Sunday, Oct 26, 2014

‘Our essential qualifications have changed… but a reporter’s life is more fun than before’

Shekhar Gupta Shekhar Gupta
Written by Shekhar Gupta | Posted: June 16, 2014 12:01 am

I had promised to write specially to my fellow reporters. I am delivering on it now, sure enough, just before the deadline runs out. Which is so typical of us.

I had said also that I shall write this note even at the risk of being accused of crass tribalism. But it isn’t just that. In our more vain moments — which assail a reporter’s mind often — I have somewhat stupidly used the analogy of a typical Air Force to illustrate the unique mindset of the reporter: fighter pilot. All others are equally important and no Air Force will get airborne without them, but fighter pilots “are” the elite.

That era of those magnificent men (and women) with their typewriters is now over. And there is more to it than just the arrival of the drones.

It is because of the way journalism has changed. Our tools have become sharper, more powerful, our reach greater. At the same time, our audiences are better informed, more questioning and demanding. They demand quality, depth, trust and not just what our TV screens and news blogs call breaking news.

That is because breaking news, irrespective of who breaks it and where, takes a microsecond becoming common knowledge. In this hypersonic news environment, no exclusive survives. Not when every TV channel within minutes, and some newspapers the next day, begin to flaunt it as their own “exclusive”. As a reporter, I so often wish we could return to the old ways. Or that news-breaks could come with a TM attached!

But all is not lost. If you look closely, the news environment is more exciting than before. It calls for better skills, greater knowledge, more reliable sources, and that most valuable quality of all now: domain knowledge. It is no longer enough to get an exclusive sliver of a news-break. You need to back it with depth and knowledge, not within that particular story, but also with your track record on the subject. A reader will give you that extremely precious gift of time only if she is convinced you know what you are talking about.

Our essential qualifications, our basic KRAs have therefore changed radically, and for the better. Just as fighter planes have changed over the decades, calling for a completely different skill-set unlike the old-fashioned, buccaneering dash and aerobatic daring.

We have to now read, not just on Google, and preferably never on Wiki. Read books, seek quality time with genuine experts in our fields of interest — yes, there are many, many people out there who know enormously more than us in areas in which we think we are dadas. Usually they are also generous with their time and knowledge with journalists. But you have to go to them as a curious student, or rather, as a humble reporter. The internet, a well-placed phonecall, old clippings, a leak, nothing substitutes for going and meeting a newsmaker, even those we unfairly describe as a source.

To paraphrase Woody Harrelson from his famous (Iconic? Remember how that cliche, a reporter’s favourite, sucks!) even-a-brick-wants-to-be-something lecture to his architecture class in Indecent Proposal, even a source wants to be taken seriously; respected as a friend, fellow-traveller, the anonymous joint byline with your story. Not just a use-and-discard disposable, perishable as your last story. You will need to keep going back to the same sources, and the more seriously they take you, the more they will share with you. Investing in these intellectual and professional relationships is as vital to our development as reporter-writers as the good old contact-laden Rolodex or some modern equivalent.

The use of that hyphenated reporter-writer is deliberate. Because just as our jobs are expanding, so is the catchment of talent. Opinion writers, analysts, commentators, feature writers, reviewers, and most importantly, selfless journalists, who not only buff your copy or put in special effects but also infuriate you by asking questions, raising red flags, insisting on that little bit more information, are as important to the modern newsroom as we reporters are. The newsroom has integrated faster editorially, than it has technologically. We never were the elite that we thought we were. Today we are even less so, and the old-fashioned scoop, though not dead, is harder to find and almost impossible to sustain.

We now live in a much more equal, much fairer newsroom. The old caste system has happily ended. The only extra blessing reporter-writers have is that of the byline. But they are also the ones putting their necks on the line. With so much change in our lives, you will agree I no longer speak as a fellow tribal. Can I find a new, more relevant analogy for this equation?

No, don’t worry, it will not be from the Air Force, or from military history yet again. It is from cricket, our most universally favourite reference of all. Think of the modern newsroom as a cricket team where all 11 — bowlers, batsmen, all-rounders and the wicket-keeper — play equally important roles, and everybody must field well too. And where the captain is on test in all areas, always. You can decide which one of these roles fits you. I am not so sure myself. Except, I do believe a reporter’s life is more fun than before, and how I wish I was younger, and could go back to being one again.

But since such wishes are never granted, I am blessed, meanwhile, living my reporter’s fantasies through the brilliant work done by all of you.

sg@expressindia.com

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