My mother was furious when I joined A&M magazine, right after my MBA. In November 1992 my starting salary as a correspondent was Rs 2,500, less than half of what freshly minted MBAs were making then. It was measly even by the standards of those times. My mum pointed out, rightly, that in a short time I could have had a house and a car if I joined an FMCG or better still a foreign bank — a dream job in 1992. It was technically pre-liberalisation; so all the goodies of an open economy from Coca-Cola to private banks and lots of jobs hadn’t been unleashed.
With better options available, why join a small magazine’s Mumbai branch as a reporter?
I had no idea. It was perhaps the thought of writing (a strength through academic years) or the thought of using my marketing degree to write about advertising and marketing. My point was there was no harm in giving it a shot. Within the first week on the job, I fell in love with it. I enjoyed (and still do) the research, the meeting with different people and reading up tomes on a subject and then trying to make sense of it in 500 words or 1,000 words. The sheer variety, the opportunity to learn about different things, places, the exposure to the world and the satisfaction of a story well-done, has never left me in two decades as a business journalist. It is one of the best ways of recording contemporary history and therefore be part of it. As luck would have it, business journalism in particular, pays very well. So mum’s complaints too got addressed.
It has been a good run and except for a brief stint as a consultant with Ernst & Young, I have been a professional journalist for most of the last two decades. And have been very proud to be one.
That is why the current mood of pessimism around journalists, the atmosphere of suspicion around media is upsetting. A new report from Transparency International says that 41 per cent of the respondents surveyed in India, thought media here is corrupt. We are better than the police, judiciary or other bodies though. Almost every major film now lampoons journalists or the media. Madhuri Dixit dancing to “TV pe breaking news hai mera ghagra,” (my skirt is the breaking news on television) in Yeh Jawaani hai Deewani is the latest. Not just surveys and popular films, even in reality there is suspicion all around and motives are attached to anything, however innocuous.
Recently a column on corruption in media brought in a huge amount of response from the industry. Some said it was a good thing to bring out, others questioned my judgement of the extent of the problem and so on. Much of this was the healthy debate that anything one writes or analyses raises. But some simply attacked me. One person said that I had written the piece with a view to getting better rates for the paper for which I had done that column. And not just me, there is air that almost everyone is on the take. In the park where I take my son in the evenings where mums discussing films, routinely assume that film critics are all in the pay of production companies since they praise and criticise the wrong films. Nothing it seems can be an honest mistake or just bad judgement. Everything is deliberate.
This cynicism seems misplaced. Professional journalism is still one of the best places to be in from a job satisfaction perspective. It is a liberal work atmosphere, there is hardly any chamchagiri and generally if you are good you move ahead. At least business journalism has done that for me and dozens of people I have worked with. This is something I tell young people while teaching at mass communication schools.
How then do we tackle the taint that this profession has now attracted?
The fault lies not with the corrupt or bad media owners, publishers, editors and journalists. They have been discussed, debated and analysed to bits. It lies with the good editors, publishers and journalists. Why do they keep quiet? Can we have a Michelin star for media brands that train their journalists well, don’t entertain paid news and don’t have dodgy ownership? Can there be a rating agency that tells you this media brand is 100 per cent credible? The trouble is everyone will start suspecting the agency of fixing the ratings. This erosion of credibility, the basic currency of this business, is to my mind media’s biggest crisis ever. It will hurt everyone in the long run. But most of all it will hurt the talent pool this profession attracts. If that changes from enthusiastic young people who want to get into the profession for the right reasons, to ones who just want to exploit it a la politics, then we are in for a really tough time. Maybe I should have listened to my mum.
The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik