Saturday, September 30, 2006

Blogs and me

Usha tagged me with the following questionnaire:

1. Are you happy/satisfied with your blog, with its content and look? Does your family know about your blog?
I am quite satisfied with the content.
I wish I knew a bit more of technical stuff, so I could improve its looks. On the plus side, blogging has given me opportunity to learn a lot of tech stuff which hitherto I didn't know. The learning process is continuing.
Yes, my family knows about the blog.

2. Do you feel embarrassed to let your friends know about your blog or you just consider it as a private thing?
No, not at all. I don't consider blog as a private thing. Blogs are very much in the public domain, even if the contents are private.

3. Did blogs cause positive changes in your thoughts?
Yes, in some ways. Reading blogs has exposed me to diverse lines of thought, many of them refreshing, positive and encouraging. Also, blogs have been a steady source of information for me. Today, I search blogs as much as or more than websites.
As a professional journalist, I am also, in some ways, expected to keep going through blogs to know the pulse of the people.

4. Do you only open the blogs of those who comment on your blog or you love to go and discover more by yourself?
I often hunt for new blogs based on the topic of interest. It's almost becoming a past time. Of course, I also have list of blog buddies, whom I visit regularly.

5.What does visitors counter mean to you? Do you care about putting it in your blog?
Yes. Besides the number, it is a pointer to the type of subjects that attract readership, and also the regions where most of my readers are.

6. Did you try to imagine your fellow bloggers and give them real pictures?
An image of the blogger's personality does indeed get formed in my mind as I keep reading her/his postings over a period of time.

7. Admit. Do you think there is a real benefit for blogging?
I find blogging a much better method of making friends than most of the networking sites that have sprung up of late. Blog is nothing but another medium of communication. It has its advantages and pitfalls.

8. Do you think that bloggers society is isolated from real world or interacts with events?
Yes to a great extent. Not just the absence of get-togethers, many bloggers are pseudonymous. It has its advantage, because some people are able to though express themselves better that way. With many bloggers exchanging emails and also keeping in touch over phone, besides the occasional bloggers meetings, the isolation is breaking down.

9. Does criticism annoy you or do you feel it's a normal thing?
Criticism does not annoy me, except when it is personal.

10. Do you fear some political blogs and avoid them?
No, I neither fear them nor avoid them. Sometimes I look out for them.

11. Did you get shocked by the arrest of some bloggers?
Earlier I used to; not now. Because I have reconciled to the fact that blogsphere too its share of saints and sinners like the real world.

12. Did you think about what will happen to your blog after you die?
No. Though I won't be able blog, the URL will survive, won't it?

13. What do you like to hear? What's the song you might like to put a link to in your blog?
We Thank Thee by Jim Reeves:

We thank Thee each morning for a new born day
Where we may work the fields of new mown hay
We thank Thee for the sunshine and the air that we breathe oh Lord we thank Thee
Thank Thee for the rivers that run all day
Thank Thee for the little birds that sing along the way
Thank Thee for the trees and the deep blue sea oh Lord we thank Thee
Oh yes we thank Thee Lord for every flower that blooms
Birds that sing fish that swim and the light of the moon
We thank Thee every day as we kneel and pray
That we were born with eyes to see these things
Thank Thee for the fields where the clover is grown
Thank Thee for the pastures where cattle may roam
Thank Thee for Thy love so pure and free oh Lord we thank Thee
Oh yes we thank Thee Lord...

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Tabloidisation of media

I had the opportunity today to interact with journalism students of some Bangalore colleges at a seminar on Tabloidisation of Media Today organised by the Bishop Cotton Women's Christian College. Along with me were Mr K Sathyamurthy, City Editor of The Hindu and Mr Vijay Grover, Bureau chief of Zee News.

It was a very stimulating discussion. Students had a number of questions on where the media is headed for. There was a sense of concern among the students on what they said was "decline of serious journalism". Mr Sathyamurthy said whether it be tabloids or broadsheets all types of publications had their place in a society. Mr Grover said often ideal methods were overtaken by practical constraints and realities. All of us touched upon the diversity of Indian media and choices people have today to pick the media of their liking.

I put forward my views on tabloidisation in a paper which I presented at the seminar. The following the full text:

Dear members of the panel, Principal, members of the faculty and students,

First, let me thank the Bishop Cotton Women's Christian College for inviting me to this seminar.

In a way, I am quite pleased that we have this topic of "Tabloidisation of Media". Not least because it's an easy one to speak on. I am pleased because we have today an opportunity to discuss what tabloidisation actually is.

