Raghu Karnad is a journalist and writer. He is the author of Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War. In this interview with acadman.in he talked about how he came into journalism, working with Outlook, The Wire, today’s Indian media, and Much More
How your interest came into journalism?
After college I moved to Delhi, aiming to work for an NGO or become a lawyer. My first job was at Rajeev Dhavan’s Public interest Legal Centre in Delhi. But there was not much going on, and I started blogging from office, and eventually, I was writing freelance pieces. I never really looked back.
Did you ever think of joining Bollywood and doing movies?
(Raghu’s father, Girish Karnad, is an actor, film director, and a writer)
Casting directors got in touch at different points. I remember one, for a film called Teen Patti? But this is how I think about it: If I was an actor, Indian films would not be any better. If I’m a writer or journalist, Indian writing or journalism might be slightly better for it.
Which was your first job in Journalism? How were your experiences there?
My first job was two years as a features writer at Outlook. It was a waste of time. Even in our team, there was no real respect for features, and a big wall of egos blocked us off from the front of the book / current affairs. I still admire how Tehelka bucked that trend and put young talent to work. As soon as I was writing for them, every story I wrote was from the field, and both cover stories I did won prizes. At the same time, I got a glimpse of Vinod Mehta in action. And it was good to learn some humility and spend some time filing copy about handbags.
You have worked as editor at Time Out Delhi. How you came working with it. How was that experience?
I joined as an editor in 2009. Every great city deserves a great magazine to help people explore it, its culture, its history, all the little hatke expressions of life and creativity.
Naresh Fernandes (now editor-in-chief of Scroll) had done that with Time Out Mumbai. I wanted to do it for Delhi. I did two years, 50 issues, but it was insanely hard work and lots of managerial hassle — and I needed to write.
How would you do a brief review of today’s India journalism?
Print still carries the responsibility for enterprise journalism, allowing TV to function as a pure enterprise. Investigations, beat reporting — newspaper and now websites are still doing it, and still doing it well.
With very few exceptions, TV is a zombie land. The leading primetime shows are just opinion porn, performed for good relations between corporate owners and the government. No journalistic brains are at work there.
The future of relevant journalism is probably online, which poses two challenges: how to raise funds, and how to preserve standards and conventions that keep real journalism (left-wing, right-wing, whatever) above the muck.
How would you describe your current job at The Wire?
I was part of the team that launched the Wire in 2015 — five of us on laptops, no office, no funds, but a thousand top-flight reporters, experts, photographers in the background ready to support the project and contribute. Now that we have basic funds and a team, I work as an ‘editor-at-large’ — meaning I focus on complicated reportage and other projects that take more editing than the desk can do, but I also save time for my own writing.
Some people say that the Wire is doing exceptional stories while others say it is doing negative journalism with the focus on a single party. What would you say?
A lot of what the Wire does well is not political — our science coverage is hands-down the best in the country. People should spend more time reading that and less time freaking out about politics.
I don’t know what ‘negative journalism’ is, but we stand for critical journalism. Our basic job is to hold power to account. The BJP and Sangh Parivar have tremendous power right now – nobody disagrees about that. Everyone says there’s hardly an opposition.
So where’s the question? This isn’t a chocolate to split equally for the BJP, Congress and Mamta Banerjee. It is the way power is held and used that has to be followed, critically and tenaciously.
Do you believe that we are losing the culture of reading?
Yes, although we’re reading more than ever before. When we WhatsApp, when we scroll through Twitter and open fifty articles in different tabs… all of that is reading. And a lot of it is very good. Unlike TV, where almost everything is rubbish, one challenge of the internet is the excess of actual quality. But it’s clear that we gain less and remember less from our fractured reading on the internet. It takes discipline to read a book now — it’s like going to the gym. So, in that sense, we need to learn to go to the gym. If we don’t, we’ll still read -but we’ll lose our full potential to gain knowledge and ideas. Only books have that.
What would be your message to students of journalism across India?
Help each other to regulate exposure to social media – literally, exchange passwords and lock each other out. Your story is not in there – it’s outside. Read the newspaper, and a book whenever you can. Breaking news is hugely overrated: people don’t need breaking news. They need careful and original reporting.