Allow me a preamble.
Raju Narisetti was the founder and first editor of Mint, an Indian financial newspaper. It began a daily run in February 2007, but the paper’s flesh and bones were put together the preceding year. But what flesh, and what bones! To me, it was never simply a newspaper. I’m not alone in feeling this way. There were so many new things about it: the way we were told to source stories, the ethical framework, the code of conduct, the Bloomberg terminal (and operator), stories whose precise edits could be clearly pinned to whoever made the change. But that was just the stuff inside. What the paper put out for everyone to see went through an editorial grinder led by Narisetti, Sukumar Ranganathan, and a bunch of other editors every night. Your stuff had to be clear, which meant explaining everything, and not assuming that the reader knew your beat. Simple stuff, right? Well, you’d be surprised. The editors rewrote stuff like mad. Beginnings were almost always rephrased, and always, always better.
Narisetti left his newspaper in December 2008, barely two weeks after it published an anonymous letter to the prime minister. The letter, published on December 10, was discussed in parliament on December 18, and the manner in which it was dismissed by Chidambaram led Narisetti to write “an open clarification about an open letter.” As it happened, he resigned before the end of December.
Was it all related? I have no idea, and I haven’t tried to find out. (Brain freeze, if you will.) But in November 2009, Narisetti told Heather Timmons of the NYT that he left because of a “troubling nexus [of business, politics and publishing that he called] draining on body and soul.”
That stayed with me because it’s the sort of thing you see a lot of, but rarely does a top editor come out and say it.
So of course I had to speak with Narisetti about Indian journalism for this Foreign Policy piece that appeared last night. I mailed him some questions, and he wrote back some seriously considered answers. As an aside, he said that the questions didn’t allow him to focus on the good. “After all, with a few exceptions Mint became what it is not because of non-Indians but because of Indian journalists, born, raised and working there even now,” he wrote. Narisetti wasn’t downbeat on Indian journalists. “Not journalism [though],” he added.
“As I have publicly said before, Mint did everything it did inside a system that I rile about which shows it can be done. And as I have also said before, all things being equal, if I felt I could do something as pathbreaking as Mint in India, I would still do it all over again and I would have no hesitation doing it for Shobhana Bhartia and HT Media.”
Q. What hurdles stand in the way of journalists becoming professional in their outlook and approach in India?
For starters, there is surprisingly widespread apathy and doubt among journalists about the value of professionalism—defined as being ethical, balanced, accurate and fair—in the eyes of readers/audiences. As in ‘my readers don’t really seem to care’ so what is the point of fighting uphill battles when the “chalta hai” (or anything goes) can get you far? As a result there is a lot of what I call the lowest common denominator approach to practicing journalism that is consistently removed from conventional notions of how modern-day journalism operates in the West.
Because of the degree-granting journalism schools at Indian universities have faculty that probably hasn’t stepped foot into a newsroom in years, if not decades, the overall journalism education in India remains rather theoretical, archaic and not particularly professional in terms of the modern-day practice of journalism. The phenomena of supply of trained journalists exceeding demand in the 1990s and 2000s has also meant a lot of hiring of journalists without particularly paying attention to the quality and craft of such incoming employees. The resulting rise in “captive” journalism schools—those run by publishers—has also resulted in a generation of journalists being trained on how journalism is conducted in those news organizations, not how journalism ought to be conducted.
The overwhelming demand for students graduating out a handful of private journalism schools has then meant that the incoming class is guaranteed multiple job offers if they simply finish the course. This removes the normal competitive forces that push students to excel beyond a few who want to put more the minimum effort required to graduate.
Q. When you began hiring here, what was the experience like? Did your expectations change?
Back in 2006, there was a great sense of entitlement, especially among those with 2-5 years experience, let alone the veterans, that wasn’t necessarily backed up by skills, consistency or a learning curve. But often that was the impact of then market forces being internalized by job candidates. There were significant gaps in the subject matter expertise of reporters who were veterans of their “beats” in a culture where veterans were often those who had been on a beat for about a year! The plus side is that Mint could end up with a critical mass of reporters and editors who were “restless journalists” – either dissatisfied with their own professional growth or craving for a more professional environment but unable to find a critical mass of either where they worked.
