The world is a happening place with never a dull moment. Even if you had scanned the headlines on your TV or the web before going to sleep, there would still be plenty of major stories developing during the night.
So you hear the thud of the newspaper fall on your balcony or driveway in the mornings and you rush there to get up to speed with the news. You impatiently flick off the rubber band and flip open the paper to see the headlines… and lo and behold… you are told to close your eyes and drink a glass of milk whose purity has been ensured for you. Or you are brought face to face with the virtues of sending money through a cell phone service… all this when you have not even brushed your teeth or had your first cup of tea or coffee!
Well ladies and gentlemen, please wake up and smell the coffee. This full frontal assault on the front page of your newspaper is set to become the new normal. The sharp intake of breath or gasp of dismay is about to give way to a shrug of resignation as the realisations dawns that this is the current trend; so like it or lump it!
While magazines have been known to ‘sell’ their front page (soul?), it did not raise as many eyebrows because no one expects an update on the news from a magazine cover. However, a NEWSpaper front-page is supposed to give just that… the news!
A sliver of news placed under the masthead as a sop to readers is how this frontal assault began. Maybe it was a testing of the waters. And the resultant hue and cry did not go beyond leg pulling by journalists of colleagues of that particular media group, and that too mostly on social media. There was very little reader reaction. Encouraged and emboldened advertisers took this to the next level by wiping the news completely off the front page and placing a full-page ad there instead. No sop, no space, no as a by your leave! Just full frontal!
According to Sarmad Ali. Group MD, Marketing, Jang Group says, “Pakistan has been slow in catching up with international practices and this was not very common here. The Australian, DNA India, The Guardian, Gulf News, The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express The Khaleej Times, The Times of India and The Straits Times are only a few examples of newspapers accepting these creative placements.
Seasoned journalist, Chris Cork, for his part makes the distinction between advertising freesheets and newspapers. “If you are paying hard cash for a newspaper then you have a reasonable expectation of having news in your hands, especially on the front page.”
The ‘rules’ are silent. And there is nothing in the ‘guidelines’ (oh that hated word!) of the Press Council of Pakistan or the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) to restrict such encroachment. Hence the absence of a strong push back mechanism by the editorial departments, barring rare instances of preset space limitations for advertising.
In the absence of such regulations, if editors have a problem, according to both Talat Aslam of The News and Tahir Najmi of Express, they need “to kick up a fuss” because “you cannot deprive your readers of the whole page. The reader has every right to know all the major information in the form of news on the front page.”
In Aslam’s opinion, given that the advertisements which have so far hijacked the front page are nothing special or creative, they could have easily been placed elsewhere within the paper. This is why, new though the trend is, there needs to be an analysis of whether the brand garners positive feedback or flak from readers. Or is massaging the ego of the brand managers the only purpose that is served?
What about reader feedback? How do readers who have a problem with this trend express their point of view?
According to Javed Jabbar, “ if readers have a problem they must move beyond passive acceptance, and write letters to the editors and boycott buying the paper for a few days to make their point.”
Although the Media Commission set up by the Supreme Court has recommended appointing an Ombudsman or a Readers’ Editor for each publication, only a few have done so. Readers can write to them to register complaints, or they can set up consumer societies which talk back to the newspapers.
However, at the end of the day, the Ombudsman too may have to bow to financial realities. Unless and until newspapers themselves strike a balance between the rights of their readers and their revenue stream, we can let this debate develop to see what the Pakistani market will accept.