Archive for the ‘journalism’ Category

In an earlier blog, I wrote about the unfairness of being labelled a presstitute – a sweeping generalisation made by people who had no idea of how a media house or a newsroom works. Of course, one can’t blame them because they go by what they see and their idea of media is the idiot box or the newspaper they receive on their doorstep, and whatever is published in it, and of course now on the social media, which as I told columnist Shefali Vaidya, bears a striking resemblance to Dennis the Menace. I hope this clears it.

There’s another good example of how little people on social media understand about the media. A few weeks back a journalist tweeted about how she was woken up by the sounds of temple bells whenever she visited Udaipur and stayed at the Taj Mahal Hotel. As usual, Twitter erupted for a lot of reasons. Someone asked her how as a journalist she could afford to stay at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Udaipur. I just want to get into one of the reasons, and not the rest, because they have no bearing on what I am about to say. Let me make it very clear, I do not know this journalist either personally or professionally, so I hold no brief for what she says or does.

Right through my journalism career, it is an issue that has always raised its head when it comes to journalists availing the hospitality of a client. How far can a journalist go? I am sure there are many journalists who seek favours from corporate houses. The Essar email leaks proved that there is no dearth of unscrupulous journalists in the country. But to label everyone as corrupt is pretty unfair.

What people don’t understand is that many journalists, at least the ones who live in flats and don’t own farmhouses, stay at five-star hotels not out of choice or because they can afford it but out of compulsion because the client books them in there if it invites them to cover an event. How else can a client impress journalists about the product he is launching? Trust me, most journalists, at least the honest ones, can’t afford 3-star accommodation leave alone a luxury hotel at their own expense. Can we tell a client we won’t attend if the press conference is at a five-star hotel? Frankly, as journalists, it is none of our business. Our job is to report the press conference in a completely unbiased manner. Yes, we can refuse to touch a morsel or have a drink and a lot of us have refused a drink. That would mean, finding a place to eat or catch a beer after the press conference late at night. It just isn’t worth the trouble.

Again, there are two sides to this story as well. If you have an evening presser, a lot of journalists expect booze to be served. I know of journalists who will only attend if there is liquor, and I also personally know journalists who refuse to touch a drop because they consider it unethical. I spent five years handling public relations for two software companies (when I was on a sabbatical from journalism) and during the launch of one, liquor was being served. A lot of my friends who I had called refused a drink and some others even refused the food. I was on the other side of the table now and it was an interesting view. They gave the launch more than ample coverage but still didn’t touch a drink.

As a managing editor of a couple of automotive magazines some years back, I was invited to the launch of a luxury sedan to Udaipur. A friend who then worked for a national newspaper and I were the only two from Pune covering the event, so we were driven to Mumbai airport, from where we were flown by a chartered aircraft to Udaipur along with other journalists. At Udaipur, the “lucky” ones got to the drive the car to the hotel, while the others were bundled into an AC coach and driven to the Leela Kempinski, which reeked luxury from every corner. The room I stayed in was the epitome of luxury. It even had bathroom slippers that made my feet sink in and carpets that made me wonder why I needed a bed. If I could have taken the bathroom home I would have! I asked the attractive marketing head how much the room cost for a night and she casually mentioned the amount.

I sat for a moment stunned at hearing the price – could I ever afford to stay at such a place on my crappy salary? And could I have refused to stay there? Could I have asked my company to put me up at more modest accommodations? Why would they, when they weren’t organising the event? The next time I travelled to Udaipur on one of the drives with the family, I stayed at the MTDC hotel where the room cost Rs 3,000/- with Rs 1000 for an extra bed. Just saying.

In my first job as a journalist, I was the Assistant Editor when I covered the Cricket World Cup in 1996. My newspaper told me they could not afford the plane fare so I would have to travel non-AC II sleeper and stay in single star hotels. Crazy as I was about cricket I agreed without a thought for the logistical problems I was about to encounter. Other journalists who were covering the tournament flew in and out, stayed in three- to five-star hotels because their media houses could afford it. At Gwalior, the first stop, I had a booking at a government guest house which was stolen from under my nose by a journalist from another media house. I was left standing outside without a room to spend the night. I was given accommodation by a lodge that resembled a hovel, in a space where they stored water, and there were rats and cockroaches scurrying around. I spent the night wide awake. It was a situation no human should ever find himself in even in the worst circumstances. But it was either that or the footpath. I remember rushing to Bangalore by sleeper bus the afternoon before the quarter-final against Pakistan, and asking my cousin if I could crash with him for the night because it was too late to look for hotel accommodation. I also remember picking up my press pass from a well-known journalist who was staying at a five-star hotel. He was later to be embroiled in the unsavoury match-fixing controversy.

