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Monday, March 4, 2013

Budget Day Virgin

India is the only country in the world that takes the announcement of the annual national budget this seriously.

Everyone is called into the office “early” (10:30am) for this most auspicious day. Everyone has been assigned a beat – an area of interest that they track and know better than anyone – and/or a task for the day. The auto guy covers automotive news, the infra guy waits for any announcements in construction, commodities or natural resources that will affect his cohort of information and me and my computer literacy are asked to coordinate, collate and channel everyone’s inputs into a single stream for the social media girl to tweet.

That, my friends, is the reality of the modern newsroom. Budget day 2013 was my first as a business journalist and I loved it. The entire edit team sat in the conference room, laptops out, eyes fixed on the TV screens and fingers pounding off texts to industry insiders. Fresh coffee was brewed – the nice kind, from the in-house CafĂ© Coffee Day outlet, not the shitty, sickly sweet cocoa-milk you get from the dispenser for free. It’s like the famous war-room photograph of President Obama in the war-room, except here the target wasn't a terrorist but a bureaucrat – one and the same, shout the cynics among you.

At 11:15am the shot switches from the fake studio on CNBC to the depressing green/brown amphitheater of India’s Parliament, where one of the hundreds of old people in the building begins a speech in impeccable English. It’s easy to get bogged down when you see Indian politicians, screaming and frothing away at each other so when a polite old gentleman like P Chidambaran adjusts his jowls and enunciates, it’s truly refreshing. The Finance Minister’s words are soft but they bring silence to the houses of parliament and our very own little war-room.

As he begins his address the ticker at the bottom of the TV screen starts to throw up the highlights of his speech. “Fiscal deficit must be address if India’s growth story wants to continue” it says. The seasoned speaker moves to his first real announcements: GDP growth, current account balance and inflation. The guys from the Delhi bureau shoot across the first tweets for me to evaluate. They are rehashes of what’s just been said. My editor sits by my side quietly critiquing the content I’m being fed.

“Let it go, it’s nothing special” says Gandalf/Obi Wan/Mr Miyagi/Arsene Wenger/delete-as-appropriate and my finger trembles over the enter button before deleting the text I’d entered.

“We need to add some value, we can’t just repeat what Chidambaram is saying!” quips one of the only women in the room. She puts her words across on the group chat and the content we now begin to get reminds me how smart my colleagues are. How infinitely smarter than I! The finance minister announces something about a housing subsidy and the infra guy instantly tells me how the big builders will benefit and shows us their stock price going richer and richer shades of green on his laptop screen.

Before I joined Forbes, I thought I was smart. I had thought I was a talented writer and got caught up in my own confidence. Sitting among seasoned writers cut me down to size quickly; I was just another scribe that they’d come across. Maybe my friends and family appreciate my blogs because they don’t read that many others and know me personally but to my colleagues I’m just another hack. There’s no qualifier before my name – I’m not a young kid trying his hand at something, I’m just another journalist whose words are all he’s worth. The problem right now is I don’t know whether my stock price is green or red.

More and more text comes in and I run it by my editor before cutting it down and dispatching it to be tweeted my Forbes India’s official handle. I love twitter. I wasn't even on it till about 6 months ago. It’s talkative like me. Follow enough interesting people and there’s always something new to be read popping up every few minutes. My colleagues’ sharpness is intimidating. Chidambaram announces something about nanotechnology and the techies from the Bangalore bureau fire off telling bursts about how all this has been promised in the past but the legislation is clunky. Nothing intimidates me more than government legislation. I cannot spend more than a second looking at those off-white pages of legal jargon. I suppose I’ll have to start reading them soon enough if I want to be a proper journalist. If I want to be a journalist.

By around 1pm the speech is over and the country is released from its hypnosis. “Markets flat after disappointing budget” scream the business channels. Everyone retreats to their desks to pen short blogs about how the budget affected their beat. I publish something about the sports allocation and Forbes’ blog editor publishes it – I imagine more out of pity than anything else. You feel a sense of helplessness as a beat-less journalist. All my life I’ve been an all-rounder or a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none depending on how you look at it; though the vision for our magazine is for an integrated newsroom where everyone follows everything and writes convincingly anyway, the reality is that when push comes to shove, everyone has a beat. The beat is what sets them apart. Their beat is why readers read them and not someone else reporting on the sector.

Their beat is built by years of speaking to industry insiders, academics and fellow journalists. When Forbes’ finance guy talks about finance, it is with a clarity and an insight that’s taken 20 years to cultivate. What emerges then, from his take on an announcement by the Reserve Bank, is a side of the story that’s crisp, detailed and that picks up on the most crucial relevant aspect of the story. It is this ability to be fresh, insightful and concise that I crave. The problem is that I’ve read more about Europe than I have about India. Whether it be economics, politics or social trends, the scholars I studied at university or the commentators I follow now have made my knowledge set far more Euro-centric than it is Indian. To that end, I often wonder what I’m doing sat in Bombay. And sports is not a real beat anyway.

In the afternoon, once the furor surrounding India’s latest budget has died down, I get my daily call from Sneha. Sneha is every PR girl in India.

“Hi, this is Pritika calling from…”
“Hi, this is Rohini calling from…”
“Hi, this is Neelam calling from…”

I’ve been a journalist for 6 months and all of them have blended into the same high-pitched voice that I call Sneha. I meet them at events and they greet me like I’m important. They’re all 5”3, smartly dressed in business attire, spunky little things who dart around the conference room getting me press packs and making sure I’ve got a good seat and one-on-one with the CEO they’re promoting. “Don’t act too smart, Shravan” said my dad, “your mum was once a ‘PR girl’ too!”


Nilima Bhat said...

Loved it! Felt I was there in the newsroom with you...

Vijay Bhat said...

Beautifully captured, my dear hack! I wish you'd said something about a) the collective hypnosis you've briefly mentioned and b) what you think will be different next year, when it is your 2nd budget [IF YOU'RE STILL A JOURNALIST1]. Love, Dad.