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Once upon a time, information gathering and dissemination was the work of people who professionally practised it, i.e. the journalists. No longer, today; since the tools are very much available to the common people.

Democratization of mass media mechanism may have its good side, but definitely not without pitfalls. A good example of the latter was the way the rumour about Jyoti Basu’s death spread on twitter this afternoon. Like email forwards and sms forwards, this too got mindlessly retweeted. The extent of traffic could be gauged from the fact that Jyoti Basu was a trending topic on twitter for a while.

Things got so bad that someone even went on to make an entry on Basu’s page on Wikipedia, based on the unconfirmed news. To prevent any further damage, editors had to sort of partially disable the editing option.

Interestingly, now it was the non-journalists who jumped the gun with “breaking news”, and it was they who got it all wrong! I hope they have become wiser now, and will pardon, when next time round journalists slip.

On twitter, saner people contained the damage by rubbishing the rumour and putting out an appeal not to retweet the unconfirmed news about Basu’s health. In fact, many were retweeting the twitter feed of institutional media organizations like NDTV, Hindustan Times, The Times of India etc to state clearly that Basu was very much around, though in a critical condition.

It was a good sign that many people were turning to conventional media organizations for the actual status of Basu’s health. This in a way indicated the continued faith people have in the credibility of institutional media organizations.

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IT professionals, hotel management executives, entrepreneurs, artistes: they were all there with one purpose of supporting a charity at the Twestival in the city on Saturday. Bangalore was one among the 200-odd cities around the world (including six other Indian cities) where Twitter users gathered this weekend for a cause.

A section of the Twestival audience.

A section of the Twestival audience.

It was an evening of fun and entertainment at Kyra Theatre, Indiranagar. The mind-reading session by Nakul Shenoy took the audience’s breath away as he guessed rightly what’s in the mind of participants who volunteered. There were standup comedy shows by Aron Kader and Papa CJ; a quiz programme, and finally a performance of contemporary Indian folk, with a fusion of rock, Carnatic and jazz by Swarathma. While the programme was on, a giant screen displayed the live tweets on the Twitter festival.

A Twestival participant (right) holds up a folded paper on which she has written the name of a person. Nakul Shenoy later rightly guessed the name.

A Twestival participant (right) holds up a folded paper on which she has written the name of a person. Nakul Shenoy later rightly guessed the name.

Nakul Shenoy gets down from the stage, rightly guesses and writes down a particular word from a page (not seen by him) of a book  given to the woman on the stage. The two men beside her wait for their turn to be mesmerized.

Nakul Shenoy gets down from the stage, rightly guesses and writes down a particular word from a page (not seen by him) of a book given to the woman on the stage. The two men beside her wait for their turn to be mesmerized.

The organizers were upbeat. “At least 140 people are here. There were many who bought tickets but couldn’t make it,” said Vaijayanthi K M, regional coordinator for Twestivals in India, Bangladesh and Middle East. “We haven’t checked exactly how much we got for the charity, but it’s at least Rs 20,000.”

Standup comedian from Los Angeles Aron Kader regales the audience.

Standup comedian from Los Angeles Aron Kader regales the audience.

Bangalore event coordinator Hrish Thota said the event surpassed expectations. “We also showed that twittering is not just a time pass but can be leveraged to achieve noble objectives.” Twestival Bangalore is supporting Dream A Dream, a Jayanagar-based charity that works with NGOs to impart life skills to children.

Says Pooja Rao of Dream A Dream, “We decided to partner with Twestival because this is a global event that will help create awareness about the social work that we do and also about volunteering that is at the core of the movement.”

Performance by Swarathma

Performance by Swarathma

Rakesh Krishnakumar, a software engineer with IBM, is an avid Twitter user. “I use Twitter to know what is happening in the city. It’s an effective medium to communicate with your friends and family. My mother, who is in Delhi, has a Twitter account and follows my tweets to keep in touch with me.”

