Interview: Mitra Kalita

Mitra Kalita recently went on a leave of absence from The Washington Post to launch Mint, an Indian business newspaper and Web site, created in collaboration with The Wall Street Journal. Kalita talks to PRWeek about how the American news media contrasts with those of emerging markets.

Mitra Kalita recently went on a leave of absence from The Washington Post to launch Mint, an Indian business newspaper and Web site, created in collaboration with The Wall Street Journal. Kalita talks to PRWeek about how the American news media contrasts with those of emerging markets.

PRWeek: What made you decide to go on a leave of absence from the Post to start Mint?

Mitra Kalita: In 2005, my father saw [former Post executive editor] Ben Bradlee being interviewed on CNN, and [Bradlee] said reporters should embrace any chance they have to go aboard. I've always lived with that mantra both through my reporting and through my travels. Also, in covering immigration, I've had to immerse myself in different cultures. That was at a time when the US media was already on the decline, yet every other week I was hearing about something new happening in India. It was becoming so obvious that the story was becoming more global, and the Post recognized my desire to go abroad in this unique way, because I'm not a foreign correspondent. I'm able to tell the story from the inside out by working in a local newsroom with local reporters and working on a column that is very much intended for an Indian audience.

PRWeek: What have been your impressions as an American journalist working in an Indian newsroom?

Kalita: It's forced me to get perspective. For the past 10 years, I've been writing very much for a Western audience. [Working in India] has also been really humbling because when those of us from the West come to India, I think by virtue of our coming here, it is to impart some expertise. Yet actually it's been so humbling because this is such a competitive news environment. I sometimes wonder if the US [news industry] had a fraction of that competitive environment, would we be in the crisis that we are in now and having to reinvent ourselves?

PRWeek: How is the competitive environment different in India than the US?

Kalita: It's in sheer numbers. There are at least six business-only dailies, and I get nine general newspapers in New Delhi alone. In a place like Washington, it was not even conceivable that I'd be getting nine newspapers. But also the media environment is growing, so everyone is out to prove themselves. There is so much newness in this economy you almost don't know where to begin. As a journalist, there are a multitude of stories, and really layered stories.

PRWeek: How is the state of the news industry different in India than the US?

Kalita: Well, I'm constantly hiring. You have to remember newspapers here remain an aspirational product. People are still subscribing to them to get their news. That's a fundamental difference – here the industry is growing. Maybe in a few years we'll be going through the same cycle that [is occurring in] the US is but I'm hoping that the competitive nature will force us to constantly reinvent ourselves.

PRWeek: Mint launched at a time when US newspapers were already in a digital crisis. How does that impact the way Mint approaches news and the digital space?

Kalita: I work in an integrated newsroom. Our Web site launched the same day that we did, we [had] a TV studio in our newsroom, and we've introduced video pretty heavily onto our Web site. And I think [the US media troubles] definitely played a role – whether it was subconscious or intentional. But our focus has always been on the reader and making the content easy for the reader. When there is a story, we ask, ‘Would this be better as a graphic or a video?' A lot of news organizations are growing so big and there are a lot of layers between the audience and what we do. The benefit of being a startup is that it can still be very intimate – everyone can buy into the product, buy into the mission. We have the benefit of hindsight to some extent.

PRWeek: Have you noticed any changes in Mint since The Wall Street Journal changed ownership last year?

Kalita: No, I wouldn't say that [there is] any effect because we take content from the Journal, but there is not an equity stake that they have in our publication.

PRWeek: Has your experience with PR professionals in India been different from the US?

Kalita: PR is as booming as media is here. I do a lot of recruiting at journalism schools here, and some ways it is the same pool that [media] people are hiring from – so that's similar to the US. What is different is the way people operate. Personal contacts are so, so important here. So it's very common that everyday groups of PR professionals are doing rounds where they'll cold call and say they're in the lobby and have a press release and a gift. Yet very early we reached out to the major PR houses and told them we're not allowed to accept gifts above a certain amount. So once they understood how we worked, it helped that relationship.

PRWeek: When working with multinational companies, do you deal with their US agencies or those aboard?

Kalita: The smart multinationals have figured out an Indian strategy. So their Indian arms are independent in an operational way. For instance, if I have questions about Pepsi, I call its Indian office, and chances are [the company will] get back to me. Yet there are other companies whose presences in India are still small, and so there is a fear of talking to the press. Those companies usually refer you to someone in the US, which can be really dangerous when you're on deadline.

PRWeek: What are your thoughts about US papers outsourcing copy editing to India?

Kalita: I haven't seen a direct effect on us. For outsourcing, I'm not sure if it's recruiting from the same pool [that] we are. And at the end of the day, you're talking about dozens of jobs in a field that employs thousands. It'll be interesting to see if more operations go this way. And it'll be interesting to see if copyediting for an American newspaper is something that Indian journalists would want to participate in, considering all the opportunities domestically.

PRWeek: What advice would you give PR folks when dealing with the Indian media?

Kalita: Those in PR should remember to reach out to the Indian media because they are not only reaching more readers but more consumers. There is a tendency among some multinationals that they don't take calls from an Indian newspaper as seriously. I've not experienced that with Mint but with other ethnic newspapers I've worked at in the US. I think that has to change because we have literally of millions within our reach. If they are going to prioritize emerging markets they need to meet us half-way.

Name: S. Mitra Kalita
Title: National editor and columnist (Mint), reporter (Washington Post)
Outlets: Mint, Washington Post
Preferred Contact Method: mitra.k@livemint.com
Web site: www.livemint.com

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