To End ‘Paid Media’, Consumer Must Pay for News

These days, the term ‘paid media’ is used in abandon – and more often than not by people who know nothing about the working or economics of the media business. Fake, motivated reports, pictures and videos from dubious sources are shared liberally on social media by people with the mandatory comment “Paid media will never report/ show this.” The popular perception about media houses is that all of them have a price tag and can be made to dance to someone’s tune as long as one is willing to pay for it. The impression about the individual journalist is even worse. If slices of conversation one has overheard in public places and comments on social media are anything to go by, most people – at least the city dwellers – have no doubt whatsoever that a bottle of liquor is all that one needs to get a journalist to write – or not write – a story as one wants!

There is another term that is bandied about equally liberally: ‘corporate media’, which essentially means media houses owned, controlled or influenced by corporate houses. People never stop cribbing about the preponderance of advertisements at the cost of news in newspapers and TV stations.

Much of this cynicism is, of course, well deserved. Most media houses have indeed sacrificed journalistic independence and integrity at the altar of commercial interests.  When a piece of news – no matter how important it is – jostles for space with an ad, it is the latter that wins in 10 out of 10 cases. [There was this celebrated case of the venerable Old Lady of Boribunder in which the No. 1 English newspaper in the country once left the first four full pages blank with only the name of a start-up appearing in small print at the bottom!] No wonder ads frequently outspace news in most successful newspapers and TV stations. At other times, advertorials are sought to be passed off as news. And it goes without saying that once a media house accepts an ad from a corporate house, it becomes extremely hard to write against it. In fact, corporate houses release generous ads to media houses to buy their silence and make them their mouthpieces when things go wrong for them.

While the criticism of paid/corporate media is well deserved, it is not always well informed. Most people don’t know – or bother to find out – the economics of the media industry. The average 16-20 page Odia newspaper sells for Rs 5 a piece – of which 30% is given away in agent commission thus fetching just Rs 3.50 for the owner/proprietor/company running the newspaper. But what the reader does not know – or cares to find out – is that it takes nearly Rs 12 to produce the same newspaper. The newspaper thus has to make up for the differential of Rs 8.50 with advertisements – the only legitimate source of revenue other than subscription – or resort to tapping dubious sources just to stay afloat, forget earning a profit. The ratio is even more skewed in case of TV, which is a much more capital intensive medium.

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How many of our Odia readers would be ready to pay Rs 12, if not more, for a day’s newspaper? Not one, I am afraid. We have got so used to being heavily subsidized that we would cancel our subscription in the unlikely event of a newspaper taking the audacious decision of raising its price to Rs 12 or more. To draw a parallel in the audio visual medium, how many of our TV news buffs would be willing to fork out an amount as low as Rs 50 a month to continue watching their favourite channel if and when it becomes a pay channel? Very few, I dare say.

It is all very convenient to rail against paid/corporate media. But to truly free the media of corporate influence, the reader/viewer must first be prepared to pay the price for what s/he would like to read/watch.