Monday, August 30, 2010

The king of the sting

That would be Mazher Mahmood whose latest expose has blown the lid off the so-called "spot-fixing" scandal involving Pakistan's cricketers. Who is Mazher Mahmmod? There's a bio on Wikipedia, the most interesting fact in it being the enigmatic nature of the man on account of his job profile:

Mahmood works secretively, rarely going into the News International offices. Written into Mahmood's contract is a clause stating that his photograph will never be published in the newspaper. If he features in photos that accompany his stories, his face is always concealed and a silhouette is used next to his byline.

And here's another interesting tidbit from that bio:

News Of The World claims he has brought 234 criminals to justice. He often poses as a sheikh in order to gain his target's trust, and is also known as the "Fake sheikh." In September 2008, he wrote a book titled Confessions of a Fake Sheik: The King Of The Sting Reveals All, published by Harper Collins.

Wouldn't we just love to get hold of a copy of that book? We would get to learn how an undercover reporter gets information that translates into a worldwide scoop. We would also get an insight into an aspect of journalism — sting operations — that, in the wrong hands, can have many unpleasant ramifications.

In the meantime, we can only watch this particular sting operation unfold before our eyes (check out the four-minute video) and marvel at the chutzpah of the reporter and the advances in technology that made it possible for News of the World to make headlines around the world this week.

Friday, August 27, 2010

6 money mistakes to avoid when you've just started working

Today's Mint has a very helpful piece by Harshada Karnik for youngsters who are into their first job. That first cheque may give you a high, she says, but before blowing it up, you should take a look at what a small part of it can earn in the long run. And then she lists the mistakes many youngsters make when it comes to financial planning:
  • Mistake 1: Don't really know where I spend
  • Mistake 2: I saw, I liked, I shopped
  • Mistake 3: I live on plastic
  • Mistake 4: Not now, maybe later
  • Mistake 5: I like risks and adventure
  • Mistake 6: My uncle has it, I'll also buy one; it'll save my tax, too
If you are making all or any of these mistakes, you need to read this: "Into your first job? 6 mistakes to avoid"

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sloppy subbing/house style

1. DNA (Bangalore), August 26
  • Page 12: Pullout quote in first editorial
Vedanta has got its just desserts, but we need greater transparency in rules

That should be "just deserts": (From A deserved punishment or reward, as in He got his just deserts when Mary jilted him. This idiom employs desert in the sense of "what one deserves," a usage dating from the 1300s but obsolete except in this expression.

(We all know what "dessert" means.)
  • Page 17: Headline
Mail on Flintoff auction raises a storm

That should be "email" or "e-mail", depending on house style. Why do so many of us, including journalists who should know better, write (or say) mail when it should be email?

In the news report below that headline, we read "e-mails" in some paragraphs and "mails" in other paragraphs. It's so confusing for readers.

2. The Times of India (Bangalore), August 26
  • Page 1: Headline

Here India is apparently a singular noun. Now go to the fourth paragraph of the match report on Page 23:

Now India have a chance to gloss over their weak links and get their hands on the trophy if they can contrive to run through the Lankans next.

Here India becomes a plural noun. So what is the house style?

Most newspapers allow collective nouns such as the cricket or football teams to be treated as plural subjects to make for ease of reading. For example: India have reached the final. To my knowledge, The Hindu is the only mainstream Indian newspaper that persists in treating, say, cricket or football teams as a singular subject. That is the newspaper's house style. But for The Times to treat India as singular and plural on different pages in the same issue is perhaps an indication that house style is no longer as sacrosanct as it used to be.

3. Open, August 20
  • Page 41: Fifth paragraph
Before the channel began operating, a former bureau chief says, there was an unofficial list of dos and don’ts for reporters to follow. He recalls an unstated rule: “‘We will not do byte reporting’ …aisa hi kuch thha  (it was something like that).” The place became a haven for journalists, but it struggled to maintain its ideals. Slowly, quietly, the bureau head believes, the rules disappeared.

Byte? Here's a dictionary definition of byte: "adjacent bits, usually eight, processed by a computer as a unit". So clearly it is a computer term.

