It’s become customary for columnists to devote their year-end column to either the year gone by or the year ahead. I have decided to stick to the formula, but with a twist—I am going to write about what I learned as an editor in 2011.
Being in charge of a high-quality, high-integrity newsroom is as physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting as it has always been. I remember Mint’s former editor (and my former boss) Raju Narisetti mentioning as much in an interview to The New York Times shortly after he left—the disclosure resulted in a wave of criticism directed at Mint and its publisher HT Media Ltd—and nothing has changed about the job since. The hours are long (especially if you believe an editor’s place is in his or her newsroom), maintaining the quality and consistency of reportage is difficult, and most people and companies we write about are still getting used to the idea that a website and newspaper can be an equal opportunity offender.
The job does have its perks, though, and one of these is the learning involved. Here, then, are five lessons I learned in 2011.
Don’t be reactive
The explosion of news and information (thanks to the Web, 24x7 TV channels, and social media) means there is a lot of static out there. As a media junkie, I have five screens in my room (only one is a TV; and the volume of information available sometimes makes me feel like Spider Jerusalem), but while I believe that editors should keep an eye on everything, I believe even more strongly that they should not react to everything. If I, for instance, were to do this Mint would lose its identity, its definition.
No newspaper or website can hope to succeed unless it stays relevant. There are two ways in which it can do this—be the first with the news, and have the best opinion on the subject. It is possible to do both, although, as I have discovered, it means convincing reporters hitherto focused on one medium to operate across media. For a newspaper, this also entails orienting its opinion writers (not the fleetest of foot or finger at any time) to offer instant, considered opinions that can go online immediately. There’s nothing quite as popular online as a well-argued opinion on a breaking news story.
Web drives print
The problem with most efforts to build integrated newsrooms is that they are driven by people like me—print editors. As their respective frequencies of publication indicate, in the newspaper space, a print product cannot drive a website; but a website can drive a print product. Obvious as this may sound, it isn’t all that obvious to editors. And implementing it is harder still, and requires changes in content management systems, work flows, and behaviour.
Play the smart angles fast
Because if you don’t, someone else will. So, if 141 people die after consuming hooch in West Bengal, report the news, but also see if there’s a smart economic angle to the story (the same sort of economic angle that would say that auto fares are high in Chennai because bus fares are low in the city).
It’s a job, not a crusade
Coming off a year when the tone of coverage in most newspapers and websites has been largely negative, it is easy to forget this. And, indeed, some news organizations succeed by forgetting this (fortunately, most are in the broadcast space and I am not going to waste words on them). Reporters should report; opinion writers should offer logically reasoned views; and editors should ensure that their website or newspaper informs, educates, and, sometimes, entertains. I am aware that doing these things well sometimes shapes public opinion and influences the behaviour of governments, companies, even individuals, but that should not be the objective of an editor. There is a line—sometimes a fine one, but it exists—between journalists and activists and while crossing that line could result in an increase in popularity, it usually comes with the complete loss of objectivity.
So, these are the five lessons I have to share, although, to be completely honest, I didn’t learn all of them in 2011.
PS: Here’s to Christopher Hitchens, the man who wasn’t frightened to write things he believed in, but which he knew would make him hugely unpopular.