Sunday, May 6, 2012

From industry newbie to full-fledged TV news correspondent: Follow the travails of the intrepid "Satyabhama Menon"


It was a privilege — and a great pleasure — to be invited to say a few words about a dynamic young author and her new book at the launch event in Bangalore on Wednesday.

Shweta Ganesh Kumar, who has been the Bangalore correspondent for CNN-IBN (she later joined Greenpeace India as a communications officer and is today a full-time writer and travel columnist), has two books to her credit already. Coming up on the Show... The Travails of a News Trainee, which was published last year, featured aspiring TV news reporter Satyabhama Menon and her life as a newbie in the industry. In Between the Headlines: The Travails of a News Reporter, the book that was released on Wednesday, we get to read about Satyabhama's experiences as a full-fledged news correspondent.

Both books are easy reads. And both books, since they are based loosely on the author's own career as a television journalist, have important insights
to offer youngsters who are aspiring to join one of India's many TV news channels.

I would
also recommend Coming up on the Show and Between the Headlines for three reasons: Language, Content, and Message.

Language: Good writers use simple language to express powerful ideas. Take Khushwant Singh. Or M.J. Akbar. Or even the current favourite of young adults, Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games trilogy. Shweta, too, keeps it simple: When you read her books, you won't need to keep a dictionary by your side.

Coming up on the Show and Between the Headlines will acquaint media students (as well as anyone with an interest in the news-gathering process) with the challenges faced by television journalists. Sure, both books are works of fiction but there are kernels of truth in the descriptions of the obstacles in Satyabhama's path as she struggles to present her news stories on her channel.

Message: There are many things you can learn from reading Coming up on the Show and Between the Headlines, and they are not all about journalism alone. The underlying message in the books is that it is important to take the initiative. And to stand up for what you believe is right. The books also seem to prove my favourite adage: If you love what you do, you get to do what you love.


Two days after Between the Headlines was released in Bangalore, Shweta headed to Pune for the launch event in that city. And this week she is off to Kochi to release the book there. But hectic schedule notwithstanding, like the good professional she is, she made time to answer in detail via e-mail five questions I had for her on subjects ranging from the audience she kept in mind while writing her books to the note of cynicism some readers may have picked up on in both Coming up on the Show and Between the Headlines:

1. What is the audience you had in mind when writing Coming up on the Show and Between the Headlines?
One of my favourite sayings about writing and reading is “Write the book you want to read.” And this is primarily what I had in mind when writing both Coming up on the Show and Between the Headlines.

As a fresh journalism graduate and newly recruited news trainee in 2006, I had always wondered whether there were others who had shared my experiences. I searched my favourite bookstores for books with fictional characters I could empathise with, but found none. All the fiction books that I found on Indian journalism were written by senior journalists who had written about major news events and campaigns. I did not find anything on the shelves that told the story of bright-eyed news trainees and rookie reporters and talked about what it is like to be on the bottom-most level of the news pyramid. These were the people I wanted to write about and write for.

Also, as a working TV news reporter, I had come across a lot of people who wanted to know just how the news was produced and what life behind the camera was like for a TV news reporter. These were the readers I had in mind when I started writing the books.

2. There is a notion that writing a book is not that difficult. But I would suggest that a lot of hard work is involved. Your thoughts? Can you also give us an idea of your writing schedule?
The biggest challenge about being a full-time writer is sticking with it to the end, in the absence of an external editor, boss, or deadline. Especially in the beginning when you have no idea that your manuscript might be picked up for publication at all it is easy to sit down and put your hands up.

Every writer has their own, personal approach to the writing process. My own style is built around discipline and being methodical. The hard part is to make sure that you buckle down every day and type out a certain amount of words to reach that ultimate goal of a completed manuscript.

It is also very easy to procrastinate or give up. In my case, it was that intense need to see my published book in my hand that kept me going as well as the full-fledged support from my family.

Whenever I start a book I decide on a certain number of words for the final manuscript. I then work backwards to decide on the number of words I have to write per day to finish the first draft of the manuscript by a certain date. I try to stick to my schedule no matter where I am. I also put down tentative chapter outlines and then fill them up as I go. After I finish the first draft of a novel, I let it lie for at least two months till I look at it again with fresh eyes.

3. How did you find a publisher? That couldn't have been easy, either. And how did you deal with rejections? I think aspiring writers will be looking to you for inspiration in this regard.
Rejection is a very hard obstacle to get past. But I’d say that it also depends on the way you use those rejection letters that you are most certainly going to get. (Well, most certainly if you decide to mail manuscripts off to publishers without the backing of an agent or a recommendation like I did.)

The first rejection was heart-breaking. I am quite sure that I went through the five stages of grief when I received that stinging little note. But I bounced back, thanks to my parents and my husband. I started filing away my rejection letters in a folder named “Motivation” and as soon as I got one, I would mail the manuscript to yet another publisher. I believe that, as a young, unknown writer, this is the only way you can handle rejection, without letting it defeat you.

My first publisher Srishti was the 22nd publisher I had sent my manuscript to, having found e-mail addresses and mailing addresses on the web. Good Times Books, the publisher of my second book, approached me for my manuscript after they saw how well the first book had done.

4. “If you want to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader.” This is what I tell all my students at Commits. Can you elaborate on the importance of reading in your life and the role of reading in your writing?
I’ve had the good fortune to grow up surrounded by books. My parents started reading to me at an age that I cannot even remember and that is what motivated me to start putting down my thoughts, no matter how silly or random they were.

My reading helped me stand in good stead in my career as a journalist. And today while I am a writer, I am a reader first. I don’t think it is possible for any writer to ignore reading if she or he wants to connect with others and to learn the many ways of expressing their thoughts in the best possible way.

5. And, finally, some readers may have concerns over what they feel is a note of cynicism in your books when it comes to the electronic media. How would you address those concerns? And what would you like to say to young people whose ambition is to be good television journalists?
To my readers who feel there is a note of cynicism in my books, I’d like to say that it surely wasn’t meant to be that way. Both the books were written with a very subjective and personal point of view. It does not necessarily reflect the current status of the Indian broadcast news industry.

Also, I am a very emotional person and as a working TV news journalist I used to get attached to the people whose stories I reported. I would want to make sure that I could take these issues to their logical conclusion. However, I soon found out that as a reporter it is not always possible to do so. I know many of my colleagues have faced this dilemma as well and it is this that I have tried to convey through my book’s protagonist, Satyabhama Menon.

To the young people who aspire to be TV news journalists, I’d like to say that you need to remember that you are a reporter first and your duty is to report stories and make sure that you in your limited way are able to amplify the voice of the people. However, you are a reporter and you need to understand that being objective is key and that to go far in your chosen profession, you need to find that fine balance between being an activist and an unbiased newsperson.
  • You can also read an interview with Shweta that was published in The Hindu here: Behind the Scenes.

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