Sunday, December 27, 2009

Tehelka Exposed: An unfair subscription model!

In the Information Era, Media creates memes. And Mainstream Media controls the circulation of memes. It is only once in a while the not-so-mainstream counterparts of Media Giants get to control the center stage and have their say in how we use our  memes. In India, the 21st Century began with a  News Portal called Tehelka appearing out of the blue, flinging "sting operation" and "match fixing" to our direction. Suddenly, that was the only news for sometime. India was impressed, so was I. With Fallen Heroes, the paperback from Buffalo Books that catapulted Tehelka into the radar of our fickle byte-sized social attention, the phrase "sting operation" became synonymous to "Investigative Journalism"  Tarun Tejpal  was all of a sudden a name everyone knew and a name many trusted.

In 2000, Tehelka made many of us glad that the overpaid heroes of a useless game got what they deserved. In 2001, they shocked us again. On March 13, 2001, Tarun wrote, "In comparison, Fallen Heroes was a cake walk...In the final count, Fallen Heroes was only about being cheated of some entertainment; Operation West End is about being cheated of your nationalism." The Shady Defense Deals that Tehelka brought to light made people conceive them as the torchbearers of truth and social commitment. It was after Operation West End and in 2001, I became a regular Tehelka Reader.

In 2007, as India was slowly recovering from Gujarat 2002, Tehelka shocked us again, coming out with a series of spy cam video footages that exposed how Narendra Modi knew the plan for the Riot and how he gave the Rioters three days to do whatever they wanted. Though the timing of the report was highly criticized as it was released just in time for Gujarat Elections, Tehelka reiterated its image in the minds of Indian Reading Public as a Socially Committed, Impartial and Courageous Media Group that stood for truth and justice.

As Media Giants were busy finding new ways to force-feed Indian Readers with the excess of Page 3 Journalism, Tehelka was trying its best to project itself as a Team of Public Interest Journalists. In 2009, Tehelka took its popular walk through "the glitzy world Tehelka failed to get its head around" with Nisha Susan. Nisha wrote:"The magazine sometimes seems like the healthy vegetable that you ought to eat, but don’t want to, when all around are bowls of mango and chocolate ice-cream", projecting Tehelka as the only hope in an otherwise hopeless world of Epicurean-inspired Journalism.

To suit my Indian Psyche that strongly believes Politicians and Journalists are Social Workers and not Capitalist Professionals who are out there to make some money, Tehelka projected its image as a newspaper that never compromised Social Responsibility to Commercial Survival. Tarun and Co did successfully socialize the Educated Indian Middle Class and made them believe that if you are modern, intelligent and progressive you would sure regularly read Tehelka. Now that the brand is successfully built, looks like Tehelka has finally decided to go the Capitalist Way and make money which ever way they can.

I think it is Chairman Mao who said, "I don't care if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice." After I took a look at Tehelka's Subscription Form, I felt even Tehelka is going in that direction of not bothering how they do it as long as it brings money in. [Click to enlarge the image] What am I talking about? I am talking about something that many of us will not bother about as we fill up the Subscription Form in case we decide to avail Tehelka's attractive offer of saving 41%  on a 3 year subscription and getting a free "Messenger Bag"

Take a closer look at the Subscription Form and you will know Tehelka asks for information that are not actually required to become a Subscriber. What is the actual information a Publisher requires from a buyer? Your name , address to where the product must be shipped and the payment details. But look at Tehelka's Subscription Form: they would also like to know your education, monthly income and occupation. And after they ask all that, right there in fine print you will find a sentence, if you have a perfect 20:20 Vision. It goes like this: "If you prefer that we do not share your personal details for other promotional schemes, please tick the box."

There used to be a time when Tobacco Companies used to write "Smoking is Injurious to Health" in typefaces no one could read. Why? It was meant to be not noticed. Exactly, anything in fine print is meant to be not noticed. So is Tehelka's option for you to opt out of promotional schemes. I am hundred percent sure that 50% of people who fill up that Subscription Form is not going to Opt Out not because they do not want to Opt Out but because either they have not read that line or because they are not aware of the implications of that line.

What does that line mean? Nothing is mentioned about how they are going to share my personal details. So I am assuming that Tehelka is going to sell my information to Direct Marketing Companies so that they can pitch their products based on my education, income and occupation. This means, if I subscribe to Tehelka and forget to tick Opting Out of Promotional Schemes, I am going to be bombarded with Promotional Calls.

A month back, I got a call from some Company in Chennai. It was a promotional call. They wanted to sell me a CD that claimed to teach me how to make "Good PowerPoint Presentations" What surprised me was the fact that they knew what I was, where I was and what I do for a living. I don't know how and from where they got these details. They wouldn't tell me. All that I know is, once in a week different people from the same company call me to convince me to buy a 2500 INR worth CD for 1500 INR. They do not care if I am busy or not, they do not care if I am in the middle of some urgent work related stress. And you just cannot slam the phone down because some how you have got it into your mind that it is impolite to slam the phone down.

Coming back to Tehelka and their Opt Out Option, I don't seriously  know why my information has to be shared with someone. I am questioning the ethics that shaped this business model for Tehelka. Being a socially responsible, pro-people Media Company, they should be concerned about sharing the information that I give them with someone else. They are people who blow the whistle on unhealthy, illegal and anti-social practices. What guarantee do they have that the information they share is going to responsible people? What guarantee do they have the people with whom they share my personal details wouldn't sell it to some one else who may misuse it?

Tehelka asks for my email address and phone number. Does sharing also mean that they are going to share my phone number and email address? If they share my phone number and email address, what guarantee do I have that it will not end up in the hands of spammers and scammers? Does Tehelka know that doing this so called sharing, they are going to encourage the most heinous online practice called "Email Harvesting"? Or"Phone Number Harvesting"? Or "Address harvesting"?

Why do Tehelka give you an option to opt out? Now, they know that most of us are not going to tick that box because most of us do not know what it implies. Later, if something goes wrong and someone goes to Court and if the Court finds out that Tehelka is the source of information, they can play safe showing that the customer agreed that the details could be shared. If everything works out right, since Subscription information is bound to be authentic, Tehelka can make some money selling my details. Tehelka knows no one will talk about this shady business because, in India we are yet to be hit by large scale scams that involve "Information Harvesting" and people are not very much aware.


  1. Sounds like Tehelka of (or on?) Tehelka. You have raised very important questions. But once someone is in business, they conveniently forget moral code - business ethics. Hope they read this. Why don't you email them this content? That might be helpful.

  2. Nice theme Sojo. It's great !

    Unfortunately personal information business is a recent import to India from the west where it has been very prevalent. 10 years ago my jaw dropped to the floor when I was told that 15-20 % of the profit for the company I was contracting (parent of Macy's, Bloomingdales, FingerHut) came from selling customer information. It is a multi-billion dollar industry and the opt-out is almost always difficult to find.Many even automatically opt you in with you having the option to send in a written notice to opt out if you do not deem it useful. It is a sham ; it is a scam and Tehelka of all people should not be doing it. But then again have you seen how much of info a friggin google collects on you ? So it's no surprise..

  3. Thank you for reading and the comments Madhu and Attivas.

    @Aativas, I have forwarded the post to tehelka today. Let's see what they got to say.

    @Madhu, you are right, Google legitimized this whole "Information harvesting' business. But then, they have an excuse that we are using their service for free.