Aurora Magazine

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Living to the rhythm of the news cycle

Published in Mar-Apr 2017

A day in the life of Amber Rahim Shamsi, Anchor of 'Newswise' on Dawn News.
Photo: The Dawn News Creative Department.
Photo: The Dawn News Creative Department.

Ten o’ clock. It is the second time I wake up. The first is when the kids are going to school. I reach for my phone to check news apps, WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. Being a news junkie, there is an element of FOMO in this: my day is assembled around the whims and fancies of news and newsmakers; what I missed, what is being said and who is saying it. I also remember that we have run out of fruit and my daughter’s annual play costume needs to be picked up.

10:43. a.m. My youngest daughter calls from school. “Amma, I have a toothache, can I come home?” I try to read her voice; is this an excuse or a genuine complaint? A split-second decision is layered with a medical and psychological analysis, as well as that inexplicable maternal instinct. I insist she stays at school, although, if she is sick I will be the mommy monster who put school before health.

11:00 a.m. Time for TV. I watch the headlines and portions of current affairs shows on repeat.

12:15 p.m. My editor in Karachi calls. “What’s happening, Amber? What are you doing today? How about getting an ‘as live’ from the Pak-Afghan border? Try the Z spokesperson for a beeper.”

12:22 p.m. My producer calls. “Did you speak to Mubashir? I’ll speak to the Peshawar bureau for an ‘as live’ near Torkham. He said the Z spokesperson might do a beeper if you call.”

“I’ll do that. And there was another interesting story from yesterday. The Federal Shariat Court said test-tube babies are halal and surrogacy is haram.

“Okay, but who do we get on that. An Islamic scholar?”

“I’m not sure how we’ll treat it; let me have a think and I’ll get back to you.”

12:44 p.m. I get a DM on Twitter. “I know this is short notice but could you come tomorrow to a seminar on XYZ as a panellist?” I weigh the cost of time versus the benefits of participation. Ten minutes later, I say yes.

1:05 p.m. My producer calls again. “The Peshawar bureau says it can send an ‘as live’. Did you talk to the Z spokesperson?”

“I messaged him but the blue tick hasn’t shown up on WhatsApp, I’ll try again later. Maybe he’s in a meeting. I think we should get an infertility treatment expert for the test-tube baby story.”

1:45 p.m. En route to the office, my car reeks of bananas and strawberries (I remembered to buy the fruit) when my producer calls again. “We’ve booked Ali Gul Pir for Friday. He can’t come today. How do we fill in that slot?

“I’m nearly at the office, we’ll discuss it then.”

The days I forget to plug my ear buds to the phone in the car, I’m a traffic ticket waiting to happen.

2:05 p.m. The first thing I do at the office is open all the major news websites. My desktop is often a mass of open tabs. This is the second time in the day. It is also when I reply to the Facebook and Twitter messages on the show’s official page and handle. We don’t feature calls, texts or tweets, but audience interaction is important to build the show’s brand. I often also re-plug the more interesting clips from the last show. With a little guilt, I realise there are emails that I still haven’t responded to. Later, I think, after the kids are asleep.

2:15 p.m. My producer asks me as I munch on a sandwich and catch up on the news I didn’t have the time to read or missed (being a slave to the 24/7 news cycle requires constant vigilance). “Did the Z spokesperson get back to you?”

“He says he will confirm at around 4:30 p.m. after the meeting. What’s our Plan B?”

“I’ll call Y minister as a back-up. There’s a National Assembly session going on. Let’s see.”

"Every 15-minute segment is a series of decisions on how to treat a story – should we commission a report, get a man-on-the-street opinion, or create a graphic – and who do we talk to?"

A magazine-style show is much more challenging than the formulaic one-plus-three formula (an anchor and three guests) which is the more popular current affairs format. There is a reason it is popular, not because audiences prefer it, but because it requires less planning and resources.

Not only do we need to try and book what are called first-tier guests (ministers, well-known political figures or analysts), we feature off-beat social issues or guests such as celebrities or innovators.

Every 15-minute segment is a series of decisions on how to treat a story – should we commission a report, get a man-on-the-street opinion, or create a graphic – and who do we talk to?

The days when the team decides to feature analysts and journalists are relatively easy ones. With around 15 national Urdu-language news channels and multiple talk shows between the 7:00-11:00 p.m. prime time slot, booking government officials or politicians of different stripes can be tricky. I have often heard my producers coordinating time slots with producers from other channels. “So if ABC is on your show at 8:15 p.m., our office is nearby. Maybe she can go to your show after ours?”

In addition, there are a handful of major-league anchors and shows which are well-connected and influential; moreover, certain politicians prefer certain TV channels, depending on the agenda. Our show is without overt bias and new, as I am to the anchoring game.

2:45 p.m. I have a long conversation with Z spokesperson. I cajole, persuade; we talk off the record. He finally agrees to come to the show, but only if we record it rather than a live interview. The team breathes a sigh of relief even though it means juggling studio time.

Provincial spokespersons are relatively easier to book, particularly KP and Punjab. Where we often have trouble are the ministries – the Foreign Office has a dedicated spokesperson, but the Interior Ministry doesn’t, for instance. Getting either Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan or the Interior Minister for State Baligh Ur Rahman on the show is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for small fry like us.

Important ministries such as Defence, Finance, Interior, Planning, Development and Reforms, Water and Power are headed by busy ministers who don’t just attend meetings; they are also at the vanguard of their political party. If they are not defending their party boss with reference to Panama, they have trips and other parliamentary duties. Giving the media access to spokespersons would make their ministries more transparent and accessible.

3:15 p.m. I get a message from the older daughter. She reminds me that I need to pick up her costume. She also messages that the younger one has a fierce toothache and is crying inconsolably. I swallow my guilt and ask her to give her a pain-reliever.

3:20 p.m. My husband is taking my younger daughter to the dentist. Double guilt. I can’t go because we have to record a segment with Z spokesperson.

5:30 p.m. One segment is done. Now to the rest of the show.

8:05 p.m. Relief. The live has gone well. I fumbled in the last segment but I am pleased with the mix of stories and guests. Regret not having a fun ‘lighter’ story at the end.

8:45 p.m. Have picked up the annual play costume from the tailor. It cost an arm and a leg. Clearly, my desperation made me an easy prey.

10:00 p.m. Dinner is done, update of the day with the family done, cuddles and kisses to the kids done. Back to Twitter, TV, Facebook and WhatsApp. I live my life to the rhythm of the news cycle and it’s a relentless, erratic beat.

Amber Rahim Shamsi is an anchor on Dawn News, and hosts the show Newswise. @AmberRShamsi.