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Posts Tagged ‘Vir Sanghvi

Newspapers Have To Live To Tell The Tale

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“In 2010 the only thing harder to sell than a newspaper will be a newspaper company,” Michael Kinsley, a columnist and editor-in-chief of a new website to be launched in 2010 by the Atlantic, wrote in an essay for a special issue of The Economist titled ‘The World in 2010’.

The good news, if any, in this assertion is that the gloomy outlook at the time the special issue went to press was only for the United States. The bad news is that some of the observations made by Kinsley would be applicable to the world at large; slowly but surely. The United States is the right place to begin the argument as the revenue shift towards digital media from the traditional print media has been rising on a year-on-year basis with the last 18 months or so being the low point for newspapers in America. Former Scottish footballer, Tommy Docherty, may not have been totally off the mark when he said, “I’ve always said there’s a place for the press but they haven’t dug it yet.”

The year 2009 has seen some historic newspaper names not managing to find any buyers and ultimately stop printing in the US. “The New York Times, which paid $1.1 billion for the Boston Globe in 1993, spent most of the last year hungrily eyeing bids of under $100m. After years of Micawberism, many newspaper publishers now accept that no amount of cost-cutting and laying off of journalists can keep up with plummeting revenues. Newspapers missed the brief moment when the government was an easy touch for bail-outs of one ‘vital’ industry or another.”

Closer home things aren’t that bad as yet but we are also moving towards a Digital era at our own pace; though speed in the virtual world is defined quite differently than that in the real one. Twitter is a recent example of a spreading ‘Digital Viral’ and one can speculate on the time and resources that would be needed in the real world to build a brand like it. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell in his brilliant 2000 debut bestseller The Tipping Point explored the social dynamics that cause rapid change. The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea; and it is Gladwell’s gift of story-telling that has given life to the book. Gladwell benefited from the research of epidemiologists but he used his talent to show how social and business change is explained best by looking at it as a ‘virus’.

Just about 18 to 20 months ago I was running after a few columnists at a newspaper house as its Website did not have any blogs and I struggled to convince writers and only got two positive respondents, with much strife, out of a dozen or so that I was asked to chase. For a particular guy I had to do the chasing for almost a month and yet I could not get a 300-word copy out of him; these days no matter what the occasion he is always singing in the background.

The landscape in India is changing but Internet penetration is low and literacy is not that high for a swift change. That is not going to be the case forever and sometime in the future the Digital Media in India would gain critical mass or in other words would reach ‘the tipping point’ from where things start happening on their own. Among the coarse things in the newspaper business the most important is the rising cost of newsprint. Then there is also the environment factor and the James G. Watt quote in Newsweek, 8 March 1982, becomes all the more relevant now: “They kill good trees to put out bad newspapers.”

Norman Mailer, an author, a journalist, a stalwart on radio and television talk shows and winner of most of the major literary awards, but for the Nobel and co-founder of The Village Voice, a weekly newspaper launched in 1955 from a two-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village, New York, the initial area of coverage, famously said: “Once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists.”

This point is also made by prolific columnist Vir Sanghvi in a piece he wrote on a book called Flat Earth News by Nick Davies. “Davies, who has spent a major part of his journalistic career with The Guardian, casts a critical eye on his entire profession—not sparing even the publications he has worked for—explaining why Flat Earth News is taking over. ..But as I come to the end, I can’t help wondering if such a book would ever be possible in India. In our country, the media is content to attack every other institution while regarding itself as being above any scrutiny,” Vir wrote.

The optimism that I share is about the publishing industry and new technology coming in has not changed my view at all and I continue to pay through my nose to buy books; I haven’t seen Kindle and I don’t have a desire for it as a good hardcover is an integral part of what I consider to be my most-valuable possessions. I feel that they would survive the threat from the vapid more easily.