Mark Doray, a knowledge management professional with Nokia Siemens Networks, thinks Twitter is a powerful information dissemination tool. “I follow experts who tweet about my subject and it helps me a lot in my profession. Twitter is most effective when we identify the right people who tweet and follow them.”

While the programme was on, a giant screen in the background, displayed live tweets on the Twestival.

While the programme was on, a giant screen in the background, displayed live tweets on the Twestival.

But not all participants at Twestival use Twitter. Ravi Kumar, an engineer with IBM, had come on the suggestion of a friend. “Neither do I use Twitter nor am I a fan of the band that’s performing, but I thought this was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday evening – for a charity,” he said.

Sujit Krishnan, a hotel management executive, was another. “I’ve just heard about Twitter, that’s all. It’s amazing how online guys can get offline and pull off something like this!”

(This article appeared in The Times of India, Bangalore, on September 13, 2009)

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One of the biggest challenges for a journalist is to report form a trouble spot. It’s not without reason war correspondents enjoy an exalted position. Terrains are hazardous, information is hard to come by, and it’s difficult to establish the veracity of what ever information comes by. And, most importantly, the reporters’ life itself can be at risk.

Here is an account of “Reporting Afghanistan” from the BBC blog: The Editors.

With that toll rising at an alarming rate, and with Afghans voting to elect a new president, BBC Radio 5 live wanted to see for itself what was happening – how the war against the Taliban was being fought and what life was like for some of those at the sharp end.

Over to Liam Hanley, assistant editor on 5 live Drive.

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Those were the days… when the thud of the newspaper falling at the doorstep and the rustle of its pages added to the refreshing charm of the morning air. It’s a long time since we last saw the newspaper boy, isn’t it? For that matter, when we did last use the word ‘newspaper’?

Year 2034. We are besieged by news and more news; views and more views. No print paper, much to the delight of environmentalists. Remember the campaign they ran decades ago asking us not to take printouts so that trees could be saved? Whether death of the dailies has led to a wider expanse of green cover is yet to be established.

Anyway, the good-old newspaper — the essential companion to the morning cup of steaming coffee — now lies buried deep under the wreckage technology has unleashed.

What a transformation! Twenty-five years ago, the topic of discussion was ‘How will newspapers be in 2034’. Looking back, we didn’t even realise then that the word ‘newspaper’ itself wouldn’t exist. Yet, there were diehard conformists who refused to believe that the morninger would ever be dead. It is so integral to human lifestyle, they argued. In spite of technology, did we stop having our breakfast, they asked?

Look, what’s happened! Newspapers are dead! Long live the newspaper! No one prints newspapers! Three reasons for that: one, today everything is available easily online; internet is no longer the preserve of the rich and the haves. Two, online archives are available at a reasonable price, and virtual newspapers can be easily searched and accessed. You print out a newspaper if you need to.

Three, lifestyle itself has changed. Once upon a time, people woke up in the morning to know the previous day’s news. Today, who waits for the next day; why should they? They can read the latest news anytime of the day. Before going to bed, some people watch television, some listen to the radio (yes, they are still around since you can listen to news while driving or cooking or when lying on bed) and others read the Intaz.

For the uninitiated and the ignorant, Intaz is now the closest to what newspapers were like before. It has evolved from the multimedia gizmos that once only the gadget-friendly rich guys could afford. Intaz is of the size of a foldable notebook, smaller than what used to be called the laptop but a bit bigger than the palmtops most of us have. It’s a high-tech wired multimedia device, mostly used to store and retrieve data.

Its hi-res text and imagery make it the virtual substitute for newspapers. With embedded video, it is much more than the static newspaper. A reader also has access to a multiplicity of sources for getting information depending on his preferences. 

Not many explanations on the etymology of the word. The most popular one is that ‘in’ stands for information; and ‘taz’ is a derivative from foreign words that mean ‘cup’: tasse in French, taza in Spanish, tazza in Italian, tase in Latvian and tass in Estonian. So basically Intaz means a container of information.

Twenty-five years ago, a person in Bangalore, who hailed from Banaskanata in Gujarat, never got to know to what was happening in his hometown. Today on his Intaz, he has two local sections: one, Bangalore and the other Banaskanta. Customization is the key. You set your Intaz to what you want to access.
 
The basic feeds, atom and RSS (really simple syndicate popular way back in 2009), are now far more technologically refined. The Intaz has Newsline and Viewsline options: one gives us bare facts, information, shorn of all interpretation and analysis. The other gives us comments, opinions and views. No one now complains that the media are mixing news with views. Choose what you want, get what you want.

Readers are a far more satisfied lot. The good-old newspaper packed too many things into too many pages, with the result every reader invariably got something he didn’t like. For example, a cricket fan who didn’t like tennis, had to bear the hyper Wimbledon coverage every June-July. No longer; since his customised Intaz doesn’t get any tennis feeds at all.

Not just readers, even big-time media houses are happy with the new trend. Satisfying all the readers all the time was an impossibility that editors wrestled with every day. They were accused of either bias; or underplaying some events or overplaying some others. No more of those brickbats. Advantage one, online there is no shortage of space. Advantage two, there is a clear demarcation between news and views. And now, finally, it’s been revealed that it’s the reader who is biased (in terms of preferences of news and views) and not the media houses!

Before newspapers were finally laid to rest, there were fears — expressed mainly by people who still live in 2009 — that Intaz and its customisation features would ruin the intellectual health of the society. People will read only what they want to read. Many were worried that in the absence of multiplicity of views, people wouldn’t be exposed to counterviews. Some felt that with the demise of the newspaper, the general knowledge level of people would plummet.

Mercifully, those fears haven’t come true. A few years have gone by since we have been in this paperless 24×7 news world. Nothing has befallen the society that can directly be attributed to the demise of traditional format newspapers.

Printed newspapers lasted more than 500 years. How long will we live in this newspaper-less world? What next? From online where? The sage once said everything in the world goes around in circles. Will some day, some one in the next generation, rediscover the romance of  the newspaper?

(This article was published today in The Times of India, Bangalore, as part of a series of articles commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Bangalore edition.)

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As I write this, I am enjoying the Ashes radio commentary by Jonathan Agnew on the internet.

Agnew says Henry Blofeld will be coming in in a few minutes… wow…

… Absolute bliss… Blofeld is on air…. Australia has reached 400 for 4…

… Blogging can wait… let me just listen to Blofeld… and Geoff Boycott has now joined him…

….. ….. ….

“Don’t miss a ball, we broadcast them all”

Cricket was my passion when I was in school and in college. Apart from playing, umpiring and coaching, like any cricket buff I was constantly hooked on to commentary on radio. Even with all their drawbacks, the Indian cricket commentators were a pleasure to listen to. But BBC’s radio commentators were and still are a class apart, a fact even our Indian commentators would acknowledge.

In May 1957, the first day of the Test between England and West Indies at Edgbaston is broadcast in its entirety with Rex Alston, John Arlott, EW Swanton and Ken Ablack at the mic. (For credit click on photo)

In May 1957, the first day of the Test between England and West Indies at Edgbaston is broadcast in its entirety with Rex Alston, John Arlott, EW Swanton and Ken Ablack at the mic. (For credit click on photo)

It’s such a pleasure listening to the celebrated Test Match Special team of commentators. The team has over the years developed a unique style. Commentating is not just about telling what’s happening on the field, it’s also about history, anecdotes, jokes and banter. It’s this fantastic mixture combined with the commentators’ excellent voice, articulation and diction that have made TMS such an acclaimed programme.

Henry Blofeld

Henry Blofeld

In 1957, with the birth of TMS, the BBC became the first broadcaster in the world to cover every ball of a Test match. The celebrated slogan then was: “Don’t miss a ball, we broadcast them all.”

