Peeping Shankar | The times they are a trying and stinging

The Times of India becomes the victim of a second sting operation. This time by an undercover operative of the IB who is out to prove that one sting doesn’t provide immunity from being tricked afresh

Sometimes what you don’t read in the papers or see on television turns out to be the news of the day. Look at me: I subscribe to six dailies at home and spend countless hours surfing news channels. In fact, as a super sleuth, I pride myself on being better informed than the average citizen. But last Saturday (May 26), despite all my efforts to stay in touch with what’s happening in the world, I was caught out when the boss, Barry Saxena, flummoxed me with this question:

“Shankar, what dope do you have on this cobra thing…?”

I was taken aback since there was nothing in the papers about the cobra clan launching a political party or planning a protest march in Delhi demanding higher minimum support price for venom. Neither was there any report of reptiles’ hood-banging at a death metal concert or discussing Pakistan in a hiss-and tell-with Arnab Goswami on prime time.

Given the don’t know/can’t say status I found myself in - like the wretched three per cent in all opinion polls - there were only two choices before me: Either admit ignorance or pretend to know. I took the latter option and bumbled along in my best know-all monotone. “Well,” I said clearing my throat, “the cobra (binomial name Naja naja) belongs to the Elapidae family. It is considered dangerous because its venom contains a neurotoxin and cardiotoxin which can cause death. These snakes are found…”

The boss stopped me in my tracks with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I am not talking about any snake-shake or sheikh. I am talking about the sting operation by the website Cobrapost.com. Shankar. Don’t tell me you know nothing about it!”

He then went on to explain, much like an editor to his ace reporter caught napping on the beat, that: “It is truly sensational stuff. This undercover journalist stinging the top management and senior executives of 25 media houses. Why, he even managed to record them on secret cam agreeing to run a three-part paid news campaign promoting Hindutva and the BJP ahead of the 2019 election. All the head honchos were willing to sell out for a price — even those from the big media houses. It took me by surprise.” He then added in an admonishing tone: “The news was all over the Internet. You must keep track of these websites.”

“Well, I used to Mr Saxena, until a circular banned all government officers from opening anti-national websites like The Wire. It recommended that we stick to post-Nehruvian patriotic portals like postcard.news and opindia.com,” I offered, by way of a rather meek defence.

“That’s no excuse. Rules and circulars are meant to be ignored by the IB,” the boss said, raising his voice a trifle, to register his displeasure. “Anyway, you can see the Cobrapost videos on YouTube. Once you have caught up with developments, then I have an assignment for you.”

“Do you want a backgrounder on this undercover journalist?” I wondered aloud. That I reckoned would be easy.

“Oh no, don’t bother. There’s already enough on him in our files. Anyway, he’s not important. What I want you to do is something else.” At this point, he started to doodle on his scratch pad. “I want you to conduct an experiment for a very personal project of mine — I call it Saxena’s Sting Theory on which I propose to write a monograph for Interpol. Now, don’t confuse it with the String Theory and go on a tangent about quantum gravity, black holes and all that cosmic stuff.”

“So, what is your Sting Theory all about?”

He launched into an explanation as I took notes. “It has been my belief for a long time,” he said, twirling his substantial moustache, “that once stung does not necessarily mean an organisation cannot be stung again. In fact, the probability of that happening is surprisingly high. Take these media organisations stung by Cobrapost. They can be targeted again. Being conned once provides no immunity against being tricked again. My prognosis is that an attack often increases the vulnerability quotient. Simply put, a burnt child may dread the fire but can also be fatally attracted to it.”

I was perplexed. “Do you want me to sting the same people again?”

Scanning through the internal directory of the Times led me to Puneet Jane, Vice-president, Marketing Innovations. He was an MBA diploma holder from the University of Geneva and listed his hobbies as watching Tarzan movies, dancing to David Guetta remixes, reading office memos and Facebook posts. This was his first job

“No, not the same persons, but the same organisations.” He allowed me to mull over that for a while. “Come to think of it, perhaps you can limit the experiment to one - the biggest target on the block, the Times of India. I know it will be difficult, but it’s not impossible. People can often be caught off guard when they’re on high alert. You will find that out for yourself.” With that he concluded the meeting, expressed full confidence in my innovative abilities and wished me luck on my mission.

