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Become a television journalist
R Swaminathan
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September 03, 2004

uite inadvertently, George Bush Sr constructed the idiom for the 1990s: 'If it is news, it has to be television.'

While the first version of Gulf War failed to oust Saddam Hussein, it made household names of CNN and its Man Friday, Peter Arnett. For the uninitiated, Arnett's claim to fame was his live reporting from Baghdad when US fighters were pounding the Iraqi capital.

In the few years of the new millennium, the idiom of nineties has been reinforced with the increasing power and reach of television.

But television news does not begin when you switch on your box to watch your favourite anchor read the news and end when you switch it off. Behind successful news bulletins is a massive, mostly invisible machine that makes the anchor look good and well-informed. goes over the nuts and bolts of television journalism, how one can become part of it and, finally, how to make a career of it.

How do I get on screen?

Well, you need to be a journalist first.

But aren't journalists long-haired types, sporting a stubble and dangling a cigarette from their lips?

No, not all of them.

Television is a visual medium and being presentable is as important as knowing the five Ws (Why, What, Where, When, Who) and the H (How).

Where can I acquire gyan about the five Ws and the H?

Just as those interested in management education attend B-school, journalists have an equivalent called the J-school. But not all successful television journalists or, for that matter, print or Internet journalists have attended journalism school. Many have acquired gyan and experience by starting out as cub reporters and sub-editors, relying on seniors to act as mentors.

Tell me more about J-schools.

Journalism schools have been existence in India for more than four decades. But the spotlight has been put on them in recent years, following a spurt in television channels, the evolution of new media and the diversification of newspapers into niche categories.

Most journalism schools have an entrance examination, followed by a group discussion and an interview. The entrance examination usually consists of tests in general knowledge, English and comprehension skills. Some top institutes offering courses in broadcast journalism are:

1. Indian Institute of Mass Communication

2. Mass Communication and Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia University

3. Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communication, Pune

4. Asian College of Journalism, Chennai

5. St Xavier's Institute of Communication, Mumbai

Apart from these institutes, there are three other upcoming institutes:

1. Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media, Bangalore

2. Manipal Institute of Communication, Manipal, Karnataka

3. Sri Sri Centre for Media Studies, Bangalore

Caution: Please do not consider J-schools as factories that churn out finished products. Journalism is a knowledge-intensive profession and inherently requires one to keep learning all the time. A journalism school will give the wordsmith the tools to practice his trade. But it is the wordsmith who has to keep his implements sharp by working with, and experiencing, live action.

How much will it cost?

Depends. An Indian Institute of Mass Communication, whose tuition fees are lower, charges around Rs 10,000 for a nine-month diploma. But that is primarily because the institute is under the ministry of information and broadcasting.

An Asian College of Journalism, which is on the higher side, charges Rs 2,00,000 for a broadcast journalism course.

The Manipal Institute of Communication, which offers a two-year post-graduate degree in communication, charges approximately Rs 1,20,000 for four semesters. The fees include hostel accommodation.

Ok, I do a course. Then what?

Well, that's when the real grind starts.

The good news is that most institutes offer internships, and students often get to choose where they want to intern. The bad news is that most big television companies, including NDTV, Aaj Tak and Star News, do not take interns. But take heart, some news channels, among them Doordarshan and Zee News, do.

Do television companies only prefer those with a background in broadcast media?

No, not at all. Most television companies prefer well-rounded journalists, irrespective of the medium they come from. In the final analysis, a good journalist is one who can dig out a good story.

In fact, many have successfully jumped from print to television. This is what Rupali Mehra, a correspondent with NDTV has to say: "Most young journalists fresh out of J-school find television a very attractive medium... But I feel a grounding in the print media before joining television gives a reporter a solid journalistic foundation, the capability to research stories in depth and understand its many facets. My years at Reuters have proved invaluable when I am out in the field."

If I remember right, you mentioned something about the nuts and bolts of television journalism. What are they?

The first thing that hits journalists who enter the television news industry is the pace. Television news is hectic. Without getting too much into the nitty-gritty of how television is different from newspapers or magazines, you should remember that while newspapers come out once a day and magazines once a week or fortnight, television news is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

So who are the guys who are behind this unending stream of news and analysis?

Let's find out.

They give the brands a face. If NDTV has Prannoy Roy, Rajdeep Sardesai, Srinivasan Jain, Barkha Dutt and Rupali Tiwari, Aaj Tak has Prabhu Chawla and Punya Prasun Bajpai, and Sahara, the reliable Shireen. Anchors give television news channels an identity. But being an anchor isn't easy.

Rupali Tiwari, who hosts the immensely popular Mumbai Central on NDTV, says: "Anchoring is not just reading out the news. There are many times when you have to handle breaking news... You have to be alert. Anchors are journalists; they are not newsreaders."

"Being a good journalist is an essential first for being a good anchor," says Tiwari. And she says she does not mind the inconvenience of being mobbed on the streets. "I get recognised in streets, sure. But I get more satisfaction if people come up to me and say they liked a story I did," she says.

She stresses the importance of being able to communicate.

"It is always good to be bilingual. Knowing two languages literally doubles your chances," she says.

Output Editors/News Coordinators
Their role is similar to that of a rudder in a boat. Output editors coordinate with the anchors, feeding them the news and filling their ears with news of what is happening in the world. They decide the rundown of bulletins. Rundowns, in layman's terms, is deciding which story to be shown when and in which bulletin.

Prasad Ramamurthy, an output editor with NDTV, says: "You need to have news sense to be an output editor. OEs, first and foremost, are journalists with a nose for news. They are the ones who coordinate with reporters, commission outdoor broadcasts when needed, arrange for guests and commission graphics."

The output editor's other half is the input editor, who keeps his/her ear to the ground for breaking news and alerts the output desk and bureau chiefs.

"It is a high-octane, high-stress job," says Ramamurthy. Those who aren't quick on their feet will find it hard to cope. But for those who can, he says, the sky is the limit.

Nope. They aren't the moneybags. Unlike the movie business where a producer finances a movie, in the television news industry these individuals (known as associate producers, assistant producers or just plain producers) are responsible for your favourite programmes.

Pranjal Datta, who produces CNBC-TV 18's popular 'Managing India' show, says: "When you are responsible for a programme, it means right from arranging props, deciding the number of cameras, writing intros for the anchors, arranging guests, managing the budget, sitting with editors with raw footage, deciding the sequencing... the works."

"It is a deadline-oriented job. As they say, 'If you cross the deadline, you are dead.' And that is a source of immense stress for many. It is up to the producer to make sure that the programmes comes out week after week as long your channel wants it."

"The line between editorial and production is quite thin. If you are good journalist, you have all the right ingredients to be a good producer," he says.

They are the ones who go out and get the news. Correspondents are the vital cogs without which there would be no working wheel. Beside the basic tools of the trade, correspondents must be indefatigable and resolute in their hunt for their stories.

They have to constantly interact with the output desks and producers and, at times, respond to anchors during a live broadcast.

Rupali Mehra says this of her trade: "You have to be first, fast and accurate. And you need a sense of balance, which can only come with knowledge and the ability to look at different sides of a story.

Mehra says correspondents need good contacts, should be willing to work long hours and have a passion for what they do.

"And before you do every story remember the saying: Get it first... but first get it right," she says.

While journalists can aspire to any of these posts, it would be unfair to leave out the cameramen and editors -- both are important components of the machine that produces your favourite programmes. Both are essentially technical positions, requiring different set of skills and knowledge. But that is another story...

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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