Friday, April 30, 2010

How NOT to write a profile

The IPL controversies have led to many names being dragged in the mud, perhaps deservedly so. But did Sunanda Pushkar have to be lambasted in this fashion in the Outlook issue of April 26? Here are a couple of excerpts from Vrinda Gopinath's profile of the woman labelled in a pull-quote "the P3P queen of Masala Dubai":

Her skills in occasionally getting well-known sponsors made her rivals green with envy but the snide bitching barely fazed her. Says a former rival acidly, “Sunanda would claw her way to a sponsor and have him eating out of her hands, she was not a girl’s girl.”

Sunanda-watchers in Dubai say it was around this time she adopted her new style statement—Dubai flash trash of peroxide hair streaks, heavy make-up, razzle-dazzle, seductive couture, false eyelashes, chrome nail paint, and Louis Vuitton victimhood. It was a sign of her arrival in the league of the neo-rich tycoons.

Some of the facts in the article are possibly true. But most of the writing seems to be speculative; plain bitching, in my view.
  • On the other hand, Shoma Chaudhury has tried to present Sunanda's side in this interview in Tehelka (April 30). Chaudhury also takes the media and the rest of us to task. Here's an excerpt from the introduction:
A deep and unthinking misogyny has underscored all the reporting on her. Her real crime is that she is an attractive 46-year-old widow, who is bright, vivacious and hot — in the way only those women can be who have a comfortable relationship with themselves; who understand that beauty does not preclude one from being kind; or protect one from sorrow. If the media had wanted to try the two [Sunanda and Shashi Tharoor] for financial impropriety, it should have stuck to doing that. Instead, all of it has become an ugly spectacle about a society trying to decide what women are allowed and not allowed to be. Ambition, sass, and self-assured sexiness are clearly high on the list of India’s penal code for women.

Read the full interview here.
  • Thanks to Nilofer D'Souza for the tip-off.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Why is Plato known as Aflatoon in the subcontinent?

Mint columnist Aakar Patel gives us the lowdown in this erudite, fact-filled, and interestingly written piece.

Also, here's another interesting column on the origins of our gaalis.
  • Aakar Patel, former editor of Mumbai's Mid Day, is now the director of Hill Road Media. His column in Mint, "Reply To All" touches upon the most unusual topics. On March 25, he explained why Indians are too self-absorbed to be team players; on January 21, he must have sparked a myriad classroom, boardroom, and cocktail party conversations with his analysis of why women are turned on by power, men by beauty. Bookmark his column and read it regularly.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Calcutta in the New York Times

Somini Sengupta has produced a gem of a travel piece in the New York TimesPay attention to the writing style. See how Somini begins the piece; study the transitions how does she link one para to the next?

Study the quotes there are not many because a piece littered with quotes can be very boring and see how they add punch to the writing. Somini also paraphrases some of what she has been told by her sources.

The whole feature is a great example of good writing you want to read from beginning to end.

The article ends with an apt quote. It is very important to provide an appropriate conclusion to every feature (but not to hard news reports).

Also pay attention to the sidebars: If You Go; Where To Stop; Where To Eat; What To Do At Night; Where To Stay; Getting There.

And isn't that a fantastic picture at the top of the page of a young bride at the Kalighat temple in south Calcutta? Go through the slide show, too.
  • Photo courtesy: The New York Times

Friday, April 16, 2010

Time says the iPad will usher in a new era for journalism

The managing editor of Time, Richard Stengel, writes: "In the media these days, we have to participate in things that we also cover. I am not one of those who see the tablet as the solution for all the media's problems, but I do see it as a dynamic new way that we can present great reporting and writing to our readers. For the first time since the magazine's birth in 1923, we will soon be delivering the entire contents of TIME to paying customers in a radically different way: as a self-contained application that you can download to the iPad."

"The Reporter: A Handbook For Every Journalist"

Here's an interesting book that should be helpful for media students. Though it has its share of typos and cliched writing, The Reporter has some useful advice for novice journos. The authors Arindam Basu and Sujoy Dhar, both senior journalists, have thoughtfully included sections on the different kinds of reporting: from beat reporting to rural reporting and political reporting to wire reporting they are all in this handbook.