Now here's the definition of sound bite: "a brief, striking remark or statement excerpted from an audiotape or videotape for insertion in a broadcast news story".

So Open should have used "bite reporting" in that sentence, not "byte reporting".

In Mint Lounge on May 15, a caption on Page 15 read:

Byte-hungry: Indian news channels were criticized for the way they covered the 26/11 terror attacks

But Open and Mint are not the only culprits. For some reason, universally, we will see a reference to "byte" when what is meant is "bite" or "sound bite". Even television journalists are not immune to this disease. A few months ago I sent an email to Rajdeep Sardesai about this and he replied, "It should be sound bite. But you are right, several of us, myself included, use sound byte. Am not sure why."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A new kind of brand manager

Steve Stoute, according to Time, has changed the way companies look at branding.

"Brands don't often speak to young people in a way that is representative of them," says Stoute. "What I do is contemporize a brand." But, he says, "I don't take the brand away from what it stands for. I don't change who they are in order to appeal to the next generation."

Read the full article by Stacy Perman: "Where Shop Meets Hip-Hop".
  • Photo courtesy: Time

How do you stand out from competition?

Will you send a shoe to your prospective employer with the message, "I want to get my foot in the door"?

Read this helpful little feature by Peralte C. Paul in Mint (reproduced from the New York Times) to learn what candidates are doing in the US to impress their potential bosses: "Do you stand out in a job market?"

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"The Afternoon Despatch & Courier", the newspaper closest to my heart

The newspaper I helped to launch in Bombay in March 1985 is still the closest one to my heart, though I enjoyed my time with Mid Day, Bombay (where I began my career); Khaleej Times, Dubai (where I launched special sections and where I first learnt to work with computers); and CIO magazine, Bangalore (I helped to launch this magazine in India for TMG in 1999. TMG also ran a national technology channel for which I was a news anchor for some time and also a chat show host).

I CONSIDER MYSELF privileged to have been given the opportunity to work with the brilliantly talented team, led by Behram "Busybee" Contractor, that launched The Afternoon Despatch & Courier on March 25, 1985. At the time it was Bombay's fourth evening paper, and our competitors were the formidable Mid Day (which we had quit to start a newspaper "owned" by journalists), The Evening News of India, from the Times of India stable, and Free Press Bulletin, owned by the Free Press Journal group.

I remember being asked by a good friend who was concerned about my future: "What kind of research have you people done? Have you carried out any surveys? Is there room in Bombay for one more eveninger?"

We had all left Mid Day sometime in January. And we were planning to launch The Afternoon a few weeks later, in March.

Did we have time for surveys? No.

But what we had going for us was belief. The belief that we had a lot going for us.

What we had going for us was gut instinct. Not for a moment did any of us think that it couldn't be done.

What we had going for us was confidence. We knew we were good at what we were doing.

Above all, what we had going for us was an editor all Bombay loved and respected, and 30 or 40 people — from office assistants to experienced journalists — who believed in the idea of a newspaper that would be run without any interference from "owners".

Sure, there were problems on the way, mainly financial, but all of us stuck to our task. And not too long after it was launched, The Afternoon became the city's No. 2 newspaper because both Evening News and Free Press Bulletin, unable to stand the competition, closed down.

Twenty-five years on, The Afternoon and Mid Day (the latter now owned by the Dainik Jagran group) are still the only English evening newspapers in Mumbai. The Afternoon, now led by the redoubtable Carol Andrade, is back on its feet after a particularly troubling phase and it continues to make its presence felt. And is a great example of how the sensibilities, tastes, and needs of readers can be incorporated into a newspaper website.

