Notes from the Bollywood Trenches

How do you decide what is newsworthy when news is for sale? Is it satisfying to see your photograph in the paper, when you’ve paid to place it there? Do you start believing your press if you’ve bought it. And what does this do to your creative process? What I wonder, has Medianet done to the Hindi film industry?

In 2003, the Times of India launched Medianet. An official statement described the purpose as: To give enhanced benefits to advertorial sponsors without breaching the boundary wall between advertising and content. The statement also said: The role we envision for Medianet is that of a conscience-keeper, auditor and watchdog, regulating the media’s burgeoning interaction with the PR sector.

The intentions may have been noble but 13 years later, so much of Bollywood journalism is dumbed-down, celeb-driven and even factually incorrect. As far as I know, most leading print publications in Mumbai – except The Hindu – have instituted some version of Medianet for entertainment news. The marketing department decides what is newsworthy. There is a complete blurring of lines so it’s usually impossible to tell the difference between editorial and advertorial. The Bombay Times logo has ‘advertorial, entertainment industry promotional feature’ written under it but I wonder how many readers notice that. How many understand that many of the glowing articles on films and actors is just paid promotion disguised as editorial?

Over the years, Medianet and its clones have rendered quality  irrelevant. All that matters is a film’s marketing budget. Films with smaller budgets can’t hope for editorial space in these publications, no matter how good they are.  But cheerfully inane sex comedies or dodgy vanity projects will make front-page news. For the Mumbai Film Festival last year, we were categorically told by both TOI and Hindustan Times that there would be little or no coverage until a marketing tie-up was in place. We tied up with Mumbai Mirror. Which elicited a blanket ban by HT. For HT readers, a festival that brought more than 230 films to over 7000 delegates didn’t exist.

I take great pride in being a Bollywood journalist but I find the journalistic landscape depressing. My hope is the rumblings of dissent – last year, several leading banners, including Dharma Productions and Walt Disney Company India, took a joint decision to opt out of paid news. Yash Raj Films and Vinod Chopra Films (my husband’s company) already have a long-standing policy of not buying editorial. The focus now is on digital marketing. My hope is that Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube will alter the marketing paradigm. And us journalists can go back to reporting on what is worthy. Independent, un-marketing-tie up articles on the movies will happen. Quality will make headlines.

It’s essential for the health of the Hindi film industry.

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