Note: At this year's SAJA Gala Awards &
Scholarship Dinner, three of the most senior South Asian Journalists in
the United States were asked to appear on a panel called "View from the
Top". Two of them - Madhulika
Sikka, executive producer of NPR's Morning Edition; and Raju
Narisetti, managing editor of the Washington Post - are winners of
this year's SAJA Journalism Leader Award, given for outstanding
leadership. The third speaker, Jai
Singh, won the SAJA Journalism Leader
Award, in 2003, along with Rena Golden, then head of CNN International;
and the late Peter Jennings.
Interview by Shanti Venkataraman.
Narisetti is a journalist who frequently makes news himself.
In 2006, the veteran The Wall Street Journal editor decided to move to India to launch a business newspaper in a highly competitive market that already had four flourishing business dailies. In 2008, he made news again when he returned to the U.S. as the managing editor of The Washington Post.
Ahead of the SAJA Gala on July 24, 2010, Raju Narisetti offered us his view from the top. Here are excerpts from an interview with SAJA Forum blogger Shanthi Venkataraman:
How is it to be back in the US, after your experience of launching Mint in India? Has your perspective of journalism, and the news we cover, changed?
The three years I spent in India were actually that of real adjustment after spending 20 years in American journalism. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it in a heartbeat. You can spend a lifetime here and never get the chance to launch something new and see it grow well. It was immensely satisfying experience, and Mint continues to do well. Just this month, it launched another edition in Ahmedabad, India. And it just broke even, three years after its launch and that, too, in a global recession. For it to be recognized as a paper with quality, ethics and analysis – that accomplishes everything that I set out to do.
What was your experience with the media industry there?
Obviously the industry was completely different. It is a dynamic industry. Unlike here circulation and advertising there is growing in the double digits. The business side of the media is doing really well. On the journalism end of it: multiple choices have not necessarily led to a substantial increase in quality of journalism. The industry is in a transition phase, though and Mint is evidence that quality journalism and analysis has value.
How are the media cultures in India and the U.S. similar and how are they different?
At the core of it, the need to hold government accountable, the need to be a strong voice, to have an independent media are all somewhat similar values in terms of what Indian and western journalists share.
But the journalism training is of significant difference.There is a significant gap between journalists here and journalists there.
The erosion of separation between church and state, the business and journalism side is troubling and problematic. It has negatively impacted the perception of journalism in India.
I am often told that this is true even in the west. But the co-option of journalists with the business side in India is unheralded.
How does it feel to be a South Asian with the power to help shape American opinion with the editorial choices you make? Do you believe you bring a different perspective?
It had less to do with being South Asian and more to do with having a more international perspective that has influenced my decision making both here and at The Wall Street Journal. I may have a stronger perspective about India, but the reason why I embraced western journalism is that it is all about ideas and what you can do. It has nothing to do with your name and who you are.
I am at a very interesting time in the history of The Post when we are seeing many challenges so it is natural to question the people at the helm’s record of what they can do. But it has nothing to do with my being South Asian.
What would your advice be to young, aspiring journalists who wish to make a mark in western journalism? Even those who have experience find that it does not seem to count that much and that it is a struggle to get a foot in the door.
Depends. Initially if you come here to get your degree, I would say internships, internships, internships. You are right. There is a discounting of your experience in writing for a non-U.S. publication. But that is not limited to those from South Asia. It is true for anyone who has not worked for an Anglo-Saxon publication. And with good reason, because your writing is probably more formal. The willingness or ability to explain things in the American context can be difficult initially.
But really it is not too different from an American coming fresh out of college. Prove yourself and show that you can compete.
What has changed from when I was an intern is that there is no need to prove that you can cut it here. There are enough South Asians in the U.S. now who have shown that they can do good journalism, and do it at the highest level.
I also think the expectations of young and mid-career journalists when they first come here are very unrealistic. They all want to start at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Post, because they see other south Asians there and they think, “why can’t I do it?” Which is a healthy attitude to have, but they forget that the people who are here have worked in smaller papers and paid their dues. You have got to know how crime is covered, cover city hall, before you move on to a more glamorous role in a bigger paper.
I would say spend a year or two in a paper with a circulation of say 200,000. There is no better training than that. It is hard to get training in a bigger newspaper. And there is a significant learning curve that one has to go through before being able to communicate to people in this country. You need to be able to refer to TV shows that you may have not grown up watching. It is better to learn all that early rather than struggle with it later.
The other thing I tell students is that the best market for the next decade is in India. If you leverage your experience here, you will become a star there much quicker than you would here.
What do you think about the coverage of South Asian by the U.S. press these days?
It has improved over time. Of course, American newspapers have always had a bureau or multiple bureaus in India. But what has changed is that before news used to be about what hasn’t changed in India. Now it is about what is changing. Yes, there is the occasional Mumbai dabbawallah or bride-burning story, but there are fewer of those. Now it is more about the new metro system, a new national identity card or 3 G and 4 G rollouts and things that are changing which is a healthy sign.
What about coverage of South Asians as an ethnic minority in the U.S. ?
I prefer stories that focus on trends that affect various ethnic groups- Indians, Vietnamese, Hispanics and African Americans- rather than make one community a story by itself.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think the role of SAJA in bringing many South Asians to the fore of western journalism is significantly understated. I remember sitting with Sree Sreenivasan and others in a restaurant in midtown Manhattan and trying to put together the by laws in the mid-1990s. For it to be such a vibrant organization, and the role it has played in putting more South Asians in U.S. journalism makes me proud.
I remember some kid in Detroit mailing me once and saying he was happy to see my name because he could explain to his parents that there were other professions apart from being a doctor or engineer. Today, I don’t think anyone here will think being a doctor or engineer is the only option because there are so many south Asians in the field today. That is a wonderful change.
- Shanthi Venkataraman