Context sensitive and context free journalism

My wife thinks that most of my writing for Mint is incredibly boring, and of a significantly inferior quality to what I publish on this blog. Initially I thought it was because I was taking myself too seriously for Mint (a national newspaper and all that), but despite my attempts to “loosen up”, and write my Mint articles “in flow”, the criticism continues.

Now thinking about it, one reason why my writing for Mint might be boring is that in the beginning of each piece I try hard to provide context. I write without assuming that my readers know exactly what I’m writing about, and so I spend some time giving sufficient background so that my readers appreciate my articles (and most of my pieces appear with minimal edits).

This, I realise now, is not how Indian journalism usually works, for in a large majority of pieces it is assumed that the reader has context. Many a time I find myself reading a piece and not being able to make the head or tail of it, and then going back and trying to figure out the context. The point of several articles I’ve read has become clear only in retrospect, when I’ve found something else that this article was referencing (but didn’t link to).

On the other hand, a “newspaper” like The Economist mostly does context-free journalism. Every piece comes with sufficient background for the reader to know what is happening. There may not be links to find out more, but the limited context provided is enough to understand the point of the piece. Maybe that they are a weekly, and cover news from all over the world makes them want to provide context?

In any case, I find context-sensitive journalism (like what most daily newspapers practice) irritating. Or maybe it is that they haven’t really made the transition from print to digital? Print is a medium where the publisher controls what articles are seen together by a reader, and so one article can provide the required context to an adjacent article.

There is no such “togetherness” in digital. This strengthens my belief that journalism is still yet to “get” digital.

Name mutilation

Like Bangalore supposedly became Bengaluru a few years back (when HDK was cheap minister), West Bengal is going to change its name to “Poschim Bongo” or some such thing. Now, unlike Bombay-Mumbai or Madras-Chennai, the thing with these name changes is that they are merely globalization of local names. Let me explain.

Bombay (bom bahia or good port in Portuguese) and Mumbai (of Mumba Devi) are fundamentally different. Madras (mad race? ) and Chennai (beautiful) are again fundamentally different. While I disagree with those name changes and still prefer to call those cities by their former names, I see that the change in those names at least has some merit. They wanted to get rid of their colonial British-given names (and i’m sure Tams wanted to prove they aren’t a mad race, though they might have achieved the opposite through this action) and chose local names in the local language.

When Bangalore’s name was supposedly changed to “Bengaluru” a few years back, Kannada newspapers (I used to subscribe to Vijaya Karnataka back then) had a tough time explaining the name change. Because Bangalore has forever been known as “Bengaluru” in Kannada. Even now, when I speak in Kannada I say “Bengaluru” but I say “Bangalore” when speaking in any other language. While it might have been a noble intention by HDK and UR Ananthamurthy and others behind the name change to get the non-Kannadigas to use the Kannada name, the effect has been completely counterproductive.

Till date, I’m yet to meet someone who is not conversant in Kannada to pronounce “BengaLuru” correctly. First of all, most people can’t say the “L” sound and instead pronounce it as “l” (in Kannada that can make a profound difference. for example “hELu” is “tell” while “hElu” is “shit” ). Next (this is the problem with most North Indians), people have trouble pronouncing the short ‘e’ sound. Finally, it’s hard for people to figure out that the first U in Bengaluru is to be pronounced long and the terminal u should be pronounced short. The combination of all these means horribly messed up pronunciation, which makes one wonder why they bothered to “change” the name at all.

West Bengal doesn’t seem to have learnt from this experience of Bangalore. They want to call themselves “Poschim Bongo” it seems. Not being a bong, I’m going to have major difficulty in pronouncing that name, and I might end up pronouncing it in a way that makes most bongs cringe. I really hope they see sense before they make this name change official and opt for a saner name, if they want to change their name at all that is.

One thing they could try would be to knock that “west” off their name (I believe the Times of India has been campaigning for this). West Bengal was the primary reason that I got my directions and geography horribly wrong till I was some eight years old. I used to assume that “West Bengal” was at the western edge of India! Especially since Bangladesh is no more called “East Bengal”.

Given that they are mostly commie, one thing they could try is probably to go the East Germany or North Korea way, and name themselves “Democratic State of Bengal” or some such thing.