Death of the Indian editor
By Ajith Pillai
29 May 2015
Does the passing of Vinod Mehta mark a bleak future for editors in India?
The glowing tributes that poured in after Vinod Mehta passed away on the morning of Sunday, March 8, were truly overwhelming. Virtually every newspaper and magazine across the length and breadth of India devoted considerable space to celebrate a man who was a distinguished editor for four decades of his working life. Those who knew him or worked with him were invited to share their memories. His work style, his commitment to hardnosed journalism and resistance to management pressure as well as his quirks were remembered in great depth and detail. It would not be incorrect to say that no journalist’s passing away in recent times – at least in India – attracted so much media attention. In fact, Vinod, being the critical and conscientious editor that he was, might have run his blue pencil through some of the praise showered on him to spare the reader the monotony of repetition and hype.
Indeed, obituary after obituary had one common strand of thought: the last of the great editors had bid us goodbye; it was the end of an era which would perhaps never come back. Luckily, from among the welter of effusive eulogies was what Arundhati Roy wrote in a measured tone about an editor who “played such an important part in my life as a writer”:
Anyway, he’s gone now, and with him perhaps the era of the intractable, unpredictable, idiosyncratic editor. Not because there aren’t idiosyncratic folks around anymore, but because we live in a climate where it’s becoming increasingly difficult for them to function. The outpouring of grief at his passing by all kinds of people, including those who are professionally his polar opposite, seems to be as much for him as for the end of the idea of the independent-minded editor… As for the rest of us, while we grieve for Vinod, we cannot give up on the possibility that there can be independent editors in future too.
So, does the demise of Vinod Mehta signal the death of the editor in the traditional mould of objective, bold and independent – someone who stood by his or her reporters and was prepared to cock a snook at the establishment, and not crawl when asked to bend? The great hope is that this endangered species – as Vinod used to jocularly refer to those of his ilk – will not become extinct and that some variants will survive and flourish in a hostile environment dominated by market forces. An environment in which managements are increasingly seeing newspapers, magazines and TV channels as mere products and editors as nameless and subservient news processing machines who can be programmed, upgraded or replaced at will.
The business of news
The predicament and constraints that the modern-day editor in India has to either learn to live with or show the gumption to surmount is best explained by looking at the broader work philosophy of the Times of India, the world’s largest English-language newspaper with a circulation of over three million. It is unarguably the trendsetter in the industry with media houses today religiously following the success mantra formulated by the group some three decades ago. It was back in 1984 that Samir Jain, the current vice chairman of Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd (BCCL), the owners of the Times of India, spelt out the redefined and ‘realistic’ place of news within a newspaper. Jain famously told a meeting attended by senior editors at Times House in Mumbai that “Newspapers are vehicles for carrying advertisements and news is what we fill in the gaps between the ads.” This template is still followed in BCCL and many other publishing houses in India. In an October 2012 issue of the New Yorker, Vineet Jain, Samir’s brother and the managing director of the company, was quoted by journalist Ken Auletta as saying “We are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business… if ninety per cent of your revenues come from advertising, you’re in the advertising business.”
Along with the editor, journalists too became second-class citizens in the world of media.
When Jain first broached the subject of a newspaper as a product no different from a detergent bar or a tube of toothpaste it upset several journalists who saw the media as rooted in deeper values, ethics and having larger social commitment and responsibilities. Inder Malhotra who resigned as resident editor of the Times of India, Delhi, in 1986 recalls a revealing conversation he had with Samir Jain after he decided to put in his papers. “I told Samir that although he was fond of describing the newspaper as a product that was no different from a cake of soap, I had never seen a cake of soap that had to worry about its credibility and its integrity. His reply to me was curt: ‘Only profit matters, nothing else’,” Malhotra told media website The Hoot three years ago.
It was the radical shift adopted by the Times of India which triggered tectonic changes in the entire media industry vis-a-vis editorial content and the role of the editor. Since marketing was seen as the force that drives profits, journalists were relegated to a subservient role in Samir Jain’s scheme of things. Earlier it was the editor-in-chief who was the general; the person who called the shots and the flag bearer of the paper. Suddenly that position was reduced to one that was only functional and nominal. The editor became faceless as the Times group’s management began asserting itself and nullified what it alleged was the ‘halo’ around the editors of its various publications. Along with the editor, journalists too became second-class citizens in the world of media.
