Benita Chacko
Interviews

"Meaningful journalism does not require a platform, it requires good content": India Today’s Rajdeep Sardesai

In the final session of Digipub, the senior journalist spoke on how digital journalism is different from its print and TV counterparts.

“I refuse to keep barriers anymore. I believe we are in a multi media multi platform, content driven age where we should be agnostic about platforms. Meaningful journalism does not require a platform, it requires good content,” said Rajdeep Sardesai, consulting editor, India Today, in an interview with Anirban Roy Choudhury, Associate Editor, as part of the Digipub Week 2021.

After 33 years as a journalist, with most parts of it spent in print and television, Sardesai is making small inroads into the digital space. During the interview he speaks on what excites him in this new medium, how it is different from the traditional ones and what opportunities it offers to young journalists.

Edited Excerpts:

Anirban: You started with print, and then moved to television when it was just starting. Today digital is just starting in a big way. What's your immediate reaction to this medium from a journalist's point of view?

Rajdeep: I was 29 when I made the shift from print to television after seven years at The Times of India and a few months at The Telegraph. Most people around me would ask why are you doing TV? It is entertainment. Do you really want to do TV? Print is so much more serious and real journalism. I almost bought their argument because being someone who had grown up on newspapers, I still loved the medium. It wasn't an easy choice to make. And therefore, I can see why people in their 20s, who are faced with that same choice while switching to digital, are hesitant. My generation’s general impression is that digital is very cluttered and crowded. It’s not a medium for meaningful journalism. It's ironic that the same criticism was made about television in 1994-95. At the same time they also offer the same advantages- a completely new space where you can experiment and do something. You can really see your creativity being expressed. I may be the wrong generation now for digital. Whatever I do in digital will perhaps be as a 56-year-old looking at it as a new adventure. It's wonderful to see a lot of young people experimenting and doing creative stuff on digital because I hope that in a way it will take journalism out of its dormancy. At the moment, it's like a dormant volcano. The lava needs to come out again and maybe it will come out in digital.

Anirban: Your show Elections on my plate was very popular not only on your channel but also on digital platforms. Did the television journalist Rajdeep Sardesai speak with the digital journalist Rajdeep Sardesai sometimes and was there a conflict somewhere?

Rajdeep: After 27 years on television, my instincts are that of a television journalist. I look for imagery and think visually. Digital journalists have other instincts, which I don't have. I would do the occasional Facebook Live, while I was interviewing someone for TV. And I recognize the importance that while you're doing a 45 minute TV show, you should have enough elements that can be broken down into three to four minutes to serve the news channel’s digital platform. So we go to do a TV story, but also think what out of the story, can I send for digital? In TV we used to think about what will attract the viewer. In print, it was what headline will grab the reader’s attention. Now it is, what will go viral? Whether it’s print, TV, or digital, your ultimate goal is to maximise your readership, or viewership or your digital reach.

Anirban: If you were to set up a CNN IBN for digital, what would excite you the most about the medium today?

Rajdeep: I must confess, what would excite me is if I could marry meaningful journalism and creativity. One needs more meaningful journalism, which is a bit more in depth as well. But one also needs to bring in creative elements that will keep the viewer hooked. We are not in the 1980s where there was no other competition out there. Now in a multimedia world, where people have this constant attention deficit, and are being bombarded by all kinds of media, it's important to find spaces where you can create meaningful journalism that's also creative. So let's say my two great passions are sports and elections. Can we create India's best election website, which genuinely combines data with reporters and analysis. Or can we create India's biggest fan zone that is able to connect the fan to the sporting arena in a more interesting manner. Because the entry barriers are much lower with digital you can enter the space without having to invest as much as you would to set up a TV channel. If someone asks me today to set up a TV channel, I'll say no. But if someone says let's try a CNN IBN on Digital, I would jump at it because I think there is much that we can learn from our experiences that we can now marry to the digital world.

Anirban: Nowadays young journalists are coming straight to the digital medium and not going through print and then television. They aren’t going through the newsroom grind. Do you think we are losing credibility in the chaos?

Rajdeep: I think we had already lost credibility amidst the chaos. So who are we to today point a finger at the young digital journalists and say, ‘You guys didn't go through a newsroom hence you are not credible.’ But I have told many young journalists that I actually benefited from my time in print, because it taught me a certain discipline. It was important for my generation who came from print to TV. We had a huge advantage.By contrast a digital journalist may at times lose some of the essence of news gathering, but they have other skills- they're technologically friendly, they understand the speed and effectiveness of working with a small team. I do believe it's important to have a newsroom atmosphere at some stage in your career. But I can see the value of true independent journalism emerging out of very young YouTubers who come with less baggage, even if they don't have the newsroom experience.

Anirban: Do you think you all are doing enough to actually mentor the kids to become good journalists? Like what was done earlier?

Rajdeep: That is one of the biggest failings in journalism today. I was from a blessed generation, where editors actually sat with you, and discussed stories with you, and took you through the process from conceptualisation towards eventual execution in print, and even television later. But today, I don't think people have the time, or don't make the time because news editors have become news managers. So when you're always managing the environment, rather than focusing on developing a story, I don't think you invest enough in young talent. And it becomes a bit like a factory shop where people are coming in and out. The journalism school has taught them some technical skills, but the journalistic skills sometimes go missing. And I do believe that mentorship would be critical for any digital, TV or print platform. And it is every organisation's responsibility to create some kind of spaces for mentorship. Otherwise we are being unfair to the next generation.

Anirban: Where do you go for meaningful journalism?

Rajdeep: That's a very tough question. It's a question which has become almost like an identity crisis after 33 years. I don't know anymore. But I would like to believe that in my own way, every morning I look for what I call ‘Real India’ story. For example, we recently did a story on young doctors in Davanagere not getting their stipend for a year. We managed to eventually get those kids their stipend. The sources of meaningful journalism can be enormous as long as you genuinely want to do it. You have to be clear that these stories may not draw the same TRP as a Sidhu story. I refuse to keep barriers anymore. I believe we are in a multi media multi platform, content driven age where we should be agnostic about platforms. Meaningful journalism does not require a platform, it requires good content.

Anirban: Has it become easier to cover remote areas? Earlier you would need to send an OB van but now you can manage with a mobile phone and internet connection. And Arun Jaitley had once said that the news media organisations spend more money on distribution than on content, and that is why the quality suffers. Do you think in digital that can be corrected where you spend more on content and less on distribution and production?

Rajdeep: When I covered the Latur earthquake in 1993 as a print journalist, we had to drive down 150 kms to Aurangabad to use a telex machine. So it's definitely easier now. The value of this age is that you can now invest, if you really want, in content. I always said content is king, but distribution is God. Because unless you are distributed you will not be on all platforms. Content now can be spread right across without worrying about distribution.

Anirban: Today we see a lot of paywalls. Will a journalist who has always been on mass television, like being behind a paywall? And will you be comfortable if you do a show where people will only get access to it if they pay for it?

Rajdeep: Ideally, no. I believe news content should be available to all. But we've got to be realistic also. And the realism is that what is my revenue model? Can I only rely on advertising? Maybe not. But in an ideal world, I would like no paywalls.

The 2nd edition of Digipub Week, an afaqs! conference, was held between September 27-29, 2021. Sponsors: Akamai (Powered By), AndBeyond.Media and Zee Digital (Associate Partners).