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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 40, September 19, 2009

Crisis in Indian Journalism

Monday 21 September 2009, by Kamal Wadhwa

Indian journalism is at a crossroads today. It is caught in the trauma of having to reconcile the traditions of the past as espoused by the many distinguished senior journalists, who currently control the editorial boards of newspapers and periodicals, with the relentless and unyielding realities of the new globalised India that is pushing journalists to cross and breach all limits and constraints prescribed by their elder colleagues.

Can Indian journalists remain true to the past tradition of their profession when those very traditions have glaring lacunae and flaws that have been glossed over by clever public relations exercises? The journalist of yore was a hungry and impoverished man; he had to be honest, forthright and outspoken because that was considered to be the lot of hungry men. Hence, hungry men could be recruited as journalists by newspaper manage-ments because it was expected of them to remain high-minded, forthright and outspoken. The journalist of yesteryears could also be manipu-lated by unscrupulous managements and used as a willing tool to serve management interests as long as he needed a job and a salary. The problem was that the managements kept him hungry throughout his career and tied him down to their newspapers and magazines because circulation figures rise when there are forthright and honest articles written. At least, that was the old dispen-sation; things may be different now.

The senior journalist of yore was also duped by the managements to serve as a role model for the younger generation of journalists so they could also be forthright and outspoken in their writings and hence maintain the quality of the newspaper or periodical and the resultant circulation and readership. Only that the new aspiring journalists couldn’t be outspoken and forthright journa-lists and they couldn’t go hungry and had to be paid their salaries on time! As a consequence, the senior journalist had to dig deep into his own pockets and accord all sorts of courtesies and con-cessions to keep the younger journalists committed to journalistic ethics and integrity and thus maintain the editorial quality of the periodicals in which they served. Hence, the great publications of socialist, secular India survived and even prospered on occasion with their integrity intact.

The great tragedy of Indian journalism was that its edifice was founded on a weak foundation. The very journalist, who had such a commanding role and reputation in the journalistic firmament, was a driven man who wanted to climb down from that imposed role and get paid on time! Once he left his profession, all his disciples and admirers in the younger generation also left the newspaper and periodical for more rewarding jobs elsewhere. Some even went to Australia and the Gulf countries and did safe, routine work without any inspiration. Without the proddings and exhortations of the senior journalist who was their mentor, they cared little for anything but becoming wealthy.

Newspapers and periodical managements had a cause to be alarmed. If the senior journalist quit his post, so would his junior colleagues. That is why shrewd and cunning managements withheld the senior journalist’s dues until such time they could find a suitable successor. They cajoled and coaxed the senior journalist to stay on yet a little longer because they simply could not find the replacement they wanted. Hence arose the professional chaos and vacuum in the journalistic firmament when the senior journalist was finally paid his dues and retired. Surprisingly, that eminent senior journalist simply faded into oblivion and obscurity because there was no one to acknowledge his sacrifices and achievements. He was considered to have been just another employee who had worked for a salary and had been paid if even a little too late!

These cunning managements of newspapers and periodicals have been vindicated in their beliefs by the very fact that the surviving senior journalists on their staff no longer make any unpleasant sounds as long as their salaries are paid no time. This has been the very great humbling of eminent journalists, that they are content to avoid controversy and do mundane tasks because they have at last heeded the call of their bodies and the demands made by their families. They no longer care to show their faces to the public or to junior colleagues because they are fallen idols. That great and relentless has been their denial and deprivation!

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The new breed of Indian journalists of the contemporary era never had to deal with such economies or ignominies. That is their advantage and bargaining point with managements. They have had good upbringings and fine education—some even have journalism degrees from Columbia and Stanford. No newspaper management can afford to ignore their résumes because they show so much merit and promise (in circulation prospects?) for their newspapers and periodicals.

