Satish Nandgaonkar remained a journalist to the end, despite the toxicity of the industry around him

The senior journalist died of a massive heart attack on February 28.

WrittenBy:Prachi Pinglay-Plumber
Satish Nandgaonkar,1971-2024.

Satish Nandgaonkar, a senior journalist and chief of the Thane bureau at Hindustan Times, died of a massive heart attack outside his office at Lower Parel on February 28. 

He complained of back pain that afternoon, went to a pharmacy near the office, and collapsed. He was taken to Global Hospital where he was declared dead on arrival. He was cremated in Thane on February 29 and is survived by his wife, son, mother, brother and sister.

Satish and I met when I was a journalism student at the Asian College of Journalism in 2000. He helped me with my dissertation on Saamana newspaper. Soon after, when I came back to Mumbai to work at The Indian Express, I was welcomed and adopted by a group of photographers and reporters much more senior to me, thanks to Satish.

I knew him for 24 years. I knew his family, his friends, and his milieu. He is, and will remain, my dearest friend. 

But this is not about nostalgia and sweet memories. There are plenty of those but that can wait. This is about a journalist and journalism and all of us.

Satish taught me a few things right in the beginning: (1) Never badmouth anyone. No bitching, no matter what. (2) If you don’t want your copy to be rewritten, you have to write it well. (3) Help others as much as you can, don’t keep phone numbers and facts to yourself. (4) Enjoy the process and be yourself. 

I tried to follow these in my reporting. I am not sure how well I managed, but it helped me immensely. Satish followed the first three points to a tee. Since his death has forced us to look at how we work, I think the fourth point can be assumed to have not existed. 

First, I’ll just put out upfront what might be said about Satish. He kept irregular hours and had a typical reporter’s lifestyle that might invite illnesses in the long run. It’s another matter that his recent health reports were normal with no red flags, and that heart attacks happen for a myriad of reasons.

But more importantly, why do so many journalists do this? If you have had a day that starts in the morning, and climaxes at 7 pm onwards, when the rest of the world starts to unwind, one starts to depend on alertness-inducing mechanisms such as endless cups of coffee, tea and cigarettes. And then to unwind after putting the page to bed, one depends on doom-scrolling, beer and staring into empty space, thinking about your family that went to bed yet again without you having a conversation with them.

This stress, guilt and financial insecurity is part of the game. What keeps us in it, despite all this, is the published story the next morning and the potential of change it holds for the city or society. (When I was younger, I was brash enough to say “we can change the world” but I will let that pass.) We also love being part of the process of newsgathering, meeting people, collecting and analysing facts, talking to your team and discussing with your peers. The newsroom comes alive with so many such stories shared by reporters. (Satish always used to say that photographers have the best kissas.) 

The rush of doing a story overrides every other cost – health wise, family wise or even money wise. The proverbial hat-tip from the editor and responses from readers is what keeps us going.

We underestimate the role played by the line managers and management and even administration in the lives of reporters. Because everything is always high-strung, it is your office that can help you cope or break you. This is what is now called toxic newsrooms.

Now, ample discussions are underway, officially and on social media, about the atmosphere Satish and others worked in. Why didn’t he quit if the job was stressful? Surely life is more precious. Unarguably so, but when you are alive, responsible for families, and paying bills, it’s a little bit different. 

The state of journalism today

Satish had been a journalist for over 25 years. Most of us who have put in 15-20 years into reporting will know how work has not remained demanding but has, in fact, become more difficult because of social media, competition, fewer resources from the organisation, and so on. 

At the same time, facilities or perks that are common with a permanent job, like medical insurance and travel costs, have drastically reduced. Media and content jobs may have grown but editorial jobs – reporting, editing, news coordinating – have not been easy to come by, especially for those in their mid-career stage. Cost of living and, more importantly, medical care have become disproportionately more expensive. 

Usually, or perhaps some years ago, when one puts 15-20 years in field reporting, one would shift towards writing op-eds, coordinating, mentoring, ideating or being a wise filter at the newspaper. The industry and team valued you for your experience, depth, resources and acquired wisdom. There was a respectable designation and salary. Sure, there were also office politics, discrimination and pressure, but one didn’t hear of colleagues collapsing in office.

Somewhere along the way, this changed. Because of the internet, round-the-clock news, competition and reduced readership, most outlets now want an incessant supply of stories that will grab eyeballs and clicks. Look around you and you’ll find senior journalists working as freelancers or continuing as reporters for the lack of any better opportunities. Despite their experience, they are required to do multiple stories to fill the pages rather than offer insight. In some cases, they do both.

Many of my friends have left journalism for PR, corporate communications, the social sector, research, academic, teaching or content (oh, that ghastly term substituted for journalism so often now). But Satish didn’t – though we talked about other things he could have done. 

For example, he would have made an extraordinary teacher. He could have done something in cinema (he was, after all, credited by Ram Gopal Verma in Satya). He was a connoisseur of world cinema, art and music and could have been very valuable in Mumbai’s cultural scene. His father started a film society that organised MAMI at one time, and Third Eye, an Asian film festival. As recently as last month, Satish and I exchanged messages about other things he could do.

But this was just our routine. He and I both knew he was not leaving journalism. He was passionate about it, and excellent at it. When Mumbai Mirror shut down, he joined Free Press Journal. He then freelanced for a bit before joining Hindustan Times as the head of its Thane bureau. At no point did he think of actually leaving the field even as he faced hardships at the very place that should have valued him, where he was giving his best, day after day. 

An industry that glorifies toxicity

I have worked with several publications and some really fabulous editors. I can say that my well-being depended on how they treated me, because we don’t really have in-built processes and mechanisms to address that. For an industry that critiques working conditions in every other field, we are quite poorly managed. 

We’ve all made mistakes, missed stories. I remember being reprimanded after I goofed up at The Hindu once, but I didn’t feel insulted or humiliated. In fact, my editor looked out for me and continues to do so. Later, when I covered the 26/11 attacks for the BBC, I was offered time off and help if I needed it. There were processes to check the mental state of reporters who were continuously covering a traumatic story. When I had a miscarriage while working at Outlook, my editor ensured I was looked after by giving me space to cope and organising hospital visits. More recently, at Citizen Matters where I work as a consulting editor, my editor and everyone in the team rallied around me when my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. 

I have been fortunate to have had good, helpful editors when I had personal crises. But should it be like this? Why should so much of our well-being, whether on a daily basis or in extraordinary situations, depend on how we’re treated at work by superiors? If we’re not happy or our superiors aren’t happy, the way to address it is through performance reviews and appraisals. If things don’t work out, there are dignified ways to leave or be asked to leave.

When we’re all responsible adults, why should newsrooms be toxic hellholes where people are persecuted? It is so normalised, even glorified, to have an editor who shouts or throws things. Perhaps I sound too naïve or even silly, but I’ll say it again anyway – why should newsrooms be toxic hellholes at all?

During our existential discussions over the past 20-odd years, Satish would patiently and affectionately listen to me rant. But he spoke about three things repeatedly.  

One, he would say life is beautiful. He had seen enough pain in his life to become cynical but he was not. He reminded me time and again that there was much to look forward to.

Two, his email signature encapsulated what he believed in: “Just be. It’s tough.” He never pretended to be someone else. He was always there for us. But I don’t think he himself could “just be”. He internalised, even suppressed and hid the pain he was experiencing. 

Three, he used to talk about a “threshold”. Every person has a threshold to tolerate what is being unleashed by life. He said once you reach that threshold of bearing pain, you should walk out.

He just walked out of our lives.

Also see
article imagePadmanand Jha is no more. And Indian journalism is the poorer for it


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like