Television

"Just speaking into the microphone is bad journalism" : Zee News Editor Alka Saxena

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She always wanted to be a journalist. Ever since her name appeared in the newspapers as a winner of a debate competition the lady had a craving to be in the limelight. She was in class eight or nine then. Today Alka Saxena, editor of Zee News, is not only in the limelight, but can also be said to be the face of the news channel, in a way.

As a TV personality, today when Saxena shares the same platform with some of her former print media editors, like Hindustan Times' Vir Sanghvi, it gives her a thrill. "Who would have thought that I would get a chance to co-host a show with Vir (Sanghvi), whom I admire for his journalistic skills. So much so that she still vividly remembers a news story that she co-authored with Sanghvi, when she was a reporter in the ABP Group's now defunct magazine Ravivar.

Sanghvi used to edit Ravivar's English sibling, Sunday then. According to Saxena, the badminton champ Syed Modi's murder case in the 1980s in Lucknow saw her file reports on the issue, which were completely re-written by Sanghvi along with certain perspectives added by him. "When the story was published in Sunday (as also inRavivar), I couldn't recognize it. It seemed as if the information was mine, but the story was somebody else's and that's what made it a compelling read," says the forty-something lady, who is also the mother of a growing son.

Indiantelevision.com caught up with Saxena in Zee News' headquarters in Noida, on the outskirts of Delhi, for a tete-a-tete. It ranged from her entry into journalism to switchover to TV from the print medium and, of course, her own 'small contributions' that have in some way made Zee News a forceful contender for the top three slots, amongst a host of news channels that have mushroomed over the last one year in India.

Excerpts:

Would you say that the medium of television, with its breaking news and almost real time mode of news delivery, would wipe out the print medium someday?

I won't go as far as that. My personal belief is that both would co-exist, but TV would certainly give print a run for its money. In a way, it may also compel the print journalists to do better than what they are doing now or have done in the past. You see, TV news channels compete with each other every minute, while newspapers compete with each other once in 24 hours. So, the print has that much more time to do its homework and come up with more comprehensive reports and analyses.

TV journalists should also start doing their own homework more extensively and not treat the medium as one where you get few seconds' sound bytes from people, mix them with visuals and put together a story.

Because TV is a visual medium, if the mixture is properly done, it can create more impact.

Don't you feel that in the race to break more news, flippancy is gaining an upper hand. Even if a politician, for example, goes to pat a cow (which the likes of Laloo Prasad do quite often), it is treated as `breaking news'. Is such a trend good for the news channels?

No, it's not. We all may get carried away at times, but we also realise such mistakes fast enough. I would not agree with the cow patting example that you have given, though. No channel worth its salt would do such a thing.

I also feel that we should not get deeply involved in the TRP business. Ratings do matter, but the content is more important. It need not necessarily mean that all good content would get you high TRPs. At the end of the day, an honest effort should be made and that should matter more.

Does that mean Zee News doesn't care about ratings?

Don't read me wrong. But if you go by the TRPs, Zee News' share may be less (compared to others), but just look at our following! The amount of mails and response that we get for our stories, including the investigative ones, make us feel like the No 1. All the news channels are going through a phase of consolidation and there must be a bit of market pragmatism about the whole issue.

At the end of the day, what matters is what you are showing and it should be good, not just sensational to help move few notches up the TRP ladder. And, we at Zee News strongly believe in this philosophy.

What, according to you, is good content for news channels?

It should be something that connects with the masses and benefits them in some way or other.

Is Zee News following this dictum to a T?

More or less. Our story pattern revolves round the theory 'haqeekat jaise, khabar waisi' (we give you news that is truth). It is a good line to follow. If you see, all our stories, whether they are part of the investigative shows, or narratives or routine matters, they are all handled in a way that aims at maximising the benefit for the viewers.

If we do an investigation about the non-degree holders selling medicines in pharamceutical shops, we have the consumers' --- the hoi polloi --- interest uppermost in our mind. The consumer should be told to be beware of the fakes. He should also be informed that not every medicine that he buys from a chemists' shop is what he had been looking for.

Tell us, what are the changes that you have brought about, or sought to have brought about, in Zee News since you joined few years back?

