Every year April and May, we make rounds of the country’s top post-graduate journalism schools to hire two to three greenhorn scribes for our Editorial team.
Having a slightly different approach towards journalism (I will come to that later), we don’t skip straight to a written test or interviews like the newspapers/TV news channels do. We first put forward our pitch in the form of an informal 15-minute talk and then throw the house open for questions (popularly known as the pre-placement talk —- PPT —- in campuses). The objective of this dialogue is not to maximize the number of applications to our job opening, but to help as many people self-select themselves out the process as possible. The reason —- we don’t want to waste time interviewing people who don’t ‘get it’. We’d rather invest more time interviewing those who do.
Usually, about 80% of those present in the PPT apply (the rest are either not interested or have already gotten a job elsewhere but been forced by the college to sit for the PPT so that the ‘college-recruiter relationship’ remains positive). Those who apply are then sent a test over email and given a day to complete it and send it back. I won’t go into a detailed description of the test, but it suffices to say that it seeks to test the candidates’ news sense and writing skills and discover how well-thought their decision to be a journalist has been. The test is bloody tough.
About one-third of those who apply answer the test. I have always wondered why the rest 2/3rd abstain from the test-over-email despite their giving me their resumes after the PPT, and shrugged it off as probably being beaten by a big newspaper or TV channel at the campus hiring game.
Those shortlisted based on the test are interviewed once, twice, often thrice by more than one person.
The process is tough and we rarely find people we can see ourselves working with. Between 2008 and 2010, only one received a final job offer and she worked with us for over a year.
(In 2011, we decided to lower our bar and compensate for it by investing in more training than we’d usually provide and hired four kids. Of these, three have already been asked to leave. A high level of involvement, intelligence and initiative —- no unfair expectations for a startup news/techno media company writing for an intelligent audience —- are essential to survive and be respected at PaGaLGuY. Lowering our bar clearly didn’t help.)
Then, starting September every year, something very curious starts to happen. We start getting direct job applications from many of the same people who had applied to us at J-school earlier that year or in the previous year but had abstained from answering the test-over-email.
This time, they do a good enough job of the same test-over-email to land up an interview. At the interview, I start casually quizzing them about what just happened here and why are they now interested in a job they weren’t in earlier. I learn the following,
- Less than half a dozen students from their batch eventually landed up a proper News (-paper or -channel) job during campus placements.
- The majority eventually joined one of the various ‘content writing’ jobs on offer these days with a content outsourcing company, or were writing advertorials for inconsequential B2B magazines, or had joined a PR firm, or some such. Realising that the work there was far from journalism, they were now looking for a change.
- But working on content-coolie jobs had further erased their news sense and legwork ability so no news organization would touch them now, including us. On top of that, they were now expecting higher salary but without any experience of use to us.
Despite being from one of the supposedly best J-schools of the country, they were not journalists.
Getting out of this vicious circle is apparently hard for them because we regularly get resumes of top J-school graduates from 2007 and 2008 who still haven’t managed a proper news job and are looking for one.
Based on my information (assimilated from hundreds of job interviews and resumes), the batches suffering the most from this are from XIC Mumbai and IIJNM Bangalore. ACJ Chennai and IIMC Delhi too, but to a lesser extent.
Why isn’t journalism education in India creating journalists?
I don’t have the answers, but I do have a few insights that point out symptoms and the direction we are heading towards, and how J-schools are totally oblivious to it.
J-schools don’t seem to care about the changing business of media. Forget about J-schools, even practising journalists in newspapers don’t, and this will hit them hard progressively as the next media shakeouts occur.
Newspapers are declining wherever the Internet penetration is increasing and the Indian newspaper industry’s turn will arrive
before the current crop of young journalists are even halfway into their careers.
Newspapers have been hiring fewer journalists over time. Just enough to keep the boat running, before it sinks.
