Archive for August, 2014

“Why does journalism pay so poorly?”

A former student posed this question to me today on chat (her views are pasted below). The answer, I think, is because I believe some idiot somewhere in the past decided that journalists were doing immense social service to mankind by writing about the ills in society and speaking up for the oppressed – never mind if he or she WAS one of the oppressed – so they didn’t need to be paid as much as a professional.

I guess only people who are perennially broke and living off tea, cigarettes and vada pav can write with that ‘feeling’ about those who lead a hand to mouth existence! And thanks to the idiot who planted the first seed about the social status of journalists, newspaper managements took it all very seriously and decided that since “any damn fool can be a reporter” why pay them anything more than a pittance! Of course, I am just making light of an issue but can someone seriously tell me why, journalists are paid so poorly?

Is it because the first impression of a journalist is one of a pajama-kurta clad, cloth bag over shoulder, bathroom slippers on his feet? Or is that classic, ‘What came first, the chicken or the egg?’ story? Was he wearing that because he couldn’t afford a designer label or did the newspaper owner decide that the bugger anyway only wears a P and K so why should I pay him too much money? And anyway, all he does is write stories, so how much effort does that take?

I remember the case of a couple of newspaper managements in the 1990s who refused to pay what the wage board had instructed them to pay because it was “too much”! They then decided to grade salaries as per circulation figures of each centre. I know what journalists in Pune felt like doing to their respective managements when they heard the news! Since we were a single-edition local newspaper we were luckier.

I mean, honestly, newspaper managements thought that when they had given around 5 per cent as a hike, they’d done their bit for humanity. So what is 5 per cent for a guy making 10,000? His fortnightly fuel bill? And thanks to the contract system, nowadays, journalists get no other benefits. When we were on the wage board, our increments used to be anything from 30 to 75 bucks!  Thank God, the government decided that because otherwise a lot of managements would have got away with a 20 buck increment! It’s a shame that after 30 years in the profession, a journalist in a newspaper retires on a salary of 40-60k a month, whereas a professional with the same experience will be drawing three or even four times that when he calls it a day.

That is not to say that today, journalists don’t make money. The big city papers have raised salaries of staff and some of the seniors and editors make more money in a year than most of us have saved in our lifetime. I am not grudging them that; they deserve every penny, but what about giving newcomers a better deal? You can’t say that newcomers should be paid low salaries because they need to understand that journalism isn’t only about money. Huh! The rupee doesn’t go very far nowadays! And ever since my salary started being wired into my bank account after being converted from the dollar, I understand that even better today.

Secondly, a lot of kids are armed with degrees or diplomas from media schools that charge the earth. A kid looking for a job to repay a student loan is already calculating how many years it will take him/her to repay it. And when he hears what his salary for the first three years is going to be, he is already walking around with the weight of the world on his shoulders. There are those rare exceptions that end up in journalism because that is all they wanted to do, so don’t look at the money that closely. But even they realise a year or two down the line that the money just isn’t enough and they need to supplement it with something else.

That is why so many of us freelanced on the side writing for some publication or the other. I remember writing for a Gulf newspaper with approval from the management where I worked in the mid-1990s. One article gave me around 1500 bucks which was a lot for a guy taking home a pittance. I usually wrote two a month. In reality, when I was freelancing in Delhi in 1998, I earned double what I earned as a salary then. When I joined HT, I started on an even lower salary than what I was earning in the last job! But then, the dream of working for a national newspaper had an irresistible pull for a guy from a small town! And I needed another job! I wouldn’t have exchanged it for anything else in this world. A little more money would have helped, though!

It’s sad, really, because journalists play with their lives to get a story and at the end of the day, get very little in return for it. The world of journalism is awash with stories of journalists killed or wounded covering wars, terrorist attacks or getting killed doing an investigative report. Not everyone ends up becoming a star anchor or reporter. Some end up like Daniel Pearl or James Foley or even cartoonist Irfaan Hussain. Incidentally, 11 journalists lost their lives in India in 2013. Any idea what state their families are in?

And while we are at it, let me just say that it is still a fantastic profession to be in – long working hours, shitty bosses, poor salaries, minimal family life notwithstanding. Not for one moment am I suggesting that those who love it should give it up. Those of us who’ve been there, done that know that nothing beats journalism in all it’s forms. It’s just the mindsets are changing, attitudes are changing, living costs are changing. Paying a little more money wouldn’t hurt the profession. Or would that take the fun out of being a journalist?

