Friday, August 17, 2012

T Venugopalan: A Pioneer in Media Professionalism

“ONE of the toughest days in my career,” T Venugopalan, veteran Malayalam journalist who died in Calicut on August 3, 20012, at age 82, used to tell all those who cared to listen to him in his innumerable sessions all over Kerala, explaining the challenges o f making a good newspaper front page, “ was the day Indira Gandhi was shot dead.” Most of his younger students could not imagine how daunting the task for the veteran, then at the pinnacle of his career, the presiding deity at the central desk of Kerala’s most respected nationalist daily, Mmathrubhumi, when the tragic incident took place on the last day of October in 1984. It shocked the nation, something almost similar to the assassination of the Mahatma over four decades earlier. The incident posed serious professional challenges before any media-person who had to convey the shock, the dramatic nature of unfolding events and its immense significance to a grieving nation to the discerning readers used to the laid back approach of the print medium that was facing big threats from a nascent visual media. And for Venugopalan, it was not just another news development that was earth-shaking: It was indeed a personal loss and a deeply traumatic experience because he was born and brought up in the same nationalist tradition that gave birth to a leader like Indira Gandhi. His father was close to the nationalist movement and that is why he came to Mathrubhumi, the newspaper that came into existence as a mouthpiece for the Indian National Congress In Kerala in 1923, at the tender age of 22 in 1952, hand chosen by V M Nair, then its managing director. He had just completed his BA degree from Kerala Varma College, Trissur, a centre of learning with strong literary ambiance, when he was whisked to the desk of the tradition-bound newspaper which was struggling to come to terms with its own transition to a commercial product in a new and vibrant industry, from its original incarnation as a nationalist mouthpiece. It was not an easy time for him or anyone else to join the profession. The old pattern of well known and idealist politicians doubling up as agents and reporters and editors, who would disappear to the next public meeting exactly at the moment when the deadline approaches for the next day’s edition, leaving all the troubles and responsibilities to the young and inexperienced hacks back at the desk, was still prevalent and Mathrubhumi had a big crop of such veterans who looked down upon the wannabe crowd of younger professionals who had different ideas about media work. For those who belonged to the old school, age-old rules were sacrosanct and no experiments in the style of writing, page layout, or design were to be tolerated. All such talks about professionalism and media’s role as an industry were anathema and it was in such a context that a young professional like Venugopalan made concerted attempts to bring in new experiments and new ideas to all departments of newspaper profession like reporting, editing, design and makeup. “No rule is immune to changes,” he used to say, “if you could convince your readers that they are good.” That is what he did that day when Indira Gandhi died. He simply dumped the old style of as much information on the front page, and instead made a page that conveyed the image of a nation in shock, with sparse text and stark and dramatic graphics—a precursor to the graphics-rich newspaper design that became the norm a decade or so later. A tribute to the man who was bold enough to experiment beyond his times, this particular edition of the paper is now in display at the Nehru Memorial Museum& Library in Delhi, in a collection on the historic moments in the young nation’s life. Venugopalan was one of the most prominent among the first generation of post-Independence Malayalam journalists, who redrew the rules of the profession and made them more in tune with changing times. He thought professionalism was the key to the success of the new industry, and along with the other veterans of the generation like Thomas Jacob of Malayala Manorama, P Aravindakshan of Indian Express, N V Pylee of Express (Malayalam) and N N Satyavratan of Mathrubhumi, he endeavoured to bring in professionalism across the length and breadth of the newspaper profession in Malayalam, with training session for local reporters and staff members in other newspapers, most of them small and medium units which dominated the media industry back then. He insisted on a simple: Make things simple and easy to communicate, for your readers are simple folks. He was general secretary of the Kerala Union of Working Journalist s (KUWJ) for three terms in its infancy, and in this capacity developed a media training programme called Newscraft for media professionals in the State bringing in well known name s in Indian journalism and world media including from Thomson Foundation in London for its workshops conducted all over Kerala. It was from the experiences gained from these sessions of Newscraft that the Government of Kerala was persuaded to set up the Kerala Prèss Academy, which became the nodal agency for media training in the State late on. Venugopalan had around 50 years of experience in Malayalam journalism at the time when he took voluntary retirement from Mathrubhumi as deputy editor in 1988, following a tiff with the management. He then became the most celebrated media expert and consultant for smaller newspapers and start-up television channels that sprung up n the nineties and even later. In the decade or so when was active after retirement, before illness forced him to take a backseat, he had served in various newspapers like Madhyamam, Mangalam, Express, etc, and also anchored a programme on media at Asianet which was considered a path-breaking one in such genre in Malayalam television. As a younger professional, I was associated with him from late nineties, when he took over as the first director of the Institute of Communication & Journalism (ICJ), one of the first media training institutions in Malabar region, s et up by the Calicut Press Club in 2000 with government assistance for infrastructure. As president of the Press Club and chairman of the governing committee of the ICJ, I had worked closely with him in those initial years, when he tirelessly worked to develop a state off the art curriculum for the one-year post-graduate diploma course offered there, with special emphasis on new and emerging areas of media activity like television, new media, etc. We were also able to bring out a journal on media and society, Media Focus, which carried articles and analysis from a number of Indian and international scholars and professionals in the two years of its existence. Venugppalan proved to be a very sincere and committed senior advisor to most of the new media ventures that came up in the late nineties and early 2000s in Kerala. I was personally involved in at least two such initiatives, seeking and receiving his help and advice in matters like recruitment, training, etc—first at Kairali TV News which started telecast at Cochin in August 2000 and then again at Thejas daily, launched from Calicut in January 2006. He was a modest man, always accessible, and very pleasant. A chain smoker, he kept the Scissors brand of cigarette stuck tight in his fingers almost always-- which finally spurred his end with nicotine poisoning in his systems. With child-like pleasure and eagerness, he took part in all kinds of activities in his office along with the most junior colleagues, whether it is playing games, pulling the legs of a colleague or writing instant poetry to drive away the drudgery of the work at late night shifts. He had another, serious pursuit in his private moments: As a scholar and researcher whose contributions might remain for a long time. He spent more than 12 years researching the life and works of Swadeshab himani k Ramakrishna Pillai, Kerala’s most celebrated journalist and editor who was banished from his native Travancore in 1910, writing his biography as well as editing and publishing all his works and editorials in a series of volumes. He was a self effacing man, who avoided the limelight and kept off from public platforms except at media class rooms. The Government of Kerala honoured him in 2011 with the first Swadeshambhimani- Kesari Award, instituted in memory of the two legendary editors in Malayalam, for his life long contributions to Malayalam media and journalism.