Friday, September 19, 2008

'Tis meet

Estragon: Shall we go?
Vladimir: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.
- Waiting for Godot

When people ask me why I got out of the office grind and started freelancing, I make the usual noises about not wanting to be restricted to a ball-and-chain routine, about working on my own time rather than taking the path well-trodden by the bleating herds, and so forth. But one reason I usually don’t disclose is my fervent dislike of office meetings, which have to be among the most pointless of man’s many pointless inventions.

The specifics of office meetings vary with the profession – for instance, I’m told marketing people use slideshows, wear shiny suits and ties with Mickey Mouse designs on them and say things like “we’re cutting costs without cutting corners” as if they learnt to say them while still in the cradle – but this is roughly how it works for a team of feature journalists.

First we enter a conference room that is either large and plush with a fancy coffee-maker machine placed in a corner (if the publication is rich and driven by Advertising) or dingy and underlit with a spider mournfully plunking the strings of its cobweb along the ceiling (if the publication is poor and driven by Courage and Integrity). In either case, the same scene unfolds. The first 15 minutes are spent gossiping about the higher increments given to other departments in the newspaper, especially the pampered news-desk people. Then the editor coughs meaningfully, shuffles a few papers and invites story ideas. There is a profound silence. Everyone studies their coffee mugs.

A newly recruited intern, still in the first flush of journalistic zeal, launches into a brief for a great new story. Someone interrupts him midway: “Didn’t we do that a few months ago?” The intern feels betrayed, he had no clue that this publication did stories before he joined them. He feels the first stirrings of an unfamiliar emotion: in a few weeks, he will know what it’s called (Bitter Hopelessness) and he will experience it every moment of his working day until the end of his life. But for now he is rescued by a world-weary middle-rung editor who announces that since all feature journalism consists of recycled stories, they might as well do this one again; after all, as everyone knows, there are no new ideas under the sun. (This creates an awkward moment since everyone present at the meeting had been asked to “bring at least three new ideas to the table”.) The editor saves face by telling the intern to go ahead "but find an interesting peg, see if something new has happened, and get quotes from at least three people".

Then someone makes an offhand remark about a carelessly written cover story in a rival publication and this keeps the group busy bitching for the next 20 minutes. What little “ideating” does happen takes place in the final three minutes of the meeting, by which time no one really cares what is being discussed. At the end of the session the editor has a perfunctory list of story ideas for the coming week, most of which he doesn't completely understand. But he feigns satisfaction because the marketing team is outside with briefcases full of slides, waiting to use the room.

It goes without saying that none of the stories discussed will ever actually see the light of newsprint, at least not in the form they were presented at the meeting; come production day, the paper will be filled by random snippets thrown together at the last possible moment.
This proves that office meetings are exercises in creative time wasting and those conscientious few among us who care to get some work done wisely stay away from them.

[From my Metro Now column. See, that's the real reason why I don't attend meetings - my columns would never be published if I had to get them approved first]


  1. Ha Ha! great post , it reminds me of countless presentations that I have to make even now discussing the feasibility or action plans to correct something already gone kaput.

    I cannot say much about publications , but in the financial sector and banks there is always a constant churning of meetings in conference rooms where new plans are discussed for about 15 minutes and the rest of the hours go in stupid bickerings and greivance control. The worst part is when your boss asks you to make a presentation and then presents it as his own work in front of his boss. I believe this goes on in almost all professions , so I have stopped cribbing . In essence you do not get much out of cribbing and the chain of conference room meetings are nothing but a source of great mirth to me now.

    You are blessed that Journalism at least allows for freelancing , it is a medium where you get to present your views ; even if sometimes a little sugarcoating is required.

    Loved your 'waiting for Godot' line , after all meetings in themselves are an exercise in absurdity.

  2. My boss is a US citizen(Indian by origin) and all of us dread his US trips. After every trip he has countless stories of what happened in that particular trip. These stories makes all of us hate meetings with him.

  3. Since I was shooed from your blog, I think I should keep coming back to comment. And yes, you have a nice blog here.

  4. So true!

    Most comapny meetings these days are taken over (doesn't matter whether they are from Marketing or Sales or Finance) by the so-called PowerPoint warriors!

    Recently, I attended an internal meeting the main agenda of which was "How to save costs".

    We flew in people from all the other metro-s to Chennai to "brainstorm"! Amen!

  5. Meetings are how deadwood make themselves feel useful - by blocking those who are productive.

  6. Good one! The title and the Godot bit - brilliant.

  7. Hmm. Jwock - can't say I like this piece very much - too labored. Hope you don't mind the criticism.


  8. Jai, wonderful insights! In fact the office meetings are the same - be it in Journalism, IT or Consulting. In my career as a software engineer and as a Consultant, I haven't found much difference in the way the meetings are run and the outcomes of the meetings. At the end of the day, they are USELESS.

    They are like the State regulations - nobody likes them individually, but they just happen.

  9. Sangeetha: not sure it's much of an insight - I mean, Scott Adams and others have been lampooning meetings for years, and doing it a heck of a lot better - but I thought it might be worthwhile to mention some of the stuff that can happen in a journalistic meeting. Especially given the lofty expectations that people on the outside still seem to have from the profession - and also given how cluttered Indian journalism has become in recent times, with new print publications/channels launching every week and all of them trying to delude themselves that they're doing something original (or doing it differently).

  10. Jai, you crook, I do believe it was you who told me "there are no new ideas under the sun", when I was a flushed and zealous new journalist. I still don't want to accept that, not yet content being merely a hack; so is it merely weaselly to believe that there are always new "angles"?

  11. is it merely weaselly to believe that there are always new "angles"?

    Rrishi: weaselly, yes, which is true for the profession in general (and even more generally true for all human endeavour). And now you know who the world-weary middle-rung editor was a stand-in for!

  12. "Nothing to be done." :)

  13. Ah, but you have not attended meetings called by bosses channeling Meryl Streep from Devil Wears Prada.

    They swish into the office for the express purpose of holding a monthly ideas meeting, exuding Chanel No. 1., and telling you you better have all your ideas pat coz she has just fifteen minutes to spare, so no hemming and hawing.
    Approval or disapproval are expressed by a curt 'go ahead' or a stern 'no'. Arguments are repressed with an ever sterner 'no.'

    Sometimes the meetings are held at the Taj coffee shop to help the Boss move straight into her lunch (to which you are obviously not invited). You take an auto back to office.

    Discursive? No. Efficient? Yes.

  14. Jai, nice post. I've been reading your blog for quite a time now and am continuously amused.

    by the way, I'm a journalist from Kolkata... though not in the feature section... I work for the editorial page.. but the "meeting" drama you described still holds so good....


  15. Hi Jai,
    So, so, true. How long were you in journalism? I go through this every week. And I never manage to find the new angle. But at least, I can read your post before the next meeting and cheer up :-)

  16. Amrita: am still in journalism, technically speaking - but I've made sure I no longer have to attend meetings!