Sunday, September 30, 2007

With the girls at Stella

I was quite surprised the other day to receive a call from Dr. Sundari, head of the PR Department at Stella Maris. She wanted me to take a couple of classes on journalism for M.A. students of the PR course. I gladly agreed.

Occasionally, I’ve been taking journalism classes – reporting, editing and writing – for several years now, having started with the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Mylapore, the institution from where I completed my journalism course years ago. Even so, stepping into an all-girls college, into an all-girls classroom did give me a few initial nervous moments. However, all the nervousness vanished after I was introduced to the class first by Dr. Sundari and then by a student.

It is always good to see bright young faces and I noticed quite a few among the 15-odd students who listened to me attentively. Although news, newsrooms and newspaper organisations all over the world have changed dramatically the past few years and are continuing to change, what with the advent of citizen journalists and bloggers, the fundamentals remain the same.

Citizen journalists and bloggers have a place but so do sub-editors and reporters. Newsrooms and editors now have to grapple with several challenges, one of which is checking the authenticity of citizen journalism stories that come in by the hundreds. Another challenge is to get middle-level and senior editors in the print media to accept change and adapt quickly. The third is to keep pace with technology – it is not just the Internet today, but Web 2.0, RSS, broadband formats, printed electronics, the semantic web, and what have you.

I managed to take the students across a broad sweep of history – the past and present. Above all, I told them that if they wish to succeed and rise above the ordinary, they must have honesty, commitment, dedication and a passion for what they are doing. I hope that the girls will remember the finer points rather than the niceties of theory. One girl stood up to say that they had learnt a lot from my sessions over two days. I am sure she meant what she said and hope that some of that learning is not about journalism but about human values.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

In God's Own Country

It was our visit to the Guruvayur Sri Krishna Temple after about a year. Rain greeted us as we arrived and continued at sporadic intervals throughout our stay there. We chose to stay at the Ramakrishna Home, less than 200 metres from the main entrance to the temple. The exterior of the Home now sports a new look; it was probably refurbished last year, the 50th year of its founding. You can dine here in air-conditioned comfort (on the first floor) if you like. The room we stayed in was clean, but there was no mirror or hook/hanger in the bathroom, no regulator for the fan in the room either. These are things managements in hotels must look at.

In spite of the rain, there were morning queues outside the main temple entrance. We had to wait patiently for two hours outside before being whisked by the security staff, metal detector and all, and directed inside. We managed only one darshan the first morning, but made up for it in the evening with three – surprisingly, the morning crowds had vanished and it almost seemed as if we were in just another Kerala temple. But, of course, Guruvayur is special and the special feeling sticks to you as long as you are there.

We did not miss our visits to Mammiyoor, Venkatachalapathi and Parthsarathi temples. The automen are a friendly lot here and are willing to ferry you around at nominal rates. This is generally the case throughout Kerala, which makes it such a relief for the tourist. And to think about travelling in autos in Chennai!

Right now, though, the roads in Kerala are in a pathetic state and urgently need repair. Potholes litter most main roads. It took us almost three hours to travel by car from Guruvayur to Palakkad; normally, it would take half the time. There was no sign anywhere of restoration work either. Private bus owners, I understand, had gone on strike a few days earlier demanding better roads. What about the common citizen here, the daily bus traveller, the car driver, the two-wheeler driver? One shudders to think of their plight.

Whatever it is, when you are in God’s Own Country, it’s the good things that you notice – the greenery, the clear water flowing in the rivers, the lush paddy fields, the rice husks laid out on the roads to dry, the absence of garbage on the roads (what do they do with garbage really, shouldn’t we find out?), and the energy in the people as they walk down the streets.

Kerala has an underbelly too… but who cares anyway?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Over a cup of tea

The other day I visited the home of Gowri Gopalkrishnan – I was featuring her in my column for a local newspaper. Gowri, after marriage, spent 20 years looking after her family. She would have probably remained a housewife if it were not for Rajesh, her eldest son. He sensed her ability to become a good teacher and encouraged her to become one.