Five months ago, on March 25, The Afternoon's 25th anniversary, I was thinking back to those frenetic early days. So guys, this one is for you: Behram Contractor, Mr Kanangi, Carol Andrade, Shashi Jadhav, Mark Manuel, Archie D'Cruz, Sabbas Joseph, Leo Manickam, Suresh Baliga, Mobin Pandit, Sharad Kotnis, Glen D'Souza, Anthony D'Silva, Arvind Kulkarni, Tara Patel, Menka Shivdasani, Conrad Prabhu, Anthony Azavedo, Jerry D'Souza, Dinshaw Dotivala, Mario Miranda, E.P. Vijaykumar, P.S. Rajan, Elias Hendricks, Prabhu, Jadhav, Ramdas, Vasant, Hari, Prashant, and many others who made such vital contributions to our great newspaper experiment. Salud!
  • Read Outlook editor-in-chief Vinod Mehta's tribute to Behram Contractor: "My friend Behram".
  • Read Carol Andrade's take on faith in Open magazine: "My Kinda God". 
    PAPER VIEW: One of my best friends, Sunil Maurya, and his daughter, Ankita, are engrossed in reading The Afternoon. This picture was taken sometime in the Eighties in the Mumbai suburb of Borivli, where Sunil lived before he and his family moved to the US. I am indebted to Ankita for giving me permission to use this photograph, which I discovered recently on her Facebook timeline.

UPDATE (June 21, 2013): Commitscion Natasha Rego (Class of 2014) lived up to my expectations (and perhaps exceeded hers) when she filed this brilliant story for The Afternoon: 10/10 for a newspaper story written by an intern from Commits.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"If you never hit the word limit assigned to you by a teacher or editor; if anyone has ever called your prose "flabby"; if a critic condemned your first novel as being twice the desired length"... need to read this superlative column by Roy Peter Clark of Poynter. (Poynter Online claims it has "everything you need to be a better journalist". I believe it.) And you will get even more helpful advice on writing tight by reading the transcript of the chat Clark conducted on Poynter — "How can I tighten up my writing?" is fascinating reading for both novice writers and experienced ones.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Descriptive writing at its best

Ryan Murphy is the man behind television's smash-hit musical, Glee. He has also directed Eat Pray Love, the just-released movie starring Julia Roberts. What is Murphy like? And how did he get to direct one of the world's biggest stars?

Look at how Brooks Barnes, reporting from Los Angeles, sets up the story for us in this New York Times feature (reproduced by arrangement in today's DNA):

How had a man with almost no film experience wormed his way into directing a big, juicy movie? Curious, she [Julia Roberts] agreed to meet Mr. Murphy at a Malibu restaurant and realized the answer before the first Arnold Palmers arrived. “I fell totally under his spell,” Ms. Roberts said. “We’re sort of like best girlfriends now.”

Mr. Murphy is nothing if not seductive. Self-assured to the point of cockiness, a wicked sense of humor, scary-ambitious yet charmingly eager to please, fashion-forward: it’s an intoxicating brew. Not to mention the literal light-headedness you feel standing near him. This is not a man who is bashful about his Yves Saint Laurent cologne.

“Ah, my famous cologne,” he said over a dinner at the Chateau Marmont here. “It’s because when I was growing up, I could only afford that cheap Halston stuff.”

Don't you feel like reading on?

And then, a point of style: The film is an adaptation of the best-selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert. The book is called Eat, Pray, Love. The movie is called Eat Pray Love. Notice the subtle difference?

Now here is the intro:

WHEN Julia Roberts got word that Ryan Murphy planned to turn the best-selling memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” into a movie, she had a fast response: “Who?” You know, her agent explained, the guy who created “Nip/Tuck,” that sick and twisted plastic surgery show. “Oh, the ‘Nip/Tuck’ guy, that pricked up my ears a little,” Ms. Roberts recalled.

And here's the fifth paragraph:

He’s plenty rich now. Mr. Murphy, who followed up “Nip/Tuck” with “Glee,” the smash Fox musical about a high school choir, has become one of the most sought-after talents in Hollywood. His name is swirling as a candidate to direct a big-screen version of “Wicked” for Universal Pictures. Sony Pictures Entertainment, which will release “Eat Pray Love”  (without commas) on Friday, just paid him $2.5 million to write a romantic comedy — with Ms. Roberts — and another $2.5 million to direct it. “I’ll do anything Ryan wants,” said Amy Pascal, Sony’s co-chairwoman.