Samir Jain’s earliest target was Girilal Jain, the legendary editor of the Times. There were many who disliked the latter’s political views and his apparently misplaced sense of self-importance, but everyone agreed that he was last of the editors in the traditional mould that ran the paper. He kept the management at an arm’s length, insulated editorial from any unhealthy influence from that quarter and, more importantly, refused to relegate the paper to the status of a commodity or a cash cow. At the height of his tussle with Samir Jain in the 80s, he articulated his view in an interview to Sunday magazine (quoted in Sangita P Menon Malhan’s book The ToI Story): “I regard it [Times of India] as a national institution… If it were to be run as a company owned concern, I won’t fit in. For me, it is national service with a certain amount of payment. As it happened, the personality of the chairman (Ashok Jain, Samir’s father) has matched this requirement. He has never interfered… I would consider it very irksome if the owner breathes down my neck and keeps telling me what to do and what not to do.” Girilal Jain lost the battle and left the Times in 1988, a much disillusioned man.
By that time the rules of the game had already undergone a sea change, though several journalists of the old school were loath to recognise this fact. From being editorial-led, media houses had become advertising and marketing-led entities. Veteran journalist T J S George (founder editor of Asiaweek) encapsulated the transformation in four key points to journalism students: “One: A newspaper has no social responsibility. Its only responsibility is to make profits for its shareholders. Two: The press is not in the news business. It is in the entertainment business. Three: A newspaper does not need an editor. Four: Readers are not important in themselves. They are important only as a means to reach the advertiser.”
If luring advertising and thus building profits became the priority, then it was imperative that editorial content had to change to attract readers of the emerging consumer class. According to Times insiders, it was Samir Jain’s thesis that the new Indian reading public comprised largely of those who had no time for “pompous intellectual stuff” and that they wanted snappy articles written simplistically and covering issues that interested them. Negative and morose stories on rural poverty were not what they wished to read first thing in the morning. This line of thinking led to what is referred to as the ‘dumbing down’ of the Times of India and the inclusion of ‘feel good stories’ in the paper’s mix. Later, other publications shamelessly followed the Times lead. The days of the archetypical pipe-smoking thinking man’s editor was veritably over.
Vinod Mehta neither belonged to the same school of editors as Girilal Jain nor was he someone who had been through any Samir Jain kind of makeover machine.
Within the industry Samir Jain was hailed for having pushed the Times Group to new heights. In fact, there are those who argue that the paper had become too stodgy and had to change with the times and that the management had only tweaked the paper in a new direction and given impetus to its profit graph. Moreover, the Times continued to break stories, provide in depth coverage of events and campaigned for several causes. It had not lost its editorial edge. So, what was there to complain about?
They also argued that the old approach of defining content was moribund and could not have remained as such for long. There is some truth in this. Before Samir Jain entered the scene, the edit page of a paper was considered sacrosanct. In fact, it was universally believed that a paper was known by the quality of the editorial it presented to the reader. Great care and energy was devoted to the writing of opinions and editors were known to focus their entire attention on commenting on the state of the nation or offering advice to the government of the day through their editorials and commentary. In such a situation hard news often suffered. Given this scenario and the editors’ resistance to change, managements were forced to become proactive, as is said in the latter’s defence.
Was the dumbing down a manifestation of Samir Jain’s disregard for journalists or was it dictated by marketing needs and the ‘changing face’ of the reader? Perhaps it was a bit of both. Nicholas Coleridge in his book Paper Tigers notes, “Of all the newspaper owners in the world, I met no one so single-mindedly wedded to marketing as Samir Jain. It is a science of such fascination to him that he is scarcely capable of any statement without reference to it.”
As for Jain’s infamous disdain for journalists, Pritish Nandy, former editor of the now defunct Illustrated Weekly of India from the Times stable has observed: “ Samir Jain’s basic theory was to ‘de-journalize’ things… he saw the Times of India as an FMCG product… He hated journalists. He thought they were intellectually superior to him. He realised the trivialization of information was very seductive, very sexy… Commercially he was the best thing that could have happened to ToI. But he destroyed an institution and made it a great big factory.”
The editor debonaire
Where did Vinod Mehta fit into the new media scenario that began to unfold in the 80s? To begin with, he neither belonged to the same school of editors as Girilal Jain nor was he someone who had been through any Samir Jain kind of makeover machine. Mehta was a young idealistic man with an overwhelming desire to make his mark in journalism. He was not a traditionalist by any stretch. On the contrary, he was all for change and embracing contemporary concepts vis-a-vis design and content. But he believed that new ideas must emanate from the editor’s desk and not from the marketing department. He thus, even before he started out, placed a high premium on editorial independence and marked this as one of the key pillars of a successful publication.
Vinod began his journalistic career as an editor. This was rather peculiar since he was neither the privileged scion of any media empire nor did he have any experience or training as a journalist (for the record he was never a reporter or a sub editor). Coming from a middle-class military family in Lucknow, his only knowledge of newspapers and magazines was from diligently reading the British media in England where he lived for eight years doing odd jobs including a very brief stint with a little known advertising agency. Back in Bombay he landed a job with Jaisons Advertising as a copywriter. But he realised early that the profession was not cut out for him.