Many observers share the analysis that the big mistake was allowing readers to grow used to getting content free in the first place. Kinsley argues that it is not psychology that is at work here. It is the iron laws of economics. “Why has the internet turned into a disaster for newspapers? Mainly because it destroyed the monopoly that most American newspapers enjoyed in their home towns.” This observation is true for every small or big city in the world. “Every English-language paper published anywhere in the world is now in competition with every other. Competition is what has driven the price down to zero and kept it there.” Applying Kinsley’s logic would mean that the Indian papers would be available in London and New York; but, more importantly, the papers of New York and London would be available in India.

The answer probably lies with what The Village Voice did; if a newspaper in New Delhi tells me what is happening in Tokyo it is great but if it tells me that wood furniture of the highest-quality is on sale two blocks away from my house then it is even better. Kinsley calls this hyper-localism. It may turn out to be the saviour and, therefore, for the first time the most-important team in a newspaper’s scheme of things should be the Metro. It is the City Desk where the wheat needs to be separated from the chaff and the successful editor has to be someone who, for a change, publishes the wheat and throws away the chaff.

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Leadership Is Not Divorced From Daily Life

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Ratan Tata

Ratan Tata in a rare moment of uncertainty and anguish.


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

From The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats, who wrote the poem in the aftermath of the First World War in 1919.

It is always a perfect time to talk about leadership; just like it is always a good time to demonstrate it. This post will try to catch the essence of this elusive quality around which large corporations are built and complex global issues tackled. This is a subjective post because of the screen created by the ‘I’ through which I observe leadership.

“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences,” Susan B. Anthony. Susan travelled in the United States and Europe and gave 75 to 100 speeches a year on women’s rights for 45 years in the 19th century and she worked for more than 50 years for women to have the right to vote in the US.

The first subjective observation is that there is a distinction between being in a leadership position and having leadership qualities. Leadership does not come with the corner office or with a title that sounds impressive; it is a quality that a man brings to the office and not the other way round. I don’t think leaders need challenges to excel; that to me sounds like the police need gangs and crime to function and the intelligence agencies need terrorist plots in order to work well. Leadership can be seen in simple every day situations and the lack of it may not be that apparent in daily life but it gets exposed completely in a crisis. That is because a crisis is a test of character; and leadership has everything to do with character and almost nothing to do with position and power. Cut to the chase; leaders face the music.

One such crisis or rather devastation began on the night of November 26, 2008; when 10 drugged and systematically- programmed killing machines reached the shores of Bombay having navigated their way from the port city of Karachi. The 62 hours they survived in India’s financial capital have been the ‘suspended fatal hours’ around which the wounded consciousness of a nation has been hanging for over a year now.
One significant point has now become public knowledge; and that is the complete lack of leadership during those 62 hours. There was no one in command when the 10 trained terrorists armed to their teeth tore through the flesh of our complacency and carpe diem ethos. The Indian Express consistently did marvellous stories by picking up the pieces in the aftermath of the attacks and stories were also broken by Times of India, Hindustan Times, Hindu and many other Indian publications and also by some international news organisations. And from Tavleen Singh and Shekhar Gupta in The Indian Express to Vir Sanghvi in the Hindustan Times and Thomas Friedman and Patrick French in The New York Times, some brilliant columns challenged stated positions right through the year.

An AFP picture by Pedro Ugarte showed the anguish of a man with abundance of leadership qualities. It was Ratan Tata, looking up as the last of the flames were being doused and a lot of smoke was billowing from his over-a-century-old heritage, on the morning the torment ended and the last of the hell-bound jihadis had been taken out. It was a picture that captured a decisive man in a fleeting moment of agony and an indecisiveness borne out of factors beyond his control. When Ratan Tata later spoke to most of the TV channels and gave an interview to Fareed Zakaria on CNN there was no hint of indecisiveness and there was no dilemma about the road ahead. He spoke about the important things first and everything was so real about his manner and his concerns.

