PRITAM SENGUPTA writes from New Delhi: Let it be said upfront: Indian newspapers have sold their front pages to advertisers before, and The Times of India is not the first.
In 1948, India’s self-proclaimed “national newspaper”, The Hindu, reported the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on its back page, because, back then, the “Mount Road Mahavishnu” used to run ads on the front page.
In the mid-1990s, when the “Old Lady of Boribunder” ran ear panel advertisements on either side of its title, it sold both slots to a (chocolate?) advertiser who created the words “LET” and “WAIT” in the same font as the paper’s mashtead.
Result, when readers received the paper, the masthead that greeted them was “LET THE TIMES OF INDIA WAIT”.
More recently, using the front page for advertising, often by flanking the actual front page with a wraparound, has gained currency among a variety of advertisers and newspapers, including The Hindu.
And there are those who believe this is a good thing because the most important piece of real estate in a paper can draw top dollar, which can sustain newsrooms in a tight advertising market. After all, the New York Times has just started taking front page ads.
Selling the front page for advertising is one thing, but selling a newspaper’s masthead?
That’s precisely what the Delhi edition of The Times of India has done today (see image, above).
The Times often uses the masthead to create Google-style doodles, to wish readers on festivals and to create a splash on important news days. For journalists and readers of the old school, even that may not be OK, but at least that doesn’t amount to signalling to the world that the soul of the paper is safe.
But in a step that suggests that there is nothing in the paper that cannot be bought for a price, The Times today sells its masthead to a mobile phone company, whose ad, with various arms of it creeping all over the news space, appears below on the bottom-half of the front page.
It can be argued that there is nothing wrong with monetising the masthead. Regular readers rarely look at it with a close eye and in the case of the The Times of India, readers who are used to their paper’s masthead being played around with, may not even notice.
On the other hand, sure, business is bad, but this bad?