The ultimate guide to good journalism

There is content, content and more content. But there is only so much you need

Charles Assisi

[Photo by LinkedIn Sales Navigator on Unsplash]

Much like our mind and body needs food, our soul needs good content.

Now, the thing about food is, there’s a lot of it out there. And that a lot of food is not good. Because there’s good food and junk food. And what’s junk must be avoided.

Convention has it the more content we consume, the smarter we get. But if the food analogy be extrapolated here, how absurd this assertion is makes itself obvious. More is not good. Instead, it makes our minds stupid and depletes the soul—much like junk food makes our bodies obese.

The challenge we now face is to sift through to find what we absolutely need. Nothing more. Nothing less. That is why when all of us on the team spoke a few days ago, we thought of creating a guide on where the best pieces of journalism reside.

The News

Full access to the The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) can be had for Rs 450 each month. This is easily one of the best resource for news. It is both intelligent and value-for-money. WSJ’s breadth and depth are staggering.

But it’s not about the money alone—the editorial stance WSJ has adopted in recent times plus the innovations it has injected to produce what it now does, makes it an absolutely compelling purchase.

Readers outside the US can access the international edition. The feeds can be customised basis personal preferences. Subscribers can listen to a daily briefing on what matters most, first thing in the morning.

Other perks include newsletters on diverse themes, alerts when favourite writers publish something, access to e-books, and conference calls with the newspaper’s reporters to discuss the news—akin to analyst calls to discuss a company’s earnings reports.

But a caveat here: while the newsletters have a global appeal, most calls are US-centric. This tilt is visible across the newspaper. It’s quite possible this has to do with that the US presidential elections are scheduled for later this year and most commentators are obsessed with which way Donald Trump’s public pronouncements—and his presidency—may swing.

That is why, as things stand, we feel a bit peeved with both The New York Times and The Washington Post. Their obsession with Trump and his shenanigans started a long while ago. The thing about Trump is, leaders such as him are a global phenomenon. That is why, in spite of NYT currently being a steal for Indian readers at Rs 196 per month and a digital subscription to the Post at Rs 2,200, those of us who subscribe to the international editions feel a bit alienated and are wondering why they aren’t whacking other global leaders sucking up to him with the same zeal.

This is not to suggest there is no outstanding content. There is no taking away from the fact that both these titles do a heck of a job when it comes to covering issues that matter.

NYT’s coverage of personal technology, how to live better, book reviews, personal technology, and its archives are outstanding. There is no taking away either from that both NYT and the Post continue to do a remarkable job of covering the Covid-19 pandemic. Their digital experience is seamless as well.

The Post, incidentally, is now owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. But it continues to cover Amazon’s violations and Bezos’ being called to the US Congress to testify.

Imagine that happening in India!

While on relevance to an Indian audience, this is where the Financial Times scores. While it packs as much punch as WSJ does, it’s the pricing that is a bummer. The most modest digital offering is currently priced at $39.50 (almost Rs 3,000 a month).

If you think that too expensive, The Economist has a pretty good deal on right now. Introductory subscriptions are on offer at Rs 1,799 for 12 weeks, followed by plans that begin with 6-months at Rs 4,999, with offers that extend all the way up to three years. Choose what you can afford.

While The Economist has a knack of upsetting people on both the Right and Left wing with its strong opinions, what we like is that the opinion it holds are informed ones. And that offends those on the Right wing more!

While on The Economist, we are witnessing an otherwise traditional print title morphing into a digital being. So, while all of the regulars that we’ve come to expect in print are captured online, there is much else we’ve come to expect such as Explaining the World Daily, podcasts on current affairs, business, technology, and global affairs, short films (interrupted by some awful ads) and access to its extensive archives (that is a big bonus).

A mind-bending affair it offers subscribers is insights into what happens behind-the-scenes such as the thinking that goes into making the covers. It’s inevitable you say, “Wow!”

An Indian title we subscribe to is The Caravan, to read its deeply researched narratives. A digital-only subscription costs Rs 1,200 and a print plus digital subscription is Rs 1,800. Whatever you choose, this is money well-invested. It is unlikely you’ll come across narratives of the kind they publish anyplace else. The award-winning cover story on Mohan Bhagwat of RSS or media baroness Shobhana Bhartia are cases in point.

