Editorial commentary should avoid pomposity and pontification: Vinod Mehta

As media industry mourns the demise of Vinod Mehta, one of the most respected voices in the field of journalism, we present excerpts from an interview with him where he talks about how to keep the magazine relevant in the time of diminishing attention spans as well as a conversation on his autobiography 'Lucknow Boy'

e4m by exchange4media Staff
Published: Mar 9, 2015 10:04 AM  | 19 min read
Editorial commentary should avoid pomposity and pontification: Vinod Mehta

Vinod Mehta, veteran journalist and former Editor-In-Chief of Outlook Group passed away yesterday in New Delhi. Media industry mourns the demise of an avante garde Editor, one of the most respected voices in the field of journalism. We bring to you excerpts from an interview with Vinod Mehta where he talks of embracing social media in an increasingly digital age and how to keep the magazine relevant in the time of diminishing attention spans as well as a conversation on his autobiography Lucknow Boy.

Several new ecosystems have emerged in the media domain in the last few years and with them, new challenges and opportunities. The magazine business in India has seen some trying times and the Outlook Group has not been an exception. Outlook, like many other magazine publishers in India, has been limited in its approach to embracing the digital medium, but the group is in the process of putting together an overall digital strategy that will appeal to a larger market. “Our digital strategy is in the process of evolving. We will have a better idea in three months from now,” said Vinod Mehta,   Editor-in-chief, Outlook Group while talking with IMPACT about his approach towards a digital presence, content and the way forward.   As competitors in the space grew aggressive on-ground through signature events and boosted presence through other media, what are the key factors that Outlook relied on to stay relevant to the new emerging audiences? “We are embracing the social media but we are also watching how this digital revolution is going to play out. Information needs to be analysed and assessed. The new media is incapable of that,” Mehta said.

His belief in the traditional medium is understandable. Magazines make better connections and engagements with readers and for many readers, the characteristics of a magazine cannot be matched online. According to Association of Indian Magazines (AIM)’s soon-to-be released Engagement study, magazines are read with a purpose, hence they engage readers better. Topline findings, which were shared during the recently concluded World Magazine Congress 2011 in New Delhi, stated magazines are less multi-task medium, hence readers pay attention while reading. As magazines stay in the house for long, it is picked and read again and again. On an average, a magazine is read by a reader at least six times – leading to longlasting engagement. However, with e-readers coming in, magazines have to re-invent themselves on the digital platform with a focus on creating unique experiences. “One needs a different personality but the essential integrity of the publication must be retained in both formats,” said Mehta.

He also noted that the attention span of a magazine’s reader is diminishing; nevertheless, one has to strike a balance between compressing complex national issues in 200 words or 5,000 words. “Sometimes, only 5,000 words will do,” he added.   Outlook’s cover stories have played a significant role in carving a niche for the magazine among discerning readers who value its in-depth, investigative reporting as well as its stylish visual format since the time it launched in 1995. “We either go with an exclusive investigative report or if it is a running story, we ensure freshness by approaching it with a new angle,” said Mehta, talking about his approach for the cover report and what a development should entail to make it to the cover.

Further talking about whether the different angles approach of a cover story takes away the focus of the story itself, he said, “Maybe, but we have to present news and analyses in some hierarchy. We have to tell the reader what is most important and current in that week.” On his approach to the editorial commentary of the magazine and the kind of contributors he prefers, Mehta said, “Editorial commentary should avoid pomposity and pontification. I prefer  commentators who have a conversation with readers. You must never appear to talk down to them.”   In today’s media cluttered environment where opinion is making way into news, magazines in a sense are expected to have an opinion. Even Mehta thinks that news is not opinion-neutral. When looking at Outlook content, he says that news must be set in context and judgements made subtly on its relevance and credibility. “It has to be done with a light touch.”   On a successor to lead Outlook’s editorial team as and when that requirement arises, Mehta said, “Krishna Prasad is already the Editor – he will take charge at the right time.” When asked about expansion plans of Outlook, he said, “Expansion plans for the moment are in limbo. We are trying to consolidate.”  
(Written by Dipali Banka)    

On his autobiography Lucknow Boy

Shree Lahiri talks to Vinod Mehta, Editor-in-chief of Outlook Group, about the life and times he has narrated in his recently released autobiography, ‘Lucknow Boy’.  

Sitting in his Hauz Khas office, Vinod Mehta, Editor-in-chief of Outlook Group, is totally relaxed as he talks of his recently released autobiography ‘Lucknow Boy’. It is a way of life for him, being an editor and writer at the same time. Mehta made news as he launched the book, which details the life and times of the journalist in an India riddled with scams and poverty.

Embellished with racy episodes and precise insights on Indian politics and society, ‘Lucknow Boy’ provides a lively account of Mehta’s life.   “Lucknow Boy is an account of both my personal and professional experiences. I would say 30% is personal and 70% professional,” he elaborates, “I didn’t want to make it an editor’s memoirs. I felt my life went beyond being an editor, I had other things to do. I didn’t want it to be a journalist looking back, so I didn’t call it ‘Accidental Editor’ or ‘Ink in My Veins’!”   In the first chapter, he narrates, “life in Lucknow – my school, college days... I was in Lucknow at a time when the Partition refugees had come there and the aristocracy of Hindus and Muslims were on the run. The new breed had taken over the businesses and the old guard could not survive.” Elaborating on this, he says, “I describe how the new Lucknowies pushed the old Lucknowies out and slowing but surely, they started retreating into their large houses. They became aliens in their own city. It was actually like the Chaudhvin ka chand sorrow prevailing. It was quite sad to see that, to see how it had disintegrated.”  

Recalling the city’s old style, he says, “ In Lucknow, mol tol was alien and it was vulgar to talk about price.” Having been brought up in a society in the 50s and 60s where there were Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsees, Jews – a “social milieu that formed my character”, he admits, “I call myself a Philistine Punjabi refined in the high culture of Lucknow. I imbibed all these unconsciously. We were never divided by religion, caste never entered my mind. This shadow never entered my mind. ” This clearly reflects in his book.   Describing his book as “anecdotal” he says, “There are anecdotes like when one of my Muslim friends came to me crying when he sold his gun, which was his pride; for him it was the biggest humiliation. Another incident is about my sardarji friend Gayni bhai, who sold kebabs those days. He was very uncomfortable looking at the bright and shiny lights, came to me and said, “Vinod bhai ein Sardaron ne Lucknow ko tabah kar diya.” Chapter Two sees Mehta leaving for England (in 1962), Chapter Three sees him back in Lucknow and then moving to Mumbai, and in Chapter Four, his life turns over to his role as editor.  

As the chapters march on, Mehta at one point talks of the Niira Radia tapes scandal. “Around February 2010, when the 2G telecom spectrum scandal was still an infant, a small scam in a sea of scams, Ajith [Pillai] brought unverified news of an eight-page note marked ‘Internal Evaluation’ doing the rounds. It contained alleged conversations between a lobbyist called Niira Radia…” And the rest is history.   It’s not just this episode; you can expect to read Mehta’s take on all major scams in ‘Lucknow Boy’ - from the mole who was allegedly in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet to the cricket match-fixing scandal… This book reveals all exciting stories behind these scoops and more. Ask Mehta whether he is just an observer to all these events unfolding in the book, and he says, “You can’t be an observer. You have to be an analyst, make judgement….you must decide what to give the reader.” “This book is all I’ve learnt from life,” Mehta muses. Now readers, it is up to you to read the book and form your opinion.     INTERESTING TIMES   Of the many passions that ruled Lalit Mohan Thapar’s life, bridge was right at the summit. To call him a hedonist would be over the top. However, to describe him merely as a pleasure seeker would be an understatement. The truth lies somewhere in between.

A lifelong bachelor, he enjoyed drink, gambling, the company of pretty women and fine living. It was rumoured that the only woman he really loved was Gita Patnaik, daughter of Biju Patnaik. She, alas, went and got married to the publishing wizard Sonny Mehta and became Gita Mehta instead of Gita Thapar. He loved (however temporarily) and left women continuously. In one amusing instance, he suddenly got married in an improvised, half-baked Hindu ceremony at his house.