Enthused, Gowri completed, through NCERT, a crèche and nursery training management course at the Asan Memorial School in 1986. Rajesh was not wrong – she bagged the gold medal. After a year at Chinmaya Vidyalaya, Gowri joined PSBB School, KK Nagar, in 1988 and continued there for 17 years, eventually handling the English lab in the primary. She obtained B.A. and M.A. degrees and completed B. Ed. and M. Ed. as well. In 2004, she passed the integrated skills in English (ISE) course conducted by the Trinity College, London.

After retirement in 2005, Gowri has been teaching communication skills and providing accent training in various organisations such as 24 /7, Aviva Life Insurance, Hyundai and CADD Centre. Her association with PSBB, KK Nagar, continues – every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, she teaches students conversational English. Gowri has been associated with Everonn for a while now, teaching English to college students in rural India, through satellite.

Madras-born Gowri’s father Rao Sahib K. Ramunni Nair was assistant finance secretary in the Madras Presidency. The youngest of nine children, Gowri’s childhood memories are of her garden home in Sarangapani Street, T. Nagar, and of playing ‘Dhappa, I Spy’.

Interview over, I chatted over a cup of tea with Gowri’s husband V.K. Gopalkrishnan, a chemical engineer who has been a successful businessman, and Rajesh, who now runs Turning Point, a counselling centre for children and adults in Ashok Nagar. We got talking about various things – changing times, the lure of the IT sector and its pitfalls, the affordability of the middleclass, and where India is likely to head in the future. Taking part in the conversant was Madhav, Rakesh’s son. He seemed to know the family history well and occasionally refreshed the memory of his grandmother.

Rajesh mentioned the case of a youngster whose life had turned to shambles, thanks to sleepless nights and long hours of work in the IT company he worked for. There was hardly anything Rajesh could do to help; all he could suggest was that the boy be taken to a psychiatrist.

Talking about the growth of cities and towns, Gopalakrishnan is convinced that agriculture would remain India’s mainstay. He quoted the example of Punjab where farmers have adopted the latest methods of farming to heap a rich harvest. According to Gopalakrishnan, Punjab now contributes 21 percent of the country’s GDP, from 0.8 percent decades ago. A sort of miracle brought about by enterprising Punjabi farmers.

The future, Gopalakrishna said, would see the growth of towns in suburban areas across India. So, perhaps, by 2040, you would see less of poromboke land or unused space as you travel outside the cities. It might be like driving through Kerala today, where one village or town follows another, where most of the land is used for agriculture and cultivation and little lies unused.

Our conversation also included dogs – the Gopalakrishnans have had several pet dogs over the years. They now own a German Shepherd called Whoopie Goldberg!

The Gopalakrishnans live in Ashok Nagar and can be contacted at 24892283.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Interesting thoughts from the experts

The Ifra India 2007 Fifteenth Annual Conference, co-sponsored by The Indian Newspaper Society, saw a galaxy of speakers from India and abroad sharing their experiences at the Technical and Publishers’ forums on first two days.

At the end of the Day Two morning session of the Publishers Forum at Ifra India 2007, a panel of experts tackled questions about the future of Indian newspapers. The discussion was prefaced by a series of video interviews with young Indians concerning their views on newspapers compared to other news media.

With lively audience participation, the general conclusion was that India's publishers have some time yet before the digital wave already lapping at the country's shores starts to sweep over them the way it has already in Europe and the United States. Before that time, the panel and audience advised, publishers need to come up with solid strategies for online and particularly mobile media services.

The panel consisted of Kerry J. Northrup, Ifra publications director; Peter Leijten, senior editor of nrc.next in Holland; Peter Sands, director of training for the Press Association in the U.K.; I. Venkat, advertising director of Eenadu Group in India; D.D. Purkayastha, newly named CEO of the ABP Pvt Ltd publishing company in Calcutta; and Ashish Bagga, CEO of the India Today Group.

Earlier, Ashish Bagga, CEO of the India Today Group, presented his company as a case study for building a successful publishing brand in India. He traced the growth of the India Today Group from a single magazine in 1975 to India's most diversified media group today, with interests in magazines, newspaper, television, radio, internet, books and music. The group's portfolio includes 13 magazines, three radio stations, two TV channels, one newspaper, leading classical music label, book publishing and India's only book club. Through its subscribers, readers, viewers and listeners the group reaches out to more than 35 million individuals.

Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO of brand-comm, a leading communications consultancy company in India, launched into a thoroughly enjoyable multimedia presentation illustrating how strong brands are developed. For the first session of the Publishers Forum right after lunch, Sridhar had the audience laughing at some of the funny and memorable commercials and advertisements he presented as examples of strong branding. With some notable exceptions, newspapers are not generally very good at branding -- not yet, according to Sridhar. But they are catching on. And his final point of the afternoon is that there will be just two types of companies in the future -- those that are quick and those that are dead.

B.S. Ramesh Kumar, senior planning director for the Bangalore-based Ogilvy & Mather, the first advertising agency in India, compared how his company developed the Titan watch brand with how media companies can develop their own product images in a changing marketplace. Among the lessons: At the heart of a great brand is a great product; don't avoid the extreme in staking out a position as different from your competition as black is from white; understand and adapt your product to the lifestyle decisions of your customers; and stay current.

At the Technical Forum, Purnendu Sen, technical director, The Times of India Group, made an excellent presentation. He spoke about the emotional bond a print manager should have with the workflow in a press. “The printer’s heart must be on the machine,” he stressed. Dwelling on new ideas in quality, Sen feelt the focus must be on people and change, and quality the mission of every newspaper.

Beatrix Beckmann, research engineer, Ifra, Germany, held the audience’s attention with her vision of industrialised printing. Stating that standards had improved in both the process and communication cycle, Beatrix said that reduction of waste is possible with increased automation. “I see the printing house as a service provider; I see media convergence and multi-channel distribution,” she added.

You can get to learn more about IfraExpo 2007 and the Ifra India Conference, Chennai, by logging on to the Ifra Web site, www.ifra.com.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

An Expo to remember

I have been associated with Ifra India and its activities the past few months, as consultant editor. Ifra (www.ifra.com) is the world’s leading association for newspaper and media publishing with 10 locations worldwide. Services – offered primarily to Ifra members – include trade exhibitions, international conferences, seminars and training events, as well as consulting and various publications. As the only international organisation of its kind, Ifra is the ideal platform for forging diverse contacts between publishing houses and supplier companies, and for decision-makers from the newspaper industry. Ifra, headquartered in Darmstadt, Germany, has more than 3,000 members in about 70 countries. The IfraExpo, the annual event of the newspaper industry, is the world’s most important trade exhibition for newspaper companies and their partners. Ifra publishes the monthly trade magazine, newspaper techniques, in five languages – English, French, German, Russian and Spanish.

Ifra India (www.ifra.com/india), headquartered in Chennai, started its operation in 2001 to bring Ifra services closer to members in the region, which includes countries in South Asia. Ifra India now has 49 members, comprising publications and suppliers. Most leading publications are Ifra members. The annual Ifra India Conference organised in September every year has become a meeting point of the Indian publishing industry.

Earlier this week, (Sep 4-6), Ifra india organised a major event - IfraExpo India 2007 showcased offerings from world’s top suppliers to the newspaper and media industry. Running concurrently with the Expo was the Ifra India 2007 conference that provided a platform for several senior editors and publishers to air their views on the fast-changing scenario in the newspaper and media business worldwide. Significantly, the three-day event, co-sponsored by the Indian Newspaper Society, was the first ever IfraExpo to be held outside Europe.

Reiner Mittelbach, Chief Executive Officer, Ifra, Germany, and Kjell Aamot, President & CEO, Schibsted, Norway, inaugurated IfraExpo 2007. Mittlebach made some interesting observations: “The circulation of paid newspapers in mature markets is declining, although India is one of the countries with significant growth in circulation. The circulation decline is over-compensated by free newspapers and there are significantly more free titles launched than paid for. The use of digital media is rising especially among the younger age group,” he said, adding, “Reader behaviour has changed and will continue to change. Consumption of news and information everywhere, at any time and through multiple devoices is the key. Newspapers still make their money with printed editions but in some countries revenue and profit from digital activities will become equal to those of print very soon.”

