Knight Foundation head and young journalists discuss journalism education and media in India

Nov 112008

Can India’s theory-heavy journalism education face the challenges from the country’s media explosion? A group of young journalists from Indo-Asian News Service discussed media education and the emerging new media with Alberto Ibarguen, the president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.India’s theory-heavy journalism education is not up to the challenges of the nation’s media explosion according to a group of young journalists who recently discussed the changing media landscape with Alberto Ibarguen, the president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, when he visited New Delhi.

The nine journalists, aged 20 years to 29 and with work experience ranging from two months to six years, are with Indo-Asian News Service, where Knight International Journalism Fellow Arul Louis runs a professional development program around the theme of climate change. (Seven of the journalists are in the program.) IANS is an independent, privately owned wire service with over a hundred journalists and transmits stories in English, Hindi and Arabic to over 250 subscribers in India and abroad.

All the journalists in the group had studied journalism at the graduate or undergraduate levels in universities or specialized institutions. Except for one, they said that the programs lacked hands-on training and left them inadequately prepared for their jobs. “I don't think I have benefited much from the one [the journalism school] that I went to,” said Azera Rahman, 25, a reporter who covers youth and federal ministries dealing with social services. “Whatever I have learned has been because of a hands-on training [after graduation]. Journalism schools should therefore have a more practical approach, stress internships and a hands-on training rather than a theoretical approach.”

During the 90-minute meeting on September 25 at the IANS headquarters in New Delhi, Ibarguen talked about the work of the Knight Foundation and about the challenges of the new electronic media. He outlined Knight Foundation’s News Challenge competition and asked them to come up with ideas for the "You invent it. We fund it" program.

Ibarguen said that Internet innovations like Google, Yahoo, YouTube and Facebook have opened new ways for people to interactively communicate and these can both disseminate news and information as well as empower people to use the media. The challenge is to harness these creatively and develop new applications. An innovative project uses cell phone to provide news to Zimbabweans, circumventing local censorship.

A former publisher of The Miami Herald, Ibarguen talked about the rapid changes in how Americans, especially the youth, get their news and the impact of the trends on the media. He asked the journalists about the Indian media and reading habits of young people.

One significant difference between the Indian and US media is that print is flourishing in India. Indians of all ages read print editions of newspapers, the young journalists said. “For most of us here, in the metros and elsewhere, the day begins with reading the newspaper and a cup of tea/coffee,” said Rahman. “It's almost like a tradition. Therefore to hear that a majority of the youth in the US read only the e-papers is interesting.”

Consider these factoids: New Delhi alone has at least 14 multi-section English language newspapers; the world’s largest English language newspaper is The Times of India with a circulation of 3.5 million, and, overall, India has 2,100 dailies in more than 20 languages with a total circulation of 88 million.

One of the reasons for the enduring hold of print is that less than two percent of Indians have computers. (However, about 80 percent of the men and 65 percent of the women have access to television.)

Shweta Srinivasan, 20, a reporter on the job for two months, said that digital journalism is handicapped because in rural India and in regional media, the printing press still dominates and it is important to take into account its ways of collecting and disseminating news “before thinking about the digital revolution of communicating via mobile phones or the Internet.”

But Sarwar Kashani, 29, a copy editor who studied telecommunications engineering before switching to journalism, said that’s going to change soon: “I believe a revolution is just a step away.” The digitization of the media could come about through the proliferation of cell phones that can handle text and images, rather than only through computers, he said. (About one in four Indians has a cell phone and about six million more get them every month.) “Somebody needs to take that initiative and make the exchange of information more interactive,” he added. A journalist for seven years, Kashani has also worked in broadcasting.

Already, IANS runs a separate SMS (or short message service) news service tailored to businesses like Vodafone and Yahoo that provide news to cell phone subscribers. India will soon have 3G wireless services. It is basically the cell phone system on steroids that will allow cell phones and similar devices to send and receive data-heavy videos and programs at almost cable modem speeds.

Some of the ideas about digital media that Ibarguen spoke about, “if customized to Indian needs and customs, can be a breakthrough,” said Kashani. “And this needs to be done more in the conflict ridden areas of India like the northeast and Kashmir where exchange of ideas, news, reports is minimal.” Kashani frequently does special reporting assignments in Kashmir.

Robin Bansal, 23, a celebrity gossip (known in India as “Page 3”) writer with ten month’s experience, said teenagers and students dominate more than half of the technology market in India and almost every second teenager, at least in urban areas, has a cell phone and this keeps them wired.

Young people with access to the Internet – at home, school, work, or Internet cafes – use it like their counterparts in the US. Social networking with Facebook and Google's Orkut is high on their agenda, according to Srinivasan.

Rahman said that digitization will impact news reading habits, too. “The fact that we are constantly logged on to the CNN news site or NDTV for that matter, and take a peep into them every now and then … made me realize that we are all a part of the growing trend that is full-fledged in the US.”

But journalism training in India is bypassing this revolution in the making. Bansal said that the schools didn’t adequately train students in the use of the emerging new media and they didn’t get to work on them before they actually got on the floor.

Journalism education is also inadequate for the “old media.” Shalini Pant, 23, a copy editor with three years’ experience, said, “I feel a lot of stress is laid on theory in Indian journalism schools and students are provided with very little exposure to the working world. I believe that although it is important to learn about the history of journalism and basic things like the inverted pyramid, students should be given the opportunity to apply what they have learned in classrooms in practical exercises.”

Richa Sharma, 28, a reporter with five years’ journalism experience, agreed: More focus should be on practical training.

One reporter said her J-school experience had been different. Anuradha Shukla, 28, said her own graduate program at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication at Dhenkanal in Orissa, emphasized “real life reporting.” But, she agreed with her colleagues: “Barring few institutions, journalism education in India is largely theoretical. … Students are taught communication theories and the western models that hardly work in India.” Shukla, who covers real estate and infrastructure, has been a reporter for 31/2 years.

“Personally, from my classroom lectures, I didn't learn much about what I am doing currently,” said Radhika Bhirani, 20, about her university course. “It was only when I started working that I could understand the workings of the industry in a lucid way.” A feature writer, she has been on the job for 10 months.

“Merging theory with practical application is, in my opinion, the best way to train students for a career in journalism,” added Pant.