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Coffee with BS: Sreenath Sreenivasan

The social media guru on the information revolution and newspapers

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To those who know of him, four alphabets preceded by a symbol – @sree, a Twitter handle – should suffice, but to others, it is rather tedious to introduce Sreenath Sreenivasan. The most convenient way of doing this could be to state his current job, the first ever chief digital officer at New York’s Columbia University, and to mention that Newsweek once named him among the 20 most influential South Asians in America.

Yet, the problem with that description is that it does little to cover Sreenivasan’s beginnings as a greenhorn journalist in Fiji, where his father served as an Indian diplomat. It won’t reveal that he spent two decades teaching at the Columbia Journalism School; or his swift rise as a technology journalist and social media guru before Twitter became a new-age newswire. Or, for that matter, the time he spent moonlighting as a proof reader for the now-defunct The Sunday Observer in old Delhi’s Daryaganj while reading history at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, writes Devjyot Ghoshal.

It is not as if the story of Sreenivasan, or “Sree”, hasn’t been told before, which is why when I sit down with him at the Taj Mahal Hotel’s Emperor Lounge for coffee, there are two specific things I want to understand: how he got where he did, and how he views the future of journalism. Curiously, the very magazine that once featured him (Newsweek) has just brought out its final print issue.

“When I was 12, I told my parents that I wanted to be a journalist and they started crying immediately,” Sreenivasan starts jokingly. “They weren’t excited about journalism as a career. Eventually, many decades later, my revenge has been that my dad is very much a media person himself.” His father now writes for a couple of news publications and appears on television in Kerala, he says.

But some two decades ago, for a traditional Malyalee family, a career in journalism wasn’t exactly the norm. That was partly why he left for St Stephen’s College. “I couldn’t have done that if I was too close to my parents. So, I came here and was able to start exploring journalism fairly soon,” he says.

That included proof-reading for Observer, then owned by Jaico Publishing. Despite being a “really ratty situation” in the grubby by-lanes of Daryaganj, Sreenivasan found himself sitting over men typing out text in English, though they didn’t know a word of the language. “I loved it. I would’ve done it for free.”

By the end of college, Sreenivasan had a job there. The real change, however, came when Reliance bought the publication and the money came rushing in. “We went from Daryaganj to Barakhamba Road, overnight,” he recalls. “And that’s where I discovered email for the first time. But there was nobody to send it to; it was only internal email.”

That introduction to email came handy when Sreenivasan attended the Columbia Journalism School – he was among the few in his class who knew the technology – but on the way, he spent a year in Indian journalism, working with R Jagannathan (then Business Today’s editor), Chandan Mitra (The Pioneer) and Tarun Tejpal (Tehelka) among others.

“It tells you how small Indian journalism is,” he says, when I ask if he was surprised to have worked with so many recognised editors in such a short time. “Even today, what is unusual about Indian journalism is that, in TV (for example) you could be right out of college and get a job at NDTV. Or you could write for The Times of India or Business Standard.” The minimum work experience for a job at The New York Times, he offers as an example, is about five years.

The bigger difference, he explains, is how the industry is structured. “Every town has, maybe, one newspaper and three TV channels, and they end up covering city government in a very strong way. So, if a traffic light is broken, it can’t be broken for very long. The mayor can’t get up to a lot of mischief because there are these journalists with nothing to do,” he reasons. “Indian journalism remains big-city-based and so much of it is national news.”

Our coffees – an Iced Cafe Mocha for him and a Cappucino for me – have arrived, and Sreenivasan is going for the cookies that accompanied them with some enthusiasm. Almost helplessly, he tells me, “Please eat them,” but I’m more interested in talking to him.

When Sreenivasan graduated from Columbia University, the profession was on the cusp of the digital revolution. In the fall of 1994, the university’s journalism school offered its first class in digital media. Two years later, in 1996, “We went through a boom and bust in 1996,” he recollects, “and then the 2000 bubble and bust.” Did he see the bubble coming? Not quite, is the answer.

All this is relevant because there’s another massive change sweeping through journalism today. In mature markets, print is dying even as digital news platforms strive for financial success. Social media is challenging the monopoly over information and its distribution, while tablet and smartphone penetration grows. Having spent time as dean of student affairs at the Columbia Journalism School, Sreenivasan knows what news organisations want.

“I think the future of journalism is digitised but it’ll also be a lot more specialised because that will make you stand out at a time when everybody is a journalist,” he says.

I ask him to focus on India and what the rise of the internet, alongside the growing influence of social networking means for the country’s news industry. He takes the second question first. “You see a tendency in the government of India to overreact and shut down communication and free speech. That is terrible, and should be unacceptable,” Sreenivasan says bluntly, though he recognises the dangers of an unrestrained online social network. He mentions the recent rumour-fuelled exodus from Bangalore of those from the North-eastern states, and the arrest of a young woman for a Facebook post after Bal Thackeray’s death. Journalists, however, need to use social media to listen, rather than to push out information.

For the business of journalism, that sense of the unknown is more alarming. “(Although) there are exceptions, the websites of most are kind of stuck in about 2010, 2008 or 2009, because there is no incentive for innovation,” Sreenivasan says, “In America, most newspapers and journalists in newspapers have an enormous fear of what’s going to happen. Fear leads to innovation. But here, because you’re so comfortable, there’s no incentive to try new things. Instead, you just coast along.”

The biggest problem for American newspapers, he continues, was that they were so enormously profitable and so successful in the last quarter century that they didn’t prepare. And although India’s growing literacy and (relatively) buoyant economy is making it easier for Indian (English-language) newspapers, evolution will catch up with the industry eventually. “India has four or five English business dailies. In America, there’s one English business daily and no one is starting another one,” he adds.

“There is a storm (coming) but you cannot see it,” he predicts, adding a tad ominously, “It may be five years from now, but if you’re smart, you’ll be preparing today and Indian newspapers haven’t done that.”

“The disruption that has come to media and everything else is about to come to education. American education has not changed in 350 years,” he says, “This word MOOCS (massive open online course) didn’t exist till September 2011 and now, suddenly, it’s all over the place.”

Yet, how does this fit in with his profile and training as a journalist, I ask? “I’ve been a teacher for 20 years, so it’s in my education background,” counters Sreenivasan quickly. And that is precisely why it isn’t to describe who exactly Sreenivasan is. Columbia University’s “CDO” would be accurate but barely comprehensive.

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