Indian in the News: The Business Brain

Posted on April 30, 2013

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We speak to broadcast journalists, news reporters, and magazine editors about the trials and joys of working in a rapidly changing industry.

At our meeting at the Intercontinental Bangkok, Umesh Pandey ordered a 12 year–old Chivas and jumped right into talking about people’s attitude toward journalists. Umesh’s straightforward style can be misunderstood for egotism, but his boyish charm and laid-back manner suggest otherwise.

Born in Bangkok and raised in India, Umesh always had a fascination for journalism. His road to getting here, however, wasn’t the smoothest one. His family wanted him to be a doctor, but his hemophobia wouldn’t have allowed it. The teenage Umesh didn’t see a future in journalism either, especially after a mediocre grade in English literature. So he majored in finance.

After a brief stint in a finance company, Umesh started his career in journalism at Bangkok Post, leaving once in the late 90s, only to come back to serve as the editor of its eight-page weekly business section Asia Focus.

During the course of his 15-year career as a business journalist—working with Reuters, Bloomberg, Thai Day, and Wall Street Journal—he has covered everyone from the common man to politicians and big shots of commerce, but not without the occasional run-ins—he sheepishly admits by sticking his tongue out—with management and public relations executives due to his zero tolerance for disrespect.

Here, Umesh tells us what it’s like working in print media and why he doesn’t give news for free.

What sparked your interest in journalism?

I had a fascination for news as a kid. I loved to be updated about everything that happened in the world. Back in the day, we didn’t have cable television. So I would tune the big dish antenna to watch BBC. When I was studying in boarding school in Shimla, my friends would call me budda [old man], because I used to read India Today and Front Line magazines.

How did you get started in the field?

I came back to Bangkok after completing my master’s at Bentley College in Boston. I started working as a finance analyst in 1997. After six months, I quit because it was very monotonous. A few days after I left my job, I saw an ad in the Bangkok Post, looking for a subeditor. I applied, even though I had no experience. But my English was decent and I enjoyed news, so I think I had two of the main qualities needed to be in this business. When I started subediting, I didn’t like it at all. I felt I was cleaning up others’ work. So I decided that I wanted to go into reporting, even though it was a 60 percent pay cut from my finance job.

Tell us about your first political story.

It was on the Burmese Embassy siege in Bangkok in the late 90s. My bureau chief asked me to cover the story on a Sunday because everyone was on shifts covering it during the week. So I went there just in case something broke out. I was hoping nothing would happen because I had never done any political stories. As it turns out, a lot happened that day. All the negotiations were done; the terrorists were taken out of the country. So I had to write about that.

How was the family support when you switched careers to journalism?

Initially my dad was not happy. He thought I would never make a living of it and that it doesn’t make sense in the long run in case I had a family. The perception of journalism is that you get minimum salary and carry around an Indian jhola [cloth bag]. Now my dad is much better. The only one who supported me was my sister. She encouraged me to try.

What was people’s attitude toward journalists when you started out?

I wasn’t raised in a high society setting, but I have always been a person who has a certain degree of self-respect. When people treat me like crap—and some do—I don’t tolerate it. In journalism, I have experienced that a lot. Back in those days, they would treat journalists very badly. For instance, once I was at a five-star hotel for a conference. During lunch break, the entire delegation was moved into the grand ballroom for lunch. But for us journalists, they offered one or two dishes and asked us to eat outside. The attitude has changed over the recent years. But I still do not like it when people treat others like second-grade citizens.

How did you make it as a Thai-Indian journalist ?

It was tough. People look down on you because you are Indian. Also, I am a little more aggressive than Thais,
so you get shunned for being too outspoken. But it is  not very difficult as long as you have the skills and the knowledge. But knowing Thai makes a lot of difference.

How did Asia Focus happen?

I had proposed the idea to Bangkok Post in 2006. I felt that there is a market that they can tap. Today, Asia Focus is one of the best money-making sections of the Bangkok Post. I built up the team and the network.

As an editor, what makes a story stand out for you?

In-depth analysis. If you don’t go in-depth for anybody, then you don’t survive, and you cannot be in competition with Twitter or Facebook and Instagram.

How has the newspaper industry changed in the time you’ve worked there?

More readership, more customer-centric. And it is gradually adapting to the changing environment. The editorial process is a lot more online and responsive. It is good in the long run. As a competitor of The Nation, I like that [their] journalists can actually take pictures and upload them on the system, which is what everyone is looking at these days. The Times of India has had it now for a year, and it is doing well. I wish we could do it.

As an editor, how do you react to continuing digitalisation of the media? 

India is the only market in the world where print media is still thriving. But personally, I feel that print media is going to die. I am preparing myself for that, which is why I invest heavily on different things, so that I have a backup. I still have 20 to 30 years of working life left. People in their 20s and 30s these days prefer having everything on their tablet. So I have had to change myself to read the newspaper on a tablet.

How do you use social media such as Twitter and Facebook for your work?

I don’t use it at all. I don’t use my personal account to write any news pieces because I do not believe in giving free information to the world. You have to pay for it, otherwise who is going to pay for your salary or mine? I see it as adding value. If Bangkok Post starts giving out free information, then there will be no increase in circulation for them in the upcoming years.

What do you love most about being a journalist?

To me, it’s a place to get my name in the public domain. I was born in an immigrant family. My dad worked hard to put me through school and college. He is nobody in the Indian society here, and so was I. But now, I would say about 50 to 60 percent of Indians know me, and that is because of my work.

Featured in Masala magazine, April 2013, Thailand

For original PDF click Indians in the news

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Posted in: People