Not wasting time, I quickly went over the Cobrapost videos and then drew up a plan. I realised at the outset that it would not be easy to sting the Times immediately after a similar operation left it and several others red faced. For a start, I had to identify a target and then plan my operation.

That part was easy enough. Scanning through the internal directory of the Times led me to Puneet Jane, Vice-president, Marketing Innovations. His social media profile revealed that he was an MBA diploma holder from the University of Geneva and listed his hobbies as watching Tarzan movies, dancing to David Guetta remixes, reading office memos and Facebook posts. This was his first job, having joined the Times Group six months ago. He was therefore suitably raw.

As for my cover, I called an old friend in the international marketing consultancy firm, Mackhanji & Company. I had occasionally used his services in other undercover operations. “I will be Udayan Bakshi, head of your media marketing cell for a week and will be giving your reference. If someone calls or emails from the Times of India to cross check, then vouch for me,” I requested him, over the phone. He assured me that I could count on him and invited me home for Sunday lunch and beer. That done, I got my art department to make me a handful of visiting cards with the famed Mackhanji logo embossed on it. I was all set now.

I rung up the target, Puneet Jane, who promptly gave me an appointment. As always, the Mackhanji name did the trick. Armed with my spy cam and laptop, I presented myself in time for the post- lunch appointment.

“Me Udayan, you Jane,” I said by way of introduction. The young man was visibly impressed and pleased. “So, you too are a fan of Tarzan movies. I am mad about them,” he said with an appreciative smile. I lied that I never went on a holiday without the twelve vintage movies starring Johnny Weissmuller as the ape man. That broke the ice. We discussed a bit of Tarzan trivia, like the minimalism of his attire and its impact on fashion in the post-cubism era, and then got down to business.

I quickly briefed Jane of Mackhanji’s innovative plan to exploit editorial space for generating revenue. “It’s new and exciting. What I am going to share with you has not been tried so far. But it will disrupt the entire industry and will make the Times the most reader friendly, yet most profitable paper in the world,” I said, with the flourish of a seasoned marketing man.

Moving on, I unveiled the plan with the help of a powerpoint presentation. “This will explain things in a nutshell,” I said even as the screen came alive with the soundtrack from an early Tarzan film. The slides with text followed as I elaborated on each one. I will spare the reader my glib talk and limit myself to reproducing the key points. So here goes:

* Think anew. Think afresh. Down with Advertising, All hail Editorial! Welcome to the Future when Content shall be King

* Be one step ahead of the competition. Think innovative. Downsize advertising to 10%. Let editorial takeover 90% of space.

* Announce priority accorded by the Times Group to content through a major ad blitz. Stun the competition with the ‘leader cares for the reader’ punchline.

* Minimise earnings from advertising but maximise overall profits through the following innovations:

* Allow Paid News (PN) to become the new cash cow. End dependency on advertising for revenue.

* Create a template that allows news to be commercially exploited through PN.

* Establish a new order in which compliant journalists and editors will be an asset, not a liability.

* Forge PN tie-ups for all sections of the paper. From page one to the sports pages, transform the Times into the first fully Paid News publication in the world.

* See revenues double within the first year of implementation.

* Set aside 25% of profits (negotiable) as commission earned to Mackhanji & Co.

***

I closed the file on the laptop and waited for Jane to respond. The young man was expectedly exultant “It’s fantastic! How did you guys ever think of it! Imagine the Times altering its ‘editorial-is-a-necessary-evil’ line to ‘editorial-is-supreme’! It will send the entire newspaper industry into a tizzy! Consider your idea sold Udayan,” he said, giving me a high five.

I thanked him profusely, scheduled a follow up meeting to chalk out finer details and bid him goodbye with the trademark ululating Tarzan yell as a parting shot.

Later, as I got into my car, I recalled how I almost became a journalist. Back then, it was Delhi’s infamous traffic that put paid to my plans. I turned up late for my job interview at the Times of India and missed the bus. I remember cursing my luck. But now, I guess I must thank god for small mercies.

(As imagined by Ajith Pillai)

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