August 08, 2020
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The Storyteller’s Calling

Lead us from formula to narrative, from 5W+H to human saga

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The Storyteller’s Calling
Dinesh Parab
The Storyteller’s Calling

Is journalism a profession or a trade? A profession is defined as an occupation that involves “prolonged training and a formal qualification”. A trade is a craft practised by a skilled worker. So is journalism, like medicine, banking and law, a profession taught over years in college? Or is journalism like plumbing, masonry and carpentry, a trade, a practical skill to be learned mostly on the job?

It is to my mind the latter. When I worked in an office, I thought it was a profession. The trappings were there—the fixed hours, the jargon of management, the organisational flow-charts, the meetings, target-setting and all the rest of it that constitutes white-collar work. But thinking it a profession was wrong. What I and my colleagues were actually doing was putting to use a set of fairly narrow skills.

There isn’t that much to teach in journalism, because there isn’t really that much to know. Journalists who have worked for decades realise that you don’t do anything different in different roles. It doesn’t really matter whether you are a Rs 10K-a-month trainee journalist or a Rs 1 crore-a-year editor. The same skills are dep­loyed over and over again.

This is not to say that nothing of value is taught at journalism school, or that none of the aspects of the trade are teachable. Some, like the software used for making pages and editing, can be taught in a classroom, especially if this is being done by professionals.

But this is a marginal thing, much like an apprentice carpenter learning how to plane. Software and rulebooks and style sheets can be picked up in a few days on the job, as thousands of working journalists will testify. They don’t need years of college. Some of the finest journalists, for instance Hugh Cudlipp and Rud­yard Kipling, never went to college of any sort, leave alone journalism college.

Whether you are a trainee journalist or a high-flying editor, you deploy the very same, basic skills. And these are skills you don’t really need to go to college to pick up.

So what are the critical aspects (assuming they even exist) of the trade that doesn’t req­uire a college education? The most important skill of journalism is to know the answer to a single question: What’s the story?

This is not a rhetorical or philosophical question. It is as simple as its three words ind­icate. Looking at a set of facts and teasing out a sometimes compelling and always coherent narrative isn’t easy to do. Often, even the subject of the story or its participant doesn’t know what the story is. Knowing the answer to this one question most times is what separates great journalists from good ones.

Let me give you an example so that you can appreciate the skill. One of the few stories the afternoon newspaper I once worked for broke  because of its time advantage was the massacre of Nepal’s royal family by a prince not allowed to marry the girl he wanted. That morning, we were discussing what the follow-up for the next day should be. At the meeting, a visiting journalist from Australia said we should carry a photograph and run the headline: ‘The girl they all died for’. Fabulous, and this is precisely what a good journalist does.

What is the story? This is the question the journalist must keep asking as she sifts through facts, figures, quotes and interview clips. Then, she must tell it heartfully.

What’s the story? This is not an easy question. The majority of Indian reporters returning from assignment will be unable to answer it simply. The second and only other skill needed in journalism is the ability to compose a paragraph. In my experience of editing six newspapers in three languages, in India this skill is noted by its absence. One reason is that we English journalists operate in a sort of liminal space. We write in a language that, truth be told, we don’t really control as well as Englishmen or Americans. But that is only one reason. The problem infects regional newspapers also.

When I joined a Gujarati paper in Ahmedabad, its proprietor, a brilliant young baniya from Bhopal, made an observation that happens to be as true of Indian-language journalism as it is of the English kind. This is the use of stock phrase and cliches, which makes most reports sound alike. His example was the line always used by Hindi papers to describe the chaos following a riot, a fire or any other such scrum: “afra-tafreeh mach gayi”.  Why did we persist in using such descriptions, he asked. I knew instantly what he saying, and told him I would sort the problem out. (I failed.)

The ability to write without the reader anticipating the next few words, which is vital, cannot be taught in college. If you went to a good school, you may have it. If you didn’t, you’re sunk unless you’re sharp. The only other things needed to be a good journalist—to be able to have a conversation with someone politely and to ask accurate questions, to be able to listen to them and understand what they’re saying, to maintain professional relationships and nurture them—are far too basic to be described as skills.

It’s a shame that the very best choose not to be journalists, for no profession can be as exciting as this simple trade. The late-evening buzz in the newsroom is addictive.

Unfortunately, unlike the professions of medicine, law, engineering and banking, the trade of journalism doesn’t attract the brightest of the batch. This is true of the rest of the world for economic reasons, but the difference in pay is not as pronounced as it is in India and the lack of quality shows. This is why the Times of India is hardly the New York Times.

It is a shame that our best don’t come into journalism because there is no profession as exciting as this simple trade. I cannot begin to describe to readers the atmosphere of tension there is in a newsroom in the late evening, in those few hours when the worker-bees all come to the hive and it begins to hum. Every day, there is a sense of participation in the great events of the world.

No banker or bureaucrat ever got that rush.

(Aakar Patel is a writer and columnist.)

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