MABF – Sethji Editors

Journalism, like politics, continues to be a career where no educational qualifications are laid down.  As all that matters is the  end-product journalists are expected to be good communicators proficient in writing; or in the case of  TV and radio, effective speakers.  (Some may add that both are the last resort of scoundrels).

raddi
Morning newspaper becomes  ‘raddi’  by  evening

With many fake newspapers coming up to take advantage of sops given to journalists, or use the clout to blackmail or make money, even communication skills are not needed to become an ‘editor’; those who write can always be hired if you have the money.

In Gujarat the name of the newspaper owner usually appears as editor (‘Tantri’) in the imprint line, with an anonymous de facto editor bringing out the publication. Legendary owners like R.N. Goenka and G.D. Birla, who wielded immense power in their newspapers, never posed as editors.Their name neverappeared in the imprint and very rarely in the news. They hired editors and publishers.

These days many editors are, in reality, proprietors who do not perform any journalistic duties. However, when foreign Press trips or press teams of VIPs going abroad are planned, they pose as journalists and form a major chunk of the press party. And as TJS George,cofounder of Asiaweek says, even good editors are reduced to just clerks in handling the administrative tasks.

Not all owners are uneducated. There are also hereditary owners who trained themselves as journalists and became good editors, as in the case of The Hindu. Dr N. B. Parulekar’s daughter studied journalism in the US and would have succeeded him had Sakal not been sold. Such examples, however, are few.

Those who control leading business houses owning newspapers would prefer to send their sons or daughters abroad for MBA degrees, instead of journalism, as editors can always be hired. They know a newspaper’s success depended more on management, advertisements, finance, marketing and political clout than on editorial content.

Some of them do not hide their contempt for the editors. Sameer Jain of Bennett Coleman & Co., which owns the Times Group is said to have declared: “Wanted Editor. Journalists need not apply.”

A well-known journalist of Hyderabad, who started his career as a teleprinter operator in a news agency used to proudly boast that his qualification was ‘MABF’ – Matric Appeared But Failed. He had picked up enough English to cover politics – the only subject he knew well – developed political contacts, was a good organizer and could browbeat others. That was all his brand of journalism needed.

The great Durga Das quotes his mentor, K.C. Roy, a self-taught eminent journalist of his day and founder of Associated Press of India asking: “How many Editors and distinguished reporters in England have ever passed through the portals of a university?”

The average new entrant to journalism today is much more qualified than the journalists of yesterday. Most of them are graduates and many have journalism degrees from universities or prestigious institutions like the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) New Delhi, the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media (IIJNM), Bangalore and the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai or Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication (SIMC), Pune.  Bhopal has India’s first university of journalism, named after an  eminent Hindi journalist – the Makhanlal Chaturvedi Rashtriya Patrakarita Evam Sanchar Vishwavidyalaya. Why it could not rise to the eminence of IIMC  or AJC needs to be studied. All universities have journalism or mass communication courses, some even at BA level – producing several thousands journalism graduates every year.

Many of  the journalism departments, especially in the colleges, are badly run, without proper faculty or facilities. Most universities just copy the journalism syllabi of other universities. Some of them have extremely poor standard and lack practical orientation.

The only training journalism students get is internship in newspapers, agencies or channels and that too if journalists there takes interest. Most would not.

In some newspapers they are told to jut sit at the desk and observe how the editing and reporting are done. They may, if at all, get to edit some copy from the waste-paper basket, which is put back there without even being glanced at. In some others they are told take post-dated certificates of having completed the internship and not come back again. The journalists are not a party to the managements’ decision to take interns and consider it an unnecessary burden. Often they are too busy, with news writing and newspaper production, to help.

Institute Industry Interaction promotes cross-pollination between industry and academia. Professionals going for teaching and the teachers getting involved in industry, at least as consultants if not full-time, is ideal. This is applicable to the media too. Very few journalists teach. Even fewer journalism teachers have practical experience.The ‘guru-sishya’ tradition of the country, with seniors mentoring new entrants, could be best adopted in newspapers and TV channels, like the system of articled clerks in chartered accountancy.  ‘Mentoring’ should be more prevalent than it is..

The IIMC, IIJNM, ACJ and SIMC  are to media what the IITs are to technical education. Students who passed out of these institutions occupy important positions in the media and have had very fast career growth. The Times of India and Malayala Manorama also run training schools for print media, as do some TV channels for the electronic media.

Very few newspapers insist on a journalism degree as an essential qualification while some English newspapers prefer MA English literature. Most journalists start as trainee sub-editors or reporters. Internship programs help; internees with potential are absorbed by the newspapers as trainees.

Coming from the old school, I wanted to learn all aspects of newspaper production, including editing, photography, advertisement and printing by working in all those areas after my reporting duties. I realized only later that in this age of specialization, it would make me a ‘generalist’ instead of a journalist – a ‘jack of all trades and master of none’. Specialists know more and more about less and less, till they know everything about nothing (stale old joke?).

One becomes an engineer after passing B.E. exam or a doctor after MBBS but not a journalist after acquiring a journalism degree. Medicine, engineering, accountancy and law degrees only ensure an entry into the profession. The real learning starts on the job. In journalism one can enter even without that degree and learn. A course teaches the jargon, but it is not a machine which converts a raw student into a journalist.

Degrees have so little to do with journalistic abilities that in 1950s B. Rama Rao of The Indian Express, Bombay, chose not to send his son, B.S.Rao, to school and educated him at home. Though his own uncle U. S. Rao was the News Editor of The Times of India, B.S.Rao joined the Express desk. He was famous for good page design. He then joined The Times of India as a chief sub-editor at Ahmedabad and later shifted to a UK newspaper, probably Darlington Echo in North-east England. Rama Rao, a cynic, had worked under chief sub-editors who were his juniors.

Like the ‘egg came first or chicken’ debate, the discussion on journalism education versus on-job training rages on and on. Some say doing a graduation or MS degree in journalism is a waste and that on-job training for a few months was far more effective. Others are passionate about getting a journalism degree.

There is truth in all these arguments. It is also true that knowledge and education –in any sphere- are useful for a journalist. Degrees don’t make you a journalist, but education makes you a better one.

(from my book ‘A TOWN CALLED PENURY  -the Changing Culture of Indian Journalism’)

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