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

Many celebrated broadcasters have graced TMS. I have read about John Arlott and E W Swanton. I haven’t heard them except on archival recordings. By the time I got listening to TMS, it was Brian Johnston, Tony Cozier, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Henry Blofeld and Don Mosey.

My favourite is Blofeld. His voice is so captivating and gripping. He became famous in India during the 1990s when, while commentating, he used to make humorous remarks about ear-rings worn by women spectators. That was when he left BBC to work with Sky. He returned to BBC soon after to the delight of many of his fans.

Johnston-Agnew leg over giggle

Brian Johnston

Brian Johnston

The other commentator I liked was the late, Brian Johnston. His sense of humour was unmatched, a lot of them are chronicled in his book “Rain Stops Play”. He became famous in 1991 for the “leg over” laughter.

In August 1991, England were playing the Windies at Oval. The commentators were Brian Johnston and Jonathan Agnew, when Ian Botham got out losing balance while trying the play the hook shot and falling over his wicket. Agnew remarked that Botham “couldn’t quite get his leg over”. Johnston carried on talking but soon he couldn’t get over his laughter. The humour behind Agnew’s remark is: in English slang “getting one’s leg over” means having sex. And during that time there were plenty of news reports of Botham’s ‘colourful’ off-court goings-on.
It is said that both Johnston and Agnew were quite upset with themselves for having got carried away with the joke. But it later emerged Agnew’s remark and Johnston’s hysterical laughter had become a bit hit among the listeners.
Listen to an mp3 clipping of the “leg over” commentary. Agnew’s remark comes 10 seconds into the clipping.

In August 1991, England were playing the Windies at Oval. The commentators were Brian Johnston and Jonathan Agnew, when Ian Botham got out falling over his wicket after losing balance while trying the play the hook shot. He couldn’t lift his leg enough, and his inner thigh dislodged the bails. He was out: hit wicket.

Agnew remarked that Botham “just couldn’t quite get his leg over”. Johnston carried on talking but soon he couldn’t get over his laughter. The humour behind Agnew’s remark is: in English slang “getting one’s leg over” means having sex. And around that time there were plenty of news reports of Botham’s ‘colourful’ off-court activities.

Ian Botham loses balance and falls over the wicket -- the provocation for the famous "leg over" remark by Agnew and the more famous uncontrollable laughter by Johnston.

Ian Botham loses balance and falls over the wicket -- the provocation for the famous "leg over" remark by Agnew and the more famous uncontrollable laughter by Johnston.

It is said that both Johnston and Agnew were quite upset with themselves for having got carried away with the joke. But it later emerged that Agnew’s remark and Johnston’s hysterical laughter had become a bit hit among the listeners.

Listen to audio clipping of the “leg over” commentary. Agnew’s remark comes around 10 seconds into the clipping.

When I missed TMS

During the 1990s, BBC went through acute financial problems and TMS was among the services affected as the broadcaster tried to cut expenses. Broadcast on the shortwave radio was erratic and I didn’t know what was happening to my favorite TMS and its commentators.

Adding to this was the invasion of the airwaves by the mobile phones. Radio reception progressively became feeble and it was difficult to tune in to the BBC, or any other station, without disturbance. I began missing my TMS.

BBC radio on internet

Over the past few years, radio has become available on the internet. BBC is perhaps one broadcaster which has made available such a wide variety of programmes on the internet. I have given some links at the end. Many months back, I checked out TMS on the internet, but to my great disappointment it wasn’t available.

The team of commentators on BBC's Test Match Special has been regaling millions of cricket fans around the world since 1957. Now the radio commentary is available on the internet.

The team of commentators on BBC's Test Match Special has been regaling millions of cricket fans around the world since 1957. Now the radio commentary is available on the internet.

