Journey into journalism

Recently we have had two high-profile editorial exits, one from a newspaper and another from a newsweekly. When Sidharth Varadarajan quit his paper, it was a major surprise to many readers, especially the fact that he was its Editor all along. And in the case of Hartosh Singh Bal, who had to unceremoniously leave the magazine Open under controversial circumstances, many were staggered by the fact that such a thing had happened in a publication that they had mostly not heard of.

Seriously, journalists are important to journalists alone. For the rest, Saravanan Meenatchi is.

You can’t blame the public; news media continues to be a profession about which outsiders know very little about. For instance, many think that an editor’s role is to bring out a newspaper, when in reality the role of a newspaper editor — I am quoting this from Press Council rules — is to sit in TV news studios and hold forth on myriad issues many of which he or she will be hearing for the first time, while interns and cub reporters actually help bring out his/her publication.

It is also common belief that editors write editorials. This is utter hogwash. Editorials, those important and insightful carriers of truth and values that define a publication, those vehicles of words and wisdom, those that constitute the moral heart of a news organisation, are mostly penned by those people in the newsroom who are incapable of any work of practical value.

In general, and I have maintained this always, editorials in a newspaper are read by a sum total of 6.5 people that is including the writer and the person who copy-edits them (he is usually the half-person).

To do away with some of the misconceptions about journalism, I am answering a few questions that smart readers, somehow deducing that I will be taking them up this week, had sent them in advance

How important is the circulation revenue for a newspaper?

We will tackle this with a practical example: You go to a shop, buy a few stuff, and the bill runs up to Rs.503 and you give a 1000 rupee note to the shopkeeper. He says he has just a 500 rupee note and no other change with him. And you slap your pockets and rummage through the wallet and finally come up with three old one rupee coins that you never realised were lying with you. You give them to the shopkeeper, who in turn gives you back Rs.500.

The circulation revenue is the three one rupee coins in the above said incident — loose leftover change, frankly insignificant, but one that provides value in a transaction which could still be completed without it.

So how does one make money in this business?

By printing them. The money, that is. Seriously, that would seem the best option in the circumstance.

That takes us to internet. Talk us through the digital strategy of newspapers

It is more than clear that internet is the future. This is confirmed by all who make a living out of internet. The rest simply don’t care.

Anyway, the beauty of internet is that it allows publications to provide quick and smart access of their news and features to a larger cross-section of people who frankly have no need for them.

For instance, I can read, say, Angola Herald every day, even though it is a fact that 1) I cannot identify Angola on a map unless otherwise it is specifically mentioned by name 2) I am unlikely to visit the country in my lifetime 3) More importantly, I am unlikely to take out an advertisement in any form at any time in that paper.

The biggest advantage of internet, from a newspaper’s perspective, though is that it is organically interactive. Comments and responses are instant. As a journalist, I confess, it gives me a special thrill that within minutes of me uploading my article on the internet, a man sitting in Honolulu, which practically exists in another world for me, can read and be impelled to respond with the succinctly thoughtful line: ‘your writing sucks, you moron’. In the pre-internet days, the Honolulu man had to personally come over and berate me.

On the world wide web, as news publications we are able to make us conveniently available in audio, video and plenty of other digital formats to people who practically pay us not a single paise, and then hold seminars at five-star hotels, where editors and top media professionals in solemn suits and sombre voices, wonder why news publications in print form are dying.

As an industry veteran, what will be your monetisation strategy for publications on the internet?

As they say, when in doubt go back to first principles, which on the internet, is porn. It never fails. It never will.

Which kind of set-up is better for a publication, the owner-Editor or professional Editor?

Media experts, by which I mean guys who have plenty of free time on their hand, agree that a professional Editor, as opposed to an owner-Editor, is not unseemly focused on the bottom line of the company. Journalism is a higher calling with social underpinnings, and most professional editors — erudite and sapient — are passionately driven by the moral force of pay package.

At a practical level, a professional Editor can act as a strong hedge against the biases and prejudices of the owner and run the publication independently based on his own prejudices and biases.

Most owner-editors, with their finances at stake, err on the side of conservatism and not attempt any socially relevant but risky news reports, while a fearless and independent, professional Editor can be counted upon to boldly attempt news stories that bring laurels to him, to the newspaper and plenty of losses to the man who hired him and pays him his wages. This is press freedom, in a nutshell.

To wind up, a former Editor of Times of India, once famously said that he held the ‘second most important job in the country’. That begs the question: who holds the first most important job?

The advertisement chief, of course.