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An eventful year for Indian-American journalists

December 29, 2009 01:59 IST
When the South Asian Journalists Association was formed in 1994, there were only a few Indian-American bylines in the mainstream press, mostly in the business pages. There were some folks in the editing ranks, but they were even fewer in number than the reporters.

Even as 2009 will be remembered as the year the crisis in American journalism hit a fever pitch -- 15,000 job cuts and layoffs in newspapers; the closing of such high-profile magazines as Gourmet, Portfolio, Editor & Publisher; plummeting advertising revenue on TV and elsewhere -- it will also be the year more South Asian journalists than ever became major players in the United States media.

Even before the year started, there were desi folks whose names were familiar to American audiences. Names like Fareed Zakaria, managing editor, Newsweek International and host of the most intelligent show on American TV, 'Fareed Zakaria GPS' on CNN; Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent; Ali Velshi, CNN's chief business correspondent; Kiran Chetry, anchor of CNN's 'American Morning'; Fox News Channel anchor Uma Pemmaraju; ESPN sports anchors Kevin Negandhi and Anish Shroff; Martin Bashir, the British journalist who co-anchors ABC's 'Nightline'.

Other names -- like Davan Maharaj, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times; Vinnie Malhotra, executive producer of weekend news for ABC; Subrata De, the main producer for Brian Williams, host of 'NBC Nightly News'; Aparisim 'Bobby' Ghosh, world editor of Time magazine; Nisid Hajari, foreign editor of Newsweek; Ritu Sehgal, assistant managing editor of the Detroit Free Press; Rajiv Chandrasekaran, associate editor of the Washington Post; Vindu Goel, deputy technology editor of the New York Times; Sweeny Murti, Yankees reporter for WFAN Radio; Om Malik, one of the most-followed tech bloggers; Srinija Srinivasan (no relation), editor-in-chief (and employee no. 5) at Yahoo -- were known mainly to media-watchers and are highly-respected within the profession.

Here's what happened in 2009, in reverse chronological order:

Hours before I wrote this, Stephanie Mehta, Fortune magazine's assistant managing editor covering technology, was named executive editor. That makes her one of the highest-ranking Asian American (not just South Asian) editors in the Time Inc stable of magazines.

Nikhil Deogun, foreign editor of the Wall Street Journal, was named managing editor of CNBC, the most-watched business TV network in the world. Already an influential editor, this multimedia move makes him one of the most powerful people in business journalism.

Peter Bhatia, executive editor of The Oregonian, one of America's top regional newspapers, was promoted as editor. That makes him the first South Asian to run a major US daily.

Hari Sreenivasan (no relation) left CBS News to join a legendary PBS show, 'The Newshour with Jim Lehrer'. He becomes the new young face of the show in its avatar as simply 'PBS Newshour', bridging its broadcast and digital platforms.

Sudarsan Raghavan, the Baghdad bureau chief of Washington Post, was named its Africa bureau chief, based in Nairobi, returning to the continent where he began his career.

Daljit Dhaliwal, a familiar face to viewers of public television thanks to shows like 'Wide Angle' and 'Foreign Exchange with Daljit Dhaliwal', became anchor of 'Worldfocus', the national PBS nightly newscast about international issues.

Romesh Ratnesar, a Time magazine veteran even though he is only 34, became deputy managing editor and also wrote a widely-praised book about the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall: Tear Down This Wall: A City, A President and the Speech That Ended the Cold War.

Jai Singh, the founding editor of CNET News.com, moved from San Francisco to New York to become the managing editor of Huffington Post, the most linked-to blog in the world.

Vikas Bajaj, a reporter in the business desk of the New York Times, became the first Mumbai correspondent for the paper; Amol Sharma, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, became a correspondent in the paper's Delhi bureau.

Raju Narisetti, fresh from creating Mint, the successful business daily out of Delhi, was named managing editor of the Washington Post. He is one of two managing editors at the paper, responsible, among other things, for its 2009 redesign and the integration of its print and online operations. He runs editorial operations online as well as the print features sections and the photo/design/ graphics teams.

Madhulika Sikka, deputy executive producer of 'Morning Edition' on National Public Radio, was promoted to executive producer, putting her in charge of the most listened-to radio news program in America.

S Mitra Kalita returned to the US from India where she worked for Mint, and became deputy chief of Wall Street Journal's global economics bureau, helping direct coverage in the midst of the economic meltdown.

Asked to share his thoughts on this list, The Oregonian's Bhatia told me via e-mail: 'This brings to mind the time when my Dad first came to this country in 1949. Students from India (and consequentially academics from India) were unheard of in this country. A generation or two later, of course, it was commonplace. When I broke into journalism in the late-1970s there were almost no American journalists of South Asian descent -- except for Gobind Behari Lal, my former colleague in San Francisco; Geeta Sharma-Jensen in Wisconsin; and Ron Patel in Philadelphia. And look where we are today.'

While all the changes were happening in the leadership ranks and high-profile posts, we are pleased to track the work of journalists -- too many to name here -- who do the day-to-day work that makes journalism tick.

Hundreds of Indian Americans are among the producers, reporters, copy editors, production assistants, etc, whose daily dedication to their field brings news to Americans.

This is not to say SAJA members aren't hurting. Many journalists have lost their jobs and will need to get trained in the fast-changing digital skills that are going to be the key to staying relevant in the evolving newsroom. We also need to see how the ethnic press continues to evolve in these tough economic and journalistic times.

But none of that should keep us from celebrating the achievements of those I've highlighted here.

Professor Sree Sreenivasan, Dean of Student Affairs at Columbia Journalism School, is co-founder of SAJA, which marks its 15th anniversary this year.

Sree Srinivasan