Thursday, May 22, 2014

‘Why am I doing what I am doing?’ Give employees the ‘big picture’

A few days before Tamil Nadu went to the polls in General Elections 2014, the Press Institute of India conducted a discussion on the role of the media in the elections. One of the participants was T.S. Krishnamurthy, former chief election commissioner of India. Towards the end of the programme, one of the young reporters present came up to me and enquired who the speaker was. When I mentioned Krishnamurthy’s name, he seemed a trifle nonplussed and went on to ask me who Krishnamurthy was. To my response – how did he not know a former chief election commissioner and that too, from his own home state – his nonchalant reply was that he had only recently joined the newspaper (a leading national one at that).

The incident set me thinking. Is even basic knowledge coming at a premium these days? A reporter or a journalist is supposed to have a fairly broad understanding of life around. Are youngsters not reading enough these days. Have social media and selfies left little time for anything worthwhile? How do you encourage people to read, how do you motivate staff and bring them up to speed with developments? How do you impress upon them that journalism is a sort of calling and that it entails a social responsibility?

I remember visiting The Times of India press in Kandivali, suburban Mumbai, a few years ago. I was doing a story for the WAN-IFRA Magazine. While taking me around parts of the plant, Sanat Hazra, the technical director, stressed that the plant employees were encouraged to innovate and take risks, and adequately trained to handle contingencies and become effective managers. The quest for quality and the effort to maintain quality standards were evident from posters and messages pinned on boards. A list of values on display in the reception area proclaimed that employees were taught to have mutual respect for each other. ‘Think beyond traditional boundaries’ and ‘Recognise and appreciate people for giving good ideas’ were some of the values inculcated.

When I asked him whether there was a philosophy that drove the team, Hazra said you have to go through the mission statement and keep talking to people all the time. Everybody is part of the problem-solution team, part of the success story, according to him. “Employees then really see their value, what they are contributing to the newspaper. You have to create a culture of innovation and generate new ideas; and then effectively execute these ideas to generate new products and services for our customers… Responsibility is not only the manager’s, it has to be pushed all the way down to the person unloading the roll. A huge task that takes time, but it gives results.” The most important thing, Hazra pointed out, was to give employees the big picture and get them to ask ‘why am I doing what I am doing’. “A person pushing the roll should know what impact it has on the operation, or why the floor has to be cleaned. Once you make people understand, they do a wonderful job.” 

How true! But such things seem far easier to implement on the shop floor than in a newsroom.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

May 3, and why we must value press freedom

Why is press freedom important? It is important because people everywhere have a right to know what is happening, journalists have a duty to report facts as they are, and readers or viewers have a right to voice their opinions and be heard. It is in many ways an extension of individual freedom. A journalist called me some time ago and asked why there wasn't any semblance of World Press Freedom Day (May 3) being celebrated or talked about in India. For a moment I was nonplussed. I then said that it was indeed true and that very little is being done by news publishing houses here to raise awareness about the crucial role a free press plays in the region’s development.

When the United Nations General Assembly declared May 3 to be World Press Freedom Day, the objective was to remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to Freedom of Expression enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  When I received the call from the journalist, I was reading a news report in The Times of India, about the controversial editing of BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s interview to Doordarshan. Prasar Bharati CEO Jawhar Sircar, the report said, had acknowledged that certain portions “were apparently edited”. What was more significant in the report was Sircar drawing attention to “this long traditional linkage between the ministry and the news division which has continued unabated even after Prasar Bharati was born….” He also hinted at the Information & Broadcasting Ministry having failed to give the public broadcaster the autonomy it had sought. The I&B Minister later clarified that there was “arm’s-length distance” between the ministry and PB.

I did not find it (the editing of the tape) particularly surprising, considering that in a recent report, Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit body, had ranked India 140 out of 180 countries surveyed for the freedom it gave the media. We have all of course heard about a leading publishing house withdrawing a book, about the clampdown on social media, about Twitter accounts sought to be blocked, etc. Quite ironical when you think that in today’s world where there are no bars really to communication, you should be actually encouraging young people, regardless of gender and ethnicity, to play a proactive role in advancing press freedom and recognising and finding ways to express its importance.

Press freedom is about so many issues, it is impossible to put it all down in an article. But certainly, the freedom has not been valued or used well. Accuracy, fairness and balance have taken a beating in recent years. Youngsters from journalism schools are finding it difficult to cope up with the pressures on the ground; there is a great deal of attrition. There is not enough 'mentoring' happening. Editors do not find time to spend with young reporters. It is again ironical that when today’s youngsters have good opportunities to train or apprentice, there has not been an appreciable improvement in the quality of journalism. In the mad scramble for news and bytes, ‘checking’, ‘condensing’ and ‘clarifying’ have taken a back seat, as a veteran journalist told me recently.

World Press Freedom Day is also a time to spare a thought about the detention and imprisonment of journalists around the globe, individuals who have been sent to jail simply for doing their jobs. In India, of course, the situation is far, far better. But we must salute journalists who venture into the back of beyond or inhospitable terrain to bring news to the reader or viewer.

The Daily Mirror in Sri Lanka printed a mirror image of its front page on May 3. The only legible sentence on the page read: ‘Only true freedom of the press can turn things the right way around. Celebrating World Press Freedom Day 2014!’ The objective was to raise questions about the state of press freedom in that country. It’s time we raised such questions about ours.