Abhinandan Sekhri is co-founder & current CEO of Newslaundry. Previously he has worked with Newstrack, Aaj Tak, and NDTV. He also co-founded Small Screen.
In this interview, he talked with us about – How he came into journalism?, working in the movie Monsoon Wedding and Filhaal, experiences at Newstrack, co-founding Newslaundry, interns should be paid or not among several other things.
How did you start working with TV Today? How was your experience there?
There was one of my family friends, Sabrina Dhawan. She is the writer of the film Monsoon Wedding. She advised me to be productive and use my summers to do something sensible. So I agreed in a quest to explore what’s interesting at TV Today. They used to do video news and I liked it. Madhu Trehan was the boss there. I asked her for a job and she replied in affirmative. I was a researcher for the initial three months and I became a reporter after that. We used to work on a weekly show Newstrack. Aaj Tak also came at that time.
Today, I can say it with utmost confidence that I possess a fair amount of knowledge about media despite not holding any degree in journalism. The sole reason of this knowledge is that I worked at that office at that time.
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You worked as a Camera Assistant in Monsoon Wedding. You were also an Assistant Director in the movie Filhal. How was your experience working with these films?
Meera Nair was coming to Delhi from New York to make a film, and Sabrina Dhawan, who got me that job, was writer of the film. When Meera started this film, it was supposed to be a very small one. The shooting was supposed to be completed in 25 days. I already had a work experience of 4-5 years by that time, but I didn’t have any experience of film related work. She told me that I could get some work in the production. Basically, the work was to lift a 6-7 kg camera. Declan Quinn was the Cinematographer. He is among one of the best Cinematographers. I just wanted to be there in order to learn something.
When this film ended, Gulzar Sahab’s daughter, Meghna was making Filhal. I thought this as a chance to get the taste of Bollywood, so I worked as an Assistant Director there.
Why did not you work in films ever after?
There are a variety of reasons for it. Firstly, I cannot live in Mumbai. Delhi is the only place where I can live. Also, I was interested in political events. The only interest Mumbai was serving for me was working in movies. Besides this, I was not so interested in making films. I was rather more interested in small projects like travel shows, TV shows, etc.
You co-founded Newslaundry. How did such an idea strike you?
Newslaundry was something which my former boss Madhu Trehan suggested me. Many news channels emerged by 2008-09. They used to critique everyone but no one critiqued them in return. So we thought that there should be a show which critiques news channels as well. We decided to make such a show but no channel wanted to put it on air. These days, channels criticize each other by specifically naming each other without any fear, but earlier no news organization used to speak or write anything against each other. Internet penetration became pretty effective by that time. One show led to the development of ideas about some more shows. So we planned to try and develop a whole new platform.
You scripted and co-directed a documentary named Chadar which won several awards. Do you recall any memorable incident from that time?
That is the one thing that I will be most proud of throughout my life. It was a project that was so difficult that no one even attempted to do it. Going to Ladakh in the winters that too on the rivers, we had to carry our own generator to charge the batteries. When I spent my first night in -20 degrees Celsius in a cave, there was snow all around my sleeping bag. I doubted if I would survive ten more days there.
What kind of challenges has Newslaundry faced so far?
The primary challenge faced by every news channel is a lack of resources. In India, people don’t want to get into the news because the news model is either to flatter the government or corporate or create a new circus every day like most of the channels do in order to increase their viewership and to claim that viewers in front of the advertisers.
Those viewers watch mere entertainment rather than news. News must always be valuable despite the fact that people who would really value it will be less in number. This means that if you air a show like Big Boss or Rakhi Ka Insaaf, then it will attract at least 3-4 crore viewers, but if you air a news show, there will be 1.5 lac viewers hardly. So it will always be a challenge. And as we don’t do advertisements, we are a subscription-driven model. This makes it even more challenging.
Do you believe that this habit of Indians of not paying for news will change?
It has already noticed a change. We ourselves have 2000 subscribers. People estimated that we won’t even get 1000 of them. And this is growing very rapidly too. The change will definitely take place however slowly. I am not suggesting that everyone would change but even if two crore people out of a population of a Billion start thinking wisely, then news will achieve a very higher level. They are enough to change the world.
Where does Indian Journalism stand today?
Traditionally, Indian media has not been the bravest and combative. It has always had a very cozy relationship with those in power. There are sections which stand out and are very combative. But by and large, that is rare. This is in continuation of that trend, so I don’t think it’s anything new.
But I think the new thing is, earlier, the media was not so polarized and those who did support the government did not do it so shamelessly. Now the level of cheerleading has increased. No one feels guilty in flattering the government.
What are the reasons of this polarization?
The world we live in is a more connected world because of the social media. People express their opinion more freely. There is something called as the Online Dis-inhibition Syndrome. It’s a new kind of behavior of people which manifests itself only when they are online. They don’t express their thoughts face to face as freely as they do while they are online. So technology is one of the reasons. The rise of a certain religiosity among people is another reason. And in my view a general sense of discontentment that many politicians are found to direct their remarks towards any community or group.
What skills should be focused upon by the students of journalism in order to get a job in the mainstream media?
I think if you want to be seriously employable, a degree has no meaning whatsoever. I mean if someone comes to me with a degree from top two journalism schools, then it might make a difference but not for anything else. Like an Economics graduate, a history graduate, a Mass Communication graduate, an English Honors graduate, a Physics graduate, it makes no difference to me. If you have that passion then you will definitely be able to tell a story with passion.
You should have a passion for the news. I just look for curiosity in people, genuine curiosity about the world and a willingness to work hard.
What does it take to become an entrepreneur?
It takes the ability to fail. You must have this ability without becoming depressed or upset. Only then you can succeed.
Interns often complain that they don’t get paid. So, if an intern is working in a media house and learning while working from 10am to 4pm, should he/she be provided with at least the minimum wage rate?
I think internships are something that I have done all my life and I learnt a lot. You may call me old fashioned but like I said, I was paid very less for Monsoon Wedding than what I pay to my drivers. But if you ask me, I would go back and pay Mira Nair to let me work in her film. Because what I learnt there made me capable of earning twenty times more.
So, I actually find this entire concept of ‘why interns are unpaid?’ very stupid. If you want to be paid then go for a job. If you are confident enough to get yourself a job then there will definitely be someone who will think that you are worth it. The purpose of an internship and the purpose of a job are different. People don’t seem to understand that.
Secondly, whether an intern is paid or not is not a moral dilemma. It is an economic question. In an era, where news organizations do not even find themselves able to pay their reporters, do you think they will pay interns? So, honestly, in my view, it is a dumb argument and people who make this argument understand nothing about economics or the media. They are just talking from I don’t know where.
In an Exclusive Talk with Acadman, Bobby Ghosh, Editor-in-Chief of Hindustan Times said – Every Intern should be paid; Politicians, in Delhi & Srinagar, should do their job
Not only in media but in other streams as well, students claim that if they are interning with an organization and learning while working from 10am to 4pm, then they should be provided with at least the minimum wage rate.
Don’t work then. You better find yourself a job. I don’t really think they work from 10am to 4pm, they don’t come before lunch time at our place…accept me as an intern, I don’t know what is my value as of now, I haven’t even passed BA as of yet, but I must get paid.. and you also have to deal with my nuisance. Don’t come then, don’t intern.
Also Watch: A powerful speech by Abhinandan
What would be your message to the students of journalism?
Work hard, there is no substitute for it.