Our Booker heroine, Arundhati Roy, did a piece for the Guardian that had all the qualities of a good fiction writer struggling to come to terms with facts. “Thanks largely to the part it was forced to play as America’s ally first in its war in support of the Afghan Islamists and then in its war against them, Pakistan, whose territory is reeling under these contradictions, is careening towards civil war,” wrote Roy. What is the source of this assertion? The first instance was neither forced and nor run according to American wishes; Zia-ul-Haq was worried that Pakistan may get sandwiched between Russia on one side and India on the other and he wanted to take the war across the Khyber Pass to keep the Russians on their heels. He entrusted the ISI to manage the liaisons of Pakistan with the CIA and with Saudi Arabia’s GID (Saudi Intelligence Agency), headed by Prince Turki. The proselytizing Wahabi oil money through Saudi charities was also swelling and the ISI and its vault was at the centre of it all in the 1980s. This is sourced information available in many books and for key assertions the primary sources have been listed by a few journalists with immaculate sourcing, astonishing work ethic and a great understanding of nuance.

Lack of justice may have made it easy for the LeT to establish sleeper cells within India but this has not been a plan that would have been even whispered in front of those who provided fringe help. I don’t buy the theory that the terrorists picked their targets in Bombay because they were upset about the Indian Army being placed in war-torn Kupwara. Andrew G. Bostom, MD, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Renal Diseases of Rhode Island Hospital, published a comprehensive and meticulously-documented book in 2005 named The Legacy of Jihad, Islamic Holy War and the fate of non-Muslims. Ibn Warraq in a foreword to the book wrote that ‘Dr Bostom has gathered together an impressive range of primary and secondary source documents relating to the theory and practice of jihad, and to a certain extent the condition of dhimmis, non-Muslims living as oppressed tributaries in Islamic countries’. It is a great work for those who can face facts and want to learn about them. “Andrew Bostom speaks of jihad as a ‘devastating institution,’ yet the evidence he provides demonstrates that jihad was also a devastatingly ‘effective’ institution,” Lee Harris wrote in his book The Suicide of Reason.

Was the angst in India about the fact that they also picked the high-end five-star hotels along with CST and those who have a voice made a lot of noise? Maybe 20 per cent of it had to do with that but I think 80 per cent of the anger was the result of being slaughtered by a neighbourhood butcher who just saw us napping in our own backyard. It was the unabashed nakedness of violence and our complete helplessness to deal with it that caused the outcry. Bombay gets me derailed every time and I’ll just say one more thing before coming back to leadership: The United States is not going to stand up for us if we don’t stand up for ourselves. Our leadership needs to realise this.

It is odd how so many people in leadership positions find it difficult to use the three hard-to-say phrases according to Mark McCormack and a fourth one according to me. “I don’t know, I need help, I was wrong, and I am sorry.” There is nothing wrong with any of the four phrases. I don’t know why people find it difficult to say I don’t know so I am not going to give any theory around it. But not admitting what you don’t know always leads to suspicions about what you do know.

My only global example for leadership quality is Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela; just think about the man and what he did for South Africa in particular and for humanity at large. South African cricket writer Telford Vice was very busy recently in conducting a poll for an all-time great South African XI with separate introductions to various disciplines and the middle-order was a tight spot with many contenders. An edited extract: “The middle order is the archetypal South African batsman’s natural habitat, the place where push comes to shove for him. …Some South Africans seem stifled by technique, while a few make a mockery of it. The majority take the coaching manual as their guide to varying degrees, and conjure the rest as they go along.

There is something in the national character that relishes proving people wrong. South Africans appear to be better than most at realising that the light they see at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train, even when the rest of the world is convinced that it bloody well is.

This is, after all, the country that should have been broken by centuries of race hatred and inequality. It wasn’t. Then it became the country that should have been destroyed in the aftermath of those centuries of race hatred and inequality. Again, it wasn’t.

Instead, the centre of South African society held firm thanks to the leadership of a man whose north star was fairness and justice for all. In another world, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela would have made a middle-order batsman of the highest order. He’s not on our list of contenders for South Africa’s middle order, but those who have made it aren’t in the habit of letting people down either.”