Did you notice those two words in parentheses? For the NYT, the devil is in the details. And it is for this attention to detail, among many, many other attributes, that the NYT is acknowledged as one of the world's great newspapers.

Now here's how Mary Pols dealt with those commas in Time:

[The book's] fairy-tale quality, the one by which a woman's quest ends with a man, seemed less like real life and more like a Julia Roberts movie.

Which is why I found myself rather happily anticipating Eat Pray Love, the big-screen version of Gilbert's book directed by Glee and Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy. (He shares a screenplay credit for the movie with Jennifer Salt.) Now that Eat, Pray, Love had lost its commas and become a movie actually starring Julia Roberts, I was no longer annoyed by how much it seemed like one; it had assumed its rightful place in the entertainment universe.

Once again, that attention to detail. Once again, a "problem" tackled with style.

When house style is no longer sacrosanct... will find boo-boos like the ones in today's Sunday Times (Bangalore edition):

1. Headline on Page 1: "After merchandize, catering may be the next casualty"

2. Intro to the story below that headline: "Even as the merchandizing deal fell through on Friday..."

Merchandize? Merchandizing? This is what happens when "-ise" endings are routinely — and without thinking — changed to "-ize" endings "to conform with house style".

The strange thing here is that ToI style, going by what I have read, seems to be to use "-ise" endings. So what's up with "merchandize"? What next? Advertize? Advertizing?

3. A Page 1 story talks about the government wanting Dow to pay up Rs.1,500 crore to the Bhopal gas victims and both in the headline and in the story the newspaper uses the new rupee symbol (which I am not able to use yet on my blogs). But on Page 4 in the resident editor's column, "To The Point", the paper goes back to using the old rupee symbol. And this seems to be the pattern on every other page but Page 1.

What is the house style here? What gives, Mr Editor?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Fresh ideas, fresh writing

Has anyone noticed the vibrant quality of writing in the incomparable Tehelka? And also in the newish Open and in the relaunched Caravan?

The latest issue (August 14) of TEHELKA is full of gems waiting to be discovered. Take the cover story on Omar Abdullah (Page 28). Begin with the headline:

A man. A mess. A map. Omar Abdullah plots a way out for Kashmir

That incisive headline leads us to an intro that makes us want to read the whole article:

HALF A glance, and Omar Abdullah knows what he needs to fix. He is on the banks of the Sindhu, 40 km from Srinagar, about to begin a mass contact campaign. There’s no way a stone hurled by a human can reach him here from Srinagar. A stone from God, maybe. For the moment, God does nothing like that. But Omar still doesn’t like what he sees. There are 300 people waiting for him under a canvas tent. They are barricaded by a concertina wire. Omar’s sofa is on a dais 30 feet from the nearest listener. It creates an ‘us and them’ scene. This is terrible; it’s the very heart of the matter in Kashmir. Instantly, Omar knows he has to do something. The wire is dragged away and Omar’s sofa is brought closer to the crowd. When he settles down, Omar is six feet away. He has sort of closed the gap. There’s a murmur of approval from the gathering.

And here's a description of Omar Abdullah from later in the article:

Omar, the son, is the opposite. He isn’t spontaneous at all. It would appear that he lacks emotion. This makes it difficult for him to connect with people. He seems to have difficulty reaching out and warming people up. Only with his closest circle of friends, is he known to have let go and had a good time. Omar’s life outside Jammu and Kashmir also makes it tough for him to trust people he doesn’t know. His style of administration thus gets impersonal. While the best governors need to be impersonal to do a good job, Kashmir makes it complex for Omar. He is modern and secular, and is good at giving directions, which he expects to be implemented. He is appropriate and correct. These are his assets.

Now for the conclusion:

What we are seeing of Omar is just the first stage of what he thinks will be a long time in Jammu and Kashmir. It took a series of meetings, not always pleasant, in the Abdullah household before Omar’s career was moved from hotel management to politics. It was a Rajiv Gandhi moment, the difference being that Omar’s wife agreed to his career shift. This is the youngest chief minister of India’s most sensitive state. He might make more mistakes, like anyone else. It could also mean he is chipping away at his weaknesses. In today’s Kashmir, that is one story worth following.

