In an earlier job, I was introduced to the founder of an e-com venture. We spent about 45 minutes locked inside a conference room of a five star hotel in Mumbai, with a ‘marketing and communication’ person hovering in the background. The numbers flashing on screen were impressive. They were the reason I had gone to the interaction as a working journalist, because what was pitched seemed too good to be true. E-commerce was not as ubiquitous as it is today. It would ride a crest before the reality of today crept in. But there was a sixth sense that asked me to probe the numbers and the investments made. It seemed to be a case of getting into a financial to attract funding. And, as an active consumer, I had also sought out customer reviews, and spoken with some of the irate ones before the interaction. Clearly, the entrepreneur was not prepared for the line of questioning. Possibly because the PR agency had identified a ‘feature writer inclined to doing positive stories’, as I learnt through sources later.
But the founder did respond to every question, albeit vacuously, reiterating that all was good and the venture was set to go places. A year or less later, they were in the news for the wrong reasons. It’s a good thing that I chose not to write about them. I did not have enough facts to do a spectacular expose. If there had been a story, it would have been based almost entirely on the prompter’s inputs. Silence was the better option, unless the facts were more forthcoming. (No, it wasn’t Speak Asia, with whom I, unfortunately, had a similar experience.) Lastly, and luckily, I was employed with a publication that did not engage in paid editorials, and no editor or superior pushed me to do a story against my judgement.
The sad part is that a lot has changed across media houses in the last few years.
Many months ago, a financial publication billed a young tech company as the next big thing. The comparisons made were enough to evince interest. Soon, more media reports followed. Intrigued, I studied all that had appeared on the company since inception, promptly got an appointment with the leadership, and sped to the city that housed the company’s headquarters. After spending more than an hour on the premises (which too had been written about), and another with the leadership, I had learnt not much more than I came in with. The few questions that had not been answered after my reading up, remained. The business model was so brilliantly futuristic, that in the present they would have to wait for monetising the wonderful products they made, and would make. Who funds them until then? Would a scaled down approach work? Months passed but it came – news of one of their big funders deeming their money as bad investment. Thank God for stock exchanges. I had chosen not to put out the company’s optimistic world view. It was more about the gut than knowledge, because what I had was half knowledge.
To be fair to the media houses, it’s a question of survival and their own financial health. But should they therefore be allowed to sell editorial content that could shape the investment decisions of not just the investor community, but also impact the common man?
Author of A Brief History of Humankind Dr Yuval Noah Harari points to the collective imagined reality that sets Sapiens apart from other human species, including the imagined reality of the corporation. The entity that is liable for its financial decisions, as against the individual liability that would kick in, in the absence of the imagined ‘corporate’. How many entrepreneurs would sit in the dock for failed businesses, sacked employees, bankrupt vendors, et al? More likely, they would have set forth on the next venture.
I am not discouraging entrepreneurship, but underlining the need for media to disengage from corporate image building for a price, done purely to attract funding without questioning the fundamentals of the business. Managements must also keep a hawk eye on journalists and editors peddling their influence in return for incentives in cash, kind and favours of many kinds, and indulging in editorial compromise.
Picture this. Very recently, there was a large news item in a financial publication about a prominent businessman investing in another tech company. The company had announced that it had received Pre-series A funding a few years ago, but nothing post that. As many will know, Pre-series A funding could be from a top executive of a potential investor company or even the promoters themselves. It is a precursor to more to come. In this case, it did not. More interestingly, the company decided to promote an ‘amazing business opportunity’ to NRIs and others outside India, offering double digit returns and assured exit – in ‘x’ years or when it got a further round of funding. The company had a very good reputation in its first couple of years and its growth was real. But the scale that it sought and speed at which it wanted to achieve the same seemed unreal.
After a potential investor reached out, some groundwork revealed the truth behind the start-up’s ‘investments’ in image building and its financial needs. Alongside the ‘confidential’ document sent to potential investors was a longer document – a list of news articles on the company, and awards it has won (mostly organised by media companies). I hope the investor took my advice. The reward is big, but the risk bigger.
Sometimes it is very hard to figure, without a declaration, that a publication has been paid, for publishing a piece of content. It is harder to figure if a journalist or editor has been genuinely convinced of something, or has been ‘influenced’ otherwise. Someone higher up has to take a call and spot it, when a normally hard-hitting publication that prides itself on unearthing the big stories chooses to wear kid gloves and cuddle a scandal-hit interviewee.
There’s no dearth of ad tech, health tech, fin tech and what-not tech companies, and there is no shortage of awards to honour them either. So I am hoping it will be difficult to identify the companies and publications I am referring to here. Simply because, it would be unfair to name one crime and one set of perpetrators, when there are a dozen others of similar ilk all around. I do hope we recover in time.
With hope and a sense of resignation, I recall a couple of lines immortalised by a former TN chief minister late MG Ramachandran, on the silver screen:
Thittam pottu thirudura kootam thriudi konde irukkuthu,
Adhai sattam pottu thadukkura kootam thaduthu konde irukkudhu;
Thrudanai paarthu thiruntha vittal thiruttai ozhikka mudiyadhu.
(There is a group that continues to plan and thieve, and there is another that continues to create laws and stops them. Unless thieves choose to reform themselves, we can’t get rid of theft.)