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The narrative urge

The narrative urge
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First Published: Fri, Jul 22 2011. 08 42 PM IST

Updated: Fri, Jul 22 2011. 08 42 PM IST
It was “developmental journalism” yesterday. Today, it is “narrative, long-form writing”.
That’s the message I get from people I interview, and I do interview a lot of people; despite my wholly undeserved reputation as being a hard man to work for, lots of people seem to want to work at Mint. Like you’d expect of someone who has been interviewing people for a long time, I have a formula. I spend the first part of the interview getting to know the person; apart from putting the individual being interviewed at ease, this also helps me avoid hiring activists, drug addicts, and Paulo Coelho fans. In the second part, I usually try to show off my knowledge of the area of interest of the individual and assess his or her own understanding of the area.
And I usually begin the third part with the question: “So, if I were to hire you and allow you to write your own job-description, what would that be?” I have nothing against narrative, long-form writing—Mint, in some ways, re-established the move towards this in India —but it isn’t a beat or an area of expertise or interest; nor is developmental journalism. I have read some wonderful long-form stories in Indian publications (including Mint); they span subjects such as the economy, finance, aviation, caste, religion, science, and environment and were, almost always, written by a beat reporter or a writer who is also a specialist in a particular area.
If the urge to turn everything into a narrative—it results in boring and over-written copy— is one of the ills that plagues journalism today, then the other is scam reporting. Headline writers in India love the word scam; it is shorter than fraud, scheme or swindle and has a certain cadence to it that signifies grievous wrongdoing. Then, this seems a universal phenomenon. The Economist’s style book says spat and scam are words beloved by some journalists.
It is also an appropriate word to use at a time when the country is overrun by scams—at least, that’s the sense I get from conversations with my reporters over stories they want to do and stories I read in other publications. In many cases, my reporters don’t come to me with just ideas; they come with notes of conversations with government officials, investigations, and executives in companies, documents, even recordings. The walls, it would seem, don’t just have ears; they take notes.
In such an environment, it is only natural that reporters, even seasoned ones, jump at shadows (or see a scam in every story). At Mint, we have a process for dealing with such stories that goes beyond presenting the other side of the story and not having pre-conceived notions about a company or an individual. It’s quite possible other publications have one too, although I can’t say the same for television channels. The news ticker on some channels alone is a blow against all things truthful and decent. Here, for the benefit of readers wondering why Mint did or did not carry a particular story, is our process.
The first step involves finding out where the story originates from. If it comes from rivals, former employees, or anyone who could possibly have an axe to grind, the story dies —unless the reporter can independently verify it. The same holds true for documents. If the story involves something that happened a while ago, or if the document is dated, we ask the reporter to try and find out why it is coming out now.
The second step is the trickiest: the story has to make sense. In recent months, we have killed several stories with impeccable sourcing, some backed by government documents, simply because they didn’t make sense.
The third step is easy: identifying the motive or beneficiary of a particular scam. If there is no motive or beneficiary, then there is probably no scam. And if the beneficiary is different from the perpetrator, the reporter has to join the dots and establish a relationship between the two. This step is particularly tough on reporters, as several have told me: just because they have been unable to identify a motive or beneficiary doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist.
The final step is the only one that doesn’t involve the reporter. Instead, a group of editors sits down and discusses the play a story should be given. The Mint newsroom is an old-fashioned one, so the editors try to maintain a sense of proportion. Thus, a complaint about a company (to a regulator) will get less play than an investigation into the affairs of the company which will, in turn, get less play than a lawsuit based on that investigation. All this doesn’t, of course, mean that we never get things wrong. We do—not as frequently as companies who portray themselves as injured innocents like to think; nor as infrequently as I would like. It also doesn’t mean we never pass on a story that someone else does and which ends up being true.
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Write to sukumar.r@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jul 22 2011. 08 42 PM IST