Chennai: A trip down memory lane to my days in News Today invokes not just pangs of nostalgia but also a sense of incredibility over the manner in which journalism was practiced once upon a time.
“Those were the days”, I can sum up, with a sigh of evocative recollection of the years between 1996 and 2005 for my joining the newspaper as News Editor at the Kodambakkam office heralded many changes in the organisation, one of them being the entry of computers into the newsroom.
Earlier, reporters used a huge cardboard to place the paper on which they wrote copy in longhand and handed it over to the EDP section, where operators keyed in the matter and handed out print outs for correction. Of course, the page was made on the eponymous ‘Pagemaker’ software by the operators, though across the room manual ‘cutting and pasting’ happened every day for the pages of sister publication, Maalai Sudar.
Those were the early years of the internet and I do not remember journalists using it initially, though the office had a connection and the system was kept in an alcove that led to the Editor, T R Jawahar’s room. Internet access in the systems of all journalists became a reality only when we moved into the Lotus Towers at Guindy.
But then, News Today launched its web edition rather earlier and it should have easily got the straight forward www.newstoday.com but for the unfortunate fact that it was taken by somebody just the previous day. (I still believe that there was some hanky panky in that registration for even today newstoday.com is not functional.) Anyway, we settled for newstodaynet.com and started uploading the day’s stories after the newspaper was put to bed. After all, what’s in a name?
Talking of the name, one particular calendar year dawned with a shocker when the India Today group announced the launch of its website called News Today. But that was not something to be taken lying down. So quick legal action was initiated and the gargantuan media group was not allowed to have its way – they had to change the name to Newspaper Today.
Of course, we also refused to let go a top national newspaper ‘steal’ the titled Midweek Medley that we had given for our weekly supplement that came out on Thursdays. When we saw the title given for a column on news briefs by the leading newspaper, the Editor wrote to them and received a favourable reply.
When another mainstream English paper made it a habit to carry our stories the next morning as their exclusive, we wrote to them not to make such claims when we had actually broken the news. Among the many changes that News Today as a newspaper went through in those years were in the design and layout, the logo and its leap into colour printing. In the earlier years, not only were the pictures in black and white, the processing of an image would take about an hour with the photographer shutting himself up in a dark room for a considerable time.
So, the advent of digital SLR camera changed the face of photojournalism on the whole and the working of News Today, too.
Our pages became colourful. But our real strength in those days was in keeping with the spirit of its name by giving the days news the same evening itself. Yes, many upcountry correspondents – those times there were dime a dozen of them – would not be able to start their workday if News Today did not land on their desks.
Most representatives of publications from other States were not well versed in Tamil and hence depended on News Today for their update of the days developments. Not letting those news hungry scribes down, News Today was everywhere in town and covered everything that happened before noon. Thus what the multitude of WhatsApp groups, messaging facilities, cell phones, social media channels and all other modern modes of communication do today to ease the work of journalists, News Today did singlehandedly once upon a time.
On the historic day in which former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s nominations were rejected in 2001, I was there at the Theni Collectorate waiting in the premises the whole day for the acceptance of the nominations, walking out of the premises periodically, every time showing the identity card to the cops, to a telephone booth across the road to update the desk. I had filed my copy highlighting the uncertainty looming over the nominations by capturing the mood at the Collectorate by the usual deadline past noon and went to the join the teeming band of journalists, most of them were from print as television channels were far and few.
Back in Chennai, the Editor and other colleagues felt that it would be improper to bring out the edition without the news on the fate of Jayalalithaa’s nomination and decided to wait, thus holding back the pages. It turned out to be a long wait and the office started getting calls from desperate journalists asking for the newspaper. Well, the announcement came rather late in the day and by the time the paper reached the stands with the news of the nominations being rejected, sourced from the police by the crime reporter in Chennai, it was almost time for television news bulletins.
Yes, 24×7 channels were yet to flood the airwaves. But I still remember that among the journalists congregated at Theni only one or two possessed a cell phone.
Looking back, I think it was the 1G regime and using a cell phone was a luxury as both outgoing and incoming calls were charged at a rate of around Rs 16 per minute. In News Today only the Editor had a cell phone. To put it otherwise, we were disseminating news to the readers to their full satisfaction without the hand-held device, under whose vice grip society is now in.
An occasion in which I had to borrow the cell phone of NDTV correspondent, Jennifer, was on the day of polling for the Andipatti bye-election, which facilitated Jayalalithaa returning to power. When some top political leaders sat on a dharna outside a booth, close to our deadline, I was told the nearest telephone booth was about five km away from the village. Indeed not just journalists even many common people lived happily without the much celebrated connectivity of today. Anyway, our reporters started getting cell phones soon (was it due to 2G?) as the rates came down and incoming calls became free. Also we started using the internet and during my election tours in the later years, I was filing stories from internet cafes.
But I remember filing copy through fax from Villupuram when I went to Koovagam to cover the Koothandavar temple festival in 1998 at a time when LGBTQI+ was an unknown acronym. I had to write down the copy and fax it to office. Even ISRO’s Sriharikota facility had no internet centre in the earlier years.
A huge hall will have fax machines rows and rows of telephones, which we now call as landline phone or whatever, from which we would dictate copy. If the launch window was fixed around noon, then the story had to go the same day. So, on the launch day, I would leave behind two copy with the desk – one explaining how the rocket took off successfully and reached the orbit leaving some blank spaces on time and such details and the alternative copy saying that the rocket mission failed. Once the mission was complete I would double up to the telephone room and give the instructions to the desk on the copy to be used and the details that to fill up the blanks.
Journalism was thus fun, in its own way. During my time in News Today, I had covered many elections, including the Bellary byelection for Lok Sabha in which Sonia Gandhi contested, been on familiarization tours organised by the Press Information Bureau to various States and made two foreign trips to Colombo and Bangkok, leave alone the people I have met and events I attended.
But the most memorable things are the investigative stories that we did and the comments that we wrote, making a huge impact. Jawahar’s ‘Countdown’, particularly on forest brigand Veerappans exploits, used to be talked about highly in journalistic (the word media gained currency later on) circles.
For a while, we ran a column titled ‘Coverage’ exposing the cover culture in journalism, earning the wrath of many journalists.
When the new millennium rang in, we welcomed it with a special colourful supplement, title ‘Giant Leap’, exemplifying our pure team work.
The evening newspaper had its own space in those days and it did make a giant leap in capturing the imagination of the English readers in Chennai. But as technology developed to help journalists in their work, it diluted the importance of newspapers, too.
– The writer, B Babu Jayakumar is a former Associate Editor of News Today