And today, as I switched on my PC, as usual I logged on to BBC radio, and checked out if TMS was available. I couldn’t believe when saw the link for the live commentary of the Ashes on BBC Live 5. My worry was if it was available only the UK, like the live video.  No, it wasn’t… the BBC iplayer console opened, and streaming began… Jonathan Agnew, Henry Blofled, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Goeff Boycott… all are back…

Thanks to technology, I am able to listen to this wonderful institution. I hope it gets better and better with time…

Some useful links for those who are interested:

—  BBC Radio

—  BBC Test Match Special

—   Archive of BBC TMS Ashes commentary excerpts from 1938

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Yesterday morning, I was still in bed, when my teenage son, who had a few moments before left for college, rushed back screaming Michael Jackson is dead. “Michael Jackson can’t die,” he kept saying. My son has eversince been either humming MJ’s tunes or playing them on the mobile. 

It was difficult to believe the news though we all knew Jackson was not in the pink of his health. Whatever be one’s views about Jacko, not in the recent past has anyone caught the imagination of the entire world, cutting across all strata, like MJ did. Essentially what was in him that got a such a huge number of people around the world adore him will a remain a mystery, like the way died.   

Excerpts from some articles:

“… Like Orpheus, Jackson was destroyed by his fans, whose adulation and adoration prevented his living in any kind of normal society. The creativity ebbed away day by day. He became a parody of himself. It is time now to forget all that and salute the miraculous boy who will triumph over death as Dionysos did, becoming immortal through his art…”  Germaine Greer

“… If ever there was an illustration of the adage that celebrity destroys what it touches, Jackson was it. Highly sensitive and impressionable, he was unsuited to fame – ironic, given that his became one of the most recognised faces in the world. Despite loving the razzle-dazzle of performance – even his off-duty wardrobe, with its epauletted jackets, looked like stagewear – he was crushed by the pressure of maintaining a cherubic public persona. He probably would have been happiest working behind the scenes, in the mode of his collaborator and mentor, Quincy Jones, producer of the 50m-selling Thriller…”  Guardian obituary

“… Such were his legal fees and the lavish lifestyle he developed that even the hundreds of millions that allowed him to outbid Paul McCartney for the Beatles’ back catalogue proved insufficient. He all but lost his Neverland ranch, and withdrew – frequently hiding behind a mask on the occasions when he did appear in public, a shield against fame which only made him more newsworthy…”  Guardian editorial

“… Michael Jackson came to be synonymous with transformation — ultimately, with an eerie stasis that comes from seeking transformation all the time. The alchemy of change worked longer and better for him — through the ’80s and into the early ’90s — than it has for almost any other artist. And yet somehow all the changes always take us back to the album in which Michael Jackson grew up…” New York Times editorial

“… This compromise with reality gradually became unsustainable. He went to strange lengths to preserve it. Unbounded privilege became another toxic force in his undoing. What began as idiosyncrasy, shyness, and vulnerability was ravaged by obsessions over health, paranoia over security, and an isolation that grew more and more unhealthy…” Deepak Chopra’s tribute in The Huffington Post

“… For more than an hour, TMZ was essentially the only outlet claiming that Mr. Jackson was dead. Television and newspaper journalists read the TMZ report but largely held off on repeating it, for fear of making a mistake. Still, the bulletin traversed the Web with remarkable speed, creating a stark divide: on the Internet Mr. Jackson was dead, and on TV he was still alive…” New York Times

“… In the 50 years that Michael Jackson lived, the rules of journalism have gone from wait-and-see to show-and-wait. Journalism was once grandly said to be the first draft of history. We’ve now moved to a world in which gossip is the first draft of journalism…” Mark Lawson in The Guardian

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It was a momentous day for us yesterday, when one of the news sections of our newspaper, went live on the new editing and pagemaking software. ‘Went live’ means, the page that people are reading today was made on the new software. This is the first news page of our publication to go live. A day to cherish.

Though we have been bringing out trial versions over the past week, the feeling that ‘live’ brings in is altogether different: a combination of excitement and tension. There was a lot of coordination to be done. And everything had to click. Software transitions, wherever, are always tricky, with the fear of a ‘crash’ always looming overhead. Touchwood, barring minor glitches, all went well.

I was just wondering, how journalism, like of course everything around us, has changed over the years. Twenty years back, I was involved in a similar exercise when the newspaper I worked for then, brought in computers to replace typewriters and teleprinters. The media industry is poised for still more revolutionary changes as technology evolves rapidly.

Last night most of us missed our dinner. At 1.30 am, totally exhausted, we had only one thought in our minds: where can we get something to eat. We were told there is a restaurant called ”Light of Asia” close to the CST. It was 20 min walk away.

The cafe had its shutter down, but there was a tiny door beside it kept ajar, through which we all squeezed in. Wow! So spacious inside. We had our meals, and the big surprise, they offered us complimentary icecreams! Let’s come here everyday, someone screamed. Stay on in Mumbai, don’t go back, added another.

The most odd hour to have dinner, but nothing unusual for journalists. The cab guys were very considerate and stayed on beyond the 2 am cutoff time, and we were back in our rooms, by 3 am.

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Journalists report news. Today, a journalist became the news. The Dainik Jagran reporter, Jarnail Singh’s, act of lobbing his shoe at home minister P Chidambaram at a media conference, brought the profession and journalists to shame. I, as a journalist, felt bad.

Of course, Singh clearly did not want to harm the minister. He was sitting in the front row, and all he did was to lob, and not throw, the footwear at the minister. He did that saying he was protesting, but definitely this was not the way to protest. Clearly, a fine line had been breached. A bad day for the media.

Thankfully, some ground has been salvaged as Jarnail Singh regretted the incident. Appearing on NDTV and CNN-IBN news television channels in the night, he said he should have behaved as a journalist and not as an aggrieved Sikh at the press conference. He also said no one should follow what he did. He repeatedly said what he did was wrong.

Let’s remember here that the Iraqi journalist Montadher al-Zaidi, who threw two shoes at then US president George Bush in Baghdad did not repent is now in jail.

I am a journalist, and let me be very candid about this. Journalism, as a profession, though nowadays enjoys quite a bit of glamour, has its own share of unworthy elements. I have been asked many times why certain news items are reported in a particular way, whether there are vested interests at work, etc etc. The shoe attack has quite understandably led to jokes about journalists: “They anyway can’t write properly, now we know they can’t even throw a shoe properly.”

Five years back the celebrated New York Times itself had to admit that its reporter Jayson Blair had committed “acts of journalistic fraud”. He “misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York. He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services.” (Full report in NYT.) He was asked to resign.

Sikh households destroyed in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination. Photo from Time magazine of Nov 1984. (Click photo for source of photo.)

Sikh households destroyed in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination. Photo from Time magazine of Nov 1984. (Click photo for source of photo.)

Background

Twenty-five years back, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on Oct 31, 1984. By evening, Congress party activists took to streets to avenge the killing. People were chased and lynched, some had their hair set afire. Houses were looted and set ablaze. Women were attacked. All across the country, Sikhs were targeted. I was in Kerala, and there it was mainly in Kochi (then Cochin). Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar were among top Congress leaders who are said to have incited and encouraged activists to attack Sikhs.

Politicians taking people for granted

In the Chidambaram-Jarnail Singh incident, there is a larger issue involved. That’s the events leading up to the press conference incident. Look at Jarnail Singhas an individual, not as a journalist. The barrier is vulnerable against the force of emotion.

Congress was pushing the limits by letting Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar contest the Lok Sabha elections. Whether Tytler is guilty or not is one thing. In the eyes of the large community of Sikhs, the two are guilty. Politics is most often about perception than reality — a simple rule Congress chose to forget.

Now there is pressure on Congress to withdraw the Lok Sabha ticket to Tytler and Sajjan Kumar. If they do, a journalist’s shoe would seem to be more powerful than the proverbial pen. Now whether Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar contest or not, irreparable damage has been done.

