QUARTZ INDIA, the local edition of the American business news site S. Mitra Kalita helped set up, recently ran a piece titled “From ‘hounds’ to ‘pompous asses’: How Indian PR folks describe Indian journalists”. I missed asking Kalita, who left Quartz earlier this year for Los Angeles Times—the paper says she will focus on “helping remake the newsroom and creating new forms of journalism”—what she thought of the piece. But over a couple of manic WhatsApp calls while shuttling between cities in the U.S., Kalita, whose resume includes a founding role at business daily Mint and leadership positions at the Wall Street Journal, spoke to me about the other crisis of perception in the business: the rising patronage to low-hanging opinion and the gradual pulling of the plug from newsgathering.
Born in Brooklyn, Kalita spent much of her early life in Long Island, Puerto Rico, and New Jersey, and her bios on the Net unfailingly mention that growing up, “she made regular trips to her grandparents’ villages in Assam”. An award-winning author and a former president of the South Asian Journalists Association, she told me it’s possible for authentic journalism to co-exist with commercial considerations, and that journalism’s real problem lies elsewhere. Edited excerpts:
From my many journeys to India, I keenly remember the ’80s because they were a period of great unrest. Coming from the U.S., transiting through Delhi or Kolkata would be a great shock—there was always some protest rally or the other. I hate to romanticise the past, but I remember having pizza in Delhi and being very surprised that pizza was available in my India.
After college, I decided to discover India. So I booked myself on this few-hundred-dollars Indian Airlines package that covered five cities in seven days. Then when I started out as a reporter, I began to act a lot more American.
The post-liberalisaton Indian has the benefit of MTV and Hollywood. They may not necessarily understand America, but there is this belief that they do. They may never visit America, but they are connected to the idea of America in a hundred different ways, probably more than the idea of India. In fact, when I moved to Delhi in 2006, the millennials in the office had no clue about the India I would talk about.
Similarly, early in my career, it was difficult to explain to the average American what India, or even South Asia, was. Post 9/11, things moved to another extreme: from no awareness of South Asia to hyper awareness of South Asia. India had an advantage. Unlike Pakistan or Afghanistan, it was thought of as a political ally. There was also the bustling economic and cultural relationship with India. Americans were fascinated by how the small community of Indians managed to move to corridors of power, occupying important roles in the government. There was an over-indexing of this group in terms of the size of its population, so to speak.
The rise of opinion, and other crises in the news business
Is there a trend of news reportage being compromised because management everywhere wants to cut costs and focus on opinion—especially in the digital age? It’s an interesting question. Between my job as the opinions and ideas editor at Quartz and now running a newsroom which is trying to understand what the value of the journalist is in an age when everyone is a journalist, I have hit upon [a few home truths]. One of them is that there’s no reason news and opinion cannot co-exist. But yes, people are fatigued of “me me me” journalism. They want authentic journalistic digging, well-researched opinion.
Opinions work because they offer easier access points into complex stories and help form instant connection with readers. But it is wrong to assume that just about any kind of opinion will succeed in the Internet era. If anything, the Internet demands and values authenticity.
Journalism’s real problem
You hear [anxious news honchos] fret about the blurring of lines between editorial and commercial content. Increasingly, ad sales is finding that clients want their content to be as shareable and as authentic as editorial content. They want to foster conversations that are not explicitly tied with selling their products. Just this morning, I spoke to a group of 1oo-plus ad sales executives at the L.A. Times on this. My goal here is to create an editorially driven product that is saleable. I am sure it’s an achievable goal.
The real problem with journalism may well be elsewhere. When I was at Mint, we would go out on a limb to write on everything from taxation to women’s issues to education. These are complicated stories. Without spending years in the field, reporting day in and day out, there’s no way you can offer a measured take. But in the current model of journalism, reporters early in their careers are asked to cover education, real estate, government. These are people who have never paid taxes, never voted, never sent children to schools. It’s as much a problem as asking people who don’t understand the basics of social media to run new media platforms.