An added attraction: There's an "expert view" at the end of each chapter, with well-known journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai and Raju Narisetti, the founding editor of Mint, weighing in on the important issues in their field.

A copy has been placed in the Commits library but those interested in print journalism will benefit from buying a copy. At Rs.175, it is a steal.

Heard of online video cartooning?

No? Well, when Mark Fiore won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning this week, it was the first time since the category of editorial cartooning was created in 1922 that the Pulitzer had gone to an artist whose work does not appear in print.

The Pulitzer jury said Fiore's "biting wit, extensive research and ability to distill complex issues set a high standard for an emerging form of commentary" -- 
online video cartooning. Read more here.

And go here to enjoy his work.

The BEST blog on photojournalism

Lens the New York Times blog on "photography, video, and visual journalism" is a magnificent web classroom for photography buffs, especially those keen on photojournalism.

In the section titled "Art of Photojournalism", you can study "the finest pictures, past and present". In "Craft of Photojournalism", you can go behind the scenes and on assignment with news photographers around the world.

And these are just two of the gems waiting to be discovered by Commitscions.

Dig into this veritable treasure here

And here's a topical post on the Pulitzer Prizes for photography.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Quick on the draw

Hadi Farahani is the most brilliant illustrator and cartoonist I have met. I had the pleasure of working with him in Dubai in the '90s when I was the Features Editor of the Khaleej Times. His incomparable art lent both colour and life to the articles I edited and published in the paper.

Hadi has since moved to Canada and his work has appeared in all the big-name publications in the West. And he has been nominated three times for best magazine and newspaper illustrator of the year by the National Cartoonists' Society in the US.

You can take a look and gaze in wonder at his work here.

Marvel at his illustrations for newspapers and magazines (samples above). And also admire the logos in the 'design' section.

Hadi is a great role model for any young illustrator among you. Don't you think the college newspaper will benefit greatly if you can produce illustrations like these?

A Pulitzer Prize in 2010... and a Gannett Award in 2011

Sanjay Bhatt, who's a staff writer with The Seattle Times in Washington State in the US, was a speaker at the Commits seminar 'Expressions 2005' in Bangalore. (He also happens to be my nephew.) On Monday, Sanjay and his colleagues at the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News coverage. Here he gives us a detailed account of how that coverage was put together:
It began at 8:15 a.m. on Sunday, November 29, last year. A felon walked into a small town coffeehouse and assassinated four police officers sitting at a table. He then disappeared, with dogs, police, and the media on his trail. He surfaced hours later in a quiet Seattle neighborhood where, just weeks earlier, another police officer had been killed by an assassin. Everyone was on edge.

The Seattle Times newsroom mobilised and responded with unprecedented speed to this deadliest attack on law enforcement in state history: We were the first news outlet to report the name of the suspect, Maurice Clemmons, and the first to report that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had granted clemency years earlier to Clemmons, freeing him from prison.

We quickly produced in-depth profiles of the four deceased officers, who collectively left behind nine children. We used social media like Twitter, Google Wave, and Dipity to enrich our coverage and reach a wider audience. And we kept digging up scoops every hour and every day because of the deep expertise and sourcing of our reporting staff, eventually leading to a comprehensive profile of the killer and his tangled family ties.

Earlier this week, The Seattle Times received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News coverage. You can read all about it here.

There were many, many people who made our coverage so distinctive. So many people, in fact, that it's why the Pulitzer was actually awarded to no single individual but to the entire staff, including editors, researchers, web producers, photographers, video producers, graphic designers, page designers, copy editors, and company managers. We're lucky to work at a "newspaper" that has evolved into a multi-platform, cutting-edge news organisation.

Like others, I played a supporting role: In the cold pre-dawn air, I posted dispatches from the scene where police had surrounded a Seattle house in which they believed Clemmons was hiding. I constructed the Clemmons family tree from interviews and other people's notes. I made lots of phone calls, many fruitless, to Clemmons family members. Some of those calls eventually led to some in-depth interviews, which added context and nuance to our profile of Maurice Clemmons.