All political parties must learn a lesson from this. They aren’t doing any service to anyone by dodging truth and popular sentiments. Success of democracy depends of committed and responsible politicians.

If politicians test the patience of people, they are also risking social unrest.

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Recession has hit everyone: individuals and industries. The media which has been tracking the slowdown; reporting and analysing the havoc that has befallen the social and economic landscape, itself has become a victim.

The scene is really bad in the United States, where popular and big publications have either closed down or are facing imminent shutdown. The list is growing by the day.  

The world renowned Christian Science Monitor will come out with its last print daily newspaper edition on March 27. It will be online after that; and print edition will come out once in a week.

From March 30, the two major newspapers in Detroit — The Free Press and The News — will come out only three days a week.

Rocky Mountain News — the 150-year-old institution that’s Colorado’s oldest — closed last week. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, after 146 years of publishing, may close down next week. The Hearst Corporation, which owns the Post-Intellencer, has threatened to close down its other paper, San Francisco Chronicle.

On Feb 24th, it announced that it would have to pare down staff strength and put in place other cost-cutting measures. If these don’t work, the newspaper might even be closed down. With a circulation of over three lakh it’s the largest newspaper in the San Francisco Bay area. The paper has lost over $50 million last year (something like $1 million a week) and the worry is it might be more this year.

On February 19, the New York Times took a decision to suspend payment of dividend. This is the first time the board has taken such a decision after the company went public in 1969. Apparently the move will help the company save about $34 million. But, the dire predictions are that it will be hard for the paper to survive this year, if one goes by the rate at which businesses are plummeting. 

The number of journalists in the Los Angeles Times newsroom has fallen from around 1,200 in 1990 to half now. The Washington Post newsroom had a staff strength of around 900 some six years back; it’s now less than 700. 

Gannett is America’s largest publishing house. It brings out 85 daily newspapers, including USA Today, and over 850 non-daily newspapers across the nation. It cut 8,300 jobs in 2007 and 2008. 

All these are sending alarm bells ringing across the media industry in the States. Because, if the trend continues, and it gets worse, many cities will lose their dominant newspaper. And that doesn’t bode well at all for a democratic society.

What will the world be without big newspapers? There are two views here.

One, life will not be same again. Big newspapers have a place of their own in a society. They bring to public domain a lot of information that otherwise lies hidden. They trigger discussions and debates that help a society evolve itself.

Two, when one big papers goes, it will be replaced by many small media outlets. The days of the big are over, it’s micro level life and management. Technology has changed the world. It’s an irreversible change. The conventional printed newspapers — won’t completely vanish but — will become far fewer in number, but the process of dissemination of information, debates and discussions will continue — perhaps more vigorously — on a different plane.

I go by the second argument.

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Yesterday was such a wonderful day; a feel-good day. On Hollywood’s make believe, star-studded pinnacle of glory, Indians found more than their share of mention as accolades came pouring in.

Even though I reached home from work at 3 after night, I had made up my mind to get up at least at 7 the next day to catch the Oscar award presentation. It went on till around 10.45. And it was worth it. After that, with such a good feeling at heart went back to bed to catch a bit of sleep.  

Composer A.R. Rahman displays the Oscars for achievement in music for both original song and original score for his work on the film "Slumdog Millionaire" at the 81st Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, February 22, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES) (OSCARS-BACKSTAGE)

Composer A.R. Rahman displays the Oscars for achievement in music for both original song and original score for his work on the film "Slumdog Millionaire" at the 81st Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, February 22, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES) (OSCARS-BACKSTAGE)

There was a time when Academy Award presentation and India were like cheese and chalk. Satyajit Ray and a few others who found some mention looked like flashes in the pan. A R Rahman, Resul Pookutty, Gulzar, Pinky and many other child artistes of Slumdog Millionaire and Smile Pinky have blazed a trail of glory, and made India proud.

