"You are giving too much importance to news channels, if you think they can affect stock market movements"

Govindraj Ethiraj may not be one of those heavily promoted news channel faces but is an established name in the news media space nonetheless. The former Mumbai head of the corporate bureau of The Economic Times and now CNBC - TV 18 corporate editor, Govindraj Ethiraj comes across as objective and down to earth.

For someone who initially wanted to report on art, stumbled upon business, and found his unexplored passion, business journalism, it comes as no susprise that even after 14 years in the business, he is still passionate about his job.

Indiantelevision.com?s Sonali Krishna did some hard talking with Ethiraj and came away with quite a few interesting insights on the state of the news business today. Excerpts:

Was broadcast just something you stumbled upon or was it that you were always quite focused on broadcast journalism? Why?

Actually, I wanted to be an arts journalist, as in report on art.

Why arts?

Because such was the milieu in my college and my time. The stress was all on liberal arts and writing and reporting about art and being an art critic and so on.

Fortunately at that time I met someone at Business India. And this was even as I was passing out of college. I realised that this was what I wanted to do. So I joined Business India as a trainee.

Could we tread the path that contributed in making you the Mumbai Bureau Chief, CNBC India?

I was in The Economic Times, running the corporate bureau in Mumbai and Raghav Bahl got in touch with me. CNBC then had just set up a skeleton outfit in Delhi, and they were looking for someone to set up the Mumbai news operation. What really attracted me at that time was the entrepreneurial nature of the job and the organisation.

But, I don't really think that there is a path as such. (Laughs) I think the problem is that most journalists do not last too long. It's to do with the kind of salaries the profession pays. It's to do with the kind of opportunities or the lack of them.

" Rightly tuned commercial programming is what will finally hold your bottom line."

How do you manage the two dedicated weekly shows 'Managing India' and anchoring 'Cutting Edge'?

I maintain that responsibility is on the news side, which is essentially the overall CNBC news operation. We do about 13 to 15 news bulletins in a day, including three of our main news bulletins in the night. So that takes up most of my time. So, that's my key job.

I am called the editor for the Indian Business Hour. Also, I work closely with commercial and try to create new stuff. Commercial is a very important aspect for growth. Rightly tuned commercial programming is what will finally hold your bottom line. Rightly tuned implies programming that will have all the editorial integrity and editorial quality, yet is commercially feasible. So a lot of our programming is driven around that. I am not talking about news. News runs on its own.

I believe Managing India, is mostly shot outside Mumbai.

I don't have to. But that's the way I made it. Managing India was being handled by a colleague who went on to look at stocks full time. I took it outside Mumbai to introduce some excitement into the show. Maybe being a print journalist was an advantage in this.

A lot of shows we do is just people sitting in studios. I wondered if people have really seen the insides of factories, plants and the real environment the CEO works out of. So, two and a half years ago, we began by doing a walk about in a factory plant. I think Cummins was our first. I think I can take credit for the walking format, before these were seen on other channels.

What subjects are you really passionate about?

Auto and technology are two areas. I also do an Auto show. I drive a lot of technology related news on CNBC.

More often than not, broadcast is about banging in the news first, being first. How do you work in such a scenario?

See, we want to be first and the best as well. But, CNBC has an interesting proposition. Also CNBC works at different levels. We have a ticker, the CNCBC wire which really flashes the news first.

So when we flash news on the CNBC wire, we are really competing with the wire service. Then we go on to, let's say the point where you get visuals. And then the first byte comes in and then you have the full story, followed by the discussion following the story.

But you know the business news space is not as physically competitive as the general news space. So, our focus is business and business related developments.

So, who are you competing with in a breaking news situation?

As business news, no one really. But as a wire, we are competing with a Reuters and a Bloomberg. Life is all about positioning. That gives you your competitive platform or edge.

I would also say that I am competing with an Economic Times, because I want to be the preeminent business brand. It's incidental that I am in television. So, when I talk to people I say I am inviting you to join CNBC, which is the world's largest business news brand.

"I would also say that I am competing with an Economic Times, because I want to be the preeminent business brand. Its incidental that I am in television."

In news breaking situations where the news is relevant to you (business), wouldn't other mainline news channels also qualify as competition or do you always get breaking news on business first?

I think so, but it's futile to claim that. They might break something ahead of us. I am not denying that, because they also have people who work hard.

There is a lot of work going on in broadcast, yet people consider print sacrosanct. Why is it so?

I think broadcast has reached a certain point and has developed certain core competencies. That of breaking news first. That of taking you visually and making you feel the action as it happens real time.

Let's look at 9/11. The day it happened, you saw the twin towers crumbling, the horrific images, the mourning, all on television worldwide. But, the most interesting, penetrating and incisive journalism that followed the downing of the twin towers established the link between the attackers and where they came from. How they got together, how they built their alibis, the kind of deception they created in the community they were staying in, came from print.

Don't you then agree that broadcast journalism is superficial in a certain sense?

I don't think it's superficial. Yes, print is powerful. You can't deny that and the written word can make a lot of difference. But, I urge you to look at the international examples. If a CNN and a BBC have developed to a certain point, I don't think you can call them superficial. The fact that a New York Times and a Washington Post are powerful today and they can shake governments doesn't make them more powerful either.

Another reason I disagree with this statement is because print in order to maintain its preeminent position also has to work for it.