Imagine saying this and meaning it: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
This is pure leadership quality without an ounce of the divisive politician.

Is The Tiger Lost In The Woods?

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As children my brother and I used to think, like I presume some other children also perhaps thought, whether celluloid heroes like Amitabh Bachchan and sporting ones like Sunil Gavaskar also had to answer nature’s call. For a brief period—at an age that I can’t pinpoint but can indicate by saying that it was characterised by an overwhelming feeling in which everything seemed larger than life—we found it difficult to place our heroes atop a commode. And precisely because our minds were in conflict we occasionally did wonder about what to us was then a profane thought. Nothing remarkable happened when the idea just dropped out of our consciousness; there was no ceremony and there is no memory of it and the only fact is that we grew out of that brief period as naturally and as simply as one season melts into another.

This unsanitary beginning is to make a point that childhood curiosity is one thing and a deep-seated interest in the life of others quite another; it would be a lie to say that I don’t have any interest in the lives of others but I will emphasize that with every passing year an interest in my own life has grown gradually while the interest in the lives of others has declined. And I think that is what happens with most people; my mistakes, just like those of most other people, can be traced back to me. The margin I am keeping here is for a small minority of good boys, who are capable of committing heinous acts and also ensuring that the trail never leads to them.

With that said allow me to start this post about the paparazzi culture and the Tiger Woods life uncovering mission which has become the latest obsession in the world. Is the Tiger Woods scandal a really big story with everything remarkable about it? Truth, by the way, is no defense in defamation cases and the saviour of a reporter and a publication is fair comment (public interest). I got to learn about the fact that it had become a big scandal only via a blog called Medium Term on December 1; and my comment to it suggested that I had reacted only to the last line and not the point of the whole post. Then I read a December 8 update to the blog and the various gormless comments on both the posts; including my own.

Tiger Woods is a genuine great on the golf course and he may not be an ideal husband but is there any shortage of less-than-ideal husbands that Tiger deserves to sit on top of that heap as well. This is typical Daily Mail journalism for you; just go to their website any day and you’ve got to give them credit that they do not lose a single opportunity to have two perfect images that would tell you how an X celebrity has lost or gained a stone since she was last spotted in public. Any female celebrity that walks out without wearing a bra underneath would be up on their website with her cup size and her success at keeping gravity at bay spelt out for the reader.

There is no doubt that the public is interested but I have serious doubts on whether it is in public interest. It is in the interest of our gusto for the lurid that justifies such excavation. There is no moral high ground to claim but I would prefer some erotic literature over what to me is boring tabloid crap any day. How about a paper that unveils the life of tabloid scribes; would that be any less interesting?

I have learnt from friends, who have more than a passing interest in the range, that golf is a sport that mirrors life very closely. I know the rules but only those who play can tell you that it is a simple game if you can keep it simple and can get as entangled as life if you start messing with it. Mark McCormack—the man who founded the first sports management company with just under $500 in capital and thereby gave birth to a multi-billion dollar industry—loved the game of golf and wrote in his bestseller What They Don’t Teach You At The Harvard Business School: “I have often said that I can tell more about how someone is likely to react in a business situation from one round of golf than I can from a hundred hours of meetings. Maybe golf cuts more directly to the psyche than other games and situations. Or maybe it is the venue itself—green grass and rolling hills. It’s astonishing how so simple a game can reveal so much.” Tiger Woods pulling out of golf is already being seen as a threat to the sport that is struggling amid the recession and one newspaper reported that the Tiger Woods brand alone is 50 per cent of the sport.

In a statement published on his Website Tiger Woods said he was profoundly sorry and asked for forgiveness. Golfer John Daly said, “I’m in shock over it all, a lot of our players are in shock. I’m not happy with the way some of our players have responded—that’s their way of getting back because they know they can’t beat him at golf…”

Heinrich Böll, one of Germany’s leading post World War-II writers and the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, wrote ‘a marvel of compression and irony’, The Lost Honour Of Katharina Blum, that was translated into English a year after its publication in 1974.

The back of the book cover reveals the plot: “Katharina Blum is pretty, bright, hard-working and at the centre of a big city scandal when, at a carnival party, she falls in love with a young radical on the run from the police. Portrayed by the city’s leading newspaper as a whore, a communist and an atheist, she becomes the target of anonymous phone calls and sexual threats. Her life is ruined by the distortions of a corrupt press; she shoots the offending journalist and gives herself up for arrest.

Step by step, and with an affecting forensic clarity, Katharina’s story is reconstructed for the reader, gradually disclosing an entire panorama of human relationship and motive. The novel is a masterful comment on the law and the press, the labyrinth of social truth and the relentless collusion of fact and fiction.”

The Times said, “Böll sustains a masterly and insidious tension to the end. He is detached, angry and totally in control.” Heinrich Böll served for several years as president of International P.E.N. and was a leading defender of the intellectual freedom of writers throughout the world. He died in 1985.

The plot is revealed because it is not the plot but the narration that makes the book great. On one side is Werner Tötges, the journalist behind all the falsification and on the other is Böll’s narrator, whose profession remains unmentioned, but he consistently separates facts from assumptions. The Sunday Times said: “Such is the force of Böll’s conviction, the clarity of his vision and the icy economy of his unemotive prose that within this short space he has distilled a spirit that burns into the palate the unmistakable and lasting tang of truth.”

The thickness of the book is inversely proportional to its impact—just about 140 pages. It is the social milieu of late 1960s and early 70s that the book attacks indirectly; especially the Alex Springer-owned Springer Press that controlled almost half of the newspaper circulation in West Germany.

“Art is always a good hiding-place, not for dynamite, but for intellectual explosives and social time bombs. Why would there otherwise have been the various Indices? And precisely in their despised and often even despicable beauty and lack of transparency lies the best hiding-place for the barb that brings about the sudden jerk or the sudden recognition.” (Heinrich Böll from Nobel Lecture, 1973)

Is It Just The Front Page That Has Died!

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I read a dirge by famous columnist Vir Sanghvi—in a blog he maintains for hindustantimes.com—on the death of the front page over the last year or so. As a consumer of more than half a dozen newspapers I can also vouch for receiving some dead bodies on a daily basis. And here I mean not just the front page but that part of the bundle that goes to the heap in the storeroom with every crease in tact.

I buy different newspapers for different reasons and despite the recession some of them are part of an old habit while some of them are just for my neighbours to know that a journalist lives here and, therefore, buys more newspapers and magazines; never mind the fact that the world and he himself is recession hit.

This post is also an elegy, though the scope here is vast and encompasses much more than just the front page and tries to sniff if behind the death of the front page is the debris of the strongest pillar of the fourth estate; the institution of the editor. I don’t have extensive factual basis for such a nauseating inkling but then it has been that kind of a year where I am finding it difficult to believe that the six-letter title of ‘editor’ automatically means some simple ‘virtues’ like transparency, ethics, a basic minimum honesty, the competence to gauge the merit of a story and the most important quality to know what to do when confronted with an ethical dilemma.

“The newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly, and its first duty is to shun the temptations of monopoly. Its primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation, must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free but facts are sacred.”—C.P. Scott, Editor, Manchester Guardian, May 6, 1926.

This is a time when the newspapers are competing with quality material that readers have access to much before the broadsheet comes out and that number is going to go up with the broadband coming, the economy growing, and the literacy rate climbing up. Quality is going to live and no matter where it is the interested reader will get to it.

That does not in any way mean that the bullshit is going to go away because a lot of people don’t know the difference and a lot of journalists cater to that market because they don’t know what else to do themselves; so all of it lives side by side. I have had some classic interactions over the years with the relatively-new as well as the senior old hands to have a decent first-hand experience of journalistic ‘copelessness’. The details are both horrifying and hilarious and some of them have even been on official channels; it is at best a subject for a book and not a long post.

