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On the Times of India Group’s Social Media contracts for journalists

The Times of India Group has a new social media policy, as per which it is allowing the creation of social media accounts for journalists, in their professional capacity, where both the journalist and the company can post content. At the time of filing this story, three versions of this contract have been shared with employees, with modifications after some of them declined to sign them, and asked for changes. The latest version of the contract was circulated yesterday, and Quartz India, which first broke the story, has written about the two latest versions of the contract (Version 2, Version 3) and NewsLaundry has written about an employment contract from the company and its social media policy.

MediaNama has reviewed copies of V2 of the policy (received from multiple sources), and from what we understand, V3 of the policy isn’t significantly different (if you have a copy: nikhil@medianama.com).

NoteThis analysis is on the basis of a contract released in July 2014 and has been corroborated by multiple journalists in the Times Of India group. However there may be multiple policies circulated to multiple divisions within the group. To that extent, this analysis is limited to one such version of which we have multiple copies. We had contacted Satyan Gajwani of the Times Of India group for permission to publish the contract as is but that has been denied. He shared the following response to Medianama: “What is being represented is an old version, shared a month ago, which has changed meaningfully in the latest version”.

Here’s what it basically says:

1. The Times Group or the journalist will create social media accounts for the journalist, in their professional capacity. For example, AshokKumarTOI* (for Times of India) or AshokKumarET (for Economic Times). Users will have to share admin details of this company owned account (username and password), and transfer all admin details in case of termination of contract.
2. Posts on these accounts are a part of a journalist’s responsibility while they are employed with the Times of India group, and these cannot compete with the company. They have to make regular posts and generate a following.
3. The posts need to contain news and other related material. Journalists may also post personal updates, and interact with others.
4. The professional account and the posts on these professional accounts will belong to the Times of India group, and employees cannot alter the usernames of these accounts, nor claim rights to it. The list of followers, friends and readership of this account belong to the company. The company will only promote the professional account, and not the personal one.
5. The company has the right to update these professional accounts, including via automated updates, even following the termination of the journalists contract. Importantly: “For any material posted on the User Account, which has not been authored by you, the Company will keep you harmless and indemnified.” In case of any non-compliance with the law or defamation by the journalist, the journalist will be responsible.
6. Any revenue from the company owned professional account, including advertising revenue, belong to the company, and if the journalist makes any money via the account, it will have to be passed on to the company.
7. Journalists are allowed to create and maintain personal accounts, but refrain from posting news on those accounts. Importantly: they have to “inform the company about their personal user accounts”, and “The  personal user account shall always belong to you, and carried by you in event of any severance of your Contract with the company.”
8. At a journalists request, while in employment, the personal account can be converted into a professional (company owned) account. Once that is done, all intellectual property will belong to the company. We didn’t see any clause that specifically requests employees to, as Quartz put it, “hand over your Twitter and Facebook passwords and let us post for you.”

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In addition, V3, as per Quartz’ story, has some additional clauses:

9. If a user maintains two user accounts, the company expects that all content related to their primary role (in journo-talk: from their beat) should be posted solely to their professional (company owned) account, and can be re-tweeted/shared from the personal account.
10. The company also says it “prefers” that employees maintain only one account, and that it will be in their interest to do so, while apparently not explicitly forcing journalists to abandon their personal accounts, or forcefully converting them into professional accounts.

Our take on the policy

1. Freedom of Expression vs Publishing: We keep coming back to this fundamental issue of whether posting something on the Internet is a case of communication (hence personal) or publishing (hence professional). We are concerned about the clause that prevents journalists from publishing news from personal accounts. This is much worse than The Hindu’s approach of discouraging journalists from publishing links to competing publications, and the Times of India Group, from here on, cannot stake claim to supporting freedom of speech if it prevents its journalists from expressing their views on news in their personal capacity.