Vijay Simha, deputy editor of Tehelka, spent four days with Abdullah in order to write this profile. Think about the questions he must have asked, the meticulous notes he must have made, the relationships he must have forged with all his interviewees before he could sit down to file his story. Please note that this is not a "feel-good" profile; Simha gives us both the positives and negatives of the Kashmir chief minister's personality. At the same time he also makes us think about the Kashmir imbroglio. It's first-class reporting all the way.

There is also an illuminating profile by Zahid Rafiq of Masarat Alam, the man seen by many as the face of the current protests in Srinagar. You don't have to agree with Alam's views, but you will have to agree that this is a fine piece of reporting and writing by Rafiq. (First Year Commitscions: The phrase nom de guerre is used in the seventh paragraph — meaning?)

On Page 51, Assistant Editor Nisha Susan has written a thoughtful commentary on the ugly Rahul-Mahajan-beating-up-his-wife-again episode. Here's an excerpt:

Television commentators (still tingling from Rakhi Ka Swayamvar) marvelled at how the Swayamvar franchise gave Mahajan the trappings of an eligible bachelor. At how 16,000 women applied. At the millions who watched the show. Rahul Dulhaniya Le Jayega managed the proverbial making of a silk purse out of a pig’s snout. But the analysts seemed to have missed the point. Rahul with the porcine cast to his face was watched by the country because he reeked of ineligibility. The producers showed remarkable shrewdness in retaining the sham of mehendi, shiny tassels and genda phool while catering to our desire for schadenfreude — our pleasure in other’s suffering. Rahul made girls jump through hoops because he could. We watch because we can. We wallow in the many colours of humiliation that reality television offers us — as happily as we gawk at car crashes, as intently as we would watch public hangings.

This is clearly the work of a superior writer. And don't we just love it? (First Year Commitscions: See how Susan uses schadenfreude, the word we discussed in class last week.)

Aastha Atray Banan gives us another enjoyable piece: a profile of Rani Mukherjee on Page 49. Banan goes to meet the star at her home in Mumbai to find out if she has turned into a recluse, as rumour would have it. Here's an excerpt:

At 32, she looks better than she ever has. Yoga has made her slender. Dressed in a short skirt and minimal makeup, she retains a regal air. Lauren Bacall once said, “I am not a has-been. I am a will-be.” Rani would approve of Bacall’s style. It is unlikely she has read the quote though. She doesn’t read, she says. Unlike several young ladies who manufacture reputations as frenetic readers and think that Jane Austen was a Victorian and Omair Ahmed is a medieval poet, Rani says flatly that she does not read. "I don’t read much — I have an allergy to the smell of books. Really."

This is an interview you want to read from beginning to end, not only because of the subject but also because the writing is so sharp. And knowledgeable.

Then there is this acerbic review by Gaurav Jain of Tishani Doshi's new book, The Pleasure Seekers. Jain is harsh in his critiquing, and the headline ("So this is where poetry goes to die") and the standfirst ("Tishani Doshi has sunk a basic family saga in her kingdom of twee, says GAURAV JAIN. That leaves the blurbs") make that clear to us. But it's Jain's writing skills that help us to understand why reading this book would be a waste of time: He has strong opinions and articulates them well. Here's an excerpt:

Everywhere else ... Doshi seems mainly interested in being cute. Her precious narrator sounds like PG Wodehouse’s mushy Madeline Bassett, who believed that stars are God’s daisy chain and that every time a wee fairy blows its nose, a baby is born. Doshi writes like a phoren ma’m delighted at her grasp of exotic India: a young girl on the back of her father’s bicycle is “a princess being guided by a troubadour”....

(First Year Commitscions: Look at the unusual words in this review: twee; overweening; pedantic curlicues; sylvan; fey. Going by this evidence, not only is Jain frighteningly well-read [the term used by Tarun Tejpal to describe his staff in the interview we watched in class recently], but so, apparently, are the Tehelka readers. Your thoughts?)

