Celebrities have always been fodder for “news”. From why an actor on social media to trying to in celebrity photos, even “serious” news websites often have sections devoted to mindless gossip.
In India, actor Malaika Arora is a regular on these pages. We’re told she enjoys yoga classes, has a dog named Casper, and that she’s in a long-term relationship with a man 12 years younger than her.
But even by these low standards, the entertainment desk of News18 plunged to new depths on January 20 with . The headline read “Malaika Arora bra pehne bina ghar se doggy ko thehlane nikli, tasveerein ho rahi viral”. Malaika Arora walks out of the house without wearing a bra to walk her dog, pictures go viral.
This “scoop”, published under the byline of entertainment reporter Pratibha Rai, was republished by News18 in and . The English headline took it up a notch, saying “Malaika Arora Goes Boldly Braless on Dog Walk, Sends Temperatures Soaring in These Viral Pics”. She looked “sensational”, readers were told, as she “flaunted her incredible figure on a dog walk”, “mastering the off-duty diva look”.
Newslaundry telephoned Rai the same day but she refused to take our questions and cut the call. Minutes later, the headline of the article was changed to “Malaika Arora subah subah apne doggy ko tehlane nikli sadak par, ab ho rahi hai troll”. Malaika Arora went for a morning walk with her dog on the road, now she is being trolled.
No “bina bra” – without bra – this time around. The rest of the piece remained the same.
A journalist with News18’s digital team told this reporter that the story had gained News18 the most traction on January 20. Data was not provided and we could not independently verify this claim.
Ironically, three days later, News18 on how she is “questioned about her clothing ‘all the time’, but she cannot let that dictate her life”. It was aptly headlined “Malaika Arora: Can't Live My Life According to What People Say About My Hemline or Neckline”.
It should be noted that Times of India, not one to stay behind the competition, a video of Arora’s dog walk on its website, stating that the actor had been “mercilessly trolled” for wearing, as a “netizen” called it, a “double mask without a single bra”. Published on January 21, the video has 1,71,751 views as of this morning.
The business of clicks
So, what makes this clickbait so compelling for news websites?
It drives traffic.
According to – which provides web analytics services and analysis of web traffic and performance – between October and December 2021, among India’s news and media websites, NDTV had the most desktop views, clocking in at 74.61 million views.
This was followed by Indian Express with 33.82 million, Hindustan Times with 32.08 million views, and News18 with 26.59 million.
According to similarweb.com, between October and December 2021, among India’s news and media websites, NDTV had the most total views (both desktop and mobile) as well of 450.7 million views.
This was followed by News18 with 375.9 million, Hindustan Times with 250.7 million views, Indian Express with 246.9 million, and India Today with 205.7 million.
When it comes to Malaika Arora specifically, between January and March last year, for instance, Instagram was the traffic leader followed by News18, with a traffic volume of 11.7k.
Similarly, search trends for actor Disha Patani in January-March 2021 has Instagram leading the pack while India Today’s website comes in at seventh place with the search string “Disha Patani white bikini”.
A former employee of News18’s web content team explained to Newslaundry how their entertainment section is put together.
According to the former employee, trending clickbait stories for various beats, such as science, entertainment and technology, are usually outsourced to a third party.
“We would get a list of 10-15 items from various digital newsrooms such as News18, NDTV, Firstpost and CNBC,” they said. “Our editor would assign two or three stories apiece. Every few hours, we would receive a fresh list of such trending stories from these digital newsrooms.”
The third party would then assemble stories based on Google trends and keywords. The piece on Arora, for instance, “was done because she was trending”.
The ex-employee also said their team would monitor celebrities’ social media profiles – specifically which posts receive the most likes and reactions of other celebrities to these posts.
“Importantly, if an actress publishes a bikini shoot, it becomes a must for big media outlets such as NDTV or News18 to emphasise it,” they said. “The search engine optimisation, or SEO, team would always tell us that such stories attract the most traffic.”
A “model SEO recipe”, they added, “dictates that the most frequent keyword in the article should also appear in the initial part of the headline. Hence, using keywords such as ‘cleavage’, ‘bikini’, ‘hot’, ‘sexy’, ‘oomph’, etc in the reports’ headlines is non-negotiable.”
The former employee said, “The headlines have to be sexy enough to click it. The idea is to make it more sensual and titillating. A click is all that matters. More clicks, more ad revenue – that’s the motto.”
For example, last week, media outlets like , and published photos of actor Nora Fatehi wearing a bikini while on holiday, using the same voyeuristic keywords to gain more viewership.
Fatehi became news because someone might have seen her “white bikini” trending on Google, Instagram or Twitter, the former News18 employee said.
And if one news outlet picks it up, the others soon follow. Reports in Hindi tend to be “more objectionable and explicit because of the kind of audience they are targeting,” the former employee said. “The whole process of selecting women’s bodies...is very messed up, because at the end of the day, it’s all about ads and clicks. At the end of the day, it’s all business.”
And audiences want it too. “A section of our audience values insightful, longform reportage. But most just want to stay updated on what their favourite celebrities are wearing, dating, etc,” said the News18 journalist. “It’s paparazzi culture and nothing else. You can argue that it pays our salaries because by getting viewership through such articles, websites can also fund their original reportage and possibly send reporters on ground.”
An employee with the entertainment desk of a legacy media outlet told Newslaundry their website publishes a minimum of 70-80 entertainment stories a day. She also said celebrities feed into this cycle of coverage.
“If Disha Patani has posted a bikini picture of herself, she wants media outlets to pick it up,” she alleged. “...Her PR would send it to five media outlets asking them to publish it.”
A dependence on digital ad revenue
An entertainment journalist with a leading newspaper based in south India told Newslaundry their publication avoids “titillating” reportage on direction of their editor. But the journalist is unsure whether this “good and honest” approach is sustainable in the long run, since “titillating” reports bring in more ads and more revenue.
“I hope I won’t be working in the news industry when that time comes,” he said.
Importantly, the state of entertainment journalism today serves as a cautionary tale to what will happen if news organisations depend on digital ad revenue as a main source of income. The pandemic really drove this home. Legacy brands like the Hindu and Indian Express began putting content behind the paywall, while digital brands like News Minute, Quint and Print began relying on subscription and donation appeals as a precursor to the paywall approach.
Meanwhile, organisations like News18 and NDTV, which are broadcast news outlets first, use their digital fronts for ad revenue. Hence the proliferation of “trendy” news copies on bikini shoots and going braless.
Of course, the way out is to break away from this reliance on advertising. Some media outlets have – and will continue to do so. .
Update on Jan 25: The designation of the News18 journalist has been removed to conceal their identity.
Update on Jan 28: The traffic data from similarweb.com, as cited in the piece, pertains to desktop views alone. This has been clarified, and data on total views (desktop and mobile) has also been added.
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