Personally, I feel tabloidisation is a much misunderstood term, leading some people to even make almost dooms-day predictions of journalism's imminent death. Incidentally, there are some people who feel journalism is already dead!

Well, I have my own views about it. So, let me very categorically say that whatever is happening around us, journalism has only, quite contrary to popular beliefs, got more vibrant and serious.

The four postulates

Let me present to your four postulates on this topic:

One, tabloidisation is not the same thing as becoming a tabloid.

Two, there's nothing to be alarmed about this change.

Three, tabloidisation is not a dirty word.

And, four, we haven't seen the last of the changes.

I shall dwell upon these as we go along. At the outset I wish to strongly assert that the current global wave of tabloidisation -- which is just about 10 years old -- is nothing related to the typical tabloids which have been in existence for around 100 years.

Tabloidisation is one thing, tabloids are another. A tabloidised media has not necessarily become a tabloid. The Indian media – both electronic and print – have become tabloidised to various extents. But they haven't become tabloids themselves.

I hope this distinction is getting clearer. Hopefully it'll become as we go along.

What is tabloid

Let us see what constitutes a tabloid and what constitutes tabloidisation? The crucial difference between the two lies in the message.

Tabloid is a concept wherein the message is not serious in nature. The first tabloids appeared in early 1920s; and prominent among them was the New York Daily News. For the first time, as tabloids, they came out in half the size of a normal newspaper.

A tabloid is a product. The oddities and the trivial occupy more space than serious issues like education, science, foreign policy, economic policy etc.

What characterises a tabloid typically is the 3-S formula: Sex, Scandal and Sports. More than half the space of these tabloids was taken up by detailed reportage on crime, gangwars, bootlegging, sex and financial scandals.

Typical tabloids of early days, gave lots of importance to murder trials and love affairs. Some 20 per cent of space was devoted to sports, racing results etc. Serious issues were completely avoided.

If you look at the English language tabloids in our country, they don't even fit this description, except in the size of the paper and probably the use of big photos. Not only that, they also cover serious issues, probably from a different angle. Actual tabloids can be found in the vernacular press.

What is tabloidisation

Tabloidisation is altogether different. It is a process. It's more to do with simplification of the message, making the message more relevant to the audience. As I see it, it is the current trend wherein journalism is more about individuals, families, their lives and society; and not about government policies and proclamations.
Tabloidisation at one level is demystification of everything that is academic; use of colours, use of graphics, illustrations etc. Tabloidisation at another level is giving emphasis to individuals rather than the state. Tabloidisation is more of practicals and less of theory. Less of concepts and more of reality.

What triggered tabloidisation

Why do we have this issue of tabloidisation staring at us?

There is a one-word answer to that: technology; and if I may add one more word, Information Technology. We are in the midst of an extremely dynamic era in the whole history of our civilisation. There haven't been many inventions like the computer and the internet which has had such a dramatic influence on our daily lives.

When this is the case, I really don't understand how journalism can be isolated and insulated from these changes. Journalism is a social science. And, it evolves as the society evolves. The changes in journalism are only a reflection of changes in other aspects of our daily lives.

We live in an era of multimedia. There are multiple means of getting information. News spreads the fastest through the mobile phone network. Radio and television come after that. Technology has redefined not just news value but the manner in which news is disseminated.

Look at the growth of blogs. Conventional media, both print and electronic, have acknowledged their presence. The news and views given by a citizen journalist is valued as much as that of a veteran journalist. It's no longer a one-way flow of information from the media to the people, there is an equal measure of reverse flow.

I hope you may have noticed how one TV news channel last week began a programme called My News, wherein the viewers are given an opportunity to select which news item they want to watch. Every news organisation has become highly interactive.

Don't be alarmed

This brings me to my second postulate. Don't press any panic button, because journalism has got tabloidised. There is nothing to be alarmed. As I said before, serious journalism is still vibrant, much less dead. Why do I say that? Because I see it all around me. We just have to keep our eyes and ears open, be a bit more perceptive to what is printed and telecast. I'd even go to the extent of saying that serious journalism has only got more serious now.

Examples are aplenty. Let us take one: last year's flood in Mumbai and Bangalore. I don't think at any point in Indian journalism floods got, not just such an extensive, but such an incisive coverage in our media. Issues were dug out and examined with clinical precision – the issue of unplanned development; lack of an administration that a metropolis like Mumbai or an upcoming global city like Bangalore should have; the inability to handle growth of the slums; the skewed pattern of development wherein tier 2 and 3 cities don't get official patronage; so on and so forth.

