A Conversation With: Jonathan Shainin, Newyorker.com News Editor
By MAX BEARAK
Jonathan Shainin was the senior editor at The Caravan, an English-language long-form journalism magazine, for three years before leaving India in October to become the news editor at The New Yorker’s website, where he commissions and edits both domestic and international news stories. He sat with India Ink at the Jaipur Literature Festival over the weekend to discuss the possibilities and pitfalls of foreign correspondence in India and India’s evolving media landscape.
Foreign journalists – and by extension their editors – are often accused of peddling overly negative, simplistic or even dismissive narratives of India. How do you interpret those assertions?
A foreign correspondent once pointed out to me that the idea of foreign correspondence, at least in the way we normally think of it, is kind of a Western invention. Having said that, I don’t think it’s an inherently colonial enterprise, but I do think that all foreign correspondence is based on a set of premises and preconceptions, not always bad ones, about what’s interesting to your particular audience about the place you cover, and what narrative about that place seems right at a certain time.
For example, there’s been a huge uptick in coverage of violence against women, which is seen as being interesting to the foreign audience partly because it’s an emotional one, and superficially speaking, it’s not that complicated. Issues like corruption, governance, and federalism are really difficult subjects that would face considerable resistance from an editor.
I guess I do think that in some ways this discontent that you’re describing is inherent in the business. You have to be really self aware, and if you’re working in America, you might not think about that as often. For some correspondents, that sense is less there, and that spurs the ire that we sometimes see.
Nowadays, people in India can read The New York Times or Washington Post, and through comment boards, there’s this capacity to talk back that didn’t exist before. I’d be quite curious to talk to editors at Western papers to see if that’s changed the way they’ve thought about their coverage.
Why don’t Indian papers jump on the foreign correspondence bandwagon in a big way?
The practice of foreign correspondence is inflected by geopolitics. America sends foreign correspondents around the world roughly in alignment with where we think the important places are. There are probably as many between Beirut and Cairo as there are in all of Africa. Indian papers have some in Pakistan now, a handful in America, maybe a few in China. Aman Sethi with The Hindu was the first full-time guy in Africa, I think.
It does reflect how a country sees itself geopolitically. That America has people all over doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans are a naturally enlightened breed of people, but there’s a sense that we’re a world power and our threats and interests are out there.
I don’t want to sound too cynical about this, but now, commissioning articles for the New Yorker, I think a lot about what the boundary of general American interests are. I try to get writers to write something that starts within that boundary and then work themselves and the reader past it into something more nuanced and complex. But if they don’t care about it all, period, then you’re just not going to cover that.
People in India might feel dyspeptic about the way foreign correspondents cover their country because it seems like those papers only care when a bunch of people die. But you even have that debate in India, with regards to the northeast for instance. Ten people die in Mumbai and it leads the news, and 50 die in Assam and that’s not enough. My view as an editor is you have to have these preconceptions and priorities because you can’t report on everything, but you can’t be good without being self-aware about them.
What happens to Western coverage of India when each story needs to say something larger about India, whether because of readers’ expectations or editors’ predispositions?
What’s confounding to outsiders is that India doesn’t offer any neat narrative. A lot of stories on India ultimately say, “Here’s a fitful effort by a big, huge complicated country to negotiate a new sort of modernity that doesn’t look exactly like the Western modernity that we know.” That type of thinking is a handicap when thinking about how to translate India for a foreign audience because the categories aren’t the same.
There’s a whole package of ideas on progress and modernity that we have in the West that is rooted in our experience, and only some of it overlaps with India’s story. Trying to fit each person or place into “India’s story” unintentionally makes an example of those people or communities. You are saying, “This is what matters about this place,” which isn’t to say that every journalist is out to use people, especially if they have a heightened awareness of the preconceptions they are bringing to the story.
How do you see Indian journalism evolving in the near future?
At the end of the day it comes down to the reader — what are they interested in, what do they place value on? I should specify that I don’t mean that you always give the reader what they want, or else you might end up with a tabloid. But if you look at the Indian English-language media, what you have is a situation where there’s not a correlation between greater quality of the product and greater readership. You don’t have premium products that are more successful by virtue of tighter writing, better editing and more substantive and explanatory journalism. The big question for the future of the Indian print media is how that correlation evolves.
What are the biggest threats to press freedom in India?
We’re not exactly in a paradise of press freedom now. Part of that is restricted access, and part is how government advertisements are dispensed to newspapers. But the biggest threat is pusillanimous ownership of newspapers by people who lack journalistic integrity, or even have massive business interests in other places that are much larger than their publishing interests.
Imagine if Arthur Sulzberger [the publisher of The New York Times] also owned Exxon Mobil and then had to negotiate with the Obama administration for drilling rights — you’d find that very quickly a lot of what the paper was doing would be compromised for the owner’s business interests. The lack of independence of Indian papers from the political system is like the lack of antibodies in an immune system. It means that if the government or the business lobby comes asking for favorable coverage, owners are less likely to say, “That’s not what we’re about.”
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
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