But the elections that we just witnessed saw every newspaper tie up with a mainline news channel for exit poll reporting.

Yes, but that happens worldwide. Because print gives you the ability to look at things more closely and at your disposal.

Also you can't attribute credibility just because it's a newspaper unless that particular newspaper has worked to gain that respect. I think that's what's important. I think in India we confuse things automatically. You have to give credit to some news channels, because they have done some sterling work in the last five or six years in mainline journalism.

Equally, I would argue that there are some newspapers that have not worked as hard. So, those guys are not in a position to say that TV is superficial without having worked equally hard to redefine themselves, to reinvent their product.

Going back to the kind of post 9/11 reporting that was seen in print in terms of the quality and in depth reportage was something else. A guy going and spending number of days and weeks in Hamburg, meeting people, trying to understand every family member of the Al Quaida operative, trying to get into his skin and creating a total life sketch of the guy.

And you have to do that. You can't sit in New York and keep reporting the normal stuff and say that those guys are superficial.

More often than not, journalists do take shelter under the term corrigendum or correction for goof-ups of the unresearched kind. What do you have to say?

I don't think people do it deliberately. I wouldn't blame the journalists; I would blame the system for not being strong enough. We all go through it and we all learn from mistakes. I've made my mistakes, and have been defended by my seniors in my time. So, what I can say is that the system needs to be stronger, the filter needs to be stronger. It's an organization issue.

And the nature of the business is such that you want to be first and ahead of other people.

Your take on the exploding media scene in India what with the myriad news channels that have launched this year.

I think there are some aspects of the Indian television markets that are unexplored. For instance, let's say the way regional news channels have sprung up or the way city based channels have sprung up. There is a market for all of that.

Having said that, there are waves of consolidation in the industry as well. You've seen channels slow down and you have seen new ones come in. So I think it will grow at one level and it will also keep contracting at another level as some niches get closed. For example you can't have six channels in Marathi. Similarly, in mainline news channels, you can have only so many channels.

Would you agree with the statement that 'television networks in India are immature'?

For a medium that is six years old, you cannot call it mature. On the other hand, if you see what the medium has achieved, it is truly amazing. I don't think anywhere else in the world has a medium grown so rapidly and so widely and so effectively as it has grown in India.

Coming to the stock markets, which is what you follow most closely, don't you think that post-polls the bourses were in a state of hysterical overreaction? What do you attribute this to?

Like I told you, broadcast journalism is young, and stock markets have their own way of interpreting various events or the lack of them. Stock markets run on sentiment and they react swiftly. The thing is not to view a stock market movement as a reflection of the absolute truth and rather a sentimental reaction to something.

""For a medium that is six years old, you cannot call it mature."

Wasn't it also in part due to the minute to minute reportage of the bourses' movement?

I don't think so, simply because I don't think the stock markets are so immature that they can be influenced by minute to minute reporting on anything. I think you are giving too much importance to news channels, if you think they are affecting the stock market movements.

But then how would you comment on the fact that journalists on Dalal Street were hit and abused by stock brokers and other investors?

They are the media and killing the messenger has always been the easy way out. What the journalists were doing was essentially reporting the statements that certain politicians were making. If you ask me, any reaction to the statements the politicians were making was unwarranted and was uncalled for.

The medium was only accelerating the process, and you cannot blame the medium for doing that.

But the broadcast medium was titillating its viewers by over emphasising the stock markets and by a minute to minute account of the markets movements.

The fact is everything has undergone technological changes. The whole electronic age has sped up things. And you are benefiting because of that. You are able to see things live as they happen like Iraq war, the 9/11 catastrophe. So, with that you have to accept that everything gets accelerated. The movement of information, the time lag between the information genesis and information delivery has been reduced very sharply. So, that is part of life. So, the medium itself is not titillating, it's only conveying things much faster.

If somebody has said something stupid, then I cannot help that. I cannot hold a brief for the whole broadcast industry and individuals within. But yes, if the medium is distorting the message, then the medium has to learn.

CNBC didn't really take a stand, and was standing on the fence when the stock markets were crashing through the floor on Black Monday. It is fairly clear (and subsequent investigation bore it out) that there was something more than just panic response to the blather the Left was throwing out at the time.

There is no subsequent investigation that shows anything else until now. And if you say we sat on the fence, I think you are complimenting us in a way.

But you didn't take a stand and were pussyfooting?

But, we don't take stances on live television. I think my colleagues did a great job in keeping the flow of information all day. Their tone was very neutral. So, why should we take a stance?

Also, our coverage did suggest that this was unusual and we were trying to bring that out through the people we were talking to. Also, it's equally important to be neutral in such a situation.

Tell me, but today assuming I was a high flying executive and I wanted the stock markets to move in a certain way, all I need to do is call you people and make a statement.

But what makes you think it was not happening in print. I can quote to you several articles that have brought the market to its knees. The difference was that it happened in the morning and now it's happening real time. That's all.

Look at 1992, the Harshad Mehta scam, it all began with a newspaper article, which was great journalism. I remember when the BJP government came into power for the first time there was a newspaper article which said, that the new government may not allow the FIIs to invest in India or will cut down the amount of investment FIIs can do. The markets went for a complete shock and Jaswant Singh came to Mumbai to talk to the media as there was no television then. So there are enough instances across the world. So, different media have played different roles in different times.

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