The dumbing down of Editorial departments

Posted: February 27, 2014 in Editorial, journalist, Media
Tags: , , , , ,

It was the ‘shock & awe’ moment, but that day in mid-2000, I realised that the sun was about to set on the Editorial department. After almost a month of dry-runs we were launching the edition in the North and the inaugural issue was handed over to us.

My first reaction was “Wow”. My second was, “What the fuck happened to the front page?” The news, all 24 pages of it, was inside a four-page mint coloured jacket with the company logo in the centre. It was truly an astonishing marketing gimmick of a product. I thought it was a one-time attempt, but as it turned out, advertisers lapped it up and full-page jacket advertisements became a rage, while news content got relegated to second place. Then, in my opinion, it was devaluing the whole concept of a NEWSpaper. Now, of course, my views have changed!

Today, in the few media schools that I have ventured to give lectures in, the introductory session on the various departments of a newspaper, I show them a power point presentation. On the first slide are the departments of a newspaper in this order: Marketing, Editorial, Circulation and Production.

I tell the students, that as a person who spent all his years in the editorial department of a newspaper, it pains me deeply to stand in front of them and state unequivocally that today marketing rules and editorial will always be second in the pecking order. While the students think I am joking, in reality I have accepted that fact since the 1990s, the whole media scene has changed and marketing pushed editorial off its pedestal. This was all thanks to the way some media houses decided to do business, and the others followed the leader. The Marketing head of a media house is supposed to have told his staff, “Forget this is a newspaper. Just treat it like a bar of soap that you need to sell.”

Personally I see nothing wrong, because I realise how important money is in the scheme of things. However, the downside to it is that with the growing influence and control of marketing over editorial content means, the days of the powerful editor are passé. Media houses are no longer the mom n’pop shops of the earlier days. I mean, you can’t expect to pay the salaries of a few thousand people without enough and more revenue earned from advertising. And that cannot be done if Editorial starts saying you cannot take an advertisement on this page or that. Returns from newspaper copies sold won’t even pay for the day’s printing costs. Who pays for the rest?

From the quarter-page advertisements which used to be the limit on the front pages, Marketing has started putting jacket advertisements and ads on the front pages that leave half a page, or sometimes just a quarter-page for the news. Initially I was aghast, but I realised that Editorial had well and truly been elbowed off its hallowed perch. Today, however, much editorial believes they have the power, when Marketing says they need the page for an advertisement, they fall in line. They might complain or quibble over the size but they also realise that the organisation needs the money. Of course, even Marketing realises that news sells papers so there is a line that even they will not cross. In the paper I work for, the Editor and Marketing have reached an understanding that there will be just one advertisement on the front page, not exceeding a certain size.

However, with the growing influence of money power, comes the downside of pressure from corporates to kill stories inimical to their interests, or plugs to promote their business interests because of the advertising revenue they give the media house. Then there is the pressure from political parties to put forward their points of view. Again, this is nothing new. All newspapers, from the 1900s have supported one party or another and they have unabashedly promoted them, whether in the form of news or in recent times, advertorials. Everywhere in the world, newspapers support the political party of their choice, so why not here? It is a part of the editorial policy – unwritten, but yet underlined.

So, now, when I read all these things about paid news and paid-for opinion polls, I don’t flip out. I also find the hysterical outpourings of journalists about paid media so hypocritical. Like they didn’t know it wasn’t being done before in so many other ways? Aren’t there senior journalists, whose affinity for a particular political party or leader is well documented, being commissioned to write a column? That guy is hardly going to criticise the politician he supports! And I am sure he didn’t do the piece for free. Not paid news? And when Editors realise it doesn’t go with the editorial policy of the newspaper, they often tell the desk to ‘tone it down’ or leave it as it is, if it suits them.

I remember a colleague who left us at the small paper we worked in, to join a very big media house and the total awe she was in when I met her after that. She said “This is power. You have no idea of the influence that Marketing has over the editorial. We can just walk into the editorial department where the pages are being designed and tell them ‘We are taking over pages 10, 11 & 12. And these editorial guys just give us that “just drop dead’ look!”

So while one is aghast at the way editorial departments have been dumbed down, one has to learnt to accept it as a fact of the profession. One can either swim with it or clamber ashore.

  1. kausikray says:

    Nice text. You are a practical man. But the particular case that you have mentioned is no doubt shocking. I doubt whether it is fully true, since you have heard it from someone else. What will a Marketing Exec do in editorial meeting, instead he should stay out of office – in market itself. No Marketing Director will do this kind of mistake. Yes, nowadays Marketing genuinely bullies editorial, but not to this extent.

  2. Kiran Bajad says:

    Sir, nicely written, it reflect the present state of media houses. Its better we accept the fact and live with it.

  3. anandkumarrs says:

    I agree, and I am of the view that media must not try to be sanctimonious. Just be practical without being preachy.
    In the season of polls, my post on Neutral media
    Pls read and feedback most welcome

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