"All the news channels are going through a phase of consolidation and there must be a bit of market pragmatism about the whole issue"

First of all, I feel that a Hindi news channel should speak the language of the people. Its anchors, reporters and interviewers should speak in a language that is easily understood by all. If there are moments when things are getting esoteric, the attempt should be to bring down everything to the level of a common man in the language of Hindi that he speaks. What is the use of using hi-fi words when they won't be understood by the viewer? This is something that I have always insisted on and still do. The language, the style of presentation all go on to give a channel its feel and this is very important.

Though I cannot take the credit single-handedly, but a lot of effort has gone into training our reporters. The way questions are asked, the way facts are presented and the way a story is finally put together is something that has to be honed.

My suggestion to my colleagues is simple: read a lot, do your homework and remember that we are in a medium where a connect with the viewer has to be established in his language .

Of course, when you are discussing things with colleagues, various ideas come up, which is a plus point. They need to be polished before becoming a reality and as a senior, one must not flinch away from such responsibilities.

How are stories for the day decided at Zee News?

Since my grounding has been in the print medium, I believe in keeping a finger on the pulse of the people by going through the 'letters to the editor' column. These columns tell me various things about the masses; their likes, dislikes, needs and attitudes. The letters are reflective of what is in the minds of the masses and that, in turn, is fodder for TV journalists. It also helps me to change with the time as different times throw up different issues.

At Zee News we have the Saturday meeting where anchors and reporters and others discuss issues, ideas and formats. The ideas that are short listed here are then taken up for further discussion. We disscuss what treatment to be given to them. At the end of the day story-telling is an art and a TV journalist should know how to do this. Just speaking into the microphone is bad journalism.

While the weekly meetings set the broad agenda for the week ahead, the daily morning meeting grapples with the daily issues and new developments that may

not have figured in the weekly meeting.

Going back in time, how did you take up journalism as a profession?

Once during my schooldays, I won a debate competition and my name appeared in newspapers. The next day I asked my parents whether my relatives in other parts of the country had read my name. Most of them had. Since then I had this fascination to see my name in print.

In college, I did some programmes for the All India Radio (Yuv-vani) and started writing for various Hindi magazines like Dharamyug, Dinman and Ravivar. Soon after I was offered a job in Ravivar and that that's how I formally entered journalism.

When did you switchover to TV ?

After my son was born in 1991, I gave up everything and rejoiced in motherhood. But after some years, when my son was no more a toddler, I started feeling frustrated and thought I must do something. At that time, TV had just started to register in Indian minds.

"If there are moments when things are getting esoteric, the attempt should be to bring down everything to the level of a common man in the language of Hindi that he speaks."

Somehow, I knew that this would be the medium of the future and for some years I did freelance TV work by scripting documentaries and other shows. This was the phase when I learnt about TV. In 1994, I was doing some work for DD Bhopal when I got a call from Madhu Trehan (Aroon Purie's sister who brought out a video magazine called Newstrack), early 1995, asking me to join her team.

In 1995, Aaj tak as a current affairs programme was conceived for Doordarshan and we went on air. The response that we got was simply out of the world. Then the programme turned into a channel and I, along with others, became a part of that.

You left Aaj Tak, the leader amongst Hindi news channels, after six years (including the time it was a show on DD). Is it true that your departure was acrimonious (Aaj Tak had filed a case against Saxena)?

I don't know whether it was acrimonious or not, but I don't hold anything against them. Soon after the launch of the channel, the atmosphere changed drastically. I started feeling that I wasn't needed in the organisation. So I left. Soon after my departure, Sanjay Pugalia (now with Star News) too, left.

In between leaving Aaj Tak and joining Zee News, I had got an offer from Doordarshan and I almost joined them, but then I was convinced by a journalist friend at Zee News to join the channel.

Before I joined Zee News, sometime in the middle of 2001, I had given them my feedback on the channel and what all I would want to do there.

Has Zee, as a group, allowed you to do the things you wanted to do at Zee News?

I had heard some horror stories from people, but Zee News has been another learning phase for me. Not only it has given me a lot of freedom, but has backed me and others with the necessary infrastructure and finances too.

(All pictures courtesy Sanjay Sharma)

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