Among the momentous events that occurred last week were the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Gandhiji’s 140th birthday and the 17th anniversary of my initiation into journalism.
I suspected something was strange right from the day when I was called for the interview. I was all togged up in a suit and matching tie when the journalist friend who had recommended me to the business newspaper dropped in. He took one look at me and asked, “You want the job or not?” adding I should wear a half-sleeved shirt and jeans if I was to have any chance of success. This was pretty weird, but I was stuck in a finance company where I had to sell offshore credit for an Italian bank and I had a monthly target and if I topped that they raised the target for the next month, so I was desperate.
Anyway I got the job and became a ‘corporate analyst’ for the paper. “What do I have to do?” I asked. “Oh you look at balance sheets and stuff,” they said, carefully camouflaging their ignorance of finance. “You also meet company people and talk to them, then come back and write what they told you.” Is that all, I thought incredulously — no monthly targets, no haggling over rates? The friend confirmed that was indeed the case. I thanked my lucky stars I had landed this incredible job.
So I started analysing companies, my first piece being on a well-known liquor group. A day later, my boss dropped in. “Congratulations,” he said, “you’ve got your first reaction.” I preened myself, waiting for the fulsome praise. Instead he said, “They’ve withdrawn all the advertisements.” I was aghast — to a corporate type like me this was the worst thing that could possibly happen. I waited resignedly for the axe to fall. “But that’s not your problem,” went on this wonderful man, “it’s the ad department’s headache.” Oh joy, I thought, was this for real? Over the next few days I closely observed the abject manner in which the ad department representative used to timorously approach the news editor, trying to push ads. “You think people read the paper for the ads or what?” was the news editor’s favourite line as he rejected these attempts imperiously. I used to wonder how the paper made money, before I realised it didn’t.
On my third day in the job, the deputy editor in charge of the edit page asked me whether I could write editorials. “I’ve never tried,” I told him frankly. “Ok,” he said, “write an edit on fertiliser policy.” To my protests that I knew nothing whatsoever about fertiliser, he pointed me in the direction of the library. “That’s what libraries are for,” he said. I soon found that the excellent librarian had folders containing newspaper clippings on every conceivable subject. After three hours of intense study, I produced my first edit on fertiliser policy. Edits followed thereafter in rapid succession, on the economy, on foreign policy, on a coup in Rwanda, on the need for infrastructure, on poverty and so on, all subjects about which I knew zilch till I started on those clippings. This was the life, I thought, particularly as I got paid extra for writing edits.
Much has changed in newsrooms since then. No editor can afford to ignore the ad department now. And of course, edits are no longer written in that slapdash manner. These days, they have Google.
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint
The views expressed by the author are personal