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‘Emphasis on studio format shows will kill TV news’
He has spent over 17 years as a TV news journalist in different capacities. But now, he finds the TV news space a little stifling. Former executive editor and now consulting editor of CNN-IBN Bhupendra Chaubey feels editors are becoming victims of the studio format. “This will kill television,” he says.
Chaubey is looking at the dynamics of the digital space as he feels that if ever there was time for mainstream journalists like him to make the shift, then this is the time.
In a candid conversation with TelevisionPost.com’s Gaurav Laghate, Chaubey spoke about how digital is gaining traction, and how taking a completely different positioning in TV news is going to be exceedingly difficult in today’s market.
He regrets that the worst thing that could happen to journalism is when they stop asking questions. “Our job is to question and if you can’t question people, I think you should be working in a bank,” he says.
Q. What will be your new role at CNN-IBN?
I intend to take up a lot of new initiatives. To be honest, I was finding the existing scenario of Indian television to be a little stifled, which is why I thought about this. I have been planning this for a while. Managing a 24-hour news network is a very time consuming job, so I thought I’d better reduce my work responsibilities.
I will basically do a weekend show on CNN-IBN and appear as an anchor on big election days or counting days. But I won’t be involved in the day-to-day running of the channel. I didn’t want to do anything daily.
I am actually keen to start a digital platform of my own.
Q. There was a buzz that you might join Raghav Bahl…
I want to explore and learn about the new media for the next six months. It’s full of opportunities and there are so many things that can be done. But one really has to identify two or three things that one wants to do or be associated with. So, I am not refuting the news, but it’s not why I have taken this plunge.
Q. What are your immediate plans?
At this point, I am looking at things from the point of view of a learner. I wish to understand the dynamics of this space better. I am also in the midst of doing a film script because film-making has been a passion for me and I have always considered myself a devout student of cinema.
I am writing a script, along with a well-known journalist. We are in the process of giving it the finishing touches. I will be more involved in this project in the next two/three months. Besides, I also wish to expand myself. I will be writing for IBN Live as well as a few other websites.
I believe that if ever there was time for mainstream journalists like me to make the shift, then this is the time because if we don’t make the shift now, the time will leave us behind.
I want to start something on my own, but not right now, as my priority is also to do my film script.
Q. What kind of film script?
I don’t wish to reveal it at this stage, but maybe in January. I am in the midst of several confidential talks with various producers.
‘The marquee brands like Rajdeep, Karan, Barkha Dutt or Arnab Goswami, and even including me since Rajdeep’s departure, have all ended up becoming victims of the studio format. I believe this will kill television’
Q. How do you see today’s TV news space?
Firstly, I think there are far too many players in the Indian television space right now. Secondly, I think there is way too much of emphasis on shows which are driven by the studios.
I have been in the news business for close to 18 years now since my days at NDTV. I have always enjoyed going out, getting into the stories, doing programmes. But the marquee brands like Rajdeep, Karan, Barkha Dutt or Arnab Goswami, and even including me since Rajdeep’s departure, have all ended up becoming victims of the studio format. I believe this will kill television.
I believe that television news in India has reached a point of inflection, and it’s high time newsroom managers and television entrepreneurs revisited their strategy.
Q. But business sense no longer warrants ground reporting…
That is why I think people like me will increasingly move towards digital platforms. I often look at the example of Scroll, which I think is doing a great job.
One would be happy to do that kind of journalism, but as you rightly said the economics doesn’t allow it. So what sort of economic model should be followed by the news channels? Maybe there needs to be a debate on that.
I think television players in this kind of a market will struggle to evolve. To be able to take a completely different positioning is going to be exceedingly difficult in this kind of market.
Q. How do you see corporate ownership of media?
It’s not as if the corporates came into journalism now. Corporates have been there, as Goenkas owned the Indian Express, Bennett & Coleman owned the Times of India, the Rahejas manage the Outlook, so corporate interests are at play there too.
It’s just more projected because it’s television. I don’t see too much of a difference. Pulls and pressures have existed in Indian journalism forever.
In my journalistic career I have got calls from all kinds of people telling me what to carry and what not to. Every journalist gets accustomed to surviving in that kind of environment. You identify your walls, you make some compromises. Everyone makes compromises, and anyone who says that they haven’t is lying. Whether it’s the kind of compromise that is irretrievable is the key. One should not put themselves in a situation where the compromise becomes irretrievable.
Q. What are your views on the quality of journalism and journalists today?
I think Indian journalism has come a long way in the last 15–16 years. But, in some way, it is also stuck in a dilemma, which has been created by the economics of journalism.
I think to a large extent it does affect journalists and the profession of journalism. The urgent need of the hour is to really take the bull by the horns and address the economics of Indian journalism, whether print or electronic.
I myself did the story that sent Suresh Kalmadi to jail. I broke the story of the CWG scam, but now that we have a full majority government, the information outflow has changed, the access is limited.
Q. What do you think of the right-wing government at the Centre and Modi controlling the flow of information?
The reason why the Indian media is struggling to set the agenda today is because it is struggling to deal with the economics of journalism. If it could have dealt with it, then the second part about Modi setting the agenda wouldn’t have risen.
The economics of media is in shambles. Buzzfeed, which posts $50 million in its quarterly revenue, is valued at $750 million. It’s a website, not even a TV channel. But, which channel in the country today is valued at $750 million?
Q. How do you see your journey from a TV news reporter to editor?
I look at it as the journey of Indian TV journalism with three phases. The first phase started with the likes of Vinod Dua and Dr Prannoy Roy, who entered the airwaves in the mid-’80s and ruled the airwaves till the mid-’90s. Then there was the 24-hour TV boom which created the second wave of journalists that included the likes of Rajdeep, Barkha and Arnab. I look at myself as part of the third group because when I started working for NDTV, Rajdeep was my immediate boss.
He was my editor and we were blessed with a newsroom which had all the big names together like Barkha, Rajdeep, Srinivasan Jain and more. You could learn a lot as a newcomer only by interacting with these people and by observing them from close quarters.
I learnt a great deal from them, especially from Rajdeep. He did a lot of handholding, taught me a lot, and the reason I have come a long way is because of the handholding and mentoring I got.
Q. But the mentoring doesn’t happen today…
Unfortunately, there is no mentoring that takes place today. I don’t think that’s the priority area anymore.
But I also think that the era of producing television stars is over and that’s also got to do with the economics of television. In the ’90s when 24-hour television first made its advent, India was an evolving economy. We were just opening up and there was a need to produce brands. Now the Indian economy has come a certain distance since then.
Q. How do you see the next wave of journalists?
The next one is going to come from digital media, and I have no doubt in my mind that the next big revolution is going to come from a reporter. It won’t be a big entrepreneur or anything. I think people like me who have burnt the midnight oil and have been on the ground will find a way out.
Q. Do you think having a right-wing govt does not bode well for journalism?
I won’t say that, as the people of the country have voted for the PM. The truth is that the BJP handles the media in a certain way. The media needs either to formulate a different code of dealing with the government or to figure out how things can be changed.
For example, the HRD Minister Smriti Irani has been involved in one or two controversies since the new government came to power six months ago. But have we seen the media, particularly TV, approach these issues with the kind of vigour and aggression that it showed when the UPA was in power?
Q. What is the worst thing that could happen to journalism?
The worst thing would be when you stop asking questions as journalists or when you are dubbed a traitor for asking questions. Our job is to question and if you can’t question people, I think you should be working in a bank.