And here is the other side. When the dates and schedules of that World Cup were announced, a soft drink major had a press conference in Mumbai where everyone from the sports media contingent was present. We were in a queue waiting to be handed out our complimentary press kits, which included a duffel bag, with a towel, shaving kit, pen, pad etc. A very well-known sports journalist was a few places in front of me, and he signed for his kit, picked it up and left. A few minutes later, I saw him again in the back of the queue. I assumed he was picking up the kit for someone else. As he reached the head of the counter, I heard the girl from the agency say, “But sir, you have already taken your kit.” He insisted he hadn’t and she persisted that he had, till she turned in exasperation to her manager and shrugged it off with a disgusted look on his face, and motioned to her to give him the bag. I was aghast by what I saw and heard.

So, you see, like every good journalist knows, there are two sides to every story. There are crooks and there are dishonest people in every profession. Journalism is no different.

All those ranting about Arnab Goswami today should watch the video where he spoke of his early life as a cub reporter with NDTV. He narrated an incident where he had to apologise to a union minister for asking what the minister believed was an incorrect question. He said he apologised not because he was wrong (he wasn’t), but he needed the money and the job. If he had not apologised he might have had neither. That’s life. So all those who think journalists should not accept hospitality from clients, please get a life. It is not always about being greedy, very often it is about being pragmatic. It is a job like any other for a lot of us.

Oh, I went to Goa recently for a four-day break where I stayed at Vivanta by Taj in Panjim. Are you wondering how as a retired journalist I could afford such expensive accommodation? Let me tell you how. My wife generously paid for it because she thought I deserved a break after slogging for the family all these years! It would have cost me a month’s salary.


Watching some of the big names of the Indian media making a fool of themselves today reminds me of that old fable of the emperor’s new clothes. I didn’t think they would be hoist on their own petard so easily, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not just cornered the opposition, specifically the Gandhis and the Congress Party when he announced the nomination of Ram Nath Kovind, but the mainstream media (MSM) as well.

How else do you explain the way the MSM was made to look like utter idiots when the Bharatiya Janata Party announced Kovind as its nominee? First, they tried to bluster their way through with the “Kovind who?” and “Everyone’s googling Kovind” stunt. That fell flat because it turned out that not only was Kovind the Governor of Bihar, a two-term Rajya Sabha MP, a government counsel for many years, but he had also represented India at the United Nations. Then they mentioned the D word, about how Modi was using Kovind’s Dalit background to woo the community, but that didn’t cut ice either.

Nothing could be more apt than this tweet from a Biju Janata Dal MP who had worked with Kovind in pointing to the ignorance and condescension displayed by the MSM.

When that failed, they made disparaging comparisons between Kovind and Pratibha Patil who Sonia Gandhi had anointed president. Their point was that Kovind was a worse choice than Patil. Obviously, that did not matter when they were accepting hospitality and awards from President Patil.

Anyway, thanks to social media, the MSM found that its feigned ignorance of Kovind had been exposed. But that didn’t stop them. They went a step ahead and pulled out a 12-year-old piece where Kovind made his views known on the caste system and his views on Dalits and Christians.

Comparing the caste system to the trade guilds in feudal Europe (in that certain groups performed specific jobs), he added that under the caste system, persons acquire their trade at birth, while the guilds allowed job mobility.  Caste factors are now used to protect jobs and livelihoods more than anything else.”

Let’s be honest, he did not say anything out of the ordinary or very wrong. Not just in jobs but in many government-run educational institutions most general category students are denied admissions and are forced to opt for private colleges. It has affected so many middle-class families who don’t depend on their caste to get admissions for their wards in colleges and jobs thereafter.

