The selling of the news columns in Indian newspapers, a pernicious practice that deliberately blurs the distinction between independently generated news and paid advertisements, has assumed pandemic proportions with language publications unabashedly apeing the market-leader The Times of India, which pioneered the move.
But, it now turns out that even paid advertisements are no longer what they seem in the Times group. Very often, they are tied to the group’s investments in select companies. The news and advertising exposure these companies get in its publications, boosts their stock prices, that swells the bottomline of the investing company.
It’s a win-win but guess who loses?
SUCHETA DALAL, India’s numero uno business investigative journalist who cracked open the Harshad Mehta case, and who now runs the personal finance magazine MoneyLIFE, throws light on a new strategy of the group that “tears down every shred of the wall between editorial, advertising and public relations”, and takes readers and investors for a royal ride.
If you are an investor who depends on India’s largest-selling economic newspaper for unbiased news, then you must know and understand the concept of “private treaties” (PT). Since The Times of India (TOI) far outsells every other English newspaper and The Economic Times is by far the market leader in the economic news category, the concept is of universal interest.
Although PTs sound like agreements between two sovereign nations, they are, in fact, pacts between the Times of India group and approximately 100-odd companies, under which TOI buys shares of small and fast-growing companies. The list is expanding rapidly.
In an article for India-Seminar on “The changing Indian media scene“, T.N. Ninan, editor of Business Standard, described PTs as “basically the transfer of shares in return for advertising.” He said, Bennett Coleman & Co, which owns the Times of India group of publications, “invests in usually mid-rung companies that are keen to jump into the big league but are perhaps without the big bucks to spend on marketing. The share purchase money is immediately taken back against the promise of guaranteed advertising in Bennett publications—to build the investee company’s brand(s). Part of the deal is even said to be editorial coverage, though this remains unconfirmed.”
Ninan goes on to say, “If true, by definition, this will have to be positive coverage” because “the brands have to be built up, so that the shares bought by Bennett gain in value and can be sold.”
Well, reports of guaranteed editorial coverage are no longer “unconfirmed”, as Ninan put it.
MoneyLIFE has in its possession a document to prove that journalists are being designated as “champions” for PT clients to tailor editorial coverage to enhance the value of these companies and TOI‘s investment.
An e-mail by The Economic Times editor Rahul Joshi (dated 29 November 2007) says:
“At ET, we are carving out a separate team to look into the needs of Private Treaty clients. Every large centre will have a senior editorial person to interface with Treaty clients. In turn, the senior edit person will be responsible, along with the existing team, for edit delivery. This team will have regional champions along with one or two reporters for help—but more importantly, they will liaise with REs (Resident Editors) and help in integrating the content into the different sections of the paper. In this way, we will be able to incorporate PT into the editorial mainstream, rather than it looking like a series of press releases appearing in vanilla form in the paper.”
Joshi then goes on to name the PT “champions” for each region, who will “advise” the regional editorial chief to carry ‘stories’ about PT clients. He also designates “trouble shooters” in each region, probably to ensure that no PT client is offended with negative coverage.
While this kind of support for advertisers in the editorial pages is extraordinary anywhere in the world, it is important to remember that there is nothing clandestine about what TOI is doing. The PT arrangement, along with all the “benefits” that would accrue to those who sign up, along with testimonials from successful PT customers such as Nirmal Jain of India Infoline and others is on two group websites. These are www.privatetreaties.com and timesprivatetreaties.com.
In the past two years, TOI has invested over $500 million (approximately Rs 2,000 crore) in 114-odd companies in diverse businesses. It is a private equity firm.
TOI claims that when these companies are mentioned editorially, its investment in them is mentioned. Indeed, one occasionally notes such a mention, but how many investors understand what PT stands for or the relationship that is implied? Moreover, while such a disclaimer may work when a press release is published, will it be followed when journalist “champions” work hard to “integrate the content” to ensure that it does not look like “vanilla” press releases?
Typically, the Times group buys a 5%-10% stake in mid-sized companies that are planning to go public or looking for private equity. The investment can vary from Rs 10 crore to Rs 100 crore. The company agrees to invest an equal amount in advertising in Times publications over a three-to-five-year period at a steep discount to the normal advertising rates.
Most companies that sign PTs are those planning public issues, selling expensive realty projects or looking for private equity. All of them are looking for publicity and an assurance of positive editorial coverage. For the Times, it is usually a double bonanza: significant capital appreciation and tax-free income (since there is no long-term capital gains tax)—on the other hand, advertising revenue is fully taxed.
Investors must know the exact list of Times PT clients (which is available on their website for easy reference) because you are least likely to hear any bad news about these companies. They include:
# Deccan Aviation
# Sobha Builders
# India Infoline
# Emaar MGF
# Celebrity Fashion Ltd
# The Home Store
# Amity Education
# Media Video Ltd
# Vishal Retail Pvt Ltd
# Bartronics Ltd
# Paramount Airways
# Future Group
# Raja Rani Travels
# Sahara One
# Percept Pictures, etc.
It offers “advertising support, branding support and corporate image development.”
PT’s vision is stated as follows:
# We dare to go where no one has dreamt of venturing before.
# We seek advertising clients that no one wants.
# We look for value that no one sees.
# We co-create wealth that no one imagines.
All this is fine from the business perspective of the Times. Where does the group’s “win-win relationship” with PT customers leave the readers/investors? They clearly do not figure in the equation at all. The group indeed tests the limits in what passes off as news, but in the cut-throat fight for the advertising buck, what exactly is an “advertising client that no one wants”? Surely, not India Infoline?
The PT website lists every press release issued on behalf of PT clients. The headlines alone reveal the slant. For instance:
# ‘Skyscrapers all set to change Noida skyline’ (TOI)
# ‘Milk & Honey Towns’ (ET)
# ‘Companies rake in big moolah serving NRIs’
# ‘Sai Info to come up with 18 e-malls by March’
# ‘Airline mergers is bad news for consumers’ (for Paramount Airlines)
# ‘What you get is exactly what you have paid for’ (for Gitanjali)
# ‘Parajia has ability to swing big deals’ (for India Infoline)
# ‘Gitanjali Lifestyle to ride high on luxury’
# ‘Reason to Smile’ (for GTL, earlier Global Telesystems)
# ‘Pantaloons rolls out the red carpet to woo the last minute Durga Puja shopper in Kolkata’
# ‘Bajaj bros resume legal battle over empire’ (this one for Bajaj Hindusthan is particularly interesting) and finally check this one for Osian—’India’s brush with soccer is all set for a change. History is being re-written on a new canvas and the view looks optimistic’.
This unique “win-win” situation indeed works wonderfully well in a monster bull run. While companies and the publishing group are the real winners, the investors are losing nothing at the moment. But remember this is a two-year-old concept and the implications of tearing down every shred of the wall between editorial, advertising and PR will be evident only when things look less sunny for the markets and the economy.
Photograph: courtesy suchetadalal.com