My journey from an ‘up-start’ to a ‘start-up’
What 20 years in journalism has taught me
It was the month of July when the rain pounds down and floods the clogged streets in Calcutta faster than a municipality tap can fill a bucket. In the watery by-lanes of Avenue Road, 6 Prafulla Sarkar Street to be precise, a group of young intrepid minds poured over the Bromide (a type of photographic paper used in the newspaper industry for making photographic prints) sheets that would go on to re-write the way news was reported…and read in India. It was 1982.
‘The Telegraph’ was launched in Calcutta on July 7 that year. The discerning Calcutta reader did not hold out much hope for this ‘up-start’. How could it even think of taking on the brand that every intellectual ‘bhodrolok’ and the bourgeois’ trusted and looked up to? ‘The Statesman’ was the last statement on journalism. Period.
But as the young are want to (even the young of 1982), this was motivation enough.
And then an opportunity presented itself. On July 26 of the same year, the PTI ticker in the TT newsroom announced that Amitabh Bachchan, reigning superstar of Hindi cinema, was injured while shooting a fight scene for popular director Manmohan Desai’s film, ‘Coolie’.
At that time, I was in high school and not privy to the unfolding of events after the News Editor read the news on the ticker. But as a new sub-editor in ‘TT’ in 1991, it was not long before I learnt how the Goliath was slain. How ‘we’ managed to make our place in the hearts of the people of Calcutta and steal a march over the competition. The daily exclusive and detailed reports of Bachchan’s progress and recovery were a big hit, I was told. For the first time, readers got a taste of ‘real-time’ reporting. There were emotion and drama. People all over the country were praying for the superstar, and TT did its bit by bringing their tales to the Calcutta reader. A chord was struck. A connection made.
By the time I had joined the newsdesk in 1991, we were the ‘growing daily’. Though this was my second job in the newspaper industry (I worked with the ‘Free Press Journal’ earlier), I found most of my mentors on the TT news desk. They are some of the finest minds in journalism today. From them the young recruits learnt to see the fine print, and look beyond the obvious. Less is more, is a lesson I will always hold dear.
I remember going for my first reporting assignment to cover the aftermath of a fire that had engulfed a slum. After the report was published, my Editor sent me a note that said: ‘Great initiative.’ He did not fail to notice that I had slipped in the mention of the half-burnt doll in an otherwise ‘regular’ news copy. He had taught well.
Caught in the middle
Those were the days when the tap, tap, and ding of the typewriters still filled the newsroom. Computers were the new intruders which were regarded with suspicion till we found that they could check spelling errors! Transition is not always a painful thing. When you get caught in the revolving door of the going and the coming, it can disorient you momentarily. But the fun is in swinging between the safety of the past and the curiosity of the future.
We made our peace with computers. It was now easy to make last minute changes in the copy instead of sending handwritten corrections to the operators. Page making was simpler and faster. The keyboard was teaching us a new language, and little did we realize that ctrl, alt, delete would go on to reboot the world of journalism.
Of course, it is difficult to escape the double-edged sword that is technology. Besides sucking up the links (like the proof-reader, and the artist page-maker) in the newspaper ecosystem chain, technology’s black hole burdened us lowly subs with additional roles that were not easy to escape. We were copyediting, rewriting, proofreading, and making pages; all but loading the printing plates on the rollers!
My relationship with technology has been shaky and ambivalent. No doubt, smartphones and hi-tech devices are helping simplify life, or are they? (Now you know what I mean.) Thus, it came as a surprise to find myself on the tech turf a good 20 years later.
I had reluctantly quit a ‘cushy’ newspaper job that I loved, to join a startup. The idea was to move out of my comfort zone. Adversity, it is said, is a good teacher. After a personal tragedy, I was staring at a bleak future when I received an offer to join YourStory, India’s largest digital platform for startups and entrepreneurs. I had earlier flirted with other media like TV and internet radio, so the idea of web journalism, in retrospect, was appealing. However, at that time all I cared for was that the job allowed me to work from home. Hail technology!
Sitting in my quiet study, I would concentrate hard on the copies I had to edit. They talked about entrepreneurs who had braved great odds to live their dream. The stories were as much about tech entrepreneurs as they were about social entrepreneurs and women leaders. I realised these were extraordinary stories of ordinary people. In the night, I would dream about these ordinary heroes slaying dragons to retrieve hidden treasures.
I was learning yet another new language. I realized ‘Raspberry Pi’ was mouth-watering to coders and techies for a totally different reason; that the birth of e-commerce giants was triggered by a ‘pain-point’; that social media was more than just keeping in touch with friends; and that Ubuntu was only an operating system and not the African philosophy indicating human kindness.
A family friend of ours who spent most of his years climbing the corporate ladder, one day decided to quit everything and go back to college. He says he has never been as happy as he is now as a student. I did not have to rejoin college, but I find myself a student all over again. Technology showed me exactly how many people had read my story, whether people liked it and what they thought about it. Publishing a story was as easy as a pressing the ‘publish’ button. I realized the stories that worked best with readers on the internet were the ones which made them care. That was the only rule to follow as far as storytelling went.
This December, I complete a year at YourStory. I realize what binds me here (besides the kindness of young tech-loving colleagues eager to teach me, and the incredible stories of individuals who set out to prove themselves), is my new relationship with technology. I am learning to make it work for me rather than vice-versa. As I re-program my mental makeup, I find myself yet again at the threshold of another change that is set to alter the algorithm of journalism as I know it.