And finally, in the "Personal Histories" section, there's a heart-rending piece by Tehelka's 24-year-old correspondent Nishita Jha about the night she "lost" her father. If you have shared a special bond with your parent you are sure to be moved by this first-person account.

The Tehelka website is also home to a fascinating and inspirational and touching story — "Irom And The Iron In India’s Soul", the saga of one Manipuri woman's epic fast for justice in her home state. Managing Editor Shoma Chaudhury pulls out all stops to tell you why "Irom Sharmila's story should be part of universal folklore". Read it and weep.

NOW HERE are a couple of examples of the quality of writing in OPEN: "The World Cup of kabaddi" and a critique of the Harry Potter books. Also, there's this must-read by Gauri Dange in the issue of August 7. A must-read for two reasons. One, if you have aspirations to write and publish a book in India, Dange's article will come as an eye-opener. Two, the top-notch writing. Here's an excerpt:
      And so I decided that I wouldn’t do joyless and sterile anymore. Friends advised me to show my new book to other publishing houses, where “things are different”. I did take a stab at that, but when I saw early signs of the same torpor laced with smugness, I decided to go it alone. I formed Omo Books with a partner, to publish and distribute this book and future work. At least I had signed myself out of another round of absurdity and non sequiturs.

      (First Year Commitscions: Look at the use of the phrase non sequiturs. Didn't we discuss it in class this week?)
      • Photos courtesy: Tehelka, Open

        Friday, August 6, 2010

        How does an editor take the decision to publish pictures that can upset readers?

        Time magazine, in its issue of August 9, put an Afghan teenager on the cover with the caption: "Aisha, 18, had her nose and ears cut off last year on orders from the Taliban because she had abusive in-laws".

        How does a magazine editor decide that a picture that has the potential to upset readers can be published at all, let alone on the cover? The managing editor of Time, Richard Stengel, says he thought long and hard about putting Aisha on the cover. "First, I wanted to make sure of Aisha's safety and that she understood what it would mean to be on the cover," he writes in the "To Our Readers" column in the magazine. "She knows that she will become a symbol of the price Afghan women have had to pay for the repressive ideology of the Taliban. We also confirmed that she is in a secret location protected by armed guards and sponsored by the NGO Women for Afghan Women."

        He continues: "I apologize to readers who find the image too strong, and I invite you to comment on the image's impact."

        And then he explains why it was important to feature Aisha on the cover: "But bad things do happen to people, and it is part of our job to confront and explain them. In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban's treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan."

        Predictably, the publication of this picture has stoked a fiery debate, according to the New York Times Kabul correspondent Rod Nordland, with "critics of the American presence in Afghanistan calling it 'emotional blackmail' and even 'war porn', while those who fear the consequences of abandoning Afghanistan see it as a powerful appeal to conscience".
        • In Bangalore, both DNA and The Times of India reproduced the NYT article (with permission), though DNA, which had a better layout, inexplicably and unforgivably deleted the last two paragraphs.
        In the light of the Time cover story and the ensuing debate, here's a question: Would an Indian magazine have featured Aisha on the cover?
        UPDATE (October 14, 2010): Aisha now has a prosthetic nose, which, according to a report in The Hindu, she revealed proudly in Los Angeles this week. Read the report here.

        On July 24, 2014, "Lens", the photography blog of The New York Times, reflected on the impact of the photo published around the world, which showed the bodies of two teenage cousins raped and then hanged from a tree in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh. Read the blog post here.

        And on July 23, 2014, the head of photography of the highly respected Guardian newspaper weighed in with his comments on the merits or otherwise of publishing graphic pictures in the wake of the MH17 crash and the strife in Gaza:

        Two headline-grabbing and violent events — the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17 in Ukraine and Israel's assault on Gaza — have generated some horrific photographs on a seemingly unprecedented scale. Of this flood of images, there are hundreds that we would not choose for publication because they are either deeply shocking, insensitive to human dignity, would be painful if seen by relatives or friends, or ultimately run the risk of forcing readers to turn away from the story, which would negate the purpose of photojournalism.

        Read the post in its entirety here: "Graphic content: when photographs of carnage are too upsetting to publish".