Vinod Mehta: The Readers’ Editor

Professor (Dr.) Santosh Kumar Tewari*

Vinod Mehta (1942-2015) kept an alert eye on very small happenings in the Indian media.

I never met Vinod Mehta, but on a fine morning on 14 February, 1994, when I was glancing through the pages of that day’s ‘ThePioneer’, I found my article on press ombudsman published with a six-column headline. I had not sent that article to Vinod Mehta, who was then editing the newspaper. In fact, he picked up my article from a rather obscure quarterly journal ‘Vidura’, New Delhi. In publishing the article he carried my byline while giving credit to ‘Vidura’.

In the 1 August, 1994 edition of ‘ThePioneer’he carried my article on a 14-day news writing workshop for village, tahsil and small town level Hindi reporters, conducted in Sirohi district of Rajasthan. The workshop was organized by MakhanlalChaturvedi National University of Journalism, Bhopal, with financial support from ‘Rajasthan Patrika’, Jaipur.

Usually the national media do not even take notice of these sorts of workshops for small part time reporters, but Vinod Mehta published my article with a photograph.

Vinod Mehta re-launched ‘The Pioneer’ from New Delhi in 1991. He drastically changed the traditions of the edit page. Even today, edit pages of most newspapers largely carry articles of senior editors and established and famous names. VinodMehta opened the edit page for other writers too.

In his recent book ‘Editor Unplugged’ he mentioned PrabhatKhabar, Ranchi, for its investigative reports on MadhuKoda, etc. He also made a mention of’Jan Morcha’,Faizabad.

Not many people would know that ‘Jan Morcha’, a small district level Hindi daily of Uttar Pradesh, is perhaps the only daily of India run by a cooperative society for more than 55 years.

In 1995 Vinod Mehta founded ‘Outlook’. On the tenth anniversary of this weekly magazine, he published a voluminous 330-page mega issue of ‘Outlook’ (October 17, 2005, priceRs.15/-). Every print journalist, particularly budding ones should read that issue. I have kept a copy of that issue. On page 24 of that issue he gave ten tips for magazine writers:

  1. The reader is supreme. Always see the magazine from his perspective.
  2. When you look and read an article, put yourself in the readers’ shoes. Ask yourself: will it interest them?
  3. Don’t complicate material. Keep it simple. Make sure the reader understands the main point.
  4. Attention spans are very short and getting shorter all the time. You have to grab attention.
  5. Bullet summaries are useful. Readers go their first.
  6. Presentation is king. Visual appeal might lead the reader to the text.
  7. Don’t preach. Don’t patronize. Your reader is not a moron.
  8. Hard politics, partybaazi, who is in and who is out has diminishing interest.
  9. Clean, lucid, stylish writing is any day more important than exhibitions of literary flourish.
  10. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

That tenth anniversary mega issue also carried a wonderful interview with Harold Evans, the legendary editorof ‘The Times’ as well as ‘The Sunday Times’London. He had to quit both these newspapers in 1982. ‘The Times’ was notably critical of Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister of Britain. Evans resigned citing policy differences with Rupert Murdoch relating to editorial independence.

During his editorship, Harold Evans commissioned several investigative stories which had epoch-making consequences. The most famous among them was the one that brought to light the plight of the victims of Thalidomide, the drug that caused birth defects in thousand of new born children around the world. During his tenure as editor, his paper uncovered the Kim Philby spy scandal. Kim Philby was a double agent. He was spying for both Britain and the USSR during the cold war era.

It would be interesting to know that Kim Philby was born in Ambala in pre-Independent India.

In his interview, published in the ‘Outlook'(pages 235-236), Harold Evans put forward a task for future investigative journalists. He said, “One of the tasks I would submit to mainstream media is the regular detection and exposure of cyber propaganda.”

I always salute that journalist who has been sacked from his newspaper because of truthful news stories.Vinod Mehta was sacked for similar reasons from three newspapers: ‘The Indian Post’ first and then from ‘The Independent’ and finally from ‘ThePioneer’. Therefore I salute him more than once.

One of his qualities, which usually independent minded journalists donot have, but Vinod Mehta had, was that he always managed to find some big financer to invest money in his successful and unsuccessful journalistic adventures. His longest innings was at the ‘Outlook’.

When the publication of ‘Outlook’ started as a weekly news magazine in 1995, ‘India Today’ was a fortnightly. In the open market competition ‘Outlook’ forced ‘India Today’ to get itself converted to a weekly. No other journalist, except Vinod Mehta, was capable of giving that level ofcompetition to ‘India Today’.

Vinod Mehta was a product of Lucknow University. He was only a B.A. He had no degree or diploma in journalism. Lucknow University has produced one more famous journalist – ManoharShyam Joshi, who was simply a B.Sc. By his sheer hard work, Joshiput his stamp on Indian media. He wrote Humlog and Buniyad for the Indian TV during its early days when there was no concept of television serials in the country. ManoharShyam Joshi also wrote a book in Hindi – ‘PatkathaLekha’, which is perhaps the best book on script writing in Hindi language. Joshi was also a former editor of the famous Hindi weekly of yester years ‘Saptahik Hindustan’ of the Hindustan Times group of newspapers.

Like ManoharShyam Joshi, Vinod Mehta also used to personally supervise ‘Letters Page’. In ‘Outlook’ he welcomed and published even those letters which threw brickbats on the magazine and Vinod Mehta. In most other newspapers and magazines readers’ letters column is becoming smaller and smaller; and sometimes it is invisible.

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