The year Indian journalism lost some of its finest newsroom leaders

They cared about their colleagues and, above all, the profession.

WrittenBy:Saikat Datta
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Year-ends are a time of reflection as we weigh in on the gains and losses of the year gone by. When we look back at 2015, perhaps the balance sheet will show the entries for debits higher than the credits for journalism and journalists in India. This year India lost three of its finest journalists – three men who had shaped the profession and its practitioners for decades. Their lives are lessons in leadership in newsrooms – a quality that the profession desperately needs in these cynical times.

An editor not close to the PM

In March this year, Mr Vinod Mehta, the former editor-in-chief of Outlook passed away, and with him, a distinct era in journalism ended. He was probably the last of the great editors, who were good human beings before they became professionals. His journey began nearly four decades ago, when a young man began to edit what was probably India’s first “girlie” magazine.

Mr Mehta was young, brash and full of ideas. When Debonair reached out to him, he did what he knew best – he set about redesigning and re-launching it to give it a journalistic sheen. The magazine still carried its nudes, but the interviews and articles went up several notches under his stewardship. As the famous tale goes, one of the first leaders to be interviewed was Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, already a prominent leader, all set to leave a major mark on India’s political landscape.

Once the interview was published, Mr Vajpayee called up Mr Mehta to confess that he loved the interview, but he had to hide the magazine under a pillow!

I met Mr Mehta in September 2004 when I was called for an interview for a possible position in Outlook’s political bureau. I had not met him in person, but I had already met him years ago through his book, How Close Are You To the PM – a collection of his reminisces and views of his years in journalism. Back then, in 1999, as a junior reporter with The Indian Express in Pune, the book was a Bible of sorts – each chapter an aspiration to become something bigger than what we aspired to be. As I walked into his office on the first floor of the Outlook office in Delhi’s Safdarjung Enclave, I was wondering if I should mention that I had read his book.

A smile greeted me as I was ushered in by him – a rarity for me because I had only met glum or angry editors till then. My worldview of journalism was rather lopsided, filled with editors who rarely spoke to minions and were usually known to either shout or, at best, ignore. In one such newspaper, I was associated with, the editor-in-chief would regularly drop in on political bureau meetings and threaten colleagues that they wouldn’t find any jobs if he chose to put the word out.

Mr Mehta was their opposite. He smiled and asked for story ideas. As they unfolded, his queries grew in direct proportion to the twinkle in his eyes – a feature that was trademark of the man every time he heard a story or a piece of juicy political gossip from his colleagues. As the interview progressed, I knew that the job was mine. A call a few hours later from senior editor Mr Ajith Pillai, another lovely man full of great ideas, confirmed that the job was mine. The next seven years would probably be my best in journalism. In 1995, when he started the Outlook magazine, he was taking on the great behemoth India Today. After decades of supremacy, he forced India Today to become a weekly from a fortnightly – just like start-ups these days disrupt existing players.

To be able to do so, you have to be a great leader. Mr Mehta was a man who liked to provoke and challenge those around him. But he did it with great dignity and a sense of excitement. He passionately believed in every story that he published, reading print-outs before they went to the press, sitting down with the reporter and his/her boss to ensure that a good copy went into the magazine.

As a leader, he was democratic, always building consensus in the newsroom, respected colleagues, irrespective of how junior or senior they were, and always encouraged teams to work together while he handled the tensions outsides. Every notice of defamation was like a medal of honour and an appearance in court an act of defiance. During one particular tense time, while I was chasing a big story, he walked up to me and put a hand on my shoulder and smiled – “If we go down, my friend, we will go down together. So don’t worry about the cases. Do your job and I will do mine,” he said and walked away.

In that singular moment, he helped me find my voice as a journalist. Mentor, father-figure, great editor, he was a great leader in a cynical time.

The always smiling mentor

Just a month before Mr Mehta passed away, another great journalist succumbed to cancer in Delhi’s Apollo Hospital. Mr Diptosh Majumdar had come to Delhi from his hometown of Kolkata to try his luck in the city that was considered by many as the “Mecca of journalism” in the mid-1990s. All the big stories broke in this city, and all the “national” events were shaped here. For Diptoshda, as I knew him, and his generation, this was an exciting time to be in journalism, as they tracked an exciting political climate. As the metro editor of The Indian Express in early 2003, his room would be full of bright and wide-eyed young reporters who had just joined the profession. They would be full of ideas and enthusiasm, keen to get some valuable tips from Diptoshda.

He was the finest mentor any young journalist could seek in the newsroom. Full of ideas, experience and contacts, he was generous to a fault. Ever mild and always smiling, few could make out the intense pressure that he faced as the Metro Editor, shielding his young flock from the editors and their many demands on the second floor. As one of his former colleagues told me many, many years ago, Diptoshda practically invented new beats in journalism as the chief reporter at Kolkata’s leading daily, Telegraph. He brought in new perspectives to every debate, with those listening to him riveted by every word, receiving insights that few had or even cared to share.

The quintessential reporter and editor

As luck would have, an old friend of Diptoshda was my mother’s youngest brother and one of Kolkata’s finest journalists, Mr Sumit Sen. This year also saw him succumb to cancer, after a heroic battle, attending office almost to the final day before he breathed his last. My earliest memories of Mr Sen are those of early morning when he would spend a couple of hours on the phone every day.

He would call up all his sources, colleagues, peers and juniors and get a sense of the day ahead. Like Diptoshda, he had started his career in The Statesman, Kolkata’s iconic newspaper as a young reporter in the last 1970s. Both of them had a similar career graph, covering the same beats, and growing into respected political correspondents as the years passed by.

But it was as a leader and a mentor that Mr Sen was most remembered as. As a chief reporter, he would spend hours with his team, mentoring them patiently to understand the nuances of reporting, cultivating sources, writing copies, reading up on background material – practices almost forgotten in today’s ultra-speed newsrooms. There would be a smile of pride every time he would dispatch a reporter to the forgotten corners of Bengal in search for hidden stories, paying from his pocket so that they were not inconvenienced.

A few days after he passed away as the Resident Editor of the Times of India, Kolkata, the whole editorial leadership led by its Editor-in-Chief, Jaideep “Jojo” Bose, produced a beautiful coffee table book full of their reminisces of a fine journalist and colleague. Even to me, always in awe of the man who inspired me to become a journalist, the book was an eye-opener.

It revealed to me what a fine man he was. He was just like the other two journalists we lost this year. Like Mr Mehta and Mr Majumdar, he was a fine human being, a trait almost forgotten in newsrooms today.

In my nearly 20 years as a journalist, I have met bureau chiefs who took away credit from their juniors, and editors who threatened colleagues for not towing the line. An editor I knew would make promises but renege on each one of them once his boss would pull the plug, failing to stand up for his team. Many others were ambitious professionals who wanted to succeed at any cost. But these three men were markedly different. They cared for colleagues and most of all, the profession. They were passionate, ethical, dedicated and believed in shoe-leather reporting. Above all, they were great leaders, a rarity in newsrooms chasing TRPs and web traffic these day.


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