His first stint in journalism was with Debonair magazine, billed the desi version of Playboy. He took over as editor in 1974 after he wrote to its owner, Susheel Somani, offering to turn around the floundering and headless publication in six months if he was given the chance. Vinod was a total stranger to him and his credentials were rather unimpressive; a copywriter with a “third class degree from Lucknow University” and two books to his credit: the self published Bombay – A Private View and a biography of actress Meena Kumari. Nevertheless, Somani risked giving him the job.
Debonair under Vinod’s editorship began to print cerebral pieces amidst the mandatory smutty pictures and nude centrespreads. It began to attract a new readership after it went through an editorial and layout surgery. The magazine soon started featuring writers like V S Naipaul, Vijay Tendulkar, Nissim Ezekiel, Nirad C Chaudhary, K A Abbas and Ruskin Bond. Political commentators like K R Sundar Rajan and Kuldip Nayar and cartoonists Mario Mirandra and Abu Abraham contributed to the magazine. It even managed to create a flutter in the media when Peter Gill, then Delhi-based bureau chief of the Daily Telegraph, wrote a piece critical of the lazy India journalists who “sat on their backsides at the Delhi Press Club” and wrote pieces on Diego Garcia instead of addressing issues within their own country. Similarly, Sundar Rajan’s inside story on how the Times of India, the nation’s premier daily, “sold out” during the Emergency raised several eyebrows and was noticed by rights activists, politicians as well as journalists.
Vinod left Debonair and started the Sunday Observer – India’s first Sunday paper – in 1981. It was a project that was brewing in his mind ever since he saw the London Observer during his years in UK. He had also reached a point when he wanted to break free from the tag of being the presumptuous editor of a smutty magazine and join the mainstream. The editorial titled “More Than a Weekly” in the inaugural issue of the Sunday Observer spelt out Vinod’s mission statement – the one that remained his lodestar through all the publications he launched or edited (the Indian Post, Independent, Pioneer and Outlook magazine). It would be worthwhile to revisit it since it gives an idea of the working principles adopted by an editor who held his own from the 1980s to well over a decade into the new millennium when marketing called the shots and editorial content was slave to questionable market surveys that determined what the reader wants. To quote the Sunday Observer editorial:
We are not a tabloid paper, we are not going to be breezy, we do not have a commitment to trivia. The Sunday Observer does not see itself a part of the boom in gossipy periodicals. It is necessary to say this because the so-called publishing boom in recent years has been at the expense of serious and purposeful journalism…We see no contradiction between style and accuracy, between individual bias and objectivity, between attractive presentation and clarity and finally between seriousness and readability. We at the Sunday Observer believe that the best kind of journalism avoids facile popularisation and irrelevant scholarship…We hope to inform, stimulate, provoke dissent and, hopefully, elicit enthusiasm!
With this fundamental in place Vinod brought to the table other pluses. He, by and large, backed his reporters to the hilt, refused to yield to pressure from the management or from the political establishment (he quit three jobs on that count). Vinod took risks and encouraged his team to be bold and adventurous. These were the qualities that endeared him to journalists. Also, he was open to correction and was democratic to views that differed from his. On occasion when he was proved wrong, he apologised, and when he was forced to kill a story, he explained the reasons for doing so and did not palm the blame on the reporter or pick holes in his or her report.
It is only TV anchors who have been allowed to develop themselves as a brand. Thus Arnab Goswami is the face of the Times Now network and has been given a free hand to promote himself as the hysterical voice of the nation at prime time.
More importantly, his integrity was beyond question. Having worked for Vinod for well over 25 years, I can vouch for the fact that he was never self-serving or hankered after any political position. He did not pander to any lobby and nursed no illusion that he could influence the government of the day or set the agenda for the nation. Good journalism, well-written and researched stories, was what excited him. He was happy merely being editor.
Would Vinod Mehta have been Vinod Mehta if he was starting out in 2014? The ground situation has changed since the 1970s and 1980s. On the positive side, new technology has ensured faster communication and better printing quality. Layouts can be designed with far more ease. Papers and magazines look far more colourful and are easy on the eye. The reader has come to accept experiments in form as well as content. But one of the challenges faced by the media and editors, according to Mehta in his last book Editor Unplugged, is the crisis of credibility. The reader no longer believes the written word blindfolded and the media and its owners, many of them corporate and large business houses, are in a big way responsible for this erosion of trust.
Those who swear by an era when editorial was supreme paint a bleak prognosis for the future. They feel that it is unlikely that the new millennium will throw up legendary editors of the likes of Sham Lal, C Y Chintamani, Sardar K M Panikkar, Pothan Joseph, Frank Moraes, Chalapathi Rau, Khasa Subba Rao, B G Verghese and Girilal Jain. Neither will it have individualistic editors like M J Akbar, N Ram, Nihal Singh, Shekhar Gupta, Khushwant Singh, or Vinod Mehta, who left their stamp on the publications they edited. In the age of faceless editors the nameless will come and go.