In forty eight hours, he realized he’d made a terrible mistake. The lady, aware she was on to a good thing, refused to vacate his sprawling Amrita Shergill Marg bungalow. Fearing permanent ejection, she wouldn’t step outside the house. A Thapar crony, using subterfuge, managed to lure her outside the gate, and then quickly ran inside and locked it.   Playing bridge with the landed Srivastava family of Lucknow, he won the Pioneer, as he later told me, ‘in a fit of absentmindedness’. LMT (as he was called), being the principled gambler he was, honoured his part of the bet. He took over the loss-making and crumbling Lucknow paper, which undoubtedly had seen better days.   In the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s it was, without question, UP’s leading English publication. At my Canning Road house in Lucknow, it was the paper my father religiously took to the loo. Nothing else would do. When the Pioneer fell into Thapar’s lap, it was on the verge of closure. The only thing notable about the paper was its past.   And what a past! Founded in Allahabad in 1865 by the staunch imperialist George Allen, it had Winston Churchill as a war correspondent reporting from Afghanistan. He implored his mother to speak with the management to get his rates increased by half a guinea. Rudyard Kipling found employment as an assistant editor, and while he began well, he soon succumbed to the raffish charms of Lucknow. He spent• more time gallivanting around the old and new city than at his desk. The story, probably apocryphal, goes that the editor, fed up with his derelict ways, sacked him and at his farewell party counselled, ‘Mr Kipling, you may have some talents, but I don’t think writing is one of them.’ 
The Pioneer in Lucknow did not interest Thapar. Being Delhi-based and the archetypal Delhiwala, he decided that while he would keep the Lucknow paper going, the mother edition would be the one he was going to start from Delhi.   In early 1991, just as I had abandoned the independent publishing company idea, two emissaries dispatched by Thapar approached me in Bombay. Would I be interested in bringing out the Pioneer from Delhi? Professionally and emotionally at that time, I was drained, ready to hang up my pen. Moreover, I had grown quite attached to Bombay. It was the city I was comfortable in, the few friends I had lived there and, despite my fluctuating fortunes, people still had high regard for me. Undecided, I agreed to go to Delhi and meet Thapar.   The meeting was a success. LMT oozed charm, conviviality, grace. He seemed urbane, literate and serious. ‘Give me a paper I can be proud of.’ He promised to give me a free hand and sufficient resources to deliver the goods. We had quite a few single malts discussing the project and gossiping. The chemistry between us was perfect.   When I came back to Bombay, I received mixed advice. Some friends believed I should reject the offer. Why should Thapar be any different from Singhania? It was a good question.  

At a cocktail party in Bombay, I bumped into Prabhu Chawla, a quintessential Delhi hack, who was then with India Today. He had heard through the grapevine about my possible move to Delhi. Prabhu thought it was a very bad idea. He stressed that I was a creature of Bombay, brought up in a special and distinctive environment. I think he used the word ‘artyfarty’. Delhi, he pointed out, was the city of unscrupulous and slippery politicians and selfserving bureaucrats. There I would have to deal with ‘hard news’, a task he felt was beyond me. Ironically, Prabhu’s warning had precisely the opposite effect.   My doubts vanished. I would go to Delhi to prove the Chawlas of this world wrong. The challenge became irresistible. Probably because I was a native of Lucknow, I had a surprisingly soft landing in Delhi. No cultural adjustments were needed. In April 1991, I walked up to the temporary Connaught Place office of the Pioneer and began putting a team together even as I made occasional visits to Lucknow to make sure the paper came out every day.   The company found me decent accommodation at New Friends Colony, which I soon discovered was considered the right address. From politician to bureaucrat to socialite, the first thing asked of me in Delhi was: ‘Where do you live?’ In my twenty-plus years in Bombay, I don’t think I was ever asked this question. In Delhi, it mattered where you lived. It defined who you were.  

Meanwhile, relations between me and Thapar were progressing smoothly. LMT could put away a few whiskies and I tried to keep up with him. Regrettably, there was never anything to eat at the Thapar house. Sometimes, late at night, I would wake up my mother – who was staying with me – ravenous for food. She would rustle up an omelette and ask knowingly, ‘Did you go to Mr Thapar’s house again?’   Thapar possessed literally scores of politician friends, cutting across party lines. His closest buddy was Sharad Pawar. One evening, Thapar asked me if the Pioneer could plug Pawar as a possible prime minister. After Rajiv’s assassination, Sonia had declined to lead the Congress. With 232 seats, the party was in a position to form the government. A vacancy existed. Sharad Pawar had been the bane of my life. But how could I disobey an explicit and direct request from the proprietor? Fortunately, all I had at the time was the Lucknow edition. I got a couple of news stories organized, making sure that Pawar-baiters also had their say. Thapar seemed quite happy with the effort.   Putting together an editorial team was not a new experience for me. Despite being a foreigner in Delhi, I discovered an embarrassment of riches. Raminder Singh, who had made a name for himself in India Today and left because of an internal power struggle, offered his services.

Ajay Bose, an old Sunday Observer hand, readily joined. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta became the business editor. Sumir Lal refused a job in Times and accepted one from me. Ajaz Ashraf, Mohan Ram, Padmanand Jha, Ajith Pillai, Shankar Raghuraman, V Krishnaswamy, Ritu Sarin, Bhavdeep Kang, Aditya Sinha, Sudhir Dar and V Sudarshan also signed up. Since the Delhi Pioneer’s editorial character (left-liberal) was a given, it was necessary to enlist a heretic – someone whose ideology posed a challenge to our cosy consensus. Kanchan Gupta wrote to me from Calcutta. He was having enormous trouble at the Statesman. He pressed his case persistently. I finally hired him because of his pronounced BJP sympathies.