When these barbs failed to hit home, the MSM subtly changed track. In more than two decades or so, Lal Krishna Advani was the man who had been vilified by the MSM as the face of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It was his Rath Yatra that fuelled a sense of insecurity in Muslims all over the country and drove a wedge between the two communities, they said. He was also one of the conspirators who watched as kar sevaks climbed atop the mosque in Ayodhya and brought it down on December 6, 1992. The MSM never failed to remind us that this was the man who was singularly responsible for destroying India’s secular fabric.

However, in the past few years, just because Narendra Modi and Amit Shah had sidelined Advani, they forgot all that and had been writing pieces about what a nice guy he was and how sorry they were to see him being sidelined – all done purely to rile Modi. And now, just to oppose Modi’s choice of Kovind they also rediscovered his hidden charms, democratic values and ethics. Suddenly “A man who has the wisdom and courage to say sorry is someone I would trust to safeguard our democracy and our values as president.” Amen.

By the way, has Advani ever said ‘SORRY’ for the demolition of the mosque?

Conveniently forgotten also was the fact that just last month the MSM went after Kalyan Singh when the court named him as a co-conspirator in the Babri case, and rightly so because they believed he escaped trial as he was governor. But, now they had no problem letting Advani off the hook.

The MSM also suffered selective amnesia with the minor matter of Advani’s age. He is 90 years old. In their rush to pull down 71-year-old Kovind’s nomination, they forgot they had roundly criticised Modi when he forwarded the name of 76-year-old Najma Heptullah for governor. So, they were okay with a 90-year-old Commander-in-Chief of the Indian armed forces?

And finally, on June 22, when Congress President Sonia Gandhi decided on Meira Kumar as her choice for president, the MSM began promoting the former speaker, known only for her closeness to the Gandhi family and for being one of the most ineffectual Speakers of the Lok Sabha with her patented “baith jaiyee, baith jaiyee” which never really worked. Her other claim to fame is the fact that she is Babu Jagjivan Ram’s daughter. Oh wait, there’s another – she is a Dalit, which of course some well-known journalists, who were accusing Modi of using the Dalit card while nominating Kovind, now have no problem with. All these flip flops, twists and turns by the MSM are only because their hatred for Modi surpasses all else along with the fear of seeing him come back to power in 2019. SO HE HAS TO BE STOPPED AT ANY COST.

Really guys, your slip is showing. You can have your personal viewpoint about anyone or anything but your flip-flops on a daily basis in the public domain do no good to your reputation as journalists we once admired. I say this because as someone who interacts with students of journalism in media colleges I get asked this question very often. Can you make it any more obvious that the lessons on ethics and morality you speak to budding journalists about is something you have conveniently buried under the mountain of half-truths you’ve been peddling ever since Narendra Modi came to power? And, I am not even getting into the years before that.

On second thoughts, I should have retitled this ‘what’s the boss got to do with it?’

I read a quote recently by former president APJ Abdul Kalam that said, ‘Love your job, but don’t love your company, because you may not know when your company stops loving you.” I don’t completely agree with that, because sometimes a good company or a considerate boss can make you go that extra yard.

It was very flattering when an ex-boss told me he’d take me back because I had stuck to my ethics, when I had worked there. He told me I was one of the very few who knew what some of his managers were up to, and instead of joining them, preferred to walk out. Some years later he called me home and said he owed me an apology. I ca,’t possibly get a boss to apologise when they make a mistake, but when one says so, himself….! I haven’t met too many owners, editors or CEOs who have had the humility to accept they had erred and to apologise for it. He’s the only one.

That was valuable experience to my learning curve, and from the time I was 16, having seen and worked in a lot of places, I guess, I’ve seen a few managers – good and bad. But, honesty is not something that all of them appreciate,  even if they make a show of welcoming “frank and honest opinions”. My mother always used to say that people who tell you, “be frank with me about everything including me” are the first ones who’ll come after you with a hatchet if you ‘be frank and honest’ about them! I’ve had bosses telling me to point their errors whenever they make them. You can guess the rest. Stupid me!

There was another guy I worked for in Delhi for a year or so. He shut the company because his weekly medical bills crippled him to such an extent that it sometimes exceeding our weekly printing budget. He could have asked me to go. Instead, he told me to freelance and do what I loved to do – write – and said he would pay my salary till I got another job. I am eternally grateful to that man for his graciousness and generosity, because had he asked me to go that day, five of us would have been on the street, homeless.