You'll notice on that page this important note to readers:

The story was reported by staff writers Ken Armstrong; Sanjay Bhatt; Nicole Brodeur; Jack Broom; Charles Brown; Jim Brunner; Mike Carter in Marianna and Little Rock, Ark.; Christine Clarridge; Sara Jean Green; Susan Kelleher; Jonathan Martin; Justin Mayo; Steve Miletich; Maureen O'Hagan; Nick Perry; Eric Pryne; Jennifer Sullivan; Craig Welch; Christine Willmsen; and news researchers Gene Balk, David Turim and Miyoko Wolf. Armstrong and O'Hagan were the lead writers.

Like so many newspapers, The Seattle Times was on the brink of bankruptcy and closure last year. Morale has been low. The Pulitzer really validates what we've been doing to create a print-online news company that serves the community with distinction.

Seattle Times newsroom staffers celebrate after receiving news that
the paper had won a Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News.
The Pulitzer is The Times' eighth. (Photo courtesy: The Seattle Times)

  • To read an earlier post about Sanjay Bhatt's work for The Seattle Times, go here.
  • UPDATE/June 15, 2011: Sanjay has won another award. He has been selected as the 2011 winner of the Gannett Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism. The Seattle Times submitted an enterprise story and a data visualisation Sanjay put together on the failure by the nation's biggest banks to honour their agreements with Treasury to modify eligible homeowner loans. This award comes with a $5,000 prize.
  • UPDATE/February 21, 2012: Watch an interview with Sanjay Bhatt on Seattle's local TV news channel here.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why was the cyclone that hit Kolkata and Bangladesh in May 2009...

...named Aila? I was curious and so was a Mint reporter he developed it into a story. How creative!

It turns out that storm names must be “...culturally sensitive and shouldn’t have a negative, inflammatory meaning”, according to the India Meteorological Department’s (IMD) website.

Click on this link to read the Mint piece by Jacob P. Koshy: "The nomenclature of cyclonic winds".


Here's an example of how to do stories for...

...the local/neighbourhood/community section of a city newspaper.

Sanjay Bhatt, my nephew, is a reporter with the Seattle Times in the US. His story is accompanied by his own video (go to the end of the story), captured on a Flip videocamera, which is what most American journalists use now.

To see what the the Flip looks like, go here.

PS: Sanjay was a speaker at our seminar Expressions 2005. Three days ago he and his colleagues at the Seattle Times won a Pulitzer Prize for "Breaking News Coverage".

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Raghu Rai's new book...

...India's Great Masters contains some powerful images of music and ecstasy, says Tehelka in in its issue of April 10. Go here and click on the 'View Slideshow' button.

This is a good example of how to present pictures that are very special.

S Balachander -- An entirely self-taught child prodigy, Balachander went on to become a veena and sitar virtuoso. Raghu Rai tells Tehelka's Gaurav Jain, “I took him to Mahabalipuram to interpret his music. His strokes are the deepest possible sound; they bounce so much, it seemed the rocks were approaching in rhythm and dance. I sat him there and wondered what to do. When you make yourself available, nature makes itself available. When I shot this, it went beyond my planning. Ab sur lag gaya.”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

David Ogilvy on why reading is important

"I asked an indifferent copywriter what books he had read about advertising. He told me he had not read any; he preferred to rely on his own intuition. 'Suppose,' I asked, 'your gall bladder has to be removed this evening. Will you choose a surgeon who has read some books on anatomy and knows where to find your gall bladder, or a surgeon who relies on his intuition? Why should our clients be expected to bet millions of dollars on your intuition?' " David Ogilvy in On Advertising
  • Thanks to Satish Perumal for the tip-off.

Ankana Sinha (Class of 2009), a PR executive with Text100 in Bangalore, responds: Honestly, I don't think it is a fair example. Our body parts don't change positions on the basis of their preference. But market dynamics change. You can't compare a surgeon and a copywriter. Not happy.

