As the former editor of Mumbai Mirror and now a host of the Times of India podcast, Meenal Baghel believes that despite the invasion of the electronic media, the print newspapers will always have a special place in the world because they have an unmatched authenticity and credibility. For her podcast is more about complementing print and spreading the word in the world.
As we chat about her experiences as a journalist and editor, I can’t but help ask her whether she believes that the print newspaper is on its way out in today’s day and age, a question that has been perhaps on the mind of a lot of readers and journalists alike. Meenal replies, “I think print is perennial. I am a great fan of print. People are reading a lot more. I may not be necessarily reading a lot of books but the number of words that I read every day has really gone up. Whether it is an article on Twitter or Facebook, all of us are constantly reading. We are constantly plugged into news. I think what the written word does is that it allows the reader the space to read and imagine things. It may be a 500-word story but the readers imagine a lot more. So, in a way, print makes the reader very smart. On screen or visual medium, you are a passive spectator but as a reader, you need to do a lot of mental work. Papers still have a lot of authenticity and credibility as compared to other mediums. All these other mediums depend on data, Wi-Fi etc. To give you a small example, during the NEET and RAS exams, they just shut down the internet. But I still got my paper. Another thing is that in this age of information overload, where you don’t know whether you are getting authentic or fake information. Human beings like order, structure and hierarchy. A newspaper is just that from the lead headline, to the bold or plain headline, it creates a hierarchy. So, I know the news on my front page is more important than my page six, and my right-hand page is more important than my left-hand page because it is all scientific and based on how your eye travels. In a way, these are all subliminal signals that you send out to the reader and create hierarchy for the reader. Then you have the printed photo which sends out a powerful message to the reader. It establishes a solid connection with the reader who can gaze at it, interpret it. So, I think print is hugely powerful and it will stay in India for a very long time.”
I recently heard her popular podcast where she talked to Maria Ressa, this year’s Nobel Peace laureate.
Where did she get the idea of podcast from? “Podcasts are very new for me because all my life I have been a journalist. After Mumbai Mirror shut down in December 2020, I realized that journalism had changed. For instance, though the big brands are still powerful, there is also a parallel media movement which has digital brands, independent newspapers, podcasts. I believe audio is a very intimate medium which reaches the listener’s ears and allows you a very intimate, one-on-one relationship with the listener. The podcast has a lot of authenticity because the voice of the speaker is unfiltered. So, if the speaker is saying something moving and emotional, it directly reaches the listener’s ears. It’s all in your ear. This is the reason I wanted to explore this medium. So, I suggested this idea to the TOI guys. Times of India is such a large newspaper and there are journalists doing great stories everywhere. For example, there might be a great story done by a reporter in Kolkata which is only going to appear in the Kolkata TOI. So, I wanted to create a show where I could build the podcasts working with these reporters and asking them about the story. For instance, one of my colleagues in Uttarakhand had done this great story about the fake COVID tests which were done in Kumbh Mela. It was a TOI exclusive. I worked with the reporter and asked her about how she did it. I believe people should also know about the great public service that journalists do because these days it has become so fashionable to say that journalism is nothing or journalists don’t do anything. So, the podcast listener is not necessarily a newspaper reader, so we cater to a different audience there. So, the listener not only gets to know the story, plus the process of that story.”
But isn’t television already showing these stories? Meenal replied, “I believe when it comes to damage to journalism and over sensationalizing news, television journalism, the way it is practiced in India, has done a lot of damage. But then I feel people are already moving away from that format. They are now exploring new formats like podcasts. For example, in the podcast, we have very serious discussions, with all gravitas and the great experts coming in. I think why podcasts are becoming so popular is because with so much going on every second, the world is becoming more complex. People want hierarchy and structure and want people to the world explained to them so that they can make sense of it. For example, we know the fuel prices are at an all-time high. So, people want to figure out why are fuel prices high? What is the tax component? Do we need to pay a higher price? How do we transition to clean energy? For all of this, if I get two or three experts, people with domain knowledge, then in that half an hour episode of podcast, I am informing people about most of the things on that subject which filters away all the fake and riff raff and gives them solid information. A few days ago, I spoke to a colleague of mine who was covering Samir Wankhede’s story and asked him to talk about all the developments that have happened so far. With podcasts, there is no formula, so there are different ways of telling a story. The second thing is that it allows you to go very deep. So, half an hour of podcast is about 6000 words. So, it’s a long read. So, it allows you to bring in the journalist and the experts too. For example, we did a story on the 25 years of liberalization which was incidentally Narsimha Rao’s birth anniversary too. So, we got Vinay Sitapati who wrote a book on Narsimha Rao and Jairam Ramesh who worked with Narsimha Rao on the liberalization to talk about it.”
Meenal Baghel is a woman who dons many hats. She is not just a journalist, an editor, a podcast host but also a writer too.
Her book “Death in Mumbai” is based on a true story. Where did she get the idea to write about this subject? “Chiki Sarkar was the editor of Random House in those days and she got it touch with me. She said that she was looking to commission a story about a crime that talks about modern India. It was around that time a television executive called Neeraj Grover from Kanpur who came to Mumbai to work in television. He met this actress called Maria Susairaj who also had another fiancé Emile Jerome, who was in the navy. One day, he saw Neeraj and Maria in a compromising position and got enraged. He killed Neeraj and hacked his body into pieces. I thought this was an interesting modern day crime story because it talks about casual sex and the relationships that exist between not just men and women but also between small towns and big cities. It also talks about the evolving relationship between parents and their children. Parents don’t know what their children grow up to be. I was working full time in Mumbai which allowed me to conduct 70-80 interviews of people to understand what lies beneath the modern-day relationships.”
Speaking of relationships, what is her take on the subject? Meenal said, “My work is very intense and in life for everything you have to make time. And all my time is often spent on the desk. In fact, in the early days, when I had all these crazy working hours, my father used to get worked up and tell me to get married and then do whatever I wanted. I remember having this conversation with him where I asked him if he wanted to get rid of me by marrying me off and this won’t matter to him. He realized that what I was saying had a point so they were quite okay after that. I have been fortunate to have parents who always treated me with enough respect that I could make my own decision. They did try to get me married but they gave me that space to make that decision.”
So, which city does she feel is more conducive to singles? “Mumbai is the country’s best city when it comes to single people. It is tough living in Mumbai, but it allows you mental space to be single. No one will judge you for being single. Across the board, they see you as individual. I don’t engage that much with Jaipur, though Jaipur has changed. But Jaipur has slightly more conservative expectations from women.”