A newcomer’s view

Here’s what a former student sent to me when I told her I was writing the blog:

Given the amount of time, energy and emotion we put into the job – failing which we risk a pink slip – the benefits often seem outweighed by the pitfalls. I’ve forgotten what it is to have a social life and I’m ok with that too. But to label our job as a “public service,” is just bunkum. It’s a phenomenal profession – one I wouldn’t trade for anything else. But the label may have held good 20 years back when media proliferation was still contained. Today, it’s turned into a perfectly competitive market with every publication/ channel offering the same content at exactly the same price.

And where is the reward? The remuneration? With all due respect to those who crunch numbers on the job, as dull as the job might appear to be, the pay cheque more than makes up for lost time.

Everyday seems a struggle after the 10th of every month. Once the bills are settled and the rent paid, even a dinner out seems like luxury. Those are days when journalists – especially the ones who’ve recently joined the profession – look out for greener pastures. For, all said and done, as glamorous as the profession may seem, it doesn’t really make an offer we can’t refuse.

‎Before we joined the profession, we all held a very romantic perception of what the industry had in store. So naturally, given the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan and now Syria, an assignment on an exposed manhole on the city’s streets seems far from rewarding.

Of course, the profession exposes you to myriad subjects too. I’ve had a fantastic time covering the Lok Sabha Polls. I’ve escaped being raped in the hinterlands of UP, stayed in shady hotels and overlooked death threats. But for what it’s worth, when you turn the pages of the newspaper, the byline on the story makes all the trouble seem justified.

One only wishes that the fraternity didn’t have to fight tooth and nail ‎to make ends meet.


How many of you will believe me if I told you that I not only saw one of the most beautiful women in the world a foot away from me, but also travelled in her car? Well I did. I used to be a receptionist at the Hotel Blue Diamond in the 1980s. It was, then, the only five-star hotel in Pune and the only one where the rich and the famous stayed if they were in the city. The hotel was abuzz because (then) Sir Richard Attenborough’s unit for the film Gandhi was checking in  and the CEO Arvind Pandit was telling the housekeeping and everyone else to ensure that everything went off smoothly.

I still remember the palpable excitement in the hotel and at the front office where I worked. The chief receptionist and others were filling up the check-in forms in advance. Computers were still some years away. We didn’t want the VIP guests to wait, so all formalities were completed in advance. When the guests arrived, Sir Richard Attenborough and the rest of them got the traditional aarti and tilak welcome and were whisked away to their rooms. If I remember right, Attenborough requested that the best suite be given to Candice Bergen. She was the STAR, back then. She was playing the role of Margaret Bourke-White, the Life magazine photographer.

I was really excited to see Edward Fox. I had read Fredrick Forsyth’s book The Day of the Jackal and Fox had played the role of the assassin, so seeing the Jackal in the flesh was thrilling. If I sound an excited schoolboy, pardon me, because that is how I felt and I am sure most of you would have felt that way too! Saeed Jaffrey was there too, so was Geraldine James, but Ben Kingsley stayed at the Turf Club, I think. He would drop in at the hotel in the evenings to meet Sir Richard and the rest of the unit. The foreign crew members all stayed at the Blue Diamond, while the rest of the Indian crew were scattered around in the other cheaper city hotels.

I also remember that quite a few people working in the hotel got bit roles in the film. One was Sonal, who worked at the hotel reception and she was among the ladies with Kasturba Gandhi when Gandhi decides to burn the pass in South Africa. It was shot on Fergusson College ground and I remember I had gone there too see the shooting from Vaishali! We weren’t allowed to get too close so I lost interest.

There was a gentleman called Graham Ford, who was the location manager and one who I struck up a rapport with because I went out of my way to help him get something. Ford liked his Irish Coffee every evening, but couldn’t find the right quality of cream to make the perfect drink. One evening, when he was telling me about it, I asked around and managed to get someone to deliver it to the hotel especially for him. He was over the moon and invited me up to his room for a drink. Since I am not going to be hauled up, now, for fraternising with the guest, let me admit that after my shift was over, he insisted I come up and made me an Irish Coffee. It was his way of saying thank you.

On another evening, Saeed Jaffrey, lisped his way up to us a little before midnight to ask where he could get some Biryani and Banarasi paan. A bell boy was dispatched pronto to get both. He travelled all the way to Cafe Good Luck by autorickshaw to bring the biryani and the paan. While waiting at the reception, he started to chat with us and someone said “Haan ji” and Jaffrey retorted “Haan ji, nahin Sahab, Ji haan kahiye. Aap hijre hain?” (Don’t say Haan ji sir, say ji haan. Are you a transgender?). I think the next day, he along with some of the Indian unit members went out again for Biryani.

