Former New Yorker fact-checker Jonathan Shainin has now become a “North Indian Gora”. After his stint at The Review in Abu Dhabi, Mr. Shainin moved to India last year to assume the role of Senior Editor at The Caravan. Mr. Shainin is in Mumbai to attend the Times Literary Carnival. New Delhi may be his turf but the Mumbaikars have turned the tables on him. Earlier in the day he was ‘interviewed’ by an autowallah who had questions related to his age, nationality and even salary. Now it’s the turn of a 19-year-old student journalist, Pushkal Shivam, also the Principle Correspondent of YouthKiAwaaz.com, to question a 33-year-old Senior Editor.
What difference the kind of journalism that The Caravan is delivering would make to the current media scene in India?
This is going to be disappointing. I don’t think that that’s the question I am well positioned to answer. I think that’s something for other people to say. You know I am very wary, particularly as a non-Indian, of presuming that the media scene needs a certain thing or that there is a certain thing that The Caravan can provide or I can provide as an editor. The way I think about it is that there is a form which is just long form, and there is a style of magazine, which in our case is a monthly magazine that engages with certain sorts of topics and treats them in a certain way. I came to The Caravan ten months after it was relaunched. So it already existed when I came. I think that we saw an opening in the media landscape. If you look at the media landscape, our publisher Anant Nath, who started The Caravan, said, “I don’t see that there are magazines that are doing this kind of thing right now so perhaps there is an opportunity for a magazine that does this.” And I think that’s a strong point and I think it’s true. The Caravan is a unique magazine and we are very proud of that. I don’t think The Caravan by itself can change the media landscape or that it’s up to The Caravan to tell the media landscape what it needs or doesn’t.
After what has happened, what do you have to say about the controversy surrounding Siddhartha Deb’s piece on Arindam Chaudhuri?
What I find disappointing about the whole thing is that I think that’s a brilliant piece of writing. It’s a good piece of solid journalism, it goes without saying, and I think I can say this even though it is sub judice a matter, I think we stand behind everything in that piece. It’s all true. It’s not defamatory. We stand behind what’s in the piece. I think that what has happened because of the controversy is that the piece has been overlooked. A part of it of course is because the piece is off the website. We are fighting the case and we expect to win but that’s going to take a long time. It’s a portrait of a person, it’s pretty well done. It has been overshadowed. The controversy is now way bigger than the piece. And the controversy brought attention to the piece which is never a bad thing but what ends up happening is that people lose sight of the piece. Pursuing controversy is not an editorial strategy because it means that people lose sight of what it is that you are actually doing as a magazine.
How do you see the social media and the mainstream media? Are they pitted against each other or do they aid each other?
They are definitely not pitted against one another. I am a fairly young person. I don’t have a long career in journalism that predates the internet. They co-exist as part of the same ecosystem. I think that would be the most important thing that I would put out there. It doesn’t do any good to draw a bright line and say this one kind of journalism is legitimate and this other kind of journalism is illegitimate. Each forum has its strengths and its weaknesses. This ecosystem that now contains many different forms of journalism is richer than in old way that only contained one form or one half of that equation. I am a print editor, I work in an office, I get paid a salary, I have money to pay writers do the pieces. I would be a rare editor if I said that editing is not important. It’s very important. But that doesn’t mean that someone’s blog or citizen journalism is bad or illegitimate because they don’t have an editor. Today the coexistence of these different forms of journalism in this ecosystem that I am describing is more or less taken for granted.
You are perceived as someone who belongs to the old school of journalism. Does the shift towards titillating tabloid-journalism that has taken place concern you?
No, that has always existed. I don’t perceive myself as belonging to any particular school. That would be quite pompous. There is a virtue to doing things in a serious, in a deep, and for my own purposes as an editor, in a meticulous and thorough manner. I think that is the thing that has lead people to say that this is an old school kind of thing. There are more than a few examples where my memo has been longer than the piece which they (his writers) have sent me. If I was doing all this stuff for an online magazine that published these kinds of pieces, it’s the same thing. It’s not old school or new school thing. There is a place for tabloid journalism, there is a place for blog, there is a place for television, all these things go together. It would be a great fun to edit a tabloid newspaper. For all I know, I would be terrible at it. This is not like a Darwinian evolution, The Caravan is not a higher stage, it’s not a more evolved form of journalism. I don’t think that other kinds of journalism are crap.
Could you give me a sneak peek into your own development as a writer? How were you when you were 19?
I was never really a reporter. And I don’t have a background in journalism. My university degree is in film theory which essentially consisted of studying cinema and philosophy. My undergraduate thesis is about American avant-garde and experimental film. Nothing could be further than what I do now. When I finished university I moved to New York. I started to get interested in journalism. I also edited a student magazine when I was in college but it didn’t seem to me like it was going to be my career. During the course of my 20s, I was doing junior editorial jobs. I was doing some writing on the side which was mostly essays and criticism. I did some reporting here and there. Jobs that I had were editorial apprenticeships. I worked with Bob Silvers, one of the founders and still the editor of The New York Review of books. My evolution has come from experience. From going to Abu Dhabi, and then it’s just practice. I think I am a better writer now than five years ago. My job is all about working with other people’s writing. I don’t see myself as a writer but I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a piece work.
What would be your advice to young people entering the profession of journalism?
Most important thing is to read a lot. Read more than one newspaper, read more than one magazine and read blogs. Read fiction, read non-fiction, read history books. Reading is an underestimated and rather important aspect of writing. Journalism in my view is paying attention to things.
That brings me to my last question. Which is your favorite book?
My favourite book is See Under: Love by David Grossman