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How to be newsy: Choosing wheat from the chaff

By Rajiv Shah
Culling out gist from a plethora of sources available to you is indeed quite tricky. While I cannot speak for others (frankly, I lack competence to do it), journalists are made to do it almost on a daily basis. In doing so, at initial stages, they often falter, as they lack conceptual clarity as to what should be considered news.

Of course, there are textbook definitions, but they cannot in any way help one to identify news from the huge flow of information available around. Journalists, especially of my generation, have never been trained into a formal school of communication, hence to them to answer this question academically is even more difficult. They have just “picked up” the skill. I asked a senior editor, “How do you identify what should be headline today?”, and his answer was simple, “Well, Rajiv, it comes from within, frankly, it just comes…” Often, whatever new you find from the available information is identified as news. It’s especially very easy when a big event takes place—an electoral victory, an earthquake, a nuclear disaster, a peace talk, a victory in a cricket match, or a bloody riot. But things become complicated when one is forced to go beyond. Nowadays, you often hear journalists complaining, “There’s no news in Gujarat, with Modi gone…”

So, while preparing a short version, or news, of what is happening around you, as a journalist, it is necessary to identify for a journalist the big question: “What is news?” Though involved in formal journalism since 1979, I personally never thought of putting down the issue of “What is news” in black and white till about three years ago, when I had to introduce myself in order to be a blogger for the Times of India; as someone, my editor thought, to my amusement, had “wide experience” with bureaucrats and politicians in Gandhinagar. Quite in line with what I thought, I gave two definitions of news, while writing about myself – that “news is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising” (Lord Northcliffe, 19th century British publisher), or “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations” (George Orwell). I thought these definitions fitted well into the type of job I was involved in – to cull out news from government sources, many of them were oral narratives, while in other cases they were reports got prepared by consultants to suggest a policy direction.
Indeed, as a newsperson, I was always involved in “culling out” information from available sources – and had to fight against time, as there were deadlines to be met, whether it was Delhi, Moscow, Ahmedabad, or Gandhinagar, the places where I worked. While preparing news, we had to also keep in view the need to be as precise as possible in disseminating information. Latest instructions given to us in the Times of India were sharp – no news stories should be “more than 450 words”; worse, ideally they should be “less than 350 words”. Reason? New readers wouldn’t be interested in reading long stuff. But while preparing these news stories, I kept in mind, subconsciously, the framework of Northcliffe and Orwell, that news is what “someone somewhere wants to suppress.” It is this concept that has helped great journalists to write great stories, even as being precise with events, though they had with them a huge lot of information. Without this central concept, I think, I wouldn’t do justice to what I wanted to write.
As a Times of India representative in Gandhinagar, one of the most exciting jobs would be seek information from official sources. There was a huge amount of utter nonsense—propaganda stuff – around us. Once having accessed them, should one report all that was there? That would be stupidity. Before it reached the reader, my editor would just throw away my copy. Besides, it would be a tall order, particularly when one is fighting against time, as the official document would have a plethora of facts and figures, a lot of background, an effort to highlight how the government has been “successfully” functioning, and so on. So, the effort would be to get involved in finding out what was novel in the document, indicating a major policy change, which was not known to the general public -- and which the proponents of the documents wouldn’t perhaps like as much to highlight. We would be given three volumes of Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report sometime in the afternoon, and we had to file our reports (not one but three) “latest by eight”. This wouldn’t be possible if we, as journalists, did not keep in mind latest controversies identified in the document. We were supposed to know some bit of background; and as for the rest, we had to depend on others -- officials, academics, fellow journalists.
Often, we would make the choice of the most controversial issue in the report. I will offer two examples here. Two months before the 2007 Gujarat assembly elections, I was handed over a book Gujarati, a collection of Chintan Shibir speeched by Narendra Modi, published under the title “Karmayog”, by top IAS official in the chief minister’s office (CMO), K Kailashnathan. There was virtually nothing in the book worth reporting, all big talk on how well should babus perform. Finally, I found “news” – Modi said, manual scavengers have “spiritual experience” while performing their duty. I promptly reported. Kailashnathan was angry, and I thought this was my success. Five thousand copies of the book were withdrawn. In 2010, another CMO official AK Sharma handed me over the “first copy” of the 1,000-page “Blueprint for Infrastructure in Gujarat (BIG) 2020”, as he had promised, and I filed a report titled “Las Vegas set to bloom in dry Gujarat: Casino zone planned near Dholavira in Kutch”. The report made government to order a recall of all copies of “BIG 2020”, including the ones given to babus, as this was embarrassing. A white slip was pasted on the controversial portion where this was mentioned before redistributing it. “BIG 2020” is supposed to be a major policy document!
I am not claiming these are best examples of how a short note should be culled out of a huge document. But they do suggest the need to identify what’s “new”; only after identifying what’s most current, and perhaps most contentious, one should pen it, so that others notice it. This is particularly important if one has to swim and feel kicking, as a top newspaper tycoon told us, “to be in the business of news.” Otherwise, nobody would notice you. The choice of subject should depend on this. Of course, while doing this, I think, one would need to keep in view another factor – one should be act as a “media” to convey what is there in the original source, instead of seeking to interpret facts by giving own explanations. But facts should be selected. And selected facts should speak for themselves about what’s there in the original source. They should be meticulously chosen. All facts need not become part of a smart, small report. The interpretation must necessarily depend on the choice of facts from the original source.
M Chalapathi Rau, described in yesteryears as “doyen of journalists”, once said, journalists are “quick historians.” Even as “quick historians”, it is necessary to understand what EH Carr once said in his famous book “What is History?”: “When we attempt to answer the question ‘What is history?’, our answer, consciously or unconsciously, reflects our position in time, and forms part of our answer to the broader question what view we take of the society in which we live.” He adds, “History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on a fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to them.” Further: “The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to give the floor, and in what order and or context.” What Carr talks about history should also true of any blog, or a short note, or a news story – it should have to depend, basically, on the type of facts that one selects.

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