruption-Free’ campaigns visible after they make them in the first place. They are less snooty about taking on board reader feedbacks and running photos of correspondents as a brand-building exercise.
But there are still those editors who believe that they understand marketing better than the bops in ties holding on to PPT-addicted laptops. The inherent belief that journalists have a superior understanding of how to make their products more attractive for a cash-imparting rabble out there peculiarly has many votaries in the marketing departments themselves.
Part of the journo’s myth about the journo being a Bob Woodward-Rupert Murdoch rolled in one – he believes he would have done the marketing himself if he had the time after getting off the phone with his home ministry source – is the stupid belief that everything that grabs the attention of the reader is bakwaas journalism. That itself is bakwaas.
Well-written stories about how Akhilesh whipped Rahul in UP with nuggets of solid information can be best-selling stuff if they are seen. News about vampiric parking attendants is as important a story as NREGA seepages (which, if presented in a plain, doleful manner is far less important as news no matter how important it may really be). And unlike toothpaste – strange how that’s the favourite metaphor used to differentiate media publications from other consumer products – the best advertisement for a newspaper is the newspaper itself.
Which is why we also have editors who tend to over-compensate by playing up stories of skimpets breaking up with some celebrity, or fixating on only (as opposed to using as supplementary tools) what random readers have to say about the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. They are the ones who immediately play down a ‘heavy’ story, say, about caste violence or Russian elections or a generic cancer drug being available in India – no matter how engagingly the story is presented – citing (“What’s the ‘reader connect’?) that the only things that readers are interested in is missing manhole covers and Sachin’s 99.99th hundred. Something that the marketing boys may not inherently agree with (especially if they’re out to get Tier A reader-loving advertisers).
There are, of course, areas where the two sides do face genuine conflicts of interest. An article or news story that isn’t too gushy about that pony-tailed set of teeth called Arindam Chaudhuri, the Dumbledore of IIPM, can, for instance, get the marketing boys to come in scratching their heads, saying something about what the point is running the story especially when there’s the matter of full-page ads that could needlessly be yanked off. I have heard stories about the sound of Ratan Tata’s crackling knuckles echoing in the brains of media marketing people each time a not so gee-whiz story on the Nano appears.
But then, it’s not as if a media company is a Binayak Sen corporation. It needs to make money without bad branding itself. (If a good story on Arindam Chaudhuri’s dental care or an exploding Nano appears in other papers, readers will choose them over the ‘coy’ one. It’s pretty simple really. Actually, they’ll choose a paper that’ll give them freebies every week too.)
Let’s, however, be honest hombres. These ‘conflicts of interest’ are far less and few between than what Press Club gossip make them out to be. Most times it’s not about confronting ethical dilemmas, but about bad journalism. So there will be journalists who will be quick to blame made-up ‘marketing pressures’ for their extremely soporific and pointless copy on a BJP press conference not making it to the pages.
Instead of realising that they are bad presenters of news, some editorial boffins will come to the conclusion that ‘no one reads politics’ or that the marketing guys don’t want politics in the paper. Hell, the marketing guys would love an exciting edition with the news of the Great Hadron Collider if it’s well packaged. They’ll even try to sell it with a free edition of a Bejan Daruwlla ‘Ganesha Says…’ horoscope booklet. Or that’s what the editorial guys should suggest to make their Great Hadron Collider story make the paper stand out.
So why aren’t those on the journalistic side of the rickety fence friendlier towards those marketing folks on the Dark Side? And by friendly I don’t mean chugging a few beers at the United Coffee House and then bitching about them once we’re back with our pack. I mean working towards a common interest: bringing the stuff that the bright sparks (sic) provide in terms of ‘content’ to the maximum number – or, at least, the maximum targeted number – of readers as possible.
I suggest that every media organisation make it mandatory for mid-level editors to work for a year in the marketing department and the marketing johnnies do the same in the news operations coven. Either this will lead to a grand and exciting chapter in the Indian media landscape where ‘good journalism’ will no longer be a byword for ‘papers that no one reads’. Or there will be some extremely bitter ex-editors out there who will meet at Press Council of India chairperson Markandey Katju’s house every evening to moan about how journalists have become lackeys of evil marketing departments – all the while, of course, quoting Emile Zola to prove beyond doubt how they understand news and the media bisnesssssss.