Editor’s Notes: Open Magazine’s Manu Joseph

November 23, 2011 12:21 pm by

Manu Joseph, 37, has been a full-time journalist since he was 20. He has in this time worked with Society, Outlook, The Economic Times, The Times of India, and most recently Open magazine where he took over as editor-in-chief from Sandipan Deb in 2010. Since then, Open has been embroiled in its fair share of controversies, most notably by publishing transcripts of what came to be known as the 2G tape scandal, thereby exposing one of the biggest political controversies of this century. Joseph’s first novel, Serious Men, was shortlisted for the Man Asian literary award in 2010, and won the Hindu Best Fiction award the same year. About the book, he says, “I wrote Serious Men because I had to”.

Who is your biggest competition–Tehelka, Outlook, or India Today?
We don’t believe we have competition, because these are vastly different magazines. Yes, we are all newsweeklies, but thematically, we are very different. Open emphasises on storytelling, and for us, a story doesn’t have to be of grave national importance to be an important story. We are not afraid of slice-of-life stories. We don’t have a borrowed definition of importance.

Have you spoken to Barkha Dutt since your showdown with her on NDTV?
No, not at all.

Not at all?
I met her at a party and we said hello. She was very cordial, but I don’t think she was interested in talking.

What effect did the 2G scam have on your circulation?
There has been no impact on circulation, there has been no commercial impact at all. However, more people are aware of Open now, so in that way, it was a defining story. Something about the market has changed, increased awareness doesn’t translate to sales.

What kind of editor are you?
I like to describe myself as a reporter-editor, and I think of myself as a reporter first. We don’t have a hierarchical system at Open, and all senior editors are accessible to everyone. I believe that if you hire smart people, you should let them define their sections. A magazine is very different from a newspaper. A newspaper is dependent on a system. A magazine is entirely defined by the quality of the people working for it, and it should let their personalities come out. There should not be a uniform editorial personality across the magazine–the personality of the editor.

How has the editorial direction of the magazine changed since you took over as editor from Sandipan Deb?
The soul of the magazine is still almost the same that Sandipan and his core team created.

Does Open have an internal code of ethics that you follow? Can you give us an example?
I find it funny when people make a big song and dance about printing a code of ethics and pasting them on the walls, etc. A code of ethics is not the invention of an organisation, it a consensus created by society of what are fair and decent practices. We have had some internal discussions on whether we must spell out a code of ethics and circulate it among our staff, but I find such a gesture very odd. If a journalist needs to be told what the ethics are in the first place, then it is most likely that the person will break it. The beauty of ethics is that everybody instinctively knows what is fair and what is not. Yes, sometimes young, fresh reporters need to be told certain things, such as not accepting gifts at a press conference. If they are new, they may think it is the norm.

As an editor and as a person, I believe that it is important to not to believe in any ideology. There is no such thing as good or bad ideology. All ideologies are dangerous and come in the way of clarity. And clarity is everything. We need to look at a story for what it is. At the same time, even the pious obsession with objectivity is a lot of bullshit. How can you be a writer, a clever human being and also be objective?

Sometimes we hire people for their writer’s bias, because there is a connection between how you write a story and how you view the world. The comic nature of Delhi is that people here presume that if you are in the media business, you must be aligned with someone. Open tends to confuse these people, because they can’t figure us out. We do stories that are important to us and that is all that matters. Sometimes I do disappoint my reporters by rejecting important bleeding-heart stories. That is because I feel that important is not enough. A story needs to be interesting too. I am not an editor who is ashamed of telling writers that I want stories that are interesting. I am not ashamed of the word “interesting”. So yes, Open‘s writers find it hard to sell their stories to their editor, and to get them cleared. I want every page in the magazine to be a literary experience and many times bleeding-heart stories are not a literary experience.

What lessons have you learned from covering stories like the 2G scam?
It reinforced my belief that there are huge advantages in being small. It helps not be too much of an insider in a network. Being small gave us the journalistic freedom and independence to carry the Radia tapes.

There have been rumours that Open might shut shop.
Moronic rumours.

What are the challenges of working for a large corporation which has only recently forayed into magazine publishing?
There are no challenges, only advantages, since we are not the core business of the promoters. When I joined Open, I asked for editorial independence and got it. Larger media houses have a stake in their journalism. They can’t do certain things because they have powerful friends. They have to do certain things because they have powerful enemies.

Which is easier–being an author or an editor?
I don’t know. As both editor and author, you take complete responsibility for what is out there. As an editor, it is tough to be pleased with every page of your product. You have to take responsibility for the occasional mediocrity in the magazine, because that is the nature of the business. As an author, you are completely responsible for every word. Either you’ve done a good job or you’ve done shit.

Editor’s Notes: Elle’s Nonita Kalra