These are some managers who you remember for all the right reasons. And then there are those you don’t want to remember at all! I read some time back that two well-known journalists of a national newspaper had resigned. Nothing new, it happens all the time. Two more left a fortnight before that for their own reasons. What I read with interest in the first case was that one of them cited ‘verbal abuse’ as a reason for his resignation. Some months back a news anchor tried to commit suicide alleging harassment from her bosses and top management. I feel sorry for the lady in question, and I can’t even imagine the kind of pressure she might have been under, but what she did was a bit extreme because one should never give any boss that satisfaction.

Two of my ex-bosses in respective organisations once told me that my juniors had complained that I used the F word once too often.  In the first case, the boss laughed and said, “Go easy on them.” She mistakenly thought I was using it against them. I came out and announced that I apologised to everyone for my language, but it wasn’t personal.  I must not have looked one bit contrite after my apology, because there was laughter from the people around.

In the second instance, I asked my juniors if I had ever abused them using the F word. They were surprised because none of them had complained. They said they had no problems with it, because they knew I wasn’t making it personal. It then became a bit of a joke and some of the reporters would say “Sir, please say the word once. The way you say it, it sounds like a compliment not a swear word. Dil ko sukoon milta hain!” (it gives relief to the heart!)

I’ve been accused of a lot else, like berating (NEVER ABUSING) reporters and subs for submitting bad copy, and I am sure they see the wisdom in that now! There were a few tears and then we would go out for a coffee and sort things out. Of course, there are always exceptions. As seniors, one pushes the juniors often to see how far they can be pushed. The brilliant ones survive, the rest make up the average bunch. It is a case of the kitchen and the heat. That’s life. Oh and I’ve made mistakes too, plenty of them, which I’ve paid for in cash and kind, because as an HoD, at the end of the day is responsible for everything that goes wrong.

I remember my senior Joseph Pinto telling some of us once that if anyone made really silly mistakes, “he would “hang the bastard out of the window by his legs!” Last year, I was at a condolence meeting for a former colleague and a senior journalist, and during some of the eulogies a couple of senior journalists mentioned how their seniors would berate them for messing up their copies. That is how they improved in journalism and reached the positions they are in today. I was flattered when they mentioned my name along with the others, because after all these years, it felt nice to be remembered by some of your juniors for the right reasons.

An ex-student tweeted to me some time back that verbal abuse is very common in media houses. She is right, it not common just in media houses but everywhere. In some places it is in-your-face and in others it is more subtle but just as vicious. And that is because managements do not care to act against errant managers, until his/her actions or he/she jeopardises their interests. I have nothing against an occasional ticking off. It doesn’t kill anyone. All seniors lose their cool at some time or the other. With the kind of pressure they are under from the top, it is understandable.

A former student told me how her boss screamed at her over the phone for something that wasn’t even her fault: Bhenc**d, why the f*** did you do this?” He was profusely apologetic to her the minute she walked into the office because he had discovered that it was not her fault after all! Never mind the fact that he got her gender mixed up! However, when I hear of bosses who say they are proud of verbally using their juniors, because that is the way they get work done, I pity them. It shows their inability and incompetence to lead a team.

I have watched the trauma-hit faces of the youngsters around me when bosses without even the slightest provocation have started screaming at them. Juniors then start to treat the job as a sufferance they have to endure because it pays the bills and not something they love to do. And more and more, I have begun to believe that if you do not treat people with respect they will not give you any respect.

Someone has rightly said that if you want to find an unhappy employee look to his boss. This link should make interesting reading. Why such experienced people, who are in positions of power for their talent and abilities (I presume), should behave in such a bizarre fashion is something I can never fathom.  A boss who thinks he has the right to verbally abuse his or her staff, is fit to be admitted to a psychiatric ward instead of the high chair he or she occupies in the corporate world.

I know of a colleague who quit her job, because the boss who was twice her age, went after her so hard that she fled. This was not a case of verbal abuse but one of extreme harassment. This kid just knew more about the job they were working on, and it was making the boss look inept. She told me the whole story one evening on chat and It horrified me that such a senior person could be so insecure about a job and so vindictive. And they were friends. Then there were these two kids who worked for national publications, who were got after by their immediate superiors. Once others noticed that they were taking it quietly, they too joined in, till one of them got frustrated and quit.