Now, here in Bangalore we have a very serious issue of over 1,000 schools being shut down, midway through the year, and students and teachers being left in the lurch. This is a serious issue, one that is concerning students' education and future. Media has taken up this.

Another example is infrastructure and civic amenities. The Bangalore media have taken up very seriously this issue.

Yet another is health issues. One newspaper recently carried an article on how doctors are discovering Uric Acid as the new villain, in lifestyle diseases.

Don't be shy

Now, let me come to the third point. Tabloidisation is not a dirty word. This is in fact a derivative of my first postulate, that tabloidisation is not the same thing as being a tabloid. Tabloids may be "dirty", but not tabloidisation.
Just as we needn't be alarmed about tabloidisation, we needn't be shy about it: because I interpret tabloidisation as a democratisation of news; a process of demystification.
A recent issue of Newsweek has on its cover, the topic of many families the world over preferring not to have children. One may argue that it is personal matter for a couple. Why should it make it to the cover of an international news magazine. But, this is a very relevant topical issue; and can't viewed as sensationalism.

In the public domain, in the common parlance, the tabloid does have a negative connotation. That could be one reason, why the venerable Times of London decided to use the word compact instead of tabloid when they converted the paper to tabloid size on Nov 1, 2004.

When Amitabh Bachchan had to undergo a major surgery and also when Vajpayee had to undergo a knee-replacement, media had a lot of reports on the medical aspects of it; trying to demystify the issue for the reader. Newspapers and magazines carried a number of illustrations on medical problem and the surgical processes.

When a newspaper carried an illustration of the abdominal area to explain better what Amitabh's illness actually was, one person told me, that the newspaper was invading the privacy of the great actor, the illustration was in bad taste, that there was no need to explain his illness in such detail etc. A very similar point was raised about Vajpayee's knee. Why the PM's knee so important? Is it more important than the Prime Minister's views on our country's secular fabric?

In both cases the point that was missed was that a lot of scientific and educative input had gone into the reportage. It was not just a picture of the abdominal area.

It's not over yet

We haven't seen the last of anything, that's my last postulate. Tabloidisation itself is in various forms and degrees. The clear-cut demarcation between highbrow journalism which broadsheets pursued and the lowbrow journalism that tabloids followed, is gradually getting diffused. A lot of grey area has crept in, probably one reason why there is a lot of confusion over this change.

Today we have a lot of middlebrow journalism. While broadsheets are getting more informative and entertaining, tabloids aren't ignoring serious issues either. Today, if you look at some of our tabloids it's not all entertainment and gossip. There are lots of articles worth reading.

Let me conclude with a suggestion to the students. Try to understand contemporary media. Merely noticing the changes in journalism today is just half the job done. Try to look at them in the context of social evolution. Learn how media profile has changed over the years, how it is changing today, and how it could change further. Evaluate and understand the different roles media have played at differnt periods in history. That would give a better picture of the changing scenario and also help you understand this change better.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Homosexuality is okay

This issue is going to hog quite a bit of limelight, if it has not already. A petition challenging the anti-gay law, Section 377, will come up before the Delhi high court soon. Meanwhile, over 100 prominent personalities have signed a letter demanding repeal of the law. Read about it in The Hindustan Times, The Times of India, Daily News and Analysis, International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, and The Guardian.

NDTV yesterday had a special edition of We the People, in which this issue was discussed. There were some very forthright and frank opinions and also narration of personal experiences by gays and lesbians of being shunned by members of their family after their sexual preferences were made known.

Some of the arguments in favour of a change in the law do make sense. One, this is a personal, private issue between two consenting adults. It’s not for other people, much less for the government, to make a judgement on the right or wrong of it, as long as there’s no public nuisance resulting out of the relationship.

Two, the origins of alternative sexuality are not recent, but it has existed from time immemorial. You can’t suppress that’s already there. When one is faced with reality, it’s much better to accept than to deny, or shove under cover.

There are two counter-arguments which don’t seem to make much sense. One, is that legalisation could convert this into some sort of a pop culture among the young. I don’t think something that is innate to one's nature can be influenced in such a manner. Even if so, why not? That's what social change and evolutions is all about.

The other point is that it’s “wrong” to have such a relationship, from the moral sense. If two people are comfortable and happy with such a relationship, then how could it be “wrong”? Is it wrong to feel good?

It is very sad to see conflicts in people’s minds over this. Teenage is the time when sexuality bursts out into a person’s consciousness. It’s natural for boys and girls to have crushes on other boys and girls. Everyone sorts that out gradually. And, if someone can’t, then that’s quite unfortunate, especially in this age.

