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'The reader of 2005 is not a moron'

By Vinod Mehta
October 11, 2005 15:08 IST
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Outlook magazine celebrated its 10 anniversary on October 10. We bring you Editor-in-chief Vinod Mehta's speech on the ocassion.

Ladies and gentlemen, should a publication which is 10-years-old celebrate its 10th birthday? It seems slightly presumptuous when you consider that there are many newspapers which have existed for 150 years and more.

Nevertheless, these days when the print media is supposed to be under threat, we have not merely survived. But prospered. At the risk of immodesty, I can confidently say that Outlook is both a critical and commercial success.

Happily, we have not dumbed down, yet we have established that good journalism does sell. You just need a good editor and not just a whiz-kid marketing manager. I am happy to report that there is a shortage of good editors and a surfeit of good marketing managers. May that situation never change.

Ladies and gentlemen, Outlook is an editorial-led publishing house and not a marketing-led one. The editor and the marketing manager walk together, perhaps the editor is a few steps ahead. But we work as a team.

On October 11, 1995, when we tentatively surfaced, no one gave us a hope in hell. On October 8, 2005 we have proved that you can enter and dominate any market, however competitive, if you build a better mousetrap.

In ten years as a group we have not grown phenomenally or launched two score publications, like Nursing News or Table Tennis Digest. We believe in quality, not quantity. The three other magazines we have launched are brand leaders or very close to being brand leaders. Outlook Money launched in 1998 is India's only personal finance magazine and it sometimes deflates my ego when someone says: "Oh, you are the editor of Outlook Money."

Then in June 2001 we launched Outlook Traveller. Some months later 9/11 happened. The tourism industry went into a slump. Everyone said the magazine's days were numbered.

Again, at the risk of immodesty, I say Outlook Traveller is a pioneer. It is a huge success – and it is a success because we broke the mould. Outlook Traveller was the first travel magazine in India to say no to trade news.

In the old days you went to, say, Tourism Minister, Renuka Chowdhury, printed her picture – and then said: Renukaji give us an advertisement from your ministry. Instead, we created a destination magazine, in which we gave our readers a feel, a smell, a flavour of destinations. The formula worked – we don't print Renukaji's picture and she still gives us ads.

The most recent publication we launched was Outlook Saptahik. I must confess the group's bottom line hasn't been greatly swelled by Saptahik, but we are happy that the magazine has upheld the highest professional practices and enjoys a wide circulation.

Next week, Outlook will again do something different. We will be launching a Delhi city magazine, called City Limits. This will be a revolutionary concept in Indian publishing. There will be no page 3 celebrities in the entire magazine. And, oh yes, we also won't tell you where to buy that 80,000 rupee bottle of wine.

There is, I know, nothing more boring than an editor in an orgy of self-praise. But I hope some of you have read our travel books, of which we have published 15. Many of these are on the best-seller list.

Altogether, it is a small corpus. Mr Sameer Jain or Ms Shobhna Bhartia have no reason to feel threatened. But I hope they secretly envy, if that is not too strong a word, our purposeful mix of irreverent and purposeful journalism. Ladies and gentlemen, I have been an editor now for thirty years and my mission has been to make serious journalism popular – without trivialisation, but with the occasional sex cover. The challenge before us is: How do we in the media engage with the reader of 2005? This reader is not a moron, but we in the media have to reinvent ourselves to regain his attention. The old ways of, say, covering politics will have to be discarded. The new reader is not disinterested in politics, he is disinterested in the way we cover politics.

Breaking stories is important for any publication, but meaningful and vigorous debate and dissent, and, crucially, a consistency in journalistic quality is even more important. Breaking news and exclusives have anyway become something of a joke.

On three channels on the same day, same time, I saw the Finance Minister being interviewed on budget day. All three claimed it was 'Exclusive'. Some months ago, I enjoyed a breathless blurb by a TV channel. It said: Breaking News and announced: 'There is nothing to add to the breaking news we flashed fifteen minutes ago.' Scoop where is thy sting!

In Outlook we've had genuine breaking news: I won't bore you with a laundry list but three examples should suffice: we broke the cricket match-fixing story in June 1997, we broke the Juhu-Centaur sale story which is now being investigated by the CBI. And most recently, we broke the Justice Phukan story.

But what I really treasure is the fact that we have created an "open" magazine. I believe that dissent is the life-blood of good journalism and you must admit that for a card-carrying pseudo-secularist, I invite and print those vehemently opposed to us.

