Keep the content debate out of TRP manipulation: Zakka Jacob

CNN-News 18 executive editor talks about new-age journalism

NEW DELHI: One of the most reliable voices on prime time news television for the past decade, Zakka Jacob is a unique breed of journalist in today’s high-decibel newsrooms; the executive editor of CNN-News 18, Jacob is known as the ‘thinking man’s journalist’ for a reason. The man is admittedly trying his best to cater to the unique needs of his channel’s audience that likes to miss a few shouting matches and wants balanced coverage on any topic and present a holistic news cycle covering every topic.

In a candid conversation with’s Mansi Sharma, the award-winning anchor discussed in detail his journey in the news world, how he sees the new era of journalism, and how he plans to stay true to his own and CNN’s brand. Edited excerpts follow:

On his tryst with journalism

Journalism was not something that I had planned to do or was aspiring to do. It just happened. I was born and raised in Chennai and like every other guy growing up there, I had two career options insight; either be a doctor or an engineer. I wasn’t bright enough to study biology so I chose PCM, and did my engineering. Now, again as an engineer, I had two options; head to the US or get into the IT field. And I wasn’t really interested in either at that time. In fact, I couldn’t do coding to save my life. 

It so happened that I was always an active participant of the cultural groups at my school and college. I used to participate in quizzes, debates and won a few competitions too. So, when there was an opportunity to audition for the post of a radio presenter at All India Radio, I went for the auditions and got selected. From there, I got introduced to a few friends who informed me that Sun News was hiring and I joined them. I moved to Delhi after college and joined Headlines Today in 2003. That’s where it all started.

On his early days in the industry

Yes, I did not have any professional training but at that time, I feel, it was easier to get into the field of journalism. All you needed to have was a lot of curiosity about the world and the willingness to learn. 

I remember when I moved to Delhi, a friend of mine had made me meet S Srinivasan as they were hiring fresh faces at Headlines Today. It was one of the two English language news channels then and I had thought that I would not make it. Because I did not fit the bill; they were looking for young and glamorous boys and girls. Srinivasan had even asked me why an engineer like me wants to be a journalist. But he definitely saw something in me, to this date I don’t know what that was. Maybe I was this enthusiastic young kid for them. When Uday Shankar interviewed me, he had told me that if you really want to do it then you will have to be in the business for many years. And so I have been here. 

Yes, the initial few months were difficult. I was either doing late-night shifts or hosting the early morning show at 6-7 am and then an accomplished anchor would take on. Also, it was November and being from Chennai, I had never experienced winters. So, doing this job, late-night shifts in winters, everything was challenging. But I was lucky that I got mentors like Srinivasan and G Krishnan, and a lot of friends who were also new to journalism. It was quite exciting as well. 

On his role models and inspirations

When I had started, the top three names in the Indian news industry were BarkhaDutt, Rajdeep Sardesai, and Arnab Goswami. I obviously watched them a lot. And then there were people -- I won’t say I wanted to imitate them but I did learn a lot watching them and maybe subconsciously had a lot of impact on my personal style of reporting -- like Tim Sebastian and Stephen Cole of the BBC. 

On his favourite coverages

There are many events that come to my mind but the three that are very close to my heart were the 2004 general election. It was the first general election that I covered and the outcome of it was very surprising. Everyone was expecting Vajpayee to come back but that did not happen. The other one was the tsunami that happened at the end of the same year. Those were the places where I had spent my childhood and everything was gutted, devastated. That left a huge impact on me, personally. 

Also, the 26/11 attacks; that was not just another terrorist attack. The siege went on for days altogether. I remember we spent 100 hours straight in the office. We were covering everything live. People used to nap for a few minutes within the office and then get back to work. Additionally, it was great learning for all of us as journalists as to what we can show on live television and how to report on such incidents. 

On the new emotionally-driven reporting style of TV news

Personally, I get some of the outrages that are happening. In India, right now, people are genuinely concerned and angry; be it the services, or the condition of the cities, or Covid, there are enough reasons for the citizens to be angry. And at some level, they (newsreaders) are trying to convey the same. That’s okay. 

But what has happened of late is that there has been made a division on ideological lines; some journalists are called left-leaning, some are called right-leaning, some are accused of favouring the ruling party. I don’t like such labelling. At the end of it, it is about bringing stories that matter, that impact people. That’s what this profession is all about. 

The involvement of politics in news is nothing new. It is the reflection of how society is. What journalists and editors should try to do is be honest and non-partisan. They need to be true to the story. I am okay with a few talk shows, chat shows, or prime time debates to have some sort of views or ideologies. But at the end of the day, show stories that matter, be true to the coverage. 

On the new programming style of channels

To a certain extent, yes the channels are spending a lot of time on one single story. But channels spend an inordinate amount of time on one story because the ratings (TRP) is the function of two things; the number of people who are watching a channel, and the amount of time they are spending. So, if we are able to maintain the viewers’ interest, they will watch the channel for longer. It, therefore, happens in the case of developing stories that channels spend a lot of time on the same topic; be it the Sushant Singh Rajput case or the Hathras case. But we must know how to aggregate it. 

On TRP manipulation

See, it’s a matter of investigation. And I keep saying one thing, I also said it on my show the day the story broke that we need to separate the content part out of this issue. The content is not the debate here. You always have the choice to change a channel if you are not liking its content. The fundamental issue here is the integrity of the process with which these ratings are measured and that needs to be addressed. 

On advertisers pulling out ad monies from certain channels

I support them (the advertisers) completely. Ultimately an advertiser is paying money for their particular products to be shown based on the ratings. And they are impacted the most if the TRP is manipulated.

On challenges facing the TV news industry

I think that the biggest challenge, about which even we were worried till six months back, is people tuning out of television. The biggest pressure, therefore, remains the ratings pressure. But I think that people are coming back to television. For any developing story, any breaking story, no other medium can cover it better than television. People are realising that and they are coming back to television. But the challenge will remain to have the viewers stay with us. 

On CNN's editorial strategy

I think we have realised over time that our audience doesn’t like shouting matches. Even a slight change in our reportage results in a dip in our viewership. The channel is known for our stories and presentation and our viewer knows that. So, we stick to the stories that we do best. We have to stay true to our viewers. 

Advice to young journalists

For me, the most important factor is the curiosity to learn, to grow. So, be curious about the news, know what is happening in the world around you. Also, read at least five newspapers on a daily basis; preferably one foreign, one regional, and three national sources. Most importantly, keep an open mind. Don’t come in journalism because you want to be the next BarkhaDutt or the next Arnab Goswami. Come into journalism because you want to tell the little guy’s story. These days it is important to go to a good J-school, but that’s not a deal-breaker for me. 

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