The new breed of journalist has found his job and he is paid well and no time. He produces articles and copy that dwell on safe and risk-free subjects. That is the mandate he has or thinks he has because job security is what he cannot sacrifice at any cost. Hence, the neatness of his copy and the cleanliness of his prose. Circulation figures of newspapers keep climbing up because they are yet economical and affordable. They are part and parcel of modern life in the urban areas because even though they may not be read, the newsprint has resale value and can be collected and stored.

To keep circulation climbing or even steady, marketing departments have to continually reinvent their newspaper or periodical with fancier graphics, more supplements and more content. Gift articles are sent as a matter of routine practice to attract and keep subscribers. They must resort to hard sell even if that means leaning on editors to sacrifice editorial independence and integrity. The elder editors who remain on editorial boards do not interfere in the day-to-day workings of newspapers and magazines because they feel intimidated and that “the youngsters must be given a chance”!

Most journalism posts are really paid jobs today. Nobody can conceive of not being paid on time or their very chairs yanked out from under them on a cold Monday morning as frequently happened to their predecessors! They have narrowed their vision and simplified their daily work to get just that little security. They must not worry about circulation figures and readership! These qualities of the contemporary journalist must be accepted and even respected. Journalists, like other human beings, are the product of their own lifestyles and circumstances. A well-fed and secure journalist seems to be better than the hungry ideologue.

Though the old dispensation of Indian journalism has crumbled and faces extinction, the contem-porary journalist, like his predecessor, must be sensitive to the realties around him and the circumstances prevailing in the society at large. He can ignore them at his own peril.

When at last the marketing departments have exhausted their sops and incentives to attract new subscribers, when the last surviving crop of senior journalists and editors (with their intellectual and social capital) are retired out, the young and contemporary journalist must come on his own and face the prospect of tumbling circulations. He must learn to adapt to the “economic-mindedness” of all people and all institutions, big and small. Something will always be given to journalists only in order to be taken back at a later time! No copy will pass muster until it produces results in cold cash terms. And there are that many aspiring new journalists thrown up by colleges and universities every year, that managements could well play musical chairs with the careers of contemporary journalists in their fold. There is that ever-present necessity that falling circulations and crumbling bottomlines impose on managements—to cut staff to rationalise expenditures, and make economies. Even those proverbial symbols of the working journalist—the cup of tea and the cigarette—will disappear as newspaper offices are further sanitised and brought to par with their Western counterparts. This is the very essence of the future scenario of Indian journalism—that in his very youth and at the height of his intellectual powers, the young journalist will face reduction and retirement much like his now retired illustrious predecessor—the senior journalist of independent and secular India!

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Much of the traditional structure of Indian journalism was rooted in economic insecurity; the journalist was a driven man ever goaded to great and greater investigative crusades by cunning and manipulative newspaper and magazine manage-ments. Typically, the mindset of the Indian journalist was that of a man with a mission: ready to tear down the wall of deceit and corruption he thought surrounded government, business and industry. Towards that end, he studied government reports, press releases and balance-sheets assi-duously to find out the glaring discrepancies that simply had to be there! So great was his distrust of the ruling institutions of the day.

The journalist could not appreciate that both government and business must retain a measure of secrecy in their operations; that total transparency and frankness have baneful and frightful consequences both on the voter and the shareholder. However, he hammered away at these institutions with his relentless and embarrassing questions that bore the hallmarks of a democratic depravity. In brief, the Indian journalist had become a muckraker though he was idolised by both newspaper managements and the younger crop of journalists who could not wait to wage similar battles against the established order.

To protect themselves against the depradations of investigative journalists and their hell-bent sense of mission, both government and business and, to a lesser extent, industry learned to be magnanimous. Newspaper reporters were given the choicest of hospitality; business houses routinely entertained senior journalists with bashes and dinners; even the honest reporter was forced to swallow his unpleasant questions in the face of this great generosity and largesse.

