Thursday, March 24, 2011

Lessons to learn: working journalists do not have the time / inclination to sit through 2-day workshops

Journalists are generally not known to be a patient lot. Most get restive easily, quite a few have a chip on the shoulder, and then there are those who don’t suffer fools gladly (I belong to the last category). At press conferences, there are even stringers and junior reporters who try to show how important they are. There are also hangers-on, those who come for a free lunch or dinner (when there are cocktails you’ll find more of them) and then disappear. However, during my two decades and more in journalism and PR, I’ve been fortunate to meet some wonderful reporters and writers and editors, many of whom have remained close friends for years. I’ve seen the passion in some for chatting up sources, digging in-depth for stories and churning out error-free copy. Perhaps they would have found the time for workshops as well.

That was more than a decade ago when life was more easy-paced and The Hindu didn't have competition in Madras, and The Times of India didn't have competition in Bombay. In today’s world of competitive journalism, where time is of the essence, few reporters will have the time or inclination to remain closeted in a workshop for two days. Unless, of course, the newspaper or magazine or TV network is sponsoring the journalist. WAN-IFRA (World Association of Newspapers and Publishers) conducts workshops that are quite expensive, judging by Indian standards, but there are top newspapers that pay and nominate journalists or photographers or designers to attend. Such sessions are usually handled by an expert in the field, and usually from overseas. The participation fee is high not only for the quality of content, but also to meet the expert’s fee, his airfare and hotel accommodation. But overall, WAN-IFRA has had a fairly successful run with such workshops and has in recent times built a name for itself in this respect.

On the other hand, when you offer a two-day workshop for free, with no commitment from any of the major newspaper or magazine publishers or TV or online networks to send their reporters or editors to attend, chances are that participation will be far from encouraging. And that is how the workshop conducted jointly by the Press Institute of India and UNICEF earlier this week turned out to be. It was only the inaugural and opening session that saw a reporter each from three of Chennai’s mainline English newspapers, and a few from the Tamil press. Once all of them left, the challenge was to how to get participants and show numbers. There was a sprinkling of freelance writers but if UNICEF and PII were looking at a select target audience, it was missing. On the second day, a few students from the Asian College of Journalism arrived to make up for lost space. That some of them might have benefited at the end is another story.

It’s a lesson for the future. If free workshops have to succeed, then the organisers must have a short, interactive session, primarily with handpicked journalists, allowing others to attend only if they have a record of writing on the subject at hand. They must list out the journalists who are covering events that they wish highlighted and who are likely to be interested in attending; the next step is to talk to the heads / editors of various publications and ensure that the person wanted is permitted to attend. Sending emails and making the odd calls just do not work.

The organisers must also understand that the compulsions of the city editor in a large newspaper are huge, especially during election time. He or she will not be able to spare a reporter for two days, even if the reporter is not on the political beat. Quite a few reporters double up as copy editors and their absence in the newsroom is felt almost immediately. So, the timing of workshops is another factor that needs consideration.

Also, it’s a question of money spent – for the hall and food for two days. And as is more often the case, the results will not be there for anyone to see. There was coverage of the inaugural by a couple of the city’s leading newspapers, but then that was not really the main objective of the workshop. The hope is that those who stayed back and benefited will bring to bear what they have learnt in future writings concerning issues related to children and women.

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