N. Murali, managing director, The Hindu, made some pertinent points as well: “The world’s attention is now turned to China and India as countries showing high GDP growth and having markets that are very large and growing. India’s media market has also emerged as one of the fastest growing and competitive media markets in the world. It is a vibrant market. The Indian print media has a long tradition of independence, credibility and pluralism mirroring the diversity of a large country of sub-continental proportions. It has shown a high degree of resilience.”

For the organisers, Ifra India, the event was a major boost. Magdoom Mohamed, the executive director, Antony, business development manager, Vidya, and Jagannathan toiled hard to ensure that things went well. For R.V. Rajan, Ifra India managing director, it was a dream come true. He has been associated with Ifra for more about 15 years and was instrumental in setting up its office in Chennai and laying down the foundations of what promises to be a major hub for Ifra activity in this part of the world.

Present at the Expo were some of the world’s leading suppliers to the newspaper publishing industry – Adobe, Agfa, Atex, Baldwin, Cerutti S.p.a., COMYAN GmbH, dpa (Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH), EidosMedia S.p.a., Ferag AG, Fuji Photo Film, Goss International, Kodak, MAN Roland, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Muller Martini, Nippon Color, QuadTech, Inc., Siemens Information Systems - PPI, TKS, Tolerans AB, and WoodWing Europe BV. Indian big names as well – 4Cplus, CADD Centre, J. Mahabeer & Co., Manugraph, Pressline India, Pressmart Media, Satyam Computer, TechNova Imaging Systems, The Printers House, and Universal Print Systems.

Added attractions included the demonstration by Dietmar Schantin of the Ifra Newsplex, the multimedia newsroom of the future, and an exhibition on the 400-year history of printing.

Thanks to Kerry Northrup, Ifra director of publications, I helped out with ‘multiblogging’ – reporting events as they happen on the Ifra Web site, complete with pictures and video.

For those of you interested in viewing the IfraExpo India 2007 & Conference multiblog, visit the Ifra Web site.

Monday, September 03, 2007

A Vanilla experience

I had spoken to Yifat quite a few times before and after Madras Week. She was keen to know what it really was all about and promised to participate in 2008. So, after Madras Week, I made it a point to meet her at Vanilla, a quiet place right behind Nageshwara Rao Park at 8/57 Luz Avenue First Street. It is actually heritage property – Yifat says she hears it once belonged to Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India’s second President whose birthday is celebrated in the country as Teacher’s Day. That, of course, I will have to check out with city historian S. Muthiah.

The Vanilla experience, frankly, was not something I had bargained for. Basically a place for children, there is a play-gym, children’s furniture, accessories, a massage centre and a café! Vanilla caters to parents, parents-to-be, babies, toddlers and children. The ambience is just right for child and parent – calm, yet vibrant. According to Yifat, who runs the place, the concept of Vanilla came from a multi-national group of parents living in Chennai who wanted to create a desirable place where parents could share their experiences and spend quality time with their children.

Near the reception at the main entrance, there are a couple of rooms that showcase children's furniture and furnishings – simple and beautiful designs to inspire your child’s imagination, yet nothing too childish. The furniture is made of high-quality rubber wood and treated wood; the designs are contemporary, customised and multi-functional. Most of the furnishings are creations of Garima Agarwal of Peek-a-boo Patterns – bed linen, rugs, curtains, lamps, cushions…

The play-gym has been designed to strengthen a child physically and enhance its ability to listen, learn and develop social skills. Yifat says that the benefits include improvement in motor skills and coordination, and self-expression.

Massage therapy and yoga are offered to mothers and mothers-to-be. So, while children are busy enjoying themselves in the gym, mothers can get a quick hand or foot massage done.

The Vanilla workshops and programmes for parents and children focus on creative movement, dance, music and parenting skills.

But the place I liked best was Café Vanilla, ideal for snacks and Cappuccino. And that was where Yifat and I sat down for a long chat about Madras Week and other things.

It’s been quite a long journey for the young Israeli woman who lived in Tel Aviv once, is a qualified interior decorator, and has even experienced a few years in the Israeli desert with her husband (Yotam Agam is into the technical side of the music business) and children. She has grown to love Chennai, she says, and plans to make a mark here with Vanilla.

All the best, Yifat!

If you are keen to know more about Vanilla, call 45534146, email info@vanillaplace.com, or log on to www.vanillaplace.com.