Why this is so much of celebration will be understood only when one recalls how India and anything even remotely Indian was an immediate disqualification for a global award. Not without reason, though: we lagged behind in quality; and when there was that one-off display of excellence, it got overlooked because of overarching prejudice.

If on 26/11, Mumbai’s posh Taj hit international headlines on a tragic note, yesterday the same Mumbai’s slums made top world news on a cheerful note. There is so much one can read into this irony.

Award was fixed?

We can always look at everything in two ways: one positive and the other cynical. One is progressive, the other is retrograde. I prefer the former. As Indians swept the Oscar awards, one argument was that just like when Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen won the Miss Universe and Miss World, this time too, deliberately Indian talent had been recognised, for economic reasons; apparently to overcome recession. Very creative argument I must say, quite far-fetched as well.

Ian Tapp (L), Richard Pryke (C) and Resul Pookutty pose with their Oscars for achievement in sound mixing for "Slumdog Millionaire" backstage at the 81st Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 22, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES) (OSCARS-BACKSTAGE)

Ian Tapp (L), Richard Pryke (C) and Resul Pookutty pose with their Oscars for achievement in sound mixing for "Slumdog Millionaire" backstage at the 81st Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 22, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES) (OSCARS-BACKSTAGE)

Also, it has been said that Rahman’s many other better performances and even better films have gone unrecognised. True, perhaps. But that’s hold good not just in this case, but in almost all fields of performance. Sometimes it’s the best team that wins. But the team that wins deserves it. That’s what matters.

Poverty glorified?

Another argument is India’s poverty has been glorified. I have, frankly, not understood this. Poverty is not a myth in India, it’s a reality. Where is glorification here? If someone has used the subject of poverty to script a resonating message of perseverance,  endurance and success; what’s wrong there? Just as luxury and affluence are subjects so too are depravity and handicap.

Indian poet Gulzar, who wrote the lyrics for the Oscar award-winning original song, 'Jai Ho,' for 'Slumdog Millionaire,' talks to the media, in Mumbai, Monday, Feb. 23, 2009. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

Indian poet Gulzar, who wrote the lyrics for the Oscar award-winning original song, 'Jai Ho,' for 'Slumdog Millionaire,' talks to the media, in Mumbai, Monday, Feb. 23, 2009. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

In Aamir Khan’s Lagaan, the cricket team was not made up of rich kids. In his Tare Zameen Par, he used the subject of dyslexia. So, I don’t understand how suddenly use of poverty is objectionable. If the objection is that a Britisher used India’s poverty for his movie; I don’t understand how if an Aamir Khan had used the same poverty for a movie it would have looked better. There was the same argument about Satyajit Ray too. It makes no sense to me.

Individual merit

We need to make a distinction between the success of Slumdog Millionaire as a movie, and the individual contributions of Rahman and Pookutty. The former is a combined effect of every person’s contribution honed to perfection by the director. But the award for Rahman and Pookutty are for their very own efforts. For which film they worked is secondary. It’s this fact that is being largely missed; and what we all need to stand up and applaud.

Another point is that is made is that if they had worked for an Indian director’s movie and if that had been nominated, their work wouldn’t have been recognised. One, that is a hypothetical proposition. Two, even if one considers that argument, we need to take into account that good old adage: “at the right time, at the right place, in the right context”. Rahman and Pookutty were also lucky to be also part of a setting that recognised their talent. Same is the case with many talented people who go unrecognised here in India but shine in the US or some such country.

Another turning point

India’s or Indians’ success story is not new. It has been happening. If one were to put a date, it began post-economic liberalisation. That’s why everyone is linking it up India’s success with western financial interests. But the truth is post-1991, Indians have been able to pursue their dreams. If we had a better crop of politicians who facilitated development more actively the progress would have been much faster.

I am sure, not before long, an Indian director’s movie will get an Oscar. Instead of belittling ourselves and our capability to improve and improvise, let us look ahead with hope; celebrate success; and feel happy for the achievements that we Indians have accomplished.

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