We are the argumentative magazine. I don't particularly enjoy self-flagellation, but I know Outlook

would become deadly dull if those who disagree with us do not get a look in.

Ladies and gentlemen, the myth about journalists being unbiased needs to be shattered. In my thirty years in the profession I have yet to meet an unbiased journalist, someone who is an ideological eunuch. Outlook makes no effort to hide its liberal-centre-left stance. But we are part of a matrix.

The plurality of the Indian media – and that is our free press's greatest strength – ensures that biases get cancelled. And finally the reader gets an approximation of the truth.

Biased or unbiased, I believe the political class in India takes the media far too seriously. Listen, we are just a bunch of guys and gals sitting around a table pretending to decide your fate.

And remember, we have deadlines to meet and we have to be first with the news. We make mistakes. Mistakes of judgement, mistakes of fact, mistakes of prejudice, mistakes under competitive pressure. Hype is part of our business. It is not part of yours.

For us every disagreement is irreconcilable, every verbal spat is an all-time low, every small turbulence in government means the government is falling, every change in foreign policy is a sell-out.

But you must ignore this frenzy. This hysteria of turning every scrap of news into a do-or-die situation is confined to a small patch of turf in New Delhi – starting from Raisina Hill to the India International Centre. And all media crises last for 24 hours.

I am not unhappy that the Indian political class takes the media so seriously. That is why some editors and journalists believe their words are written on tablets of stone. By the way, I acquired a puppy dog 12 months ago and when my wife asked me some weeks later what we should call him, I said "Editor". She said why? I said "Because he is stubborn, obstinate and thinks he knows everything."

The infallibility of the media is a sedulously created myth most vigorously promoted by editors themselves. We are not always wrong, but we are wrong quite often. Outlook has yet to live down its prediction that Mr Narendra Modi was going to lose the last election in Gujarat.

You should take us less seriously. Perhaps some benign neglect is called for. I'll let you into a secret. If you really want to get even with a journalist or editor, tell him when he meets you that you did not read his last piece, or better still, never read his pieces. Nothing hurts a journalist more than the fact that his words of profound wisdom have not been read.

Politicians and journalists need to forge a new relationship. This relationship shouldn't be based on cronyism, neither should it be too cosy. We may not be natural adversaries, but we are also not natural friends. We should make politicians feel just a tiny bit uncomfortable.

I was at a party where some politicians were having an animated conversation. My entry caused a minor frisson. One of them told me: "I am not comfortable in your presence." It was a remarkably candid statement, and I told him, "That is the way it should be."

So, ladies and gentlemen, we come to the mother of all questions. What is the role of the media in India? What is our responsibility? Clearly, one responsibility is to monitor how the government works and how those who rule perform. But there is another role, one less remarked.

Our pink papers tell us we are an economic superpower, we compete with China, and might even overtake China. Yet, 400 million of our citizens live on less than Rs 40 a day. This is a rank obscenity. Indian democracy has received well-deserved praise, but to its eternal shame we have created two Indias.

Shining India and An Area of Darkness.

India's grotesque and shaming poverty is not hidden away in some tribal, far away district. It is available for inspection on every traffic light of Delhi. You have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the little kids who beg with such great and good humour.

I would like to take this opportunity to commend and congratulate the Mrs Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council for attempting to make a direct assault on this sub-Saharan poverty in the face of stiff opposition.

The media's role on this is clear. We must constantly remind Shining India of the other India, however unpretty the pictures and ugly the facts. Until this shame is wiped out our democracy remains a failure. If we can spend Rs 15,000 crores on French submarines, we can spend Rs 12,000 crores on the employment guarantee scheme. This is not an ideological issue, this is not a left-right or centre vs state issue, this is not globalisers vs the jholawallas issue. This is a human issue.

Finally, I am happy to inform you that I am going to complete 11 years in Outlook. This is a record for me. And I would not have lasted this long had it not been for my proprietor, Rajan Raheja. Friends, I could write a book longer than the Mahabharta on the editor-proprietor relationship. On Mr Raheja that book would have a single page. He is a dream proprietor, who gave me both resources and editorial freedom to shape Outlook. Mr Raheja, may your tribe increase.

When I go and meet the supreme editor-in-chief in the sky I will tell him: "Lord, I committed many small sins but on the big issues I remained totally professional." And I will also tell him: "Lord, despite the blandishments of TV, I never became a TV anchor. I remained loyal to print, I remained loyal to the written word."

I think God will send me to heaven.

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