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13 June 2008

Bloggers Stressed?

Editors, shed a tear for yourselves

A report published in HT City's 13 June 2008 edition:


Burning the midnight oil, skipping meals, stressed out 24/7 - we aren't talking about students or BPO workers; we are talking of bloggers. Neck deep in competition to write the best post, get maximum clicks or make the most money, their lives are nothing but grist for their next post. They surf incessantly, are hooked on news updates, and are constantly thinking of opinions they can give. Taking a break is not an option. In the US, two popular tech bloggers, Russell Shaw and Marc Orchant, died suddenly of heart attacks. Another prolific blogger, Om Malik, 41, also had a heart attack, but survived. Delhi guy Pratyush Ranjan has been blogging for three years. "It's stressful. I need higher levels of concentration. I've to socialise to make my blogs popular, which further saps my energy " Zola Marquis's blog Elitechoice.org started as a passion. But now it is a job in which she invests up to 16 hours a day. "Whether I'm partying or watching a movie, I'm disturbed by the fact that I'm not blogging." Dr Ekta Soni, chief clinical psychologist, Apollo Hospital, feels that blogging is an addiction. "People blog for the sake of attention, and this can become an obsession." There are also physical side effects. According to Dr Sanjay Swaroop, orthopaedic surgeon at Max Healthcare, these include Repetitive Stress Injury, which can mean chronic neck pain, tingling and numbness in the fingers and a tennis elbow Obesity is another hazard, and it is linked to both diabetes and coronary problems. Before he died, Russell Shaw updated his status for his blog editor: "Have come down with something. Resting now, posts to resume later today or tomorrow."

- Report by Himadree

It was about 12:30 pm that day (29 April 2005). We, the editorial writers of The Pioneer, were scratching our heads off, wondering what topics we could pick to write two editorials on. Chief Editor Chandan Mitra was not in Delhi to give us ideas. Associate Editor Kanchan Gupta, groping as much in the dark as any of us, asked me for a subject.

“Japanese Prime Minister (former) Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to India,” I murmured unconvincingly.

“What about him?” Kanchan inquired. I smiled back, making a silly face; I had no answer.

While any lighter topic could be chosen for the second edit that evening, nothing earth-shattering had happened the previous day to merit a substantive (glum?) comment. That included the then Japanese Prime Minister’s visit the previous day, which was no milestone in India-Japan relations by any yardstick.

“You’re talking like my wife,” Kanchan quipped, continuing, “Whenever I’m about to go out, she tells me, ‘Kichhu niye esho’ (bring me something); I ask her, ‘What?’ She has no answer!”

As his sorry destiny would have it, Kanchan received a call from Chandan after a while, with the chief editor having no option but to instruct his colleague to write the first edit on Koizumi’s visit. Imagine, a 585-word long vacuous piece! (This was before The Pioneer was redesigned and the first editorial’s length was reduced to 545 words, quite a marathon still.) One may well visualise the pitiable faces of the editorial writers of The Telegraph, who have to fill a full column with a single edit everyday, assuming that the topic they have chosen for a given day is that riveting or, at least, that important.

Given an editor’s knowledge of this professional compulsion to comment on the world everyday, it was queer of HT City’s editor to look elsewhere for the tabloid’s front page story on the ‘stress’ experienced by people — in HT’s case, bloggers — who must express an opinion on everything that transpires beneath the sky. In addition, there is the stress of forging unanimity amongst colleagues on issues where their opinions do not always converge, much as a given newspaper must seem to speak in unison on all matters it writes about. I remember having opposed the stand taken by my colleagues in The Pioneer in support of IIT-JEE’s bid to turn as predictable as AISSCE’s question papers tooth and nail. So much so, they finally decided to discard the topic for the next day’s edit. Another interesting thing happens in that newspaper office: Whenever Senior Editor Ashok Malik writes a pro-American article, Kanchan insists that in the next day's editorial, he should be allowed to interpret with a leftist viewpoint the incident Ashok wrote about the previous day. In 2005, on the other hand, Kanchan would insert in the op-ed page excerpts from CPI(M) General Secretary Prakash Karat’s article published in People’s Democracy, and Senior Editor Udayan Namboodiri, fuming with rage the next day, would rubbish all that communist rhetoric in his editorial comment.

Those uninitiated in journalism may consider the example of The Times of India’s edit page, where one of the three issues being commented on by the newspaper is, on some days, segregated into “Times View” and “Counterview”. In the latter the editorial writer who does not agree with the view shared by his colleagues begs to differ.

Though I was considered a prolific writer in school, college and university, with perhaps a disturbing habit of commenting on every incident unfolding in society, in my initial days as a journalist, sitting among a dozen reporters at The Statesman’s conference room, I would wonder how my colleagues could narrate stories, which they would collect from government ministries and offices of political parties, with so much zeal even as those incidents sounded quite commonplace to me. Since science is evolutionary and not revolutionary, I was spared that daily trauma, being the paper’s science correspondent.

A blogger has to handle no such pressure of pre-publishing criticism and even censorship. When they are in the process of drafting a blog-post, there is nobody around to tell them, "Hey! You can't write that!" Nor are they expected to know grammatically correct, let alone stylish, English, or care for any kind of syntax.

And yes, editors can handle such occupational hazard and, mercifully, they don’t succumb to the pressure unlike the few bloggers who did. That could well be for the reason that a journalist comes across the bad, bad world a bit too often. Worse, not only are the people they expose baying for their blood, so are their colleagues, albeit in a subtler manner. After you write a good story, you may receive congratulatory messages and calls on your mobile phone from peers and the press information officer of your beat from PIB. But the moment the call is disconnected, that very caller is likely to dismiss your effort, murmuring, “The story was planted!” This negative atmosphere all around a journalist has got to have a numbing effect.

A person who handles expected criticism by politicians and unfair cