Reprinted from Mint, July 5, 2012
As India’s news culture evolves and becomes a factor to reckon with for anyone in public life, the Indian newsroom merits some attention. It is the incubator from which what passes for news is emerging. And its environment reflects the times.
What is missing from the Indian newsroom?
News, for one. On television it has been replaced by discussion, and reporting by hectoring. Flip across channels in the 9 pm band and even if it is a genuine breaking news day you will get speculative chat or hectoring.
On Tuesday night on Headlines Today Gaurav Sawant hectored the Delhi power minister till he himself turned apoplectic, even as the minister persisted in trying getting a word in, without getting as worked up as the anchor. It was a single point pursuit. If the chief minister expected Delhi-ites to reduce their power consumption, was the Delhi government doing likewise?
At the same time on Times Now another young thing was working herself into a lather over the Pakistan foreign secretary meeting the Hurriyat at the Pakistan high commission in Delhi. She got shriller and shriller till you flipped channels to escape. NDTV India meanwhile, was dissecting the Thorat committee’s cartoon wisdom. If you don’t get the equivalent of a proper news bulletin at 9 pm when should you expect to get it?
Whom does one blame? Budget cuts would be a fair guess. The news industry was desperately cash strapped during the 2009 recession, it is so again today. News gathering is expensive, particularly from a large, mostly rural country. Studio talk is cheap. Yet newspapers keep the flag flying where the rest of the population lives. Without them, India’s rulers would know little about the state of their people.
What else is missing? Job security. Both in the print media and television lay-offs are occurring steadily now. Sometimes as retrenchment, but also through what is described as “remote transfer.” In the process of trimming its Delhi bureau, Dainik Bhaskar has been transferring people at the editor level over the last few months. To Bhatinda, Raipur, Sikar and Itarsi. Most of them oblige the management by resigning. Two senior members of the national bureau were transferred to Pali and Alwar in Rajasthan. There have also been six other dislodgings here.
Bhaskar’s rival Dainik Jagran came up with a recipe for newsroom insecurity,
conduct eligibility tests for existing employees, transfer, retrench. If you fail the eligibility test you lose your job. At least nine publishing centres in Uttar Pradesh are affected by one of these methods, and at one staffers have gone to the labour court against the management.
At Headlines Today half a dozen senior people have lost their jobs over the last couple of months, and less than a year ago the Mail Today editor was forced to quit on the issue of being asked to retrench more people.
They have been rumoured job cuts at the Times of India and Economic Times, but one has no confirmation on numbers. When newsrooms trim, they may become more viable, but when they trade senior professionals for cheaper newsroom labour surely they lose something?
Something else is missing from Indian newsrooms. Diversity. It is an issue implicit in the bias one sees in what makes news and what does not. Earlier this year Robin Jeffrey, author of India’s Newspaper Revolution, reminded his audience at a Delhi lecture that stories from the lives of close to 25 per cent of Indians (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) are unlikely to be known — much less broadcast or written about because of the caste composition of newsrooms. Both dalits and tribal journalists are pretty much absent from the media workforce.
He did not get into class, but that is an issue too for the English media. When you do get a more representative workforce in terms of class in the regional media, they are unlikely to get proper professional remuneration, because big regional papers thrive on low salaried staffers and stringers.
Lastly, as media in India gets increasingly politicised, the journalists these establishments employ will increasingly lack the luxury of pursuing objectivity in their media practice. As Madhabhushi Sridhar writing for the Hoot on Andhra Pradesh’s political party affiliated news channels asks, are the journalists who work for these media houses being reduced to political workers?
Another loss for the newsroom.
Talking of news budgets, last month there was a visitor from another planet. Ken Auletta, author and New Yorker columnist was in India for almost two weeks to do a story on the Indian media. If that sounds like an indulgence, here’s how he kicked off his media column for the New Yorker in the early 1990s. He spent two salaried months just interviewing the who’s who in the media before he needed to start writing!
This is a slightly altered version of the Mint column