The India Beat

Advice to young journalists: go east

There is a rather unconventional bit of wisdom being doled out to young journalists in the United States these days: go to India. While journalists here are losing jobs right and left, and major dailies like The Boston Globe are struggling to keep the printing presses up and running, new papers, magazines and television stations are cropping up all over India.

“In recent years, India’s steamroller economy has diversified well beyond tech and outsourcing, including a big boom in the news media,” New York-based reporter Arun Venugopal wrote in a piece for Salon last August. “Circulation has been steadily growing at Indian newspapers, and new dailies and magazines are popping up on a monthly basis.”

For the adventurous, unemployed, or underemployed American journalist, that means one thing: opportunity. “It’s more exciting in a way to be working in a country that’s growing so fast and changing so fast,” says Mehul Srivastava, an Indian journalist now working for Business Week in Delhi. From elections to economic growth to foreign policy, “you have it all here,” he says. And whereas in the U.S. it often takes journalists ten or fifteen years to work their way up to a position at a major daily, in India, reporters can much more quickly “break into a different level of coverage.”

India is home to the world’s largest English language daily newspaper, the Times of India. Other Indian papers, like the Hindustan Times, are among the most widely circulated English papers. Delhi, where the Hindustan Times is published, is also home to at least eight or nine other major English dailies, as well as dozens of other papers in Hindi and myriad regional languages. Many have launched in the past few years—in part because of India’s economic boom, and in part because an increasing number of Indians are becoming educated. “The first sign of education is to subscribe to a newspaper,” says Srivastava.

India’s growth has slowed some with the global economic recession, but there is every reason to believe that the media industry in India is still headed up, not down. The literacy rate in India remains below the threshold of 75 percent—61 percent in 2008—but there is a massive push to increase that number. And as it continues to inch up, it follows that newspaper subscriptions will too.

At this point, too, the Internet has not yet made its way into the homes of many lower- and middle-class Indians, and newspaper sales remain healthy. “Newspapers are very popular,” says Emily Meredith, a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, who, along with several other graduates, spent last summer interning at the Hindustan Times. “I don’t think the Internet saturation is where it is in the States at all. So they’re sort of in a different phase than the U.S. is in terms of going online and updating stories as frequently.”

So what’s it like once you’re actually on the ground, reporter’s notebook in hand? For one thing, with so many papers and TV stations in India—and a particularly heavy concentration based in Delhi—competition is fierce.

“In the U.S., we’ve already gone through a lot of media consolidation. To have a one-newspaper city is pretty common,” says Mitra Kalita, a Wall Street Journal reporter who recently returned from a two-year stint in India where she helped launch MINT, a business paper affiliated with the Journal. While American cities might have one or at most two major dailies, Kalita says she would pick up at least nine English language papers every morning in Delhi. “The competition itself leads to various changes in how I knew journalism to be practiced. It was a lot faster paced. In some ways, not as much care went into getting all sides. It was more just getting it out.”

Robbie Corey-Boulet, another Columbia graduate who recently spent four months in Delhi reporting for the Hindustan Times, agrees. The intense competition “really informs a lot of the daily coverage,” he says. “The mindset is really not to get beat by the others.”

Both Kalita and Corey-Boulet note that coverage is often rushed, one-sided, and tends not to provide a lot of background on ongoing stories. That can make it hard for readers who may not have been following along. “A lot of articles aren’t heavy on context,” Corey-Boulet says. “The expectation is that you’ve been reading all along. Part of the reason they do that is that they’re trying to cover all their bases every day.”

Stories also tend to be shorter, Kalita says, another function of having so much competition. “There are lots of headlines and short nuggets of information. But you’re counting on your consumers seeing three papers a day.” Rarely will a front-page story, even in the Times of India, jump to another page. Indian audiences, Srivastava says, “like short articles, punchy headlines. They’re very into the breaking, happening news of the day.”

According to Arul Louis, a journalist who pays close attention to trends in Indian media, this also tends to mean less in-depth coverage of issues, like the environment, that don’t involve breaking news. “Not many [papers] will spend resources on covering the environment because it’s not competitive,” he says. “So that tends to get sidelined.”

In some ways, though, journalists say the constant competition is a good thing for the public. “It means people keep trying to scoop each other and dig deeper and look for different angles on stories,” says Louis. Oftentimes, Srivastava explains, smaller publications will do this by pursuing more in-depth investigative pieces—something that readers won’t be able to find elsewhere.

For the past ten years or so, especially, journalists have experienced little if any government censorship or interference. “India really values its free press traditions,” Corey-Boulet says. “That sort of thing wouldn’t fly. Indian journalists, they’re feisty.”

Unlike in the U.S., though, most publications are openly partisan. But that, Srivastava says, can actually be a good thing for the reader. “You know when you read an Indian paper where they stand,” Srivastava remarks. “They wear their bias on their sleeve. Once you’re used to it [you] just know what a newspaper’s biases are.”

For American journalists, openly biased journalism, or the idea of a paper that has clear connections to a particular political party, might be unsettling at first. But for those with an open mind and a desire to work in a country where both media and the economy are experiencing incredible periods of transition, a stint in India might be the way to go.

Srivastava, who graduated from Washington and Lee University in Virginia in 2004, is now trying to help some of his newly unemployed American colleagues to find jobs in his native country. Picking up and moving halfway around the world is not for everyone, he acknowledges, but he recommends it to young, hardworking journalists looking for an adventure and a challenge.

“It’s a different form of journalism. It’s very exciting and very vibrant,” he says. “If you don’t have a lot of college loans—because you won’t make a lot here—and you think that you can spend a year really roughing it, it’s fantastic. India’s just an exciting place to be. There’s this raw energy about the country that’s exciting to capture.”

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Samantha Fields is a journalist in New York.