Time doesn’t fly. When you are obsessed with your work and the people you do that work with – I am not advocating for workaholism or unhealthy attachment to colleagues, so please don’t try this at home – it feels like someone photoshopped the whole concept of time out of your life.
That’s what the first six months of The Correspondent feel like to me. Like, did all this really happen? (Insert dark statement about a pandemic that has started to make everything look unreal anyway.)
It seems like yesterday when I was sitting at home in Delhi after having quit my job, unable to cope with my growing depression and my cynicism about the media industry.
Then, on 30 September 2019, I became part of a pulsating transnational "unbreaking news" adventure, with colleagues from parts of the world that I had only read books about or watched documentaries on.
Six months on, I’ve been gifted with the world’s most engaged, most generous readers who really exemplify what "membership" means.
And together with our team and our members, I get to manage a beat that continues to draw all kinds of incredulous reactions. "Sanity? How cool! How do I get that job?"
So, what did I learn in these six months?
Inspired by a Twitter thread I did, here are the eight most important and interesting things I have learnt so far.
Spoiler alert: There’s a tonne of praise in there for you. Yes, you. Because I am an unabashed, gung-ho fan of my readers.
Be 100% honest about what you don’t know
Reporters are trained to believe that their job is to supply answers. For the writer’s ego, revealing ignorance is a mortifying thought. We’re paid to "know" everything.
But since so much in this job was totally new to me, one of the first things I learnt was to explicitly tell readers all the things I don’t know. In fact we often start our writing process with a set of personal questions or unknowns, and we ask readers for help to find answers.
Readers don’t always want "information" and "facts"
Every time I told our members how little I knew about a topic, or about a mistake I made in a piece, they told me it’s okay and lifted me on their shoulders, with generous moral support - but also hardcore technical and journalistic advice.
It has helped me see that what readers often want more than "answers" is to go on a journey of shared enquiry with a person they can trust. This kinship between readers and writers is the beating heart of our kind of media. Anything that gets in the way better have a very good reason to exist.
Being a fan of your readers pays
What most ad-based media calls "engagement" is a farcical one-way street. They want readers to consume their content, spend precious time commenting on it, and hit the "like, share, subscribe" buttons - but barring the odd reply to readers’ comments, which many reporters still see as a waste of time, they remain completely disengaged and cut off.
One way to do engagement right is by being fanatical about your readers’ expertise. This is the single biggest gain I’ve made in the past six months. How stupid it is that for decades we confined the reader’s voice to "Letters to the Editor"!
The Correspondent’s members have taught me what collaboration could really mean. Every time I’ve issued a callout for help on complex subjects (the science of guilt, for instance), they’ve showered me with books, sources - even deeply sensitive family medical histories, just in case it helps me help others.
Building a beat is backbreaking work
Before joining The Correspondent, I was an editor for almost the whole span of my 15-year-career. In these six months, my respect for beat reporters has zoomed. Building a beat means you have to curb the typical reporter habit of being interested in too many things. It is about heads-down concentration and discipline. Sniffing out new stories but also showing up every day with something.
Maybe the reader doesn’t notice you on day 1 or day 100. But on day 101, when they need you, you have to be there. It’s about perseverance more than anything else.
A tight-knit team will succeed and fail together
And working remotely is NO hurdle to being a tight-knit team as long as you are intentional about creating non-judgmental spaces where the team can blow off steam when the shit hits the fan. We have weekly "feelings meetings" that are meant to do exactly this.
As a reporter, investing in new sources is critical
As an editor, I hated the dial-a-quote culture and was fed up with the same "experts" popping up in every copy. I now try never to repeat the same sources in two consecutive stories. It’s been a hugely rewarding experience.
If you write for an audience spread over 140 countries, it can be tempting to curb your national identity. But you don’t need to
So much of the talk in media is about context and localisation. But I think what people really want is to feel how their story fits with that of others. And how it doesn’t.
Oh and yes, age really shouldn’t stop you. In my case, I was lucky that neither did a "diagnosis"
I’m 37. Not a spring chicken. In fact by the standards of the reporting world, I am what you could call an old, fibrous, unappetising chicken. Also, for the better part of the past two decades, I’ve lived with major depression and anxiety disorder.
But I’ve never felt more full of purpose at work. This is not the same as "ambition". It is a combination of knowing what you write makes a difference, but not so much that you start taking yourself too seriously.
Do you have memories or powerful lessons from your first six months at a job that you’d like to share? Write to me.
Stay safe, and see you next week.