No, news will not die. But the next-generation products that will replace the newspaper as pervasive methods of delivering news will require entirely different journalism skills that the current crop of journalists don’t seem to care about much. While the art of reporting and extracting information will not develop much (with more information making its way into the open, new efforts and technological capabilities would in fact need to be built on discovering stories from massive amounts of data), the medium and publishing platforms will evolve rapidly, both in form and function. The competitive advantage therefore will be in how you tell stories, how they are delivered to readers and not as much in what the stories are. I’d like to delve deeper into the ‘evolving medium’ half of the argument.
If you asked any journalist (even the best) in the country what differentiates online journalism from print journalism, the two answers you are most likely to get are —- (1) Online journalism is a speed game and (2) the special thing about Online storytelling is the potential of using text, audio and video together.
Anybody who has observed the worldwide evolution of news on the Internet will of course know that these were beliefs created back in 1995 but have been proved ineffective since because,
(1) The Speed Game is a zero sum game. If the news website you slog your ass for can be really, really fast at breaking news on its website, so can its competitors. In the days of newspapers, breaking news had a shelf life of one day. In the age of TV and web, it has reduced to single-digit seconds. Many websites attach a booster accessory to speed using Search Engine Optimization (the technology used to improve visibility on Google) but that too is a commodity skill that everyone can and has developed. Nobody gets a real competitive advantage, the news shelf-life is too short for the website to build a long-term brand, and therefore nobody makes more money BECAUSE OF SPEED. That turns your job as a journalist into that of a commodity and when the Excel sheet of employee salaries is sorted to check for usefulness during a cost-cutting phase, you appear somewhere at the bottom. Think about it —- how can a ‘creative’ profession compete on quantitative measures such as time?
(2) The ability to consume text, audio and video at a single place is a property of the publishing medium, not of the journalism. The guy who writes the text works like a print reporter, the guy who shoots the video works like a TV reporter and the guy who creates the audio capsule works like a radio journalist. One person on the desk then takes their inputs and publishes them on the website. It may be a different way of consuming news, but the journalism remains the same.
In holding on to these pre-millennium beliefs, journalists and journalism leaders are missing other actual insights about the Online medium and how it could change journalism.
The Print medium told stories using text. Photographs introduced still visuals. Audio brought sound and video brought moving pictures to stories. What new dimension did the Internet add?
The Internet introduced Interactivity and Networkedness —- the fact that a computer/cellphone/tablet is a two-way device and is connected live to all such devices across the world.
While news media companies have been great at harnessing the text, photos, audio and video to tell compelling stories and build billion dollar empires, they have until now failed miserably at harnessing Interactivity and Networkedness.
When writers were slowed down by pens or keyboards that caused physical inconvenience, the pen and peripheral industries invented pens that were smoother and lasted longer or keyboards that were ergonomical. The still camera industry responded (and continues to do so) to the photographers’ need for lower production costs, better zoom and light control at a better resolution and more. Similar things can be said for recording devices and video cameras. When 3-D video becomes pervasive, TV news will perhaps be one of the first to adopt it (imagine watching a real war in 3-D!). In each case, the journalist or creative professional always had a frontier, a possibility, a ‘what if’ on his wishlist that the underlying technology could answer with a new product and help him use his craft to express himself or tell more compelling stories in a never-before manner.
With the Internet, for the first time, journalists and creative professionals are at a complete loss of ideas, possibilities, a vision, a ‘wishlist’ that a technocrat can answer to with new technologies or products. A revolutionary new medium is taking shape around them and they have no clue what they would do with it, even if anything were possible.
If journalists don’t stand up to take ownership of an exciting new medium and build great things on it, the engineers and the MBAs will. In the news businesses that will emerge, journalists will continue to remain at the bottom of the Excel sheet of layoff-ability.
The next generation of media barons and journalists would be those who who discover ways to harness Interactivity and Networkedness to tell news stories, in ways as distinctly unique as print, video, audio and photography have been. And make profitable businesses out of that capability.