So what brings out the sadistic streak in some bosses?  Is it some frustration from the time they were trainees and were bullied by their bosses or are they just doing this to hide their inadequacies as managers, or are they mentally unfit to take the responsibility given to them?  I know ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ but verbally abusing colleagues and juniors is proof that they are undeserving of the crown – whatever they or the management might think. Even I once had a junior politely telling me, “Why don’t you f**k off?” because I was standing behind her correcting her as she edited her copy.

I was taken aback for a second and then we started laughing. But then she was something special and she has proved it over the years by becoming one of the finest journalists this profession has produced. And we’ve remained good friends these past 25 years. We always want to emulate our seniors and believe that one day we would like to walk in their shoes. Would I ever want to walk in the shoes of someone who believes that swearing at his or her staff  is the way to get work done? This blog is my answer.

(Just thought I’d post this piece for posterity and for the record. This is the original piece sent to Tehelka, which was abridged for publication. It appeared on July 12, 2014. The link to that story is here.

Genes are a mysterious element in our system. It’s funny how they work behind-the-scenes.

My parents separated when I was around three or four, so whatever I heard about my father was from my mother – that he used to be a politician, journalist, lecturer. If there was more she didn’t tell me, and if she did, I was too young to remember. I only saw him as and when he occasionally dropped in at our place in Bhagalpur from Patna over the weekend, stayed the night and left in the morning. He scared me, because he had a volatile temper and used it at anyone and everyone, for any random reason. In my teens, I learnt he was a socialist and politician, who had been close to the late Jaya Prakash Narayan. Also, that his father had disowned him, when he joined the freedom struggle. Apart from that I didn’t know much else, and didn’t care. As I grew old enough to think for myself, I knew he was what I never wanted to be.

My first brush with journalism was when I was fourteen. I wrote an angry letter to a film magazine about a film I saw. They published it. I was shocked. Even more shocked when they sent me a cheque for 50 bucks. That was my brief flirtation with journalism, because I ended up working in the hotel industry in the 1980s.

In my twenties, rebellious and unemployed, a friend offered me a sub editor’s job at a local daily in Pune. I grabbed it. My father once came from Patna and asked me if I would ever become a News Editor. I said I didn’t know. I was a trainee sub editor earning 600 rupees. In the thirteen years after that, I became Assistant Editor of the daily. Then in 1994 my father passed away and neither I nor anyone from my family went for his funeral. It wasn’t possible anyway although I flew in to see him a week before he died. I don’t know who performed his last rites.

From Assistant Editor in a single-edition newspaper in Pune to a Chief Copy Editor at a seven-edition national newspaper in Chandigarh, to a Deputy News Editor at the same newspaper in Lucknow, I was now running the news desk. The day the editor called me to hand over the letter appointing me News Editor of the Lucknow edition, I broke down in her cabin.

Some years later, I settled again in Pune. I had quit journalism and gone into corporate communication. I took up teaching on a friend’s advice.  After all, twenty years was a long time to be in journalism. At my first lecture at a local college, I froze. Thankfully, that never happened again. I’ve been teaching journalism and occasionally PR for seven years now and a few hundred youngsters around the country are now my ex-students.

Then, like everyone else interested in writing, I began blogging (, even as I returned to journalism a few years back. One day I was trolling the worldwide web and out of sheer curiosity I typed out my father’s name, and something popped out that left me stunned and turned my world upside down.

It was my father’s bio data in a book on the politicians from Bihar. It read: Educated in Darbhanga, Patna, Banaras and London; Left studies to join the non-cooperation movement, 1920; Assistant Editor and later Editor, Desh, 1921-23; Sub-Editor, Searchlight, 1924; Went to England for higher study and law, 1926-31; took part in the Civil Disobedience Movement, arrested and sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment, 1934-35; founder member, Bihar Socialist Party, 1934; Secretary, Bihar Socialist party, 1935-36; taught in Kashi Vidyapeeth, 1936; Editor Sangharsh, 1937-48; Secretary, UP Congress Socialist Party; Principal National High School, Lucknow, 1939-42; participated in Quit India Movement, 1942; arrested and detained, 1943-45; member, National Executive, Socialist Party, 1948; Editor Janata, 1948-69; member Praja Socialist Party, 1955-69; left politics and resumed teaching at Patna; died in 1994.