At our morning conferences, Kanchan provided a radically different perspective, which we seldom agreed with, but which enriched our discussions and occasionally moderated our thinking.   Unsurprisingly, I summoned Moinuddin again. He came to Delhi for extended periods and designed the paper. In 1991, 24x7 news channels were very much on the horizon. Madhu Trehan’s monthly cassette, Newstrack, provided news pointedly different from the sort dished out by Doordarshan. It was a harbinger of things to come. Already, talk was rife of newspapers becoming redundant since ‘news’ came fast, furious and non-stop from the idiot box. Thus, I had to create a paper for the 24x7 television age. I figured newspapers could not compete with TV in news, but what 24x7 output lacked was context.   The Pioneer, consequently, was constructed to provide news and context. On the same day. The front page would have the news, the lead article on the comment page would have an ‘opinion’ piece on the story printed on the front page, while the op-ed page would have analysis, background and useful statistics on the same big story, or other important stories of the day. Thus giving the reader access not only to news but context too. All on the same morning.

This meant we had to keep our edit and op-ed pages open till late in the afternoon. I allowed columnists extended deadlines, before lunch, so that their commentary gained in topicality and freshness. The op-ed page articles were decided only after the morning conference, commissioned (or written internally) with a 5 pm deadline. It was an ambitious timetable. Happily, we managed to squeeze everything in. The vertical single column gossip diary I again incorporated on the op-ed page and wrote myself. It became quite popular.   Despite being cautioned against ‘artyfarty’ journalism in Delhi, I launched a daily arts page in the Pioneer. Nothing gave me greater satisfaction than the reception the arts page received. It became the paper’s touchstone, making us different from the competition. On 14 December 1991 the Delhi Pioneer appeared. ‘The last thing this elegant city needs is another paper,’

I stated in my opening column. I stressed I was aware of the gravitas of the established papers in the city, and of their formidable strengths. The Pioneer, I candidly confessed, came to Delhi with humility and hope. ‘We are not unmindful of the enormity of the task facing us; neither are we under any illusion regarding the efforts to obtain your custom - efforts which, no doubt, will involve much blood, sweat and tears. Some of these were shed last night. We plan to shed a lot more in the weeks and months ahead.’   The Delhi Pioneer, which in media circles had been written off, surprised the sceptics. The Capital was unfamiliar with good-looking papers (the competition, at least in terms of make-up and design, was stodgy and tedious).

We had moved from Connaught Place to Link House in Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, the Fleet Street of India; therefore we got quick feedback from our rivals. At the editor level, where notions of professional generosity and fairness are mostly alien, the feedback was negative. At the reporter/correspondent level, the feedback was positive, hugely positive. Whether we posed a serious challenge to the established order remained undetermined, but we certainly brought a breath of fresh air to purani Delhi.   Thapar, his brothers and nephews, many of whom were at loggerheads with him, saw the Pioneer as adding to the prestige of a business house which, while flourishing, did not have a proper public profile. The brothers would secretly invite me to their homes to discuss the paper. LMT did not discourage limited contact with his family but made it clear I reported to him and him alone. The first 18 months at the Pioneer were a delight. Some of the sceptics became supporters. My only worry was the proprietor. He seemed, as far as I could make out, satisfied. We had several boozy staff parties at his residence and I called on him once a fortnight for chit-chat. He told me we should meet more often.   I resisted. It is the ardent wish of most editors to get as close to the proprietor as possible. Doing personal errands for him is deemed a privilege.

My approach, which given my record of sackings cannot be considered flawless, has been different. Too close and intimate a relationship is dangerous. You can get sucked into doing things which have nothing to do with why you were hired. A certain distance is useful, indeed necessary. The owner must be made aware• that while you are totally loyal and committed to his enterprise, he cannot ask you to service him in his political dealings. Despite the dismantling of the licence-permit raj, the businessman media baron finds many doors closed to him which are open to his editor. One of my proprietors asked me if I could arrange invitations to Rashtrapati Bhawan banquets. I said I would try. I did not.   The Pioneer came out in interesting times. Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic assassination, PV Narasimha Rao’s erratic prime ministership, LK Advani’s frightening rath yatra and its consequences, Kalyan Singh as chief minister in UP, and then the demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. The paper’s reporting enhanced my pseudo-secular credentials.

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