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Published in Mar-Apr 2012

Four cuppas and 10 newspapers

Published in Mar-Apr 2012
A day in the life of a journalist, Fahd Husain.

I am a journalist who happens to be working as an anchor of an evening talk show. I say this to make a point: journalism is a profession, anchoring is a job. The two should not be intermixed, like a banana in a blender full of milk. Press the button, and you get neither. So like every journalist is not an anchor, neither is every anchor a journalist.

I am reminded of this probably obscure differentiation every morning when I wake up. Four cups of tea and 10 newspapers await my arrival at the dining table, to be sipped, gulped and devoured with equal relish. After all, this is the routine I have been following through all my various jobs within journalism (which by the way is the only profession I have done ever since I stepped into a career).

I look back at the cratered road travelled and feel ancient. Sub-editor, reporter, columnist, editor, producer, anchor, director, manager; yep, the four cuppas and 10 newspapers have stayed with me through all the highs and lows of journalism. It is a comforting feeling every morning, knowing some things never change.

The planning for the show starts the moment the two-egg omelette arrives. Napoleon used to say that an army can’t march on an empty stomach; he clearly didn’t know the same applies to a journalist. Ideas are penned down (the red diary is right there next to the toast). Possible angles are scribbled. Names of potential guests noted. Yes, breakfast is a very private working affair, no casual conversation please, thank you very much.

By the time I reach the office, half the work is done. Half, because newspapers have given me yesterday’s news, including columns and tidbits which TV glosses over. Now comes the scanning of websites and monitoring of fresh news bulletins. The entries in the red diary steadily increase. By the time normal Pakistanis with normal professions start to pack up for lunch, I’m set for the show meeting with my colleagues.

An intense session ensues. Story ideas are thrown, dissected, dissed and finally shortlisted to four. Research points are listed, duties allocated, guests earmarked and off we go our separate ways.

What follows are the three most important tasks for me: read, read and finally read.

At the back of the mind hovers the perennial question. What do the viewers want? It is a dangerously slippery slope, this question. Hence caveats have to be attached, journalistic requirements applied and ethical norms contextualised. In other words, I take off the anchor hat and put on the journalistic one. I’m not sure if it delivers the required results, but hey, I’m a prisoner of my own instinctive habits. I am, after all, a journalist first and an anchor second.

TV hates this differentiation, just like nature abhors a vacuum. I am told I have to sell my content like marketers sell soap. That my viewers are like the marketers’ customers and therefore I need to apply the same methodology that my marketer colleagues use. And I wonder, if this is indeed so, then why did I get a degree in journalism and not an MBA in marketing? Two sides of the same coin? Just the thought violates all that I have studied and learnt as a journalist.

Not that I have anything against marketers or sales people. They have their job to do and I have mine. Never the twain shall meet, I have been taught. There is supposed to be a firewall between the two in established news organisations. The sales worthiness of content is not my problem. Its social impact is. Its news worthiness is. Its gravitas is.

This is perhaps why marketers are from Venus and journalists from Mars. Or at least they should be. Although here in Pakistan, in our industry, they both appear to be from the moon. This incestuous relationship is jarring enough to rattle any decent journalistic sensibilities, if they haven’t already been killed by the proprietor.

The news cycle moves on as the day progresses. Stories change, priorities change, rundowns change. Often guests change. Thank God I don’t have to have three guests violating each other’s dignity in the studio. The news show format is cleaner, swifter, more serious and closer to journalism than entertainment (I think). I focus on content and context, and let the guests say what they have to say in the few minutes allocated to them.

One advantage of Pakistan being in constant crisis mode is that this has become the ‘new normal’ for all of us. Nothing shocks us anymore. Well, almost nothing. Institutional collisions are normal, terrorist incidents are normal, corruption scandals are normal, load-shedding is normal, even breaking news is normal. As the multiple screens in my office flash and burn in vivid colours, as anchors and reporters indulge in hysterics and histrionics, and as headlines blare doom music and gloom words, I sit back and sip my coffee. All in a day’s work.

A case of acute insensitivitis? Probably yes. But having lived and worked in more mature news markets, I tell myself that this stage in Pakistani broadcast journalism will also pass. And yes, there will be better times ahead. So like a jaded warrior, I pick my fights every night knowing that at the end of the day, we journalists – and especially anchors – should not be taking ourselves too seriously. We are all playing a part in a larger chorus, even though we carry the big drums. There is a purpose to all this, even though we tend to miss it when it comes and slaps us on our faces. Not to worry. News channels will live on. Anchors will live on. Their ill-prepared and loud-mouthed guests will live on.

And I will get to have my four cups of tea and my 10 newspapers every morning, smug in my knowledge that trends may come and go, but ethical and responsible journalism will remain solid as an oak tree in a barren desert.

Fahd Husain hosts ‘Pakistan Tonight’ on ARY News.