You’re probably thinking to yourself right now: “Wait. If this letter from the editor is written from the editor’s desk, where in the world are the other editor’s letters on Mint on Sunday written from?!”
Let us not ask the questions none of us want the answers to. There is no need to go there.
But this weekend I figured I should shed a little light on the things that go on behind the scenes at Mint on Sunday.
We live in an age of great scepticism in the processes that govern and ethics that drive much of mainstream journalism. At least part of that is because, I think, media outlets themselves seem to function in a state of deceptive opacity. Or is it deceptive transparency? Whatever it is, it is deceptive.
Print and electronic media often share panoramic pictures of their newsrooms with consumers. TV news channels, in particular, have long incorporated their work environment into their productions. Be it video podcasts, pieces to camera or even as a backdrop to standard studio bulletins, it is not hard to catch glimpses of journalists slumped over their workstations or briskly walking from place to place holding sheafs of printouts.
But what are all those people actually doing?
Let me pull back the curtains here at Mint on Sunday a little. Mind you this is not going to be indicative of how things happen everywhere else. After all, MoS is the smallest of the many things that Mint does. The Sunday digital edition is, more or less, put together by two and a half people, Arun Janardhan in Mumbai, Pranav Srivilasan in Delhi and yours truly in London.
I say two and a half because Pranav is usually mired in producing the daily print newspaper for most of the week, and only surfaces towards Thursday afternoons to work on producing MoS. (The poor guy is easily the hardest working member of the team.)
Mint on Sunday starts with story pitches. There are usually two types of pitches: ideas that we get from contributors, and those that we first think up in-house before assigning to a suitable writer. In general I like to maintain a good balance between the number of stories we commission internally and those that we outsource. Of course this has budget implications. The more we commission internally the better it is for our books. But even with a newspaper with the depth and breadth of Mint’s competencies, we often have to reach out to our growing list of contributors for certain topics.
This also has stylistic implications. Mint reporters approach stories with a more ‘newsy’ bent of mind. This is what reporters have been trained to do, after all. A good example of this kind of story is Mint staffer Sapna’s piece on the state of the bindi-manufacturing industry in this weekend’s edition. Notice how the story is almost entirely reported detail with very little commentary or opinion. These are the hallmarks of a reporter’s craft.
Contrast this with Bhavya Dore’s remarkable piece on rape legislation. These are both stories that, I hope, are illuminating, but executed in very different styles. This is the kind of variety of not just topic, but also style that comes with working with a wide range of contributors and colleagues.
Then there are our columnists and the one or two essays we run each week that are much more heavily marked by strong opinion and personal observation.
Thus, throughout the week, a constant stream of content keeps flowing into our email inboxes. This stream is a heady mix of stories, pitches, columns, story ideas, half-written stories, stories in various states of editing, clarifications, fact checks, photo requests and so on. So much so, that very early on into the process of putting together Mint on Sunday, the team realized that email was simply not going to cut it as a tool to manage this fountain of… stuff.
Over time, the 2.5 of us have developed a workflow that involves using primarily two applications: Trello and Slack. Slack takes care of all our ideation, messaging, discussions, group and personal chats, and so on. Yes we only have 2.5 people working on this. But we still have separate conversations for separate things: Production, Payments and Ideas. At some point we intend to create a community for MoS contributors on Slack as well.
So, Slack takes care of all the chatter. Trello takes care of story files, version control, edits and the rest of the workflow. Open up the Mint on Sunday board on Trello and you will see several columns arranged from left to right. Each is filled with various cards. And each card is a story in some stage of its life cycle.
Given the sheer volume of pitches and stories we handle, especially given our small team size, email was a sure-fire way of losing track of stories. Trello prevents stories from completely dropping off the radar. Cards are moved through the various columns as stories mature—Ideation, Commissioning, Pending Edit, Editing, Ready, This Issue, Published—and Trello helps us attach pictures, comment on changes and do all this asynchronously.
I often leave comments on stories before going to bed, and Arun and Pranav pick them up first thing in the morning. And vice versa.
So far, the system has served us well. That is not to say that stories don’t end up in limbo for weeks and months. They do. But they are never completely lost.
Then there is the editorial process itself. As soon as each story comes in both Arun and I glance at it. This is to make sure that the story is interesting, ready for editing and meets a general Mint on Sunday sensibility. (This sensibility is hard to put into words. But I think we are open to anything that is interesting, thought-provoking and enjoyable reading for the weekend. I am particularly fond of pieces that spur readers into exploring new areas and reading new books.)
Following this the story is picked up by one of us for detailed editing. It is at this stage that stories often linger around the most. Editing is hard work. Especially when you have to deal with a host of writers who all write in different styles and have different ideas of what is good or bad reporting. It is not unusual for me to spend two or three days doing nothing but slaving over a printout with a pen.
But different editors, of course, work differently. Which is why at the end of the editing process, the edited story is once again posted on Trello for the rest of the team to look at. Also, once you’ve spent a week or two on a piece, editors can completely lose perspective on a story. If you ever read a long, detailed story here on Mint on Sunday that somehow doesn’t seem to form a cohesive whole, that is usually the sign of a piece that has been edited to death.
Around Thursday or Friday each week we finally choose the eight stories or so that will go online on Sunday. Things often change at the very last moment. At least twice a month I decide to hold a story and edit it again. This infuriates everybody else, especially the writer.
The edited stories, columns and essays are all then handed over to Pranav for processing. Meanwhile, Arun or I write up our Letter From… feature. (We alternate responsibilities.) Pranav reads all of these pieces, checks for facts and copy errors, frantically reaches out to contributors on Friday evening or even Saturday morning for clarifications, and then puts everything to bed by Saturday evening Delhi time.
On Sunday morning, we tweet and Facebook and whatever else it takes to get people to read the edition. On Monday we draw up invoices and then pray to the gods of accounting for speedy resolution.
So that is how Mint on Sunday works. A lot of email, Slack, Trello, printouts, writing, rewriting, and modest quantities of panic.
All for your weekend enjoyment.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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