Worse the discrimination and excommunication they have to suffer after they come out in the open with it. It’s very unfair. People need to be respected for the choices they make, as long as, of course, they don’t harm other people.

This issue is a major one and it needs to be in the public domain. As Soli Sorabjee suggested as a first step homosexuality needs to decriminalised, if not legalised.

With the stroke of a pen the law can be repealed. That’s just the legality of the issue. But far more challenging than that, is getting the mindset changed. It’sn’t going to happen overnight. But discussions and debates on this topic would definitely help clear the air.

Counselling centres have a major role to play. They need to address this issue too, especially for parents who would have to confront their children’s choices.

The whole world has moved on, why not India too?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Young hearts at peril in India

"In sharp contrast to the West, as many as 40 per cent of those who get heart attacks in India are below the age of 40. In North America and other Western countries, the figure is only four per cent."

Alarming... More here

Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11 impact on foreign student enrolment in US

On the fifth anniversary of the Sept 11 attack on the World Trade Center, a look into how the event has impacted foreign student enrolment in the US. Read here.

9/11 and after: Whither India?

Today, it’s exactly two years since this blog began. One point in the first post here was how US President George Bush had, in a way, joined the war against terror which other countries were already waging, though he was calling upon other countries to join him.

Immediately after 9/11, there was a lament, quite justifiably, that had the US been perceptive to small-scale terror in different parts of the globe, we all would probably not have reached this stage. Remember, how Kandahar hijack was no issue for the US, which for whatever reason showed no signs of having seen the growing trouble.

But five years on, my views have amended. Laments make no sense. It’s time to learn a few lessons; from the US. Not from the war in Iraq; but from how that nation has transformed itself post-9/11.

One deadly sting, the whole system was shaken up. Top administration officials were intensely questioned. There have been debates, discussions, and brain-storming sessions. Most importantly, the administration implemented corrective steps.

Contrast that with India. Soon after 9/11, India implicitly told the US, “Look, we have been here long before, you have just woken up.” True, terrorism is nothing new to India, unlike the US; but five years on, who has moved ahead – India or the US?

How many terror attacks have taken place in the US after 9/11? And, in India? The answers speak volumes.

May be the number of US soldiers killed in the post-9/11 wars is now almost equal to the number of Americans who perished on that tragic day. But the country has been well-secured, at least in comparison to India.

Probably the only significant change here is that: incidents which were categorised as “communal” are now “terrorist”, rightly or wrongly. Malegaon is the latest example. Still, there is no change on the ground.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Punctuations are important

The importance* of punctuation is often underestimated. A wrong comma, for example, can change the meaning entirely. Punctuations are so inherent to the communication process; nevertheless, not all language or communication professionals place these little marks thoughtfully.

In 2003, Lynne Truss, a British writer, wrote Eats, Shoots and Leaves on the subject. The title originates from a joke. A panda goes to a bar and orders a ham sandwich. After eating, he takes his pistol, shoots in the air. On being asked why he did so, he shows a badly punctuated wildlife manual. The entry for Panda in it read: “PANDA. Large, black-and-white, bear-like mammal native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.” Obviously, the unnecessary comma after "eats" has distorted the meaning.

The Guardian and The New Yorker have reviews of the book, the latter quite critical. There is also a website, where you can play the punctuation game. There was recently a news item on the most costly punctuation in Canada.

Commas essentially signify pause. It’s not an essential device though, since even without it we can logically deduce a pause.

Harold Ross, the founder of New Yorker, was obsessed with the use of commas. During his time James Thurber, American writer and cartoonist, who served with the magazine, was asked why Ross put a comma in the following sentence: “After dinner, the men went into the living room.” Thurber replied, “That’s Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.”

Some of my favourite sentences on the use of comma are:

  • Don’t stop. (Keep going.)

    Don’t, stop. (Stop what you are doing.)

  • You don't really like it; you're only pretending to please me. (You are pretending to please me.)

    You don't really like it; you're only pretending, to please me. (You are pretending to like it.)

  • He was kicked by a mule which annoyed him. (The mule annoyed him.)

    He was kicked by a mule, which annoyed him. (The kick annoyed him.)

  • Her brother, who lives in Mumbai, will come tomorrow. (She has only one brother)

    Her brother who lives in Mumbai will come tomorrow. (She has more than one brother.)

The best is perhaps this:

  • An English teacher wrote these words on the whiteboard: "woman without her man is nothing". The teacher then asked the students to punctuate the words correctly.

    The men wrote: "Woman, without her man, is nothing."

    The women wrote: "Woman! Without her, man is nothing."
(* See Easwaran's comment below, on 08 Sept, and my reply to it.)