I don't think he's comparing a surgeon with a copywriter. I believe this is what Ogilvy is saying (my god, I can't believe we're dissecting DAVID OGILVY here): Preparation is (almost) everything.

A copywriter deals with words
that's his/her life. But if there's no FEEL for words, if the copywriter is working in a VACUUM (which is what will happen if he/she is not well-read), then there is bound to be a quality issue, perhaps even an idea issue. Where are the ideas going to come from without exposure to the wider world?

Here are some quotes that make my point better than I can.

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.”
A C Grayling, Financial Times (in a review of A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel)
“A capacity and taste for reading gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others.”
Abraham Lincoln
“Give me a man or woman who has read a thousand books and you give me an interesting companion. Give me a man or woman who has read perhaps three and you give me a dangerous enemy indeed.”
Anne Rice, The Witching Hour
“Wear the old coat and buy the new book.”
Austin Phelps
“Life-transforming ideas have always come to me through books.”
Bell Hooks
“You're the same today as you'll be in five years except for the people you meet and the books you read.”
Charlie "Tremendous" Jones
“No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.”
“The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.”
Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!
“If you can read this, thank a teacher.”
Anonymous teacher

I don't contest the fact that we must read (the message that Ogilvy is trying to deliver). That goes without saying. But I do not understand why he gives an example of a surgeon to the copywriter. A surgeon has only one way of doing it, he cannot get it wrong even if he tried. But a copywriter can deliver the same message in 10 different ways.

P.S. Where is the harm in dissecting Ogilvy [pictured]? He is after all mortal... like all of us. He he he he.

But let's assume it is. If every surgeon is as good as every other surgeon, why do we have only one Devi Shetty?

As for a copywriter being able to deliver the same message in 10 different ways, here's my question: Are they any good? Are we talking about quantity? Or quality? RP


Devi Shetty is who he is because of good PR. In fact, most of these "good" professionals are nothing but really good PR plans being executed really well.
Are we perhaps overestimating the function of PR? Or oversimplifying the case for PR?

PR plays a crucial role in ensuring that a product, person, service, or company stays in the public eye. Good PR is also critical in times of crisis.

But how can "PR" take the place of "work"?

Sure, in the case of Devi Shetty (pictured), his media savvy and good PR have helped him to build Narayana Hrudayalaya into the world-class hospital it is today. I don't think, however, that he could have done any of it if he wasn't a brilliant surgeon to begin with.  RP


I've read David Ogilvy's book and I think he is spot on.

1) Copywriting isn't very different from general writing. There are lots of times when you think of a smart line from somewhere else, maybe something that you've read, and then you tweak it to make it even better (or worse, sometimes!). And it's not only about reading books but about having a general awareness of things happening around you. Prasoon Joshi came up with 'Thanda matlab Coca Cola' at a railway station where he saw a coolie resting in the shade of a few crates. Now, that isn't down to his reading but to his ability to connect one thing with another. The new Saint Juice is supposed to be 100% natural. The tagline reads: "From the guy who made the birds and the bees." Now, that's awesome. And I'm sure the copywriter (from an agency called CreativeLand Asia) knew the connection between God, nature, and the birds and the bees.

2) Intuition is very important in advertising. But no one can dare to go ahead on intuition alone. And the funny thing is this: A good sense of intuition is also bred by having knowledge about a lot of other things.

3) As far as quality and quantity go, I have my own take on it. Very rarely are you going to come up with a brilliant line in the first shot. Even when you do, it's probably after years of practice and study, both of your own work and other people's. So sometimes you write ten lines, some of which are good but not great, and then suddenly a word from one of these lines catches your eye. You spin off from that and you start again. All the good copywriters spend a lot of time over even a single two-word tagline.

I recently worked on an ad for a restaurant serving Bengali food in New York. They wanted a smart tagline for that, something to do with Indian/Bengali food. So after writing about 50 lines I decided to go with the 'Bong' angle. It would have worked like a charm in India. But the word 'bong' means drugs in the US. Imagine a line like that for a restaurant! So, I got to work again and I realised that I had to come up with something that could capture Indian food in one line and that line had to be understandable to any person anywhere in the world. That is where reading and general knowledge come in.