Q. What was the reaction to the code of conduct? Were you aware it was unusual for an Indian publication to have one?
I spent the first several months of moving to India putting it together because I believed that as a founding editor I had the responsibility to create a guideposts for both my newsroom to execute on a common ethos but also provide my readers with a roadmap to what Mint would be all about. I was very aware that a living, evolving journalistic code of conduct was a significant exception to India’s media culture. By being deliberate and also being explicit, Mint’s Code of Conduct allowed our newsroom to fend off all sorts of internal and external challenges to our journalism. Especially because it also articulated a very transparent mechanism for correcting our errors and thus taking away the common criticism—unfounded or deserved—that journalists made mistakes and never bothered to fix them.
Q. In an interview with Shanti Venkataraman for SAJA, you said, “the co-option of journalists with the business side in India is unheralded.” Could you tell me a little more about this? Did you face anything like this during your time here?
The blatant “buying” of journalists was very commonplace especially by companies—a fancy watch sent to a reporter’s house for Diwali or expensive gadgets given as gifts on press junkets as was a very open “quid pro quo” of sharing documents on rivals in return for one-sided stories. It was also not uncommon to entirely ignore activities of a sector or company that had links to your media house’s owners as part of an unwritten code of conduct. I can give plenty of examples which is why having a written code of conduct that was enforced helped Mint build and then hold on to its ethical standards.
Q. As editor of a group of Indian reporters with varied backgrounds, what were some of the problematic habits you came across?
As an editor of a startup, I had the luxury of creating a new work culture and reinforcing habits that Mint wanted to have. Simple habits such as a normal work day skewed toward only starting mid-morning and extending well into the evening and the resulting scramble to meet lock-ups was endemic as was the giving up of attempts to reach all the parties cited in stories even before trying. Another significant gap is the unwillingness of reporters to say in their stories what they don’t know thus allowing readers to get the full context. Most reporters took that as a sign of weakness rather than a good practice of transparency.
The most problematic issue was talking down to readers by not being clear and simple in their writing. Multimedia journalism—and the need for the reporter to work with others or provide raw material—was something very nascent and mostly missing in business journalism and was something Mint had to bring to the table. Finally, the use of non-English words as a populist crutch was endemic and thus had to be formally banned at Mint unless the top 2-3 editors personally approved it.
Q. If I think about it, what makes this co-option of journalists by the business side unheralded? Is there something different about the business in India from elsewhere? Why is it so extreme here?
I can’t speak for all journalism all over but in my 24 years in this “business,” I have never seen the co-option be the norm than the exception and in that context India was different. Sure, there are problems everywhere but most such issues tend to be exceptions, sporadic and often fixed unlike what I encountered in India. And this isn’t about laying the blame on individual journalists—it is simply a culture that is perpetuated and reinforced when industry leaders embrace policies that destroy even rudimentary church and state guideposts.
Culturally I have found Indian journalism to suffer from what I see as an endemic issue across most professions in India—a deeply held belief that anyone being critical of India or Indianess is automatically being negative or being down on India. This then leads to pointing to problems elsewhere to justify behavior that is of the lowest common denominator than practices that strive to be at the leading edge of what good journalism ought to be.
Q. Did you find this proximity coming in the way of honest journalism?
It could and often does.
Q. Did your experience here change the way you read news out of India?
A large reason why Mint was conceived, created and then run the way it is—and has been in its six years of existence—was because it was born out of my belief (and I’m not denying a healthy ego here) that 1.2 billion people deserved a better and honest news product. I don’t mind points of view in journalism as long as those are labeled, identified and not secretly paid for by those who benefit from such points of view.
Do I believe most journalism on and out of India is sincere, well meaning and broadly accurate? Absolutely. But my problem is that I don’t quite know which portion of it is not of all that because the critical mass of honest and straightforward journalism is stillborn, in spite of a Mint or a Caravan or a FirstPost. When some of the best journalism on India is happening in India-focused blogs of Western journalism organizations such as India Real Time of WSJ or India Ink of NYT, that should give all of us who care about India deeply a lot of pause. And from that perspective, I pause a lot when I encounter news out of India.
This is not about journalism in the West being superior. But it is definitely about the opportunities to practice superior journalism—one that treats its audiences with care and respect—being consistently more outside India than inside India.