Some work on this front is already taking place. Data Journalism —- see it for yourself
—- is a phenomenally better way of telling trend stories, a staple of business journalists. Instead of the journalist selecting three or four top trends from an industry survey and writing it as text, he instead plots all the available data in an interactive visualisation which allows readers to become their own narrators. At PaGaLGuY, we’ve been doing it too —- example 1
and example 2
—- telling news stories using games is another example of using Interactivity and Networkedness as storytelling artifacts.
Perhaps the news stories of tomorrow will be entire cellphone or tablet Apps offering an immersive, visually dazzling and informationally comprehensive experience about a happening. The definition of ‘good storytelling’ will transform to a reporter’s ability to gather facts and get scoops AND creatively design an App that offer the best immersive experience for that story. The Apps would also have built-in ability to make people’s lives easier. For example, a news App on the Japan earthquake would, besides delivering news updates, visuals, 3-D panoramic views and videos of the affected sites, live statistics, also allow those stranded to ping their location to the world and initiate rescue operations, continuing to allow journalists to do good with their work. All that combined with phenomenal journalistic legwork and investigative skills to put the best stories out there in the most awesome possible manner, journalism would reclaim its status as a truly multi-disciplinary profession and in the process, spawn ideas and technologies that other disciplines could make use of.
Easy-to-use software tools to create such Apps would be available as easily as Microsoft Word is today. The best journalists would of course, even know software coding and design. They’d be the ones rightfully climbing up editorial leadership positions.
Today, at the very basic, including readers into one’s storytelling process is a hugely effective use of the Interactivity and Networkedness dimensions. On PaGaLGuY, Techcrunch, Engadget and many other hugely popular niche news sites, readers are themselves sources and almost always, a story is the sum total of what the reporter wrote and what the readers commented below it. Only after reading both does someone fully comprehend the story. As journalists at PaGaLGuY, we measure our success by the amount of discussions our stories were able to spark off. Of course —- the emphasis on factual accuracy, speed and elegance of language in the reporter’s work is an uncompromising requirement.
This is not merely a matter of adding a ‘Comments’ feature to your website or the laughably contrived concept of ‘citizen journalist’. This is about creating a vast, responsible, dedicated and deeply integrated Community around your news website whose members put as much thought into participating in discussions around your article as you did in writing it in he first place. Often, big stories are broken by stakeholder readers in these discussions, the kind that would award promotions to journalists in newspapers.
That’s broadly where the world seems to be going.
In contrast, the course content under the ‘New Media’ degree at India’s top journalism schools comprises tutorials on Dreamweaver. In 2011! These are skills which were obsolete 7 years ago. The students ought to sue their schools for this ghastly under-delivery of service.
At the least, there should be a full course on ‘The Business of News Media’ at these J-schools which broadly brings the attention of future journalists to the following,
(1) Journalism is going to change, and in India too. If you are under 40, it will probably affect you before you retire. Prepare yourself for it and build skills so that you don’t end up at at the bottom of the list of dispensables when the next shakeout happens.
(2) Take an active interest in your employer’s business model and if possible, learn how the revenues for your division have changed over the years. If you are Math-challenged, ask for help from someone who understands it. If the revenue of the division you work for or the part of revenue that draws from your skills is in the pits, it means your skills are on the way to become obsolete. Upgrade yourself, watch out for companies at the forefront of evolution in news and connect the dots. It will tell you what you need to do to stay relevant.
(3) “I want to be a journalist because I love writing” will not last you an entire career or help your retirement planning. In another 10-15 years, the newspaper industry may transform into or be replaced by a technologically-savvy version of itself that competes based on how well it tells stories using immersive and interactive experiences. Invest in yourself by joining a news company that cares about the Internet so that when the change comes, you are among the early starters, experienced and badly wanted. Else if all you want to do is write all your life, become an author or an analyst in a KPO.
Much of this has already been written about across the world. I thought I’d share it all here so that those who follow PaGaLGuY may understand why we hire the way we do. We care about a lot of these things, and we see journalism on business education as a nice petri-dish to apply these ideas on.
Your reactions will be welcome.