[MJR] Quality of journalism has gone up: Mohan Sivanand

29 Feb,2012

Mohan Sivanand, India Editor, Reader’s Digest talks with MxMIndia’s Archita Wagle about his journey so far, touching on the changes in the field which he has seen in the past 36 years. Excerpts:

 

Q: Tell us a little about your background and your life as a journalist.

I have been in this field since I finished college in 1976. After my Senior Cambridge exams, I did a BSc in physics, then studied for an MA in English and a post-graduate diploma in journalism. Everything I studied has helped me in some way or other. I think and use, both, science and arts every day at work. I joined The Times of India as a trainee in 1977. I worked there for Science Today magazine (the magazine is not published any more). I worked with the TOI group for over six years, till 1983, when I joined Reader’s Digest. I joined RD as an assistant editor, when I was about 30.

 

Q: Having been with RD for nearly 30 years, did you never feel that you needed a change or wanted to move to a different publication?

No, I have not wanted to change jobs. I’ve liked it here.

 

Q: How has the journey in these two companies been so far? What have been your learnings from them?

Both the companies, TOI and Reader’s Digest, have been extremely good as learning experiences and dedication to journalism go.  I had very good editors to look up to, Surinder Jha of Science Today and Ashok Mahadevan at Reader’s Digest. Both these gentlemen gave a lot of importance to error-free content and laid emphasis on fact-checking. Ashok insisted that we learn to respect our readers and never underestimate them. That’s why our magazine is called Reader’s Digest.

I follow those principles. One should never compromise on the quality of the content. I will hold an article back if I have some doubts about facts or if they have not been properly verified.

 

Q: How does the process work?

The process is the same for everybody, be it our US editor, myself, a staff writer or a freelancer. Even when I write an article, I have to give references and provide my sources to our researchers. The researchers have to double check every fact. They are, generally, the youngest employees who start out in RD with fact checking. Even I, sometimes, check and verify facts.

 

Q: Over your 36 years in the industry, what are the changes that you have observed?

In spite of everything, I feel that there has been a positive growth in the field. The quality of journalism has gone up in the past 30-odd years. I read a lot of articles and I feel that youngsters today are writing very well.  It is a pity that some of the better talent may be going towards the electronic media, but even the print media has people writing extremely well. I read a lot of good stories in many publications.

Take the example of The Economic Times. It is much better today than it was 30 years ago. Maybe it is because business and markets have developed, and journalists today are well-connected via the Internet and they have access to a lot more information.

In the past, most youngsters never thought of going for business journalism or working for technology magazines. In those days, we had just one Science Today, but today there are a lot of specialised magazines.

Despite all the negativity, like ‘paid news’ or advertising interfering in editorial content, I feel that there is a lot of good stuff too. The vast majority today are proper journalists.

 

Q: As a part of a magazine that places so much importance on content, what is your take on advertising interfering in editorial decisions?

Actually, the ad people aren’t allowed to interfere in any editorial decision-making at Reader’s Digest. It is unethical. We have strict guidelines in place. Our ad colleagues can give us ideas just like anybody else, and that’s it. They can’t ask us to publish advertorial content and pass it off as editorial content.

Most leading American magazines have the same policy. Indeed, some Indian publications bow to advertising pressure. By doing so, they are only killing themselves.

If they continue to pass off advertising as editorial content, sooner or later the reader will realise what is happening and stop reading the publication. One can always tell the difference between an advertising plug and editorial content. The readership will drop and the publication is the loser in the long run.

Often the ad executives are short-term employees who only look at short-term profits. They often don’t care about the damage to the publication’s reputation, so editors have to take a stand and refuse any such interference.

 

Q: There have been rumours that Reader’s Digest editorial is being shifted to Noida…

There is a corporate plan to shift to Delhi but nothing has been finalised yet. It has to be a very cautious move, since we can’t train new people overnight for our kind of journalism, our kind of writing and editorial practices.

India Today Group, which is the Digest’s partner in India, wants to house all their publications under one roof.  We are the only India Today publication in Mumbai… but as of now nothing is finalised.

 

Q: Will such a move, in any way, affect the editorial policy or content?

There will be no change in terms of policy and the kind of content. Nowadays it doesn’t really matter where you are. One can work from anywhere. But as far as our content is concerned, we are the world’s, and India’s, highest-selling magazine, so why would anybody want to tamper with what has been working well so far?

 

Q: We hear that RD is also going the digital way…

Yes, from February 2012, RD can be accessed on tablets, including iPads for a subscription fee of about $1 a month, which is less than the cost of the monthly print edition. Our US parent edition launched its digital version last year. We were a little late, but I believe sooner or later, most of the print publications will have to go the digital way side by side. If you don’t do it, you are risking your future.

 

Q: Has there been any drop in readership?

We haven’t seen any significant drop in the readership. We print five lakh copies a month in India. But we had to move to a digital version before we witnessed any drop. Print magazines will never die out in India, but they may witness some decrease in circulation and that can hopefully be covered by increases in digital versions.

As of now, the marketing of our digital version has not started with full force. But we will soon, and possibly have some more interactive content for our digital readers.

 

Q: Apart from being the India editor of Reader’s Digest, you are also an artist.

I was an artist before I became a journalist. When I was in college, I used to draw for Shankar’s Weekly, which was India’s equivalent of Punch magazine. I started oil painting in 1991. Between 1994 and1999, I held four solo exhibitions and some group exhibitions of my work.

But after I became the editor, I stopped exhibiting as I don’t get enough time. My job takes a lot of my time. I still paint and draw, but as a means of relaxing. I will go back to painting full time after I retire.

 

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