Editor’s Notes: Mid Day’s Sachin Kalbag
Sachin Kalbag, 38, cut his teeth in journalism at Mid Day from 1994, when he joined as a trainee, to 2003, when he left as the content head of Mid-day.com. He then moved on to the technology magazine Digit and in 2005 was part of DNA’s launch team as news editor. After stints at Hindustan Times, where he was the online editor, and the Delhi-based tabloid Mail Today, Kalbag returned to his old stomping ground in 2011. A frequent Tweeter, Kalbag tells us about the challenge posed to the media by the Internet and why he made the radical decision to drop Mid Day Mate.
What sort of editor are you?
I’m hands-on in the sense that I’m aware of what is going on, the stories that are being used and the way they’re played up. But I do not sit with the news editor or sports editor and tell him or her, “Let’s do this, use this picture that picture”. Because it would reduce that person’s authority and self-confidence. In that sense I stay away from the nitty-gritties of day-to-day newspapering. I don’t take part in the inside page headline. But I’m extremely interested in the front page headline. I also look at the editorials.
What changes have you brought to the paper?
When I joined I had a plan in mind. One of the points on the agenda was to make Mid Day a very hard-hitting newsy newspaper for the city of Mumbai. We said we will not have something that is water-cooler gossip. We said we will go full out on hard-hitting investigative stories. A large proportion of our stories should be human-interest stories. We should take up issues that a typical Mumbaikar is talking about. So it may be roads today, floods tomorrow, it could be milk adulteration the day after. We wanted to bring back the same old glory that Mid Day was known for. We did a series of small things. For instance, from April last year we removed Mid Day Mate. It was a very radical decision. There are people who, if I was walking down the streets, would have probably killed me for that.
The second thing we did was bring back politics into the mainstream of the newspaper. So we appointed a political editor, Ravikiran Deshmukh. There was no political editor for a long time. There was no analysis, no thought. It was plain reportage. We looked for a strong crime team. After J. Dey’s murder it was leaderless. We decided each section in the newspaper should have its own cover page to give the reader a perspective of what the newspaper can offer them. So there’s a cover story for the paper, a cover story for entertainment and a cover story for sports. How does a story affect my life? How does a story affect my city? We said that all our stories should encapsulate these two philosophies. Or as we put in our mast head later on, “My city, my life”. Until a year and a half ago, the tagline was “Make work fun”. That gives a different connotation.
Our readership has gone up. When I joined the readership was hovering around 3,40,000 copies, which is really pathetic. Now in the last one year, we’ve shown consistent growth. We’re currently at 4,20,000. So it is all credit to this team. They all said “We have something to prove, Mid Day can regain its past glory.”
Sunday Mid Day used to be a great weekend read. What happened to it?
I won’t say that Sunday Mid Day is a weak Sunday paper. I’d say it’s a work-in-progress. One of the reasons Sunday Mid Day may have faltered in between is because the competition had increased so much that whatever good stories Sunday Mid Day did tended to be buried because everyone was doing all kinds of stories. In the glory days, the 1990s and early 2000s, there was hardly any competition. Any story you read in Sunday Mid Day was a novelty. The scenario has completely changed because a lot of magazines have come up which have become experts in long-form journalism. A lot of new newspapers have come up and websites. I will never accept any allegation that the quality has dipped. There are some changes that are taking place in Sunday Mid Day. I will not be at liberty to tell you right now what those changes are. But we will have more emphasis on long-form journalism, in-depth reports, investigative stories, personality interviews.
What’s your policy on plagiarism?
We have a zero tolerance policy. Anybody found plagiarising or picking up stories from the Internet or any other newspaper is not even given a first warning. They’re just asked to go. A month ago we had to ask someone to leave. And the story was not even published. The copy desk found out that the story had appeared somewhere. They actually did a random Google search and found that it had appeared the previous day is another newspaper. They spiked the story and alerted the section head and me and the person was gone the next day. Zero tolerance of plagiarism is part of our code of conduct. Every employee, when he joins, has to sign a code of conduct. We introduced the plagiarism bit after I joined.
Does the paper have paid news?
We do not have paid news in our newspaper. We do have advertorials. We clearly mention that it’s a promotional feature.
Have you taken any precautions after J. Dey’s murder?
I get that question a lot—whether we’re scared, whether we do fewer stories on the underworld. After J. Dey’s murder I think we’ve done far more dangerous stories, which involve politicians, policemen, bureaucrats, we’ve exposed policemen whose wives have run brothels, we have exposed real estate scams that have involved politicians, we have exposed bureaucrats involved in these scams, we’ve exposed builders who have manipulated slum rehabilitation schemes to their benefit by allotting flats to their own relatives by saying they are slum dwellers. We stopped getting advertising from that particular company.
Who do you view as your greatest competition?
I think the biggest competition is the Internet, for all newspapers. The Internet is here to stay. We can’t deny that. And the repercussions have been felt in other economies, in western Europe and America especially. But where others see a threat, I think there are opportunities for media houses in India if media houses invest in the right kind of technology. The same product you sell at the newsstand is not going to work on the Internet. If you do a standalone Mid Day app for the iPad for instance, I don’t know how many users it’s going to get because interests are scattered. If I’m a sports lover I’m not going to read about problems of roads. I want to know whether Man United beat Liverpool last night. So if I’m going to specialise in something, I might specialise in something I’m strong with. I’m strong in sports, Mumbai issues and entertainment. So we’ll probably have apps that cater to those verticals.
When broadband connectivity truly comes to India, that’s going to be the big game-changer. That’s when reality is going to hit newspapers really hard. Then they’re going to say instead of spending so much on newsprint, on distribution, on marketing, why not get more readers by going to smart TVs at home, going through broadband networks, tying up with mobile phone operators for content. The entire business model as it is right now will have to do a 180-degree turn in the next few years. And the media house that starts getting ready for it now will reap the benefits of it in the future.
Many journalists, including you, are quite active on Twitter. How do you think Twitter has changed journalism?
I think every new technology has changed journalism. When the Internet came, everybody said, “Wow now I don’t have to go to a library to do my research.” Everybody said, “Oh, this is going to be lazy journalism.” Every new technology has a good side to it and a bad side to it. The bad side is lazy journalism [which means] collating quotes from various places. But Twitter allows two or three big things that were not easy till a few years ago. I think Twitter allows for a great amount of interactivity so that the whole Chinese wall between the reader and the newspaper has completely fallen apart. The reader today can criticise the editor, send story ideas to the editor or journalist. Today I can get instant feedback for my stories. But I haven’t Tweeted for five days now. It’s kind of a social experiment on myself. I want to see whether Twitter has changed me. Have I turned into a lazy journalist? Earlier journalists could get away with a lot of things. I don’t think they can any longer. I think the scrutiny on the journalist is far greater today and I think it should be there.
What do you think of the quality of journalists coming out of Indian journalism schools?
I taught at KC College for six years. I taught their Bombay College of Journalism evening course. And I taught at National College for some time. Without any doubt, the quality of teaching that is practiced at these places and the kind of journalists produced there is pathetic. I think one of the fundamental mistakes that our education system has made is that journalists are being taught journalism. You can teach a person journalism but that person also needs to have fundamental knowledge about at least one subject. That subject could be history, mathematics, engineering, law. If you have a grounding in some field it will help your journalism much better than if you just study journalism.