Truth be told, I really didn’t know my father at all.

(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 11 Issue 28, Dated 12 July 2014)

Tuesday’s (September 10, 2014) edition of a Pune newspaper reports that a father was arrested for molesting his six-year-old daughter. So while (thankfully) they didn’t name the victim, they showed even more consideration by not naming the father. I wonder why. Shouldn’t they have released the name of this monster? Was it because he wasn’t a well-known personality, but just a casual labourer?

Having been a journalist for nearly 25 years, I abhor censorship of any kind when it comes to writing. I believe media should be free to report anything and everything as long as they have the facts and stay within the bounds of propriety, language, journalistic ethics without maligning, defaming or hurting anyone in the process. In other words, we practice some form of self-censorship.

However, there is a huge difference between having the freedom to report anything and everything and still maintaining some sense and sensibility. As of now, the Indian media is straining on the proverbial leash (no pun intended), but it has some way to go before that leash can be taken off. As it is, with the advent of online media and social networking sites news coverage has changed dramatically. Every time one believes they have reached the stage where they can be called responsible, the media shoot itself in the foot. Judging the way the media reported the Shweta Basu Prasad incident, I think they still have a long way to go before they can be called a truly responsible media.

I was waiting for some follow-ups from the ‘professional journalists’. However, there was pin drop silence. I waited for some more time hoping they were getting their facts. There was still nothing. There were the usual condescending, self righteous articles from some journalists. Then one of the newspapers ran an online poll on the subject with the actor’s picture, and that’s what got my goat. Under the garb of meaningful journalism, some people will do anything for a few hundred hits. And this, from the newapaper that I was proud to say I had worked for!

Whether they believed the actress’ story or not; whether she was telling the truth or not, or whether she was doing business are not the issues here. And I am not even defending the woman. Let’s face it. Many of our actors, who often wear a halo, do tend to have more skeletons in their closets than we can possibly imagine. Likewise, Shweta Basu Prasad may have been back in the news for all the wrong reasons, but to be made into a headline the way she had been, was just appalling.

What were the editors thinking when they allowed their news editors to use the name and picture of a 23 year old woman in their publications and the TV channels? Was it just for a few hundred copies and some TRPs? Did they not once consider the fact that she might have had a family somewhere who will have to live with that stigma for the rest of their lives? And if there were so concerned about the prostitution racket this woman was involved in, why was there this almost deathly silence when it came to revealing the identities of the men who were caught with the actor in the prostitution racket in Hyderabad or the kingpins of the racket? Surely, they know who these people are. Or is it because some names are too familiar and too close for comfort for them to print?

As journalists we are often asked not to disclose names of organisations or departments either, if a matter of sexual assault is to be reported. In Prasad’s case not only are we talking about the gross ethical violation in terms of publishing her biography and filmography on every story; but just in case the public’s memory needed to be jogged, newspapers and TV channels went the extra mile to release her picture without bothering to blacken out the eyes or blur the face.

Journalists are taught to exercise caution when reporting even the most insignificant case of sexual assault. For a fraternity that continues to remain cautious when mentioning the December 16 gang-rape episode, what happened when reporting on the present case? Was the fact that we were talking about a National award winning actor and not a college student that the free pass for journalistic ethics went flying out of the window? What followed was even worse. They brought out human interest stories on how the media owed her an apology, without ever offering one.

I remember an incident after the bomb blasts in New Delhi in mid-2000. Some TV channels carried the picture of a young boy who had identified one of the men who had planted the bomb. I was appalled when I saw the child’s picture. Thankfully, it was pulled out soon after. However, the next day I was even more shocked to find that a national newspaper had carried the picture of the boy. Since I happened to know someone there I asked why they had violated the child’s privacy and more importantly since he was the only eyewitness. The reply I got was, “Oh, the TV channels already broke that rule, so why blame us?”

It’s unfortunate that the media, which is quick to pounce on hapless bloggers and writers on social media platforms and threaten them with law suits for publishing something that lampoons them, is now strangely silent. Wouldn’t it be nice if one read a public apology in the newspapers addressed to the young lady and her family? Do they have the guts or the courage to do that? Or do they believe that an apology doesn’t really matter anymore since the damage is already done? Or, even more importantly, do they believe they are above the law?