I'm not saying I'm a guru (hehehhe! ONE DAY I WILL SAY THAT! AND I WILL BAN HYPHENS!). But with due respect to Ankana, I must side with Mr Prabhu (rare one, note it down!). A surgeon may have only one way of doing it but a brilliant surgeon, after years of practice and study, will not only know immediately what that one way is but will also know how to go about the one way in the best manner. Similarly, copywriters who are well read will immediately know how best to try and tackle a line. If I had known about 'bong' earlier I would never ever have even thought about using it.

Finally, I am shocked (SHOCKED) to see no quotes from Stephen King in your examples!
  • Arpan Bhattacharyya is a copywriter with Grey Apple Advertising in Bangalore.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

How do you write about a new kind of Scrabble and score big?

Just feast your eyes on this brilliant opening by David Montgomery in The Washington Post:
Tuesday dawned with sputtering Scrabble fans dashing for their dictionaries: Appall! (10 points). Pox! (12 points). Crazy! (19 points). Zounds! (16 points).

By day's end, they felt better: Phew. (12 points). Sheesh. (12 points). They wished they had enough tiles in their racks to spell "apocrypha" or "exaggerate."

Stefan Fatsis, a Washington-based Scrabble coach and devoted chronicler of the Scrabble world, summed up the snafu (8 points) this way: "It's a case of corporate flackery and media incompetence completely misleading the public."

What caused about 10,000 near-heart attacks from London to El Segundo, Calif., began a few days ago with a tiny item in a British trade paper. It referred to Mattel's plans to introduce a new kind of Scrabble that would permit the use of proper nouns.

Read the full article here.
  • Photo courtesy: The Washington Post
  • Thanks to Pradeep Reddy for the tip-off

The BIG difference between PRINT and ONLINE

"Newspaper and magazine editors design their publications to help readers stumble onto topics they may not think are of interest. The front page of most newspapers is intended to guide readers to both important and interesting stories. This experience has not been easy to replicate online."

L. Gordon Crovitz of The Wall Street Journal makes his case for serendipity even as he explains why newspapers trump the web. "How do you discover what you don’t know you want to know?" he asks.

And he quotes from a recent blog post at the Nieman Journalism’s Lab site, “While there is more news on the Web, our perspectives on the news are narrower because we only browse the sites we already agree with, or know we already like, or care about.” With newspapers, by contrast, readers discover “things we didn’t care about, or didn’t agree with, in the physical act of turning the page”.

To read the full article, go to For serendipity, hit ‘search’.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Photography buffs will go nuts...

...when they read these tips on the NatGeo website.

There are tips from experts, tips on using available light, tips on taking portraits. And much, much more. After all, this is the National Geographic we're talking about here. Enjoy.
  • UPDATE (May 3, 2103): A photo may be worth a thousand words, but more often than not a photo without a caption, which provides some context or at least gives the viewer a reason to linger on it, is not worth the paper it is printed on. Or the pixels it is composed of. Now that you want to write a caption, here's how to go about it, courtesy Mark Nichol, editor of the Daily Writing Tips blog: "10 Tips About How to Write a Caption".

JK Rowling has killed children's literature

So says the editor of Open magazine, Sandipan Deb. And he makes a pretty good (adult) case for his views.

Here's an excerpt from his March 6 post:
Do children read anything else anymore? No. Their heads are inhabited completely by worlds unlike the one they live in. They will never read David Copperfield, Sherlock Holmes bores them, and they will never even know Holden Caulfield because the back cover does not carry a blurb.

Read the full article here.

And read the comments too, especially the ones purportedly from children. Here's one:

Dear older uncle,
Why are you adding IIT-let's-commit-suicide-and-IIM-let's-screw-up-an-online-exam details to your profile? We kids hate when people roam around with those tags and expect us to emulate them.

