New Delhi: For large and influential Western publications, which have sometimes been charged with reducing India into clichés and generalizations, the country seems to have become more of a priority in their international coverage.
A steadily rising number of foreign correspondents are landing in India every year, even as their publications, limited by tighter budgets, are cutting staff and closing bureaus in erstwhile hot spots of international interest.
Coincidentally, at four important American publications, the foreign editor is now a journalist of Indian origin.
Newsweek named Nisid Hajari foreign editor in December 2006, while rival Time magazine named Aparisim Bobby Ghosh as world editor in September 2007. At Fortune, published by Time Inc., Stephanie Mehta became global editor in January, while The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) named Nikhil Deogun as the international editor in June. WSJ has an exclusive content partnership in India with Mint.
Fareed Zakaria, the high-profile international affairs commentator, has been the editor of Newsweek’s international editions since 2000.
At one level, these appointments represent increasing diversity in the top echelons of American journalism. At Time, Ghosh is the first non-American foreign editor in 85 years. That is the case at the 119-year old Journal as well, though technically, the India-born Deogun has been an American citizen for a few years now.
“I think it’s a wonderful sign of how much has changed in the world of American journalism. The idea of opening up the foreign editor to folks with actual foreign connections is just what the media needs,” said Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor of new media at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He also co-founded the South Asian Journalists Association, a resource centre and networking platform. For these publications, a rising Indian audience on the Web and a rising interest about India from their home audience mean they have to invest in content from India. “In the paper you are going to see more coverage of India, which will entirely be in line with our increased international content. But on WSJ.com, you are going to see a lot more of India coverage than the past,” said Robert Thomson, who was recently named managing editor at the Journal.
When he was editing The Times in London, in many months, the largest numbers of visitors to that newspaper’s website, country-wise, would come from India, he said. “That’s going to be the case for WSJ.com as well. So we have to provide more India-relevant content,” Thomson added. The Journal recently added four pages mostly dedicated to international coverage.
“We put aside $6 million (Rs25.8 crore) to produce these four pages annually. Earlier, in our news section, there would be maybe two international stories. We thought that didn’t do justice to our readers’ appetite for international news,” he said.
This increasing engagement through media—of the world with India and of India with the world—is hardly a one-way street. There are now a large number of journalists—Indian and Indian-American—who now work in the US media, helping those newsrooms understand a vast and distant country, and its stories, better. “When I started working at magazines in the US in early 1990s, I used to know all the Indians in media because there used to be so few of them,” said Newsweek’s Hajari. “These days I don’t even keep a track, because there are so many of them everywhere.”
These editors, with their varied backgrounds and global experience, will be expected to bring depth and nuance to covering a country they have links with, especially one such as India that has become a big story.
“Time’s coverage of India has grown—and will likely continue to grow—in parallel with India’s growing economic and cultural influence on the world. As an Indian myself, I’m filled with pride. As a journalist, I have to be objective, and acknowledge that India is one of several important international stories.”
WSJ’s Deogun echoed similar thoughts. “The increasing interconnectedness of economies mean we are having to redefine what an important story is. Inflation in India, for instance, is a big story to everyone. It’s a reflection and recognition of India’s importance to global economy,” he said.
“While there are fascinating stories on economics and business to be done, it’s important to cover the changes in society as well,” Deogun added. The Journal recently added two journalists—including the Pulitzer winning reporter Geeta Anand—to its India staff.
This diversity at the decision-making level will also result in a more compassionate coverage of world affairs, predicts Newsweek’s Hajari. “A lot of foreign coverage in the past used to be coverage of American activities in other countries. Having an international background means you have a better feel of people’s thoughts and emotions. You know what it feels like to be on the other side of the fence,” he added.
Responding to the emerging India story, foreign wire services, television stations and newspapers have expanded their presence on Indian soil as well. According to S.M. Khan, additional director general at the Press Information Bureau, there are 89 accredited foreign journalists in India, compared with about 60 a few years ago. Year-wise data was unavailable.
A more telling data, if only indicative, came from John Elliott, president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of South Asia. While between 1993 and 2003, the number of expat members at the Mathura Road, New Delhi-based club went up about 7% from 68 to 73, during the five years from 2003, this number rose about 70%, from 73 to 124. Elliott, the India correspondent of Fortune magazine, who has covered the country for 15 years, agrees that foreign publications are giving India a wider coverage.
The Economist, too, has increased its editorial staff in India and is also making a significant push on its circulation side.
Simon Denyer, India bureau chief for news agency Reuters, says the tone and scope of the stories from the country have also changed in the past few years. “Nowadays reporting is less seen through a post-colonial prism and is more reflective of India’s complexities,” he said. Prominent themes over the decades have ranged from the stereotypical elephants and snake charmers to the conflict in Kashmir to the rise of Hindu nationalism to economic liberalization, the rise of IT and now, the changing economic landscape, he added. The challenge for today’s foreign correspondent, he said, is to paint an honest picure of the two Indias. “Not just shopping malls and wealth everywhere.”