“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.

The Hindu was once known as the newspaper which had NO errors. I stress on the word ‘NO’.  This newspaper was the last word in correct English. It must be right, if it is in The Hindu, was the foregone conclusion. With due apologies to the Virginia Slims advertisement that appeared in the early 1960’s (I think), we’ve come a long way baby!

A few weeks ago, The Hindu had a word in the lede that would have made ALL their late editors turn cartwheels in the grave. It had used the word ‘catapult’ instead of ‘capitulate’ in a report about the Advani resignation farce. It got me and I am sure, a lot of others, smiling at the delicious irony of it. Imagine the blunder happening at The Hindu, which always prided itself for the correctness of its language. The same Hindu, in the early days, offered a generous sum of money to readers who could spot an error in the newspaper. It was reported that for many years there were no claimants for the prize. But this incident also got me thinking.

After having worked in the media industry for the past 23 years, this is a question that I have often pondered over but have always come up short for answers: Is it possible to produce a zero-error newspaper? And, if so, under what conditions?

During my stint with the Hindustan Times in Lucknow, the HR guys came over once to give us a presentation on Six Sigma which they wanted to implement in the newspaper. I sat through the lecture that stretched for a half a day and at the end of it, when I was asked whether it could be employed in the editorial department, I said a flat no. Here’s why. Feel free to correct me if I am wrong.

Let’s just step back a few decades and explore the work in newspapers between the 1950s up to the early 1980s. In those days, most reporters still filed only a story or two every day as per their beat requirements. Copy editors (then known as sub-editors) edited three to four reports on a shift ( I may be wrong here). There was more than one sub editor to do one page. Pages were made by layout artists supervised by seniors. There were no spell-checks. If you had a doubt, there was the fat dictionary. For grammar and sentence formation, your command of the language was what saved you or screwed you.  But of the people who worked there many were dons in the language and secondly they were passionate about the profession.

By the mid 1980s, when I joined a newspaper, sub editors were editing up to two pages per shift, again in hard copy, although computers were being used to type in matter. It was only in the 1990s that computers began to be used for editing and page-making as well. Cut to the present day and age, where with the help of computers copy editors not only edit, but also design up to four pages per shift. Journalism schools were not too much in fashion in those days, and as Kushwant Singh said in the foreword of a book on journalism, one could learn more journalism in three months working for a newspaper than by spending two years in journalism school.

Today media schools have spread across the country like the proverbial rash. But they are churning out graduates and post graduates with very little connect to the high pressure world outside. The quality of manpower emerging from here has a huge role to play in the product that they intend to promote. While there are youngsters who are (to use the phrase) to the manner born, there are numerous others who take up journalism because they couldn’t get into, maybe, medicine or engineering. So unless they discover the hidden talent and revel in the course, they are already facing the proverbial Mt. Everest. Then, a month’s internship is not enough. Today, a fresher is thrown in the deep end from the day he or she joins, and not everyone feels right at home. The smart ones learn to swim the rest struggle to stay afloat. It is the latter that is a cause for worry. This is where a mentor plays such a significant role at least in newspapers. Magazines are luckier, in that aspect I am told.

When we were trainees, there were seniors who were looking over our shoulder at what we were doing. Very often, we were told to watch how they edited a particular copy. So we did not just learn to edit, we also learnt to write better.  Maybe, that’s a practice we should resume, at least in a newspaper, even if it means extending work by a few hours. Today, that is missing, mainly because there is no time. If I make copy editors sit next to me every time I rework their copies, the deadlines will go for a six.

Take the example of the newspaper I work for. On any given day we have between 25 and thirty local and region reports, which are far more than what any other local newspaper carries, except maybe the vernacular editions. So, while I run my eyes over all those reports once edited and I still find mistakes, I correct them. When the copy has numerous errors I’ll call the copy editor and show him where he or she has erred. I don’t always have the time to individually call juniors over and explain to them the intricacies of editing and rewriting every time they make an error. I hope that they will read the newspaper the next day to see the corrected versions of their copies.

In such a working environment, can we ever produce a zero-error newspaper? Not everyone could produce it then, and with the kind of pressures we face, I just wonder whether we can do it now.

And if you need more proof, here it is. From the Indian Express of July 27, 2013.