Idealist Journalists May Stay Hungry

Journalists were among the poorest paid workers six decades ago. No journalist wanted his children or siblings to join his profession. Famous editor D.R.Mankekar even wrote a book on it: ‘No My Son, Never‘. Things did improve later. Journalists not only got better wages but more of other ‘benefits’ (like freebies,  clout, patronage) or perks. The trend reversed, at least partially.

My monthly salary, in 1957  when I started, was equal to, or even a little less, than the wage per day of part-time help in my son’s house now and an even smaller fraction of what the full-timers get. Journalism was only  for “silly idealists” who wanted to change the world or fight for causes, not for earning. Or for creative people not wanting to be bogged down in  routine jobs.  The money-minded avoided it. . . . .

A book on newspaper life I read early in my career was My Turn to Make the Tea (1951) by Monica Dickens, a grand-daughter of the great Charles Dickens. The title comes from the fact that Monica, youngest journalist on rolls, used to make tea for the staff daily afternoon. (‘Peons’ are only in the East; in the West; secretaries or juniors made tea for bosses.  Coffee or tea machines came later.)  

The daily conference once felt this was unfair and that everyone should make tea by turns. The next turn was the editor’s. As he was busy writing an edit, Monica makes the tea. The day after that it was the turn of the manager, the editor’s wife, who was on rounds. So Monica does it again. The chief reporter, circulation manager and others similarly escape the duty . So it was always Monica’s turn.. . . . .

But this one takes the cake: Decades ago a ‘madrasi, (from a Telugu family of Tami Nadu) was the editor of  a top Hindi daily of Benaras (Varanasi).  

One day, he went to his office and found his chair in the editor’s cabin missing. He thought it was taken out for room cleaning, so he asked the peon for the chair. The peon said “Sethji” – the newspaper’s proprietor – was angry about what he wrote and ordered that the chair be removed as he was sacking the editor. The poor man was not cantankerous and went home quietly.  

it was a famous daily and soon eminent intellectuals of the town called the owner to tell him that his was a reputed daily and not a  kirana shop. It would be a national issue. The editor was brought back with respect.

Another pre-partition story few know. The Editor of The Sind Observer, Karachi, K.Punnaiah, was told by the owners that Jawaharlal Nehru’s tour of the Sind province (now in Pakistan) should not be covered. The nationalist editor, brother of Natiional Herald founder-editor K. Rama Rao, asked all reporters to cover the tour extensively!  He published  many columns of news of Nehru’s tour.  The irked management, perhaps for the first time anywhere in the world, sent a bill at advertisement rates to Punnaiah for the space taken by the Nehru reports. The editor resigned, collected funds from people and bought the daily! Then he was murdered during partition.

Realizing that journalists were ill-paid and had extremely hard conditions, the government gave them facilities like travel concession, housing or plots and priority in allotment of vehicles and phones to ensure that they were not tempted to stray from the ethical path for money.

The well-meaning steps,began to be misused.  Allurements by corrupt politicians and ‘babus: defeated their very purpose. By denying or threatening to hold them back  the media were  controlled.. Some who used the facilities only to enable them to perform their journalistic functions better, and said none else should be given,were called foolish idealists. 

So hungry journalism ended and days of paid, fake news began.

( inputs from my book A TOWN CALLED  PENURY – Changing Culture of Indian Journalism)


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