Shaping the Newsroom
Naresh Fernandes discusses tech and news in ’90s India
A newsroom, an office with a group of reporters, is a spot that records the shifts of a society. One of the most recent shifts society has seen came with the rise of digital technology, which has come to permeate the daily lives of most people. Yet even as news reporters chronicle shifts in society, they themselves can be affected by them.
This was the takeaway from Naresh Fernandes’ talk on Tuesday in the Mandel Reading Room, titled “Journalism flows from the barrel of a typewriter: How computers changed the Indian newsroom.” In an Indian newsroom in the 1990s, Fernandes and his colleagues were confronted with a technological evolution which influenced news reporters in India and the ordinary people across the country. Fernandes — the editor of Scroll In, a digital news and culture publication — told his story to the Brandeis community of being a newsman witnessing the change of Indian society and its news reporting system.
Back in the early 1990s, the Indian newsroom was surrounded with an unusual aura. Readers of the newspaper swirled the newsroom while “clutching raggedy cardboard files filled with evidence of malfeasance in the body politic or some personal success they wanted to share with the world,” said Fernandes.
Fernandes explained that “often, the petitioners were trade union members or representatives of one of the sweaty activist groups with which the city was brimming.”
And in the 1990s, there were a lot of things to “keep the activists and journalists concerned,” Fernandes said. Even though the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, the wind of freedom, peace and equality did not blow to India. Upper-class students in Delhi were protesting, not to promote equality among different classes, but instead to defend their own privileges as members of the upper class. These activists felt threatened by the idea of sharing educational opportunities with students from lower classes, and Fernandes claimed that “upper-class students in Delhi were setting themselves on fire to protest the government commission’s recommendations that affirmative action quotas for members of the lower class be increased.” These dramatic self-immolations — parts of protests against the Mandal Commission in the 1990s — left Fernandes and his colleagues with plenty to write about.
The movement against equality erupted not only in class conflicts but also in religious conflicts. The right wing, which was opposed to the decisions made by the government, was a part of the chaos as well. A politician belonging to a right wing party “was leaving a trail of violence in his wake as he drove across north India in a commuter van.” His violence was motivated by the intention of placing a mosque in the town “at the exact same place as God.”
While the rest of the world embraced and looked forward to a bright future, people in India were facing a time of chaos in politics, religion and employment. The introduction of digital technology only factored into this confusion. While digital technology seemed to be welcomed in Western society, the opposite was true in India. Technology was marked with controversy. Fernandes said that “for decades, economists had been arguing about whether a labor-rich country like India could actually benefit from capital-intensive technology. Creating well-paying jobs was thought to be the more efficient path to progress.”
The key item of discussion was the computer. Although it is now uncommon to see people deny the advantages brought by the computer, some deemed that computer technology would not benefit a country with India’s dense population. The thinking followed that computers “would result in jobless growth [and] would cause havoc in a country whose most abundant resources were human.”
Nevertheless, computers made their way into society — and into the newsroom. “Journalists in Bombay knew that it was only a matter of time before computers would unsettle their work, too. That was evident to anyone that was keeping track of global newspaper trends,” Fernandes commented. The introduction of computers brought higher productivity, but along with it came the decline of job categories, as aspects of the newspaper production process were automated. Fernandes claimed that “thousands of workers were made redundant” across India’s job markets, and the news workers in India were forced into a similar situation. Newsrooms weren’t how we picture them in the West; they were closer to a scene from the Charlie Chaplin film “Modern Times,” which depicts characters struggling to survive in a rapidly industrializing world.
Fernandes said that “members of all of the departments — the printers, the typesetters … and the advertising executives — all sat shoulder-to-shoulder on long tables in the canteen on the top floor to eat our subsidized rice plates. Many employees would return to work with the shared grumble of disquiet. It was rumored that the canteen contractor kept his costs low by spiking the rice with soda bicarbonate, an additive that left diners feeling satiated but would cause tummies across the building to growl malodorous through the afternoon.”
With society in the midst of a rapid, industrial change, many news reporters were writing about how common people were adapting and struggling to deal with their new world. Yet at the same time, the people who reported the change became a proof of the change in society as well. What is the similarity between workers in a textile factory and reporters sitting in their office writing the news? According to Fernandes, they are both marks of India in the 1990s.