In fact, a casual survey among readers reveals that very few know the identity of the editor of the papers they subscribe to. For example, many are stumped when they are asked to name the person who actually edits the Hindustan Times, Times of India, Economic Times, Indian Express, Outlook, India Today or Deccan Chronicle. Many end up naming former editors, wondering whether they are still around or even alive. The same goes with language newspapers. Editors who had managed to forge an identity for themselves in the 80s and 90s have either faded out or have reinvented themselves as columnists and commentators.
It is only TV anchors who have been allowed to develop themselves as a brand. Thus Arnab Goswami is the face of the Times Now network and has been given a free hand to promote himself as the hysterical voice of the nation at prime time. Similarly, other TV news channels have their own heroes. If you look at the mainstream media in the post-globalisation era, the only faces that are remembered or easily identified are those who have succeeded in making their presence felt on the small screen. Perhaps, it is the nature of the medium that makes it imperative to have anchors and newsreaders who can connect with viewers and become stars in their own right. However, while recording this, it is pertinent to note that some of those who package and present news on TV have primarily accepted the concept of news as infotainment and many are pliable to manipulations from managements even at the cost of giving up independence and objectivity.
A recent study ‘Untold Stories: How Corruption and Conflicts of Interest Stalk the Newsroom’ from the Ethical Journalism Network, an international journalism watchdog, lists some of the problems faced by Indian journalism. These include paid news where news space could be bought by politicians or corporates; private treaties in which a company allots equity to a media house in return for ad space and favourable coverage; and blackmail by journalists and editors on behalf of managements for killing news. All these practices have become activities indulged in with full approval of those who run media houses. In this scenario a corrupt management would not suffer an honest editor for long – he or she would not serve the purpose.
The market today is far more crowded; the competition for a slice of the advertising pie is cut-throat; corporate owners have no patience and want to either see profits from day one or are looking for spin-offs like political influence which they believe comes from investing in the media. It is not as if earlier managements did not misuse their papers to please politicians, but the malaise has hit epidemic proportions. Readers today like to suss out whether a story is planted before believing it.
Several new online platforms have sprung up that have gladly taken up the space ceded by big newspapers and magazines.
Editors under pressure to show better TRP ratings and exclusive front page stories push reporters to source stories from dubious sting operators or they are encouraged to tap corporate sources and lobbyists who provide stories with complete documentation which serve vested interests. Such easy sources of information explain why reporters who had bagful of stories towards the last years of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA-2) government suddenly have no exposes in hand. Their sources, having made use of them, have moved on. Even enthusiastic and idealist reporters have fallen into this trap, because they learn on the job that this is the easy way to success.
The media boom in India post liberalisation is truly incredible. At last count there were 99,660 publications (including newspapers and periodicals) and over 800 TV news channels. Delhi alone has 16 English dailies – too many to survive in a limited market. In fact, even journalists are ignorant about the existence of some of these publications. How do so many magazines and papers survive across the country? By pushing agendas, pandering to egos and indulging in practices like blackmailing that were unheard of in earlier journalism.
Vinod Mehta has blamed the media for the degradation and decay in ethical standards:
I don’t deny that editors seem like an endangered species. Their diminished status, alas, is largely self-inflicted. If they didn’t crawl when they were merely asked to bend, we would not be where we are today. If as a community we had stood up to our masters, perhaps even resigned, the situation may not have been as abysmal as it is now. Can a proprietor who makes his editors grovel, do without him or her? It is not the guy from Coca-Cola who can produce a paper, it is the editor or several editors. We never fought back and, to an extent, deserve our marginalization.
In the final analysis, is there light at the end of the tunnel? There are flashes of hope on the horizon. Serious and meaningful journalism is making a comeback. Among magazines, the long form is being taken seriously by readers who have had enough of the news minus any depth. Several new online platforms have sprung up that have gladly taken up the space ceded by big newspapers and magazines, which once had active rural, labour and environment beats. Many journalists, fed up with being part of a paid and sold-out mainstream media, are rushing to join them. Papers too will undergo change; it requires just one owner to provide the independent space that Arundhati Roy speaks of to herald a new beginning.
In all likelihood it is from this firmament, and existing or new print publications which are determined to stay clear of crass commercialism, that readers will find new editors –journalists devoted to providing credible information on stories that matter.
~Ajith Pillai is freelance journalist and writer. He has worked with several newspapers and magazines including the Sunday Observer, Indian Post, Pioneer and Outlook – all publications that Vinod Mehta edited.