If viewed purely from the Media publishing lens, any employer and publisher can effectively restrict its employees from publishing for any other media entity. It appears that the Times of India group, as an employer, believes that what a journalist writes belongs to it, and is trying to prevent journalists from publishing on other media/communication platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Google+), in their personal capacity, or competing with it. That is a unidimensional and myopic way of looking at it. I may work for the company, but it doesn’t own me.

(Full disclosure: we had asked an employee to not publish their own competing newsletter while employed with us, and others from freelancing without our permission, but have never restricted anyone from tweeting work related information, whether from competing publications or ours.)

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2. Building distribution and monetization via journalists: The part about creating social media accounts for each journalist is interesting, because of what might follow. Our reading is that the Times of India Group’s plan is to create professional social-media-account-linked-bylines for each journalist online, link stories on their websites to the social media profile of that journalist, and push the journalist to create a following. Each journalist’s professional social media account becomes like a newsletter (not exactly, but you know what I mean), with the followers becoming subscribers.

This also explains why the Times of India want rights to automatically publish news updates on their news feeds, and why they might want to continue operating the account (and possibly push news updates) even after termination of the contract. A sponsored tweets program will also allow them to monetize that follower count, which explains the advertising clause listed above.

A journalist friend I spoke with, flagged this issue of using journalists to build distribution: will there be targets, and will number of tweets, Facebook updates or G+ updates be a part of their KRA? Will journalists be pushed to build a following? He sees this as a slippery slope, and I quite agree.

3. Credibility, when an ad or content is pushed from a person’s professional account: As an individual and a journalist, this is something that you might inherently disagree with, because it is YOUR identity that could be linked to that professional account. The company employs you, but it doesn’t own your identity. Imagine an advertisement for a fairness cream being pushed into the professional twitter stream of a journalist who is inherently opposed to those type of products. Imagine if you are opposed to genetically modified crops, and a news item that supports Monsanto is pushed into your Twitter stream. AshokKumarTimesNow will always be Ashok Kumar first, and Times Now is merely an add-on. This is a tricky policy, and the Times of India Group will have to be very careful about how it approaches it.

The point I raised about personal versus professional identities remains an issue, though Prem Panicker disagrees with me.

4. Privacy: The Times of India group is draconian when it asks journalists to “inform the company about their personal user accounts”, and I don’t see why or how they should claim the right to monitor a journalist’s personal account. Anonymity is fundamental to freedom online (even if we might hate abusive trolls), and the group should respect a person’s right to keep certain accounts private. In case there are accounts that journalist doesn’t disclose certain accounts to the group, and is later found out, will that be grounds for dismissal? P.s.: Thanks Rory for flagging this.

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5. The indemnity issue: In one part of the contract, as explained in point 5 above, the company actually (and rightly) states that the journalist is not liable for material not authored by him, even if in that account. While this is legally sound, it doesn’t entirely protect the journalist because his/her identity is still linked to that account, even if it is a company managed account. To a reader, the person is posting that update. How can the Times of India Group ensure that automated updates are identified as automated updates, and even if they do something like add the phrase ” – A robot posted this” at the end, it’s going to be difficult for the journalist to explain to people that it wasn’t them. It’s not going to be easy, and someone, somewhere, will always hold the individual accountable in their personal capacity.

6. Calling dibs on work related updates: As a publisher, as per details of V3 published by Quartz, the company is essentially calling dibs on any work-related social media updates from events. This draws from the philosophy that we explained earlier, that the publisher believes that, as an employer, it owns that work that journalists do, and is effectively trying to prevent its own journalists from competing with it.

Note: Feel free to disagree or point out issues that we may have missed out on. We’ll update, and are, as always, open to changing our opinion.

Updates: Added disclaimer and a statement from Satyan Gajwani of The Times Of India group.

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Written By

Founder @ MediaNama. TED Fellow. Asia21 Fellow @ Asia Society. Co-founder SaveTheInternet.in and Internet Freedom Foundation. Advisory board @ CyberBRICS

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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