One day a friend asked if I could persuade Ford to let him watch a day’s shooting, since he was an avid film buff. Ford was more than happy to oblige. After all, I had gone that extra inch to get him his cream! So after a night shift at the front office, the friend and I were ready to travel to the location. As we were waiting in the lobby with Graham Ford, Candice Bergen walked up and he asked her if she would mind taking two extra passengers with her in the car. It was the good old Ambassador, so the driver and the two of us could fit comfortably in the front seat while Ms Bergen sat in the back. The driver, of course, had no clue he was in the presence of Hollywood royalty. If Rekha had been in the car, I guess it would have been different for him. But we were stunned into silence, completely overawed by the magnetism and beauty of the woman sitting behind us. This was one of the most beautiful women in the world and WE were travelling in her car! Our day was made.

We watched Sir Richard shooting the famous scene from the film where Mahatma Gandhi is chatting with Bourke-White as she shoots his pictures during his incarceration at the Aga Khan Palace. We watched the shot a number of times and after a while I got bored. As far as I was concerned, I had travelled in the same car with Candice Bergen! Who wanted anything else?

Nearly two decades ago, as a member of the Pune working journalists union, I remember an occasion during one of our usual protests over something or the other, we had gathered outside the Pune Union of Working Journalists (PUWJ) office, which was then opposite the Congress Bhavan, near Bal Gandharva Rangmandir.

I don’t remember who the President of the PUWJ  was then. I remember, the late Taher Shaikh, who was my senior at Maharashtra Herald, was there with us as we gathered across the road from Congress Bhavan, It was he who spotted Maratha  strongman Sharad Pawar, coming out of the Congress office. We thought that if we all rushed towards him, he might listen to what the members had to say. We were still standing on the divider, waiting to go across in a group, when Pawar signalled with his forefinger that we were to stay put. Then he saw Taher and beckoned to him. After all, they had been classmates in Wadia College. But the rest of the journalists, including some senior journalists from the vernacular press who strutted around like they were the cat’s whiskers stopped in their tracks. Some were even rudely told to go back.

I was reminded of the incident while reading about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s complete silence when dealing with journalists. A lot of people have been asking why this prime minister is keeping a studied silence on issues which concerned the nation. And it’s not just he, but everybody else in his team also, who has suddenly shut up. The man who couldn’t stop talking before the election, has nothing more to say to the media. And to top it off, the royal snub was not being invited on anymore junkets with the PM’s entourage. No daaru, khaana and whatever else. To me it looks like the start of an extended dry day for the mainstream media (MSM)! I guess that’s why when that Ved Prakash Vaidek managed to speak with Hafiz Saeed, they wanted to get the former arrested for sedition! Honestly, guys, where does it say in any goddamn journalism manual or book that one cannot interview even the biggest terrorist? Desperation has its limits and the media is really letting it hang out!

Anyway, coming back to Modi and the media. Used to as they have always been, to speak to ministers when they need to, or having access to the PMO through a media advisor, this media has been clean bowled by the prime minister. Why should he speak when he’s got a lot of people ready to deal with the busybodies in the media who have questions to which the nation needs answers? I think it has dawned on a lot of mediapersons that they’ve been taken for one hell of a ride. They thought he was, oh, so accessible, so open, so unlike Manmohan Singh! It has now dawned on them that this guy is a different kettle of fish. I just think it’s because he doesn’t need to say anything anymore, because he and his party got what they wanted and got to where they wanted to!

Whether Modi’s silence is intentional or unintentional is something we aren’t going to know. Remember, this is the man, who sailed through every indictment made against him, without ever clearing the air, after the initial attempts. As every journalist, activist and politician threw everything at him, he stayed mum and moved on to bigger things. I’ve said this before, but his silence in the midst of all the loud noises from the other side, have only helped him get an even bigger image. He didn’t have to say a word. He remember him telling a news channel that he stopped talking because he felt people were anyway saying and writing whatever they wanted to. I guess he is employing the same tactics now. Let’s see if it works.

Now, even the most senior journalists don’t know how to approach the new MPs and ministers, because they are not quite sure how these MPs will react. It must be particularly galling for news anchors who believe they are on first name terms with politicians! Take Ravi Shankar Prasad, Sushma Swaraj or Smriti Irani, for example, who were so visible before the election? Have you seen them on a news channel after the election, taking part in any debate?

I get vicarious pleasure watching the way Modi is treating the mainstream media, especially those in the national capital who believe that when they order, any person, high or low, must come scurrying. It’s fun to watch them fretting and fuming about the silence from the prime minister and his ministers, and having to listen to only those who are supposed to address the media.

Imagine having to depend on twitter for updates about the prime minister – in just 140 characters!!