Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Misfit in Today’s Media World

(This story relates to journalism in the 70s, when reporting was about working your calf muscles and your phone; about tapping reticent news sources, and missing stories. Those were the days before the Internet, 24/7 news channels, and blogs, to which print media reporters today can now outsource their news-gathering work. Today’s newspaper correspondents don’t report news; they package it. My generation of reporters may find ourselves a misfit on today’s media scene - Are you reading me, Mr Krishna Vattam, Mr Gouri Satya ?
This piece was titled ‘The Punjab Beat’ when it first appeared in May, 2002

Every other journalist, they say, has an unfinished book in his drawer. I started work on my unfinished book in late Seventies. I was then a sub-editor with The Times of India in New Delhi, and envious of reporters, who appeared to have everything going for them - byline, high visibility, influence and cocktail invitations on most evenings. I became wiser later, when they posted me the Punjab correspondent, at a time when militant groups held sway in many parts of the then troubled state.

Admittedly, a Chandigarh dateline gave one visibility in high places those days. Not evident, however, was that behind those bylined stories was usually a much-harassed reporter who spent long and, at times, futile hours working the phone and tapping reticent news sources to put together a story. And, at the end of the day, you might not have accessed all facts or even got them all right. But this reality hits you too late to make amends, that is, when you see the other newspapers the morning after or get a memo from the editor, saying, "We have been beaten by the competition." On such occasions you feel you could have done without a byline on your story. Editors have a way of unsettling you with unceremonious memos and late night phone calls, wanting to know why you didn't file anything on a killing in Kapurthala or gas-cylinder blast at Batinda.

The correspondent of an outstation newspaper, based in a state capital, is held accountable for whatever happens elsewhere in the state. He can't beat the news agencies - PTI and UNI - which appeared to have their men everywhere. But you don't tell this to an agitated news editor who doesn't let you have a word in edgeways when he is on the blower. You can't argue with an avalanche, can you ?

PTI and UNI could have been a major menace for me and Chandigarh-based correspondents of other outstation papers, if we had not cultivated the agency reporters so that we stayed alerted on news breaks. I knew of a colleague based in Patna who dreaded late-night phone calls from his office in New Delhi. He was dedicated and hard-working, which wasn't enough. He failed to develop a rapport with the news agency guys.

The worst thing that can happen to a reporter is finding that the news report he just finished filing has already been overtaken by subsequent developments, that too close to his deadline (the time by which he is required to submit his report for publication). Soon after my posting at Chandigarh I attended a press conference, addressed jointly by three Sikh leaders - H S Longowal, P S Badal and G S Tohra. Longowal had then signed an agreement with Rajiv Gandhi. The other two Sikh leaders entertained misgivings about the Centre's intentions. However, it was mainly due to Longowal's initiative the three Sikh leaders had come to share a common platform for the first time in their political career. Their joint press conference had the making of a sure-fire front-page story.

By the time I telexed the story (we didn't have computers then) it was 5 p m. I decided to call it a day and go home early. After having delivered a major front-page story I did not expect the New Delhi office of The Times of India to bother me with any phone call about a stray blast at Batala or a shooting incident at Gurdaspur. They were common occurances in Punjab those days.

But then minutes after I reached home that evening there was a call from New Delhi, asking for a story on a shooting incident at a gurudwara in Sangrur. The victim, this time, was Longowal. The Akali leader, on way to his village after addressing the Chandigarh press conference, was shot dead by militants when he stopped by at a gurudwara to address a congregation. This was not just a front-pager. It was the lead story, on which I had to get cracking under mounting deadline pressure. Such was a reporter's life in Punjab those days. So much for dateline Chandigarh.

As for my book in the making, it still remains unfinished, with nearly 200 pages of typed manuscript done. As I said earlier, I started work on the book when I was a sub-editor. I used to work six-hour shifts, which left me with enough time for book-writing. But then I gave up creative writing when I became a reporter

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