Until very recently, their digital offering has been tepid. But it appears they are at work to up their game. We certainly hope they do, because this is one title we aren’t giving up on and recommend strongly.

The Watchdogs

While The Caravan magazine invests time and effort to research stories, there are factories at work to deliver fake news across India. That is why we place a premium on the work that entities such as AltNews and BoomLive do.

Both track down sources of dubious news and place it in the public domain. Altnews is a not-for-profit entity and depends on donations from patrons. We recommend you patronise it and donate if you can afford to..

The Outliers

Mainstream titles out of the way, one entity we’re watching with much interest is Axios. Their mission statement is to get you “smarter, faster on what matters.” All the pieces published here read like memos and are no longer than 200-400 words. It was described by its co-founder Jim VandeHei as the kind of place “where Economist meets Twitter”. Honestly, sounds like a pitch to a venture-capital funder.

That snarky comment out of the way, this three-year-old title looks easy to navigate, focuses on much the same issues its mainstream counterparts do, but in a very different way.

It’s difficult not to like it. Then on the other hand, it’s difficult to like it as well. Perhaps, this has to do with that Axios does not believe in placing things in context. It states things as they are and gets out of the way.

So, at the time of writing this, we got to know that the Economist group is facing headwinds and has decided to lay off 90 people from its staff of 1,300. This is also where we picked up pointers to data that suggest people in industries such as restaurants and retail may lose their jobs permanently.

While the content is free and the media outlet has articulated how it earns revenues from streams other than advertising, we’re a bit circumspect now given how things have changed. But we’re watching this experiment with much interest.

Then there is The Browser. Founded by Robert Cottrell, former Moscow bureau chief of The Economist and Financial Times. He is now known as the man who combs through 1,000 articles daily to zero in on five every day for subscribers with a summary and a link. A month’s subscription is $5 (Rs 380) and an annual subscription is $48 (Rs 3,650).

Most readers of The Browser, Cottrell said in an interview, think of it as a newsletter that happens to be a website as well.

We recommend The Browser because, while all else we have recommended until now has a mandate on what to deliver, Cottrell goes out of his way to look for enduring narratives across domains include the written word, podcasts, and videos.

The Browser never fails to surprise us. How else do you stumble across a counter-intuitive narrative on the history of money that argues we don’t understand what debt means, the 162 benefits of coronavirus, or a conversation around quantum mechanics and parallel worlds?

Talking about conversations, there are four podcasts that have our attention. All of these are free to access.

  1. Pivot is broadcast every Tuesday and Friday. This is where Kara Swisher, the co-founder at Recode and NYU Professor Scott Galloway engage with each other on the biggest stories in the world on technology, business and politics. And they’re fun to listen to.
  2. The Seen and the Unseen, in which the Mumbai-based Amit Varma does his homework well before he speaks to some of the finest minds and provides us insights on themes as diverse as Guru Nanak’s travels and India’s start-up ecosystem, even as he probes the role of caste and gender in Karnatik music or for that matter takes stock of Covid-19.
  3. For public policy, we urge you to look up the All Things Policy daily podcast hosted by policy wonks from Takshashila Institution.
  4. Ex Machina, hosted by technology lawyer Rahul Matthan, is only five episodes old. Episode 0—a conversation with Justice Srikrishna on data privacy—got us curious. Episode 1 had us on the edge of our seats as Matthan took us on a journey with a family to find a cure for an “incurable disease” for their child. He had us hooked then. Clearly, Matthan is pouring his guts into it and not charging a paisa.

Bonus Recommendations

All of what we’ve recommended generate newsletters delivered via email. They clutter the inbox and are often missed. To manage all of it, download the Stoop app from the iTunes Store or Google Play Store and manage all of it seamlessly.

And do subscribe to Founding Fuel’s daily newsletter. All of the content is free. Until now, that is.

(With inputs from CS Swaminathan and NS Ramnath)

(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that BoomLive is a not-for-profit entity.)

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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