As Outlook magazine completes 15 years, iconoclast editor Vinod Mehta tells Gaurav Jain how good journalism can bed with commercial interests
The eagerly witty Vinod Mehta, 68, has been an improbable media icon, forever a curmudgeon on the brink. From being a young editor of Debonair magazine he went on to be founder-editor of the The Sunday Observer weekly, followed by editorial stints at The Independent and The Pioneer dailies. He was often fired for disagreeing with media owners over editorial control till Rajan Raheja recruited him for Outlook magazine. In an avuncular but combative mood, Mehta spoke to TEHELKA at his office about completing 15 years at Outlook. The proudly liberal editor-in-chief often paused mid-sentence to land on an apt phrase as he described his extraordinary journey, how the magazine formula is changing and why ‘crisis’ is an easy word to apply to the media. Edited excerpts:
You have said the newsmagazine has an inherently boring formula. Why?
It’s a boring formula since you’ve to encapsulate the week, so you’ve to be careful about anything outside the seven days. (But) now television and other platforms are making this wrap-up idea somewhat obsolete. There’s a kind of liberation from the seven-day tyranny.
What’ve you done about it?
Some weeks we’d do 33 pages of Arundhati Roy, then we didn’t do the wrap-up. Now I consider longer pieces, essays especially, quite favourably, whereas five years ago I would’ve said it doesn’t fit into the format.
In your 15-year issue Pratap Bhanu Mehta wishes Outlook did in-depth pieces and better cultural criticism. Do you agree?
In 30 years as editor, I’ve found everybody says, “Do non-political stories.” But what gets people’s interest is the political or current story. If we did a 5,000 word review of VS Naipaul or Ram Guha it’d get us applause from a minor audience, but I’ve to consider that we’re in the mainstream, people are buying us at airports and chaat shops. All I’m saying to you is I can do more of the unusual stuff now than five years ago.
How do you deal with the urban disinterest in the rest of India?
You can write on rural distress exhaustively but you can’t forget you’re writing for an urban audience. It needs a bit of accentuating the guilt complex, like: you son of a bitch, you’re spending Rs. 10,000 for one meal, listen to what’s happening in the rest of India. If it’s done without too much moralising, I think they’re interested. There are enough people interested to make a magazine like Outlook.
How has reporting changed on your watch?
Reporters still want to get their teeth in a story, they still want to go out and have a look for themselves. (But) it’s difficult to convince them that interests have changed, especially in the middle class, which is much more interested in technology and soft business matters.
Why is the media the villain for everyone?
This villain thing is highly exaggerated. Journalists are still heroes for the aam aadmi. India is one of the few countries where people still trust the media, although that’s eroding slowly. This villain thing is new, (something) I’m in favour of because a journalist has both a hero and a villain in him.
Readers are getting sophisticated and they realise it costs vast sums to produce a magazine or run a television channel. The big question is whether commercial interests and good journalism are fundamentally incompatible. Many journalists believe one cancels out the other. I don’t think so.
So what is the crisis in the media?
I think it’s an easy word. But the crisis is that the advertisement pie is expanding well but not enough to sustain the vast number of players. Survival becomes paramount even if your intentions are good. For example, I believe the front page belongs to the reader, not the advertiser, but increasingly it is for sale. You (also) can’t blame people because there are huge sums involved, and if you don’t give it there are 19 others.
That sounds like there’s more competition?
It’s insanely more competition. (But) it means you cut corners everywhere: editorial, advertising, circulation. Compromises are made and the biggest consideration isn’t journalistic quality, it’s money. You make money to survive, that’s an honourable mission. Making profits is also okay. It becomes very difficult for editors to look at all these matters. I can’t think of any other capital, not even London, where you’ve as many newspapers as Delhi. It’s unsustainable. They’re there in the pond and in the end, they tend to take everybody down.
I am in favour of readers knowing that a journalist has both a hero and villain in him
But doesn’t this also raise standards?
The standards are not set by one publication, they’re set by the industry. They ask for your cover, next they’ll ask for something else. You should be able to tell your people we know we need revenue, we’re prepared to go so far, but these things we won’t do. That becomes difficult.
What makes you feel proud?
When I was editor of Debonair, when I would have a good nude in the issue my spirits would go up. Or when I did an interview with VS Naipaul. I feel proud I’ve made compromises, but I haven’t made as many as others. I think in 35-40 years as editor, I haven’t done anything dishonest. You interview a politician even if you may not want to. They say there must be some light stuff in the magazine. If an advertiser wants a place to show his products, you create two pages in the back. Political compromises, I haven’t made. We’ve stayed, by and large, on course and tried to produce independent journalism. I’m happy to say I give myself six and a half out of 10!