In time five-star hospitality became an accepted, though expensive, means to attract journalists to briefings by business leaders or disgruntled bureaucrats. Journalists could no longer do without the mementoes, souvenirs and assorted bric-brac that were dispensed at press conference. Even the government took an active interest and role in the journalist’s career and sanctioned economical housing colonies to provide shelter to these idols and icons of a vibrant democracy. The journalist was pacified but not sated; he still wanted more of the economic pie that he believed was his rightful lot.

Behind this whole compromise or journalism lay an inability and unwillingness to recognise that journalism, like any other profession, was a livelihood. Shrewd newspaper managements never rewarded the journalist sufficiently—on the ground that he was a noble creature who must not worry about victual, raiment or shelter and carry on with his mission, come rain or shine! Indeed, even the journalist could not admit to himself that he no longer cared for anything—except his means! Hence, his sullen disposition was roundly exploited by everyone—business, government, industry and even his employers! A potentially great soul with limitless possibilities of achievement had been reduced to the status of a penitent forced to produce copy—with correct punctuation, spellings and syntax! That has been the lot of so many faceless journalists who today flit in and out of newspaper and magazine offices unable to rise to any great endeavour—lest the next pay increment be discontinued by the management. Indeed, they may be happier than they were ever before!

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With the onset of the liberalisation era in the early 1990s, Indian journalism had to face yet another threat—from centralised control over editorial. All the big metropolitan newspapers and magazines no longer had the discretion or freedom to publish any articles on their own. They had to be sent over the Internet to be scrutinised, vetted and approved in Bangalore, Chennai or New Delhi. Editors-in-chief routinely conveyed their intentions and plans both for the pages layout and the articles to be carried in them to subordinate editors across the country. As a consequence, local editors lost much of their previous authority, utility and function as now they had to obey the dictates of the Head Office. Circulation figures started falling and many periodicals downsized their operations or simply closed shop. There was a scramble by journalists to find openings wherever they could. Hundreds of artists in the Press Rooms were laid off and their work taken over by the new army of sub-editors who now planned and made-up the pages on the computer.

With the sea-change ushered in by liberalisation, Indian journalists now evolved and developed a new style of American-style writing. The newspaper and magazine pages became flashier with fancier graphics, photographs and arty logos. There were a lot of feature articles, lifestyle coverages and advice for the reader from a plethora of consultants and specialists. The number of supplements and add-ons grew phenomenally. Now, everyone in the journalist’s firmament seemed to be so savvy, cosmopolitan and computer-literate!

The rising prosperity of the last decade or so has had its own impact on the new generation of journalists. All know about designer clothes, Sèvres glass, American tableware and the imported foodstuffs regularly dished out in restaurants and hotels. They are not so prone to fall so easily for the temptations that felled their predecessors. They are also more optimistic and cheerful about the surrounding realities because they are more concerned about their jobs, job security and moving on—all genuine and valid pursuits! They cannot chase politicians on scooters to get interviews nor can they get scoops and insider information by rudely opportuning Ministers or bureaucrats. The very edifice of post-reform Indian society militates against such practices! Now, the rude reporter may be forced to wait for hours to obtain an interview with a government official only to turn away when his patience is exhausted. Or he may be shooed away at the very door of a business house by the ubiquitous security services people who dot the urban landscape—with any specious excuse! That failing, the journalist may be politely asked to visit the website of the Ministry he wants to visit!

These trends are the gradual encroachments of a new, demonic order that is going up all around us—journalists included! No decent journalist has the gall or insanity to do anything drastic about it except to retreat to his newspaper cabin or cubicle and find something on the Internet as material for his next article. In brief, no one really has any clue or knowledge of what is being hatched behind those august walls surrounding government, business and industrial houses that were once the object of so much scrutiny and vindictiveness on the part of the earlier generation of journalists!

Kamal Wadhwa is an Honours Graduate in Literature from the University of Chicago and now a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He can be contacted at wadhwa.kamal@gmail.com

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