What the newsroom taught me: Part I — Class

This month, I celebrated (observed, really) 25 years of writing for newspapers, of which 14 years have been spent full-time in the newsroom. I have had the privilege of being in the field and handling some beats where, at least back then, some meaningful reportage could be done. I have also been fortunate to work with some wonderful editors (therefore the meaningful reportage).

In these years, I have seen the nature, the essence, of the newsroom change. I cannot speak for other countries, but journalism in India is no longer a profession I am comfortable advising young people to join. In these years, too, I have seen systemic faults become more entrenched, more insidious. It is possible these faults exist in other industries too. In journalism, however, they have had a direct impact on the quality of professionals I see around me today.

A former colleague recently informed me that, on being interviewed by HR for a newspaper, she was asked questions about her family. Specifically, what her parents and siblings did. The colleague told me she was assigned points based on her answers. Most big media houses have these algorithms in place to rate the employability of a ‘prospect’. The emergence of these algorithms, incidentally, has paralleled a very suspicious reluctance by senior editors to read resumes thoroughly. Taken together, this means what your family is may actually help you get a job more effectively than your resume.

I have always believed in not talking about my family or background with colleagues or the public. (One may say I make up for this by talking only about my family with my friends, for which, my long overdue apology). I have believed, and was told by my editors at the beginning of my career, about the importance of individual reputation.

Now, picture this. What if I applied to a newspaper or magazine, with my resume (unread) and the HR person, with senior editors present, asks me about personal details. What if my answers were: “My father is a farmer from Chhattisgarh, my mother was a housewife, now deceased, my sister is married to a railway clerk in Kanker (do you know where it is?). I am a Dalit, and it takes generations of high achievers in a family for Dalits to reach a position of equivalent privilege as the upper castes in urban India, so there isn’t anyone from my family in a good job in a big city. I have always topped, and studied on scholarship money. I love words, and I can tell stories. That is me.” The algorithm, you see, will not have much space for me.

Add that to the fact that print publications, and the new media, do not pay much to freshers. So you have to be willing to starve on big-city expense rates till such time as you master newsroom politics, by when you will have forgotten such things as ‘love for words’ and ‘telling stories’ and will be using words like ‘synergy’ and ‘optimisation’. Or you will break and quit. The people who can survive the algorithm and the low wages, obviously, are those for who beginners’ salaries are “pocket money”, as several young people have told me lately.

Therefore what we are left with are generations of people on starvation rations (and thus on the make) or people coming from privilege. There is, inherently, no crime in coming from privilege, if you can walk out of it. Without that freedom, you can’t chronicle the world.

Repeatedly, at every turn, class rears its head in the newsroom. There are phrases such as ‘people like us’, an oxymoron, because there are, actually, no people like us because there is no ‘us’. Ironically, the people ‘not like us’ are those who still read print publications. But not in English, perhaps, so they do not exist.

In the newsroom, presence is important. So guess who has an immediate and identifiable presence regardless of level of seniority — the hypothetical girl from Chhattisgarh with the weird accent but sterling resume (unread), or the girl whose daddy everyone remembers talking to, or who went to your college, or that senior editor’s school?

The class problem is quite apart from the usual nepotism that besets every Indian industry, and there is no need for me to speak about it here, it being axiomatic. Meanwhile, each succeeding generation in the newsroom is increasingly populated by people coming from enormous privilege, either from the national or regional elites. They are systematically groomed and encouraged into positions of authority, and given identifiable voices, and active mentoring.

A very senior journalist once told me about how new entrants are assigned responsibilities. “If someone is good at grammar and such, we assign her to the desk. If someone can write well, we make her a features writer. Those who can run around, we make reporters.” This is the exact quote. So if you take a look around, most reporters will be of two kinds. The small-town ‘dispensable’ willing to run around at low wages, or the big-city upper class youngster, probably related to a senior journalist or bureaucrat, whose connections open doors, at least at the beginning. And for some beats, it is very difficult for young reporters to open doors unless they are well-greased by power equations.

In the newsroom, class has always existed. It is just that now, it has become overtly malignant.

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