There was a major controversy recently over an advertisement put out by a particular political party in some leading publications of Assam. While there was nothing wrong with the advertisement per se, what raised the hackles of most working journalists was the positioning of the advertisement – it was placed on the top portion of the front page in such a manner so as to leave the readers wondering whether it was a news headline or an advertisement. And in a clever move clearly aimed at confusing the readers further, even the fonts used in the advertisement replicated those used in headlines by that particular newspaper.

No wonder, many journalists were rattled and denounced the publishing of the advertisement, particularly the editors and the publishers, in such a manner, and social media platforms were filled with posts condemning it. Many took umbrage to the fact that the advertisement occupied that portion of the front page which is reserved for a newspaper’s headline of the day and hence considered sacrosanct.

This, they lamented, marked a new low in the media and questioned the editors for having allowed this. They contended that this was more about ethics than legality. But barely had the raging debate ebbed when another political party, bête noire of the earlier one, published its own advertisement at the same position in the State’s major publications. It was a kind of double whammy for those crying foul.

Now, before joining the debate over ethics, it would be only fair to understand the functioning of the media in its entirety. While there are no two opinions that the objectivity of journalism should be upheld, but it’s also an ugly truth that running the show requires a lot of money, which doesn’t come entirely from sales and subscriptions.

For instance, it’s being said that if the entire production cost of a newspaper – news gathering, publishing, printing and distribution – is passed onto readers, no newspaper in Assam today would sell for less than Rs 18 approximately, if not more. This explains the predicament of the publishers and their ever-growing dependence on advertisements to keep the cost down, a condition which many corporate groups and various other organisations now are obviously seeking to exploit.

And with the ever-growing digitalization and losing of monopoly over news content and information, the traditional media is also under tremendous pressure to stay afloat and relevant. Add to this the huge cost of production and distribution – both men and material – that no publisher or owner of a news channel will be willing to pay from his or her pocket. Hence, the traditional media’s reliance on advertising revenue is only increasing.

The COVID-19 pandemic last year has been particularly disastrous for the media, especially the print. With the flow of corporate advertisements having almost stopped due to lockdown and circulation and readership plummeting to record levels after many stopped subscribing to them over fears that newspapers could be potential carriers of the deadly virus, many publishers were too hard-pressed and even cut down salaries of their staff, while a few were laid off.

While things have since improved marginally, it’s still not definitely hunky-dory. So, no doubt, with Assembly elections being held in the State in phases and political parties spending it big in advertisements, the publishers have been quick to rake in the moolah to adjust their balance sheets.

Actually, unpleasant though it might sound to hear, the fact is it’s not the journalists or editors but publishers and news channel owners who run the show. And if the media today finds itself in a quandary, it’s also partly because this fact has been rarely acknowledged. Contrary to popular perception (let’s not get coy about this), it’s the owner who decides the stand of his newspaper or news channel and even the content, not the editor, who is only an employee of the former. The same holds true for the entire team of journalists serving any media group.

And as costs mount for running newspapers and channels alike, their owners are becoming only more brazen in soliciting advertisements. No wonder, full-page advertisements have become the norm, and so the TVCs (TV commercials) ballooned, even as space for news is getting constricted by the day. This is of course not to take away the credit from many journalists slogging day in and out to gather news and information.

Bottom line is, media is an enterprise – not a charity that its owner will run without profit motive –and news is a product like any other. Talk about the media being the “fourth estate” is actually a sham. And so, as with any other enterprise, running a news organisation too requires investment. Let this basic fact be acknowledged without any qualms by those in the industry and the public alike.

So, if the readers/viewers really want quality news, they should be prepared to pay as well. Else, the current model of supplementing revenue at the cost of news will continue. And more unusual positioning of advertisements like the ones referred to above can be expected. Already, there are advertisements that are positioned right in the middle of the news.

This is not to suggest that yours truly endorses the current model of media business or considers it as the best, but that’s how things are being run. And bringing the facts to the public domain and debating them will only lead to a better understanding of the situation and could possibly even lead to better outcomes, instead of perpetuating various myths about the media. There will be a better acknowledgment of advertisement, news and more particularly the journalists. Media owners have as much responsibility in ensuring quality journalism as much as the journalists and even in stamping out paid news and other “unethical” practices.

The writer is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. He can be reached at: eternalflame2000@gmail.com