The average marketing professional has his logic: “We’ve come up with a study that the market loves bullshit and we don’t understand why you can’t give more of it.” A story I read in livemint.com by Aakar Patel explores whether India’s high-growth can continue and says, “Nine half-literates are produced by our colleges, by Nasscom’s numbers, for every graduate of passable quality.” Mathematically then there has to be a probability for these semi-literates finding a way to the newsrooms. And also some probability of heading the newsroom. Also if there is just one literate for every nine semi-literates; it would be quite unsuccessful to cater to just 10 per cent of the population that is of passable quality.

So I come to my morning bundle and the Hindustan Times is the first paper I see on Sundays for the columnists I follow; on other days I look at its design and then go elsewhere to find something to read. I take The Indian Express for news as their reportage is excellent. The Times of India to see the pace and the direction that the market-leader is setting. The Economic Times for clean good copy that one can learn from and for some of their international business coverage that is unlikely to be found in any other paper. Last Saturday I took my first Crest and it was a pleasure; the edition was miles ahead of what any paper had on Tendulkar completing 20 years of international cricket. Three more daily papers that do not deserve mentioning serve some purpose or the other in my house.

When columnist Patricia Smith of the Boston Globe was forced out in June 1998 after having been found to have made up quotes, Andrew Marshall of the British newspaper The Independent had a go at his American peers in an article on June 23, 1998.

“British journalists have been smirking at two high-profile scandals involving two of their American peers who made up quotes and events in articles for two highly-respected publications. No, that sentence will not do. Since we are writing on the subject of journalistic accuracy, let’s be spot on. British journalists have been laughing hysterically, slapping their thighs and fighting desperately to retain bladder control. ‘We have long suspected that all this fact checking stuff was a charade,’ said a source close to me yesterday. ‘And now we know.’”

It is quite natural to think that lapses in journalistic accuracy would cause some major concern to our editors as well. And to point them out would not be considered as tantamount to being ‘the enemy of the fourth estate’ in India. As a journalist it is very heartening to know via the Medium Term that the heart of the Chairperson of a large newspaper house of the country is tilted positively towards the editorial aspect of the business. What is disheartening is that the hearts and minds of ‘some of the people’ responsible for editorial quality and journalistic ethics in the same newspaper house are not in their jobs. I’ll spare you the details but don’t be disappointed they will come up in the static pages once I have learnt how to organise the sub-folders.

On Saturday, though, the Hindustan Times did an exceptional bit of investigative journalism on a front page top box with a wonderful picture of Tendulkar under a good headline ‘The everlasting run machine’. I should not have been reading it as it was not a Sunday but I did; and so I found out.

“30,065 Runs scored in international cricket in both forms of the game (Tests and ODIs), the highest by any batsman. Ricky Ponting, again at second place has 24,057.” The numbers are wrong in both the cases; by 10 runs for Tendulkar and by 401 runs for Ponting. The sum total actually is in all three forms of international cricket where Tendulkar has played just one T20 international and scored 10 runs while Ponting has played 17 matches and 16 innings for his 401 runs. Although it is a very complicated error to achieve; it is understandable that this could have happened due to lack of communication.

Lets gear up for the investigative part now. “43 Centuries scored in Tests, the most by any batsman. Ricky Ponting of Australia comes second with 39.” This is an open insult in a country where cricket is a national obsession and the gap between the Little Master and the Tasmanian called Punter a subject of everyday discussions. Ponting scored his 38th Test hundred in the first Ashes Test of 2009 played in Cardiff beginning 8th July and did not manage a three figure score in the rest of the series. Who knows where he was caught scoring his 39th Test century after the series was won 2-1 by England and I signed off writing a post titled ‘A Sad Ashen Pundit’ after HT signed off with ‘A Sad Ashen Look’?

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