And we love reading and studying. Just that we don't want to lock ourselves up, and spend 4 years on coaching classes trying to make it to institutions. Sad, Rowling was not in your day and age, else you would have known that Journalism was your calling and wouldn't have wasted money on seats which would have been used elsewhere.

if you are so happy and glad at being a journo, why sport that tag of IIT-IIM. Is that to tell us that we should not mess with you? Or that we are scumbags?
Nice rant against fantasy fiction. This was a reality rant for you. Grow up while you can. I hope I killed your fantasy highly educated world for you.
  • Thanks to Anjali Muthanna for the tip-off.

All of us need to know how to use PowerPoint...

...but how many of us are good at it? An IIM-A alumnus, Vivek Singh, gives you five tips for making better PowerPoint presentations:

1. Use better PowerPoint templates
2. Get more out of SmartArt Graphics
3. Use images more effectively
4. Embed your fonts to share presentations
5. Image file formats: picking from JPEG, GIF, BMP and PNG

Study the complete article in Mint here.

Tech writing made interesting for the general reader

There are two kinds of screen technologies: LCD and E Ink. Which is the easiest on the eyes? And why does it matter to the layperson? Geoffrey A Fowler and the Wall Street Journal tell us here.

Here is an excerpt:
The question isn't just academic. A battle is under way to replace a 550-year-old invention called the printed book, and the winning technologies could have a big impact on everything from how students learn to the way people read a novel at the beach.

What is "client servicing" really about?

Learn all about it from the newbies and the experts in this great new column from Mint. Here is an excerpt:

Being the juniormost member in a team of five, [Rajvi] Bhow finds herself handling the bulk of operational jobs. She is often on the phone, making sure promotional material is printed just so and delivered on time. Other times, she could be rushing to the local markets—to a Matunga flower seller’s, say, to make sure he has the DoCoMo colour scheme right in the floral arrangements for a launch party. Once a week, she must ferry creatives (layouts or copy created by the agency) to the weekly meeting with her clients at Tata DoCoMo’s office in Chinchpokli or Navi Mumbai, then come back to her office to hand them back to the agency’s creative team for changes.

With so many interactions where she is the “face” of the company, Bhow has to adhere to a dress code that is conservative: trousers and full-sleeved shirts or Indian formals. However, she adds, “Fridays are jeans and T-shirt days, but only if there are no meetings on those days."

She finds it exhilarating to be in the frontline. “My best moment in advertising was seeing the actual campaign come to life—seeing that first hoarding, the full front-page advert in a newspaper. It was incredible to see something you’ve worked on for so long now being seen by millions of people.”
  • For another take on client servicing, this time by travel write Indu Balachandran, who also runs workshops in advertising and creative writing, go here.

The iPad turned inside out

How do you write about a techie whose business it is to do a "teardown" on the latest gadgets?

How do you make this interesting for non-techies? Learn from this article by Gabriel Madway of Reuters:

An excerpt:
The iPad had no screws. But working with a tool called a spudger, it took Soules only 10 minutes to separate the iPad’s handsome, 9.7-inch facing from its silver-backed casing.

He surveyed the iPad’s design, a maze of parts that would be utterly inscrutable to most people.

“That’s very, very nice,” he said almost reverentially.

Teardown firms are hired by an array of clients, their data used for competitive intelligence, in patent disputes or to keep current on industry benchmarks.

By 9.30am, Soules had turned the iPad inside out and was sharing its secrets with the world.
  • Photo courtesy: Reuters

Can LinkedIn fire up your career?

Fortune magazine believes it can, so it has made LinkedIn the cover story in its April 12 issue. Here's an excerpt:
Facebook is for fun. Tweets have a short shelf life. If you're serious about managing your career, the only social site that really matters is LinkedIn. In today's job market an invitation to "join my professional network" has become more obligatory and more useful than swapping business cards and churning out résumés.

Read the article in full here.
  • Photo: LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner (courtesy Fortune)
The Indian connection: LinkedIn country manager Hari V Krishnan says in an interview with Mint that the networking website for professionals has five million registered users in India.
    Read the whole interview here, especially Krishnan's answer to the question, "Why would someone get on the network?"

    (April 23, 2011) Last week, BusinessWorld's columnist Mala Bhargava devoted her column to LinkedIn. Read it here: "The Social Professional".