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Why Journalism Education In India Isn’t Creating Journalists

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 (more here), 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,

  1. Less than half a dozen students from their batch eventually landed up a proper News (-paper or -channel) job during campus placements.
  2. 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 various 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.
  3. But working on content-coolie jobs had further erased their news sense and legwork ability so no news organization would touch them now, us included. On top of that, they were now expecting higher salaries 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 seem to be 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. In the process, they are creating a crop of journalist-wannabes whose skills will become obsolete with the fading out of prevalent business models. Forget about J-schools, even practising journalists in newspapers don’t care about the impending change, 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. Reporter and desk teams have been growing leaner and are under constant optimization. Most of the news desk/copy-editing jobs will be the first to go, the moment newspapers adopt well-designed and reliable cross-platform publishing software.

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, journalism leaders and journalism schools are missing other actual insights about the Online medium and how it could change journalism. Graduates of journalism schools started by media houses suffer from the same problem of future-unpreparedness. But because many of them get absorbed by the media house itself, it gives the illusion of a successful education which it still isn’t.

More about how the Internet could really transform journalism in Part 2 of this series.


Apurv Pandit is the Editor of PaGaLGuY.com, a news, opinions and discussions website on business and higher education. A journalist of 7 years, he has written in several newspapers and magazines including Indian Express, The Pioneer, Hindustan Times and Outlook.

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