Friday, May 06, 2005

Journalism vs writing

Chandrahas Choudhury, who’s all but usurped The Middle Stage from Amit Varma, wrote this post recently about Joseph Mitchell’s pieces for the New Yorker, essays that combined good reportage with high-quality writing. It makes me want to get back to a subject I’ve long considered blogging about but have repeatedly put off: good journalism vs good writing, the ways in which the two can overlap and how, so often, they have absolutely nothing to do with each other but are still thought of as the same thing.

There are so many different aspects to this debate, it’s difficult to know where to begin and how to end. But it keeps coming up in one form or the other - from having to read the poorly written, indifferently subbed copy on the front pages of most newspapers, to conversations with journo colleagues who fancy themselves as writers (and talk about “my style”) when they can barely string one gramatically correct sentence together, to discussions with bemused friends who have been exposed to much higher standards of feature writing in other countries (sorry if that sounds snobbish but there it is) and can’t understand why articles have to be completely rewritten by the desk out here.

First, a personal aside so I can try to sift my own prejudices from more general observations. I’ve had a very ambivalent relationship with the profession I’m in, one that’s often bordered on condescension towards it. This is partly because the standards of writing and reportage are both so low (especially in features, and especially in Delhi) that for someone with writerly aspirations it’s easy to think of reporting as a job that merely involves collecting information and putting it together, while not worrying about things like language or style. It’s partly also because of my own strange career trajectory - technically speaking I’ve been in business journalism for over two years now, without ever considering myself a business journalist. I tend to be a little streamlined in my interests and what’s happening in the corporate world doesn’t usually figure among those.

In the last few months things have been good. I’ve been handling the books section of my paper as an add-on, and even my more regular work - on our weekend features supplement - has become more interesting because the supplement has been revamped to make it lighter, less corporate and more lifestyle-ish. Much more space now for profiles on interesting people, film and music, etc.

But for over a year before that I was doing a lot of stuff I just wasn’t interested in - industry stories on shoes and tiles and such, and during those months I thought of myself as a hack journo. I would do these half-hearted interviews, collect little chunks of info, create separate, unstructured paragraphs out of them and then find a lazy linking device between paras that would turn the whole mess into a 1200-word “feature story”. (Also, when writing about a topic I’m not all that clued in to, I don’t want to be over-clever and risk putting foot in mouth, I’d much rather just get the facts down as efficiently as possible.) So the best that could be said about the writing on these pieces was that there were no typos. And when the editor rewrote something, or even gave the story a whole new intro I didn’t care a whit. This wasn’t my writing after all, it was my reporting. I got the byline not for stylish turn of phrase but because of the work I had done in collecting and assembling information. (Meanwhile, just to ensure I didn’t die of boredom or something I would do the occasional book or film review on the side.)

Anyway, that’s my story - and like I said, things have now changed for the better. In some of the more interesting people profiles I’ve done lately, I’ve felt the satisfaction of combining information with a fluid, personal writing style; I’ve actually enjoyed writing the story. Which is of course how it should be in a perfect world.

But Indian journalism, generally speaking, is not that perfect world. One of the reasons is that English isn’t the first language (or sometimes even the second language) for many of the people working as reporters in English-language newspapers and magazines. Many news reporters in particular get where they are by dint of hard work and a talent for digging out stories and wheedling information out of people. Those talents are the first requirements for their job and fluency in the language comes a very distant second. Some of the finest, most efficient reporters I’ve worked with have been people who could barely even speak English. The good thing was, they knew it and didn’t have any ego hassles about the desk rewriting their copy. They understood their limitations and, in the best-case scenarios, there was even a covert understanding that they would file their copies early so the desk would have more time to structure the language.

When it works that way, fine. The problem arises when some people refuse to accept that their writing is awkward or ungrammatical, and start interfering with what the desk is up to. It’s mind-boggling the number of such people there are, the ones who go on about their “style of writing” and who are encouraged in these delusions by equally clueless friends and relatives. (This is especially annoying because back in the days when I was doing clinical reportage-oriented articles, I would baulk and snap if a family member - or a PR person - said “what a well-written story”.) And when one of these sorts makes it to a relatively senior level, from where they can be hegemonist with deskies, well, that’s a recipe for trouble. It helps explain the level of copy-editing in most of our newspapers.

One valid argument is that while writing skills needn’t be a priority for reporters working in news, they are important for feature writers. Sometimes it does work that way: talented writers looking at a career in journalism more often than not gravitate towards features. But the lines do keep blurring; after all, it’s not like news reporters are recruited straight out of one gene pool while feature writers are drawn from another gene pool with superior writing skills, and then the two are kept separately in airtight compartments. There’s a lot of movement in journalism, job profiles keep changing and shifts often occur from one department to another.

Like I said earlier, this post doesn’t have a definite beginning or end, there’s plenty more one can say on the subject and I might keep adding to it as and when I feel like. Meanwhile, I can only hope there are even a few people in the profession with the inclination and skill to take up Chandrahas’s suggestion for contemplative essays on ice-cream selles, or stray dogs, or autorickshawdrivers.


  1. Here's my take:

    It's not surprising that everybody wants to jump into feature writing and exhibit their flair for writing. It's the reporter's dream - I can work from home and write contemplative essays about ice creams and stray dogs. The thing is, even those require a fair amount of reporting. Observing what's around you is reporting, isn't it?

    Which is why I believe that young journalists/reporters need to write all those so-called banal stories. How to entice a reader into a story about a stock going up or down, or one about a legislative session - sounds boring but it's pretty damn hard to do. And that's how one learns. You meet different people, you talk to different people, you quote different people. And you observe and somewhere along the way you start making sense of at least part of what we know of as life.

    Because the best journalism and the best literature is about people, no?

    Graham Greene, my absolute favourite, worked as a reporter. I think Maugham did too - albeit as an undercover British spy. I'm pretty sure Mark Twain was a newsman early in his career. There are so many examples.

    Of course, there are many great writers who weren't journalists. But, you know what I'm sayin', right?

    Another thing - during the dotcom boom there were 25-year-old millionaires. But, you didn't see a 25-year-old running Wired or the Industry Standard or Red Herring or any other publication.

    It's a very hard job being a journalist - and for some it may come naturally to report and write, but for the rest of us it takes a lot of time to get good at the art.

    And a sign of that art, for me, is somebody reads your story, understands what you're tryin' to report and the reader doesn't say anything. She's satisfied and moves on to something else. That's a step up in the ladder.

    And as far as stuff like the New Yorker goes - we're so far behind. Long form American magazine journalism is a marvel to me. It's awesome when it works. And I can't even imagine how long it takes to perfect that art.

    We don't have anything like the New Yorker or the Atlantic and unless somebody uses the Web to showcase talent...or lack there of...we will never know.

  2. Dude, you've made your point by hitting the nail wherever you wanted to. True most Indian news reports and features are badly written. A huge problem is obviously the dearth of "language" skills at the desk level (what else do you expect with the Hinglish, Benglish, etc being the mother tongue). Secondly quite a number of people who join journalism think that "subbing" a copy is really not there; you have to be a writer/reporter with huge by-lines. Most newspaper managements tend to give the desk short shrift.
    True, foreign features are so bloody good. Any N'Yorker or FT feature writer can take the pants of our best writers. My favourite though remains Spectator (I detest their politics though).
    A journo friend, after returning from England and six pegs down, said we shouldn't call ourselves "English" language journalists. According to him we know eff-all of the language.

    Is it because it is not our first language (at least for a majority of us)? Do you think we'll do a better job if all our English language newspapers turned in to Hinglish, Benglish ones?

  3. I entirely agree with you.Having worked at the desk for decades, I can tell you that most of the reporters are quite unaware of the muck they churn out, feature or otherwise. As to the new entrants in the profession, they want instant gratification. When I tell them to go out and meet a couple of people more for better quotes, most are unwilling to do anything.