To the graduating students of WMA – it really is an honour to address you today. To begin with, Congratulations! I am sure you must have heard a lot about how tough the business is right now, how difficult it is to find jobs in journalism, and I want you to know…it’s all true.
You know about 15 years ago I hit a job market a bit like the one you will face when you go out. It wasn’t that it was hard to get a job in television… it was just impossible.
I countered 7 rejections – one ‘please come back next year’, one ‘please don’t call me again’, even one ‘Can you give me a job?’, and I had one last interview to do. This wasn’t a job in news, it was a marketing job for a documentary channel. I showed up with my CV, very eager to get the job.
I earned my journalism degree at Boston University, then worked at the UN, at CNN in New York. I had been a Producer for CNN in Delhi for a few years when I quit. I was reeling all this off to the gentleman sitting in front of me, who listened quietly. At the end of it all here’s what he said to me:
“I don’t need to tell you are qualified. You are qualified. And you could probably talk yourself into this job. You are confident. I can tell you will make a go of it… you may even learn to like the job. You are flexible. But somewhere in your heart, you will hate me for giving you the job – because your passion is news. And I don’t want you to hate me, so sorry, but I am not giving you the job.”
My dear graduates, I am going to hope for you that each of you gets rejected for a job in exactly the same way… because if you don’t understand what your passion is, it helps to have an interviewer that does. Because in the profession you have chosen, there will be many reasons to quit, and only one reason to stay – and that is the passion to tell a story.
You must think I am weird – you’ve invited me to address you on your graduation, and here I am wishing you job-rejections. If you think that’s bad, let me tell you what else I wish for you:
1. I wish for you a really mean boss – one who makes you cry. Let’s be honest… this is a tough business.. one where you have to push and bully your way to a story. You need to develop a thick skin early on. One of my first professional memories was of being pushed off a ladder in a media stampede outside a court, when I got thrown to the floor and the mic dropped from my hand. Instead of giving me any sympathy, my cameraman fired me up. I learned right then, both in the field and in my newsroom, you have to stand still as others try to push you around. So when the boss blows you up for missing the big interview of the day, you learn to go to the washroom, weep a little, and then go get the interview. If you get a boss who says, ‘Never mind, next time…’, honestly, you will get nowhere in the business.
2. I wish for you many, many days spent in the heat. So much of our job requires you to stand on someone else’s footpath, waiting for the person who lives inside to come out or go in, it’s a great thing to get used to. You will make many friends along the way, as sitting around on a sidewalk doing nothing but sweating all day is a great time to start a conversation. Sometimes the scoop of the day goes to the reporter who stays on that sidewalk the longest. Last month, I reached the sidewalk outside Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. I didn’t get to speak to her that morning, but I did make friends with Tai Chi Toe, her dog.
3. I wish for you many unwell colleagues. That does sound horrid, but honestly, it’s how I got most of my early breaks. You get sent on an assignment only because someone else is indisposed. All I can say is, learn to thank those colleagues, and always say yes to any opportunity to fill-in.
4. I wish for you assignments in places where telephones and computers don’t work, because the joy of heading out to a remote area, where you work on one story for 3 days without having to report back, no hour-on-hour deadline pressure is something you must do. My own favourite story was covering a computer programme that helped fishermen predict storms and tsunamis. To shoot, we had to wake up at 3 am to go out with the fishermen, and then come back to the beach and watch as they returned with their nets full of fish… 3 hours, just the sound of the waves, practically alone on southern India’s spectacular coromandel coast……pure happiness.
5. I wish for you interviews with many eccentric quirky people… because those are the ones who will give you the story. The polite, politically correct, and very bland ones never will.
6. I could go on, but because I am not completely evil, I wish for you understanding parents. Especially when they realise you will not be able to move out of home very quickly. My first salary paid for my conveyance costs, my second one only took care of meals on every alternate day. You will never get brilliantly paid in this business, and as I said earlier, the only reason to stay is because you love the profession. They will have to be understanding in other ways. Jammu-Kashmir elections in 1996 ended one week before my wedding. I remember my mother actually called me and threatened to call it off if I didn’t come home to choose my sari. Two days before the wedding, my boss offered me an assignment in Afghanistan, where President Najibullah had just been hanged. Okay… that one, I didn’t take up. As you grow older, I will wish for you understanding husbands, wives and children. When I walked out of the house on the day after Christmas in 2004 to report on the tsunami, I told my kids I would be back for lunch. Lunch, yes, but two weeks later.
7. Finally, I hope that along the way, you learn to love what you do. That you watch out for the strange things you will learn along the way, from the least expected people: I learned from General Pervez Musharraf that he only joined the Army to make his mother happy. Why did his mother want him to? Because she liked the uniforms! That Narendra Modi’s mother won’t live with him unless he got married, or she would have to take care of him, rather than being taken care of… that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s wife last remembers going on a family vacation in 1976 (Nainital). And Ted Turner doesn’t use the internet, but always ensures he has a girlfriend who can handle his e-mail.
There’s no real end-goal here, unlike other professions. There aren’t too many promotions in journalism, no clear-cut career path, a handful of role models, and no retirement age. With that in mind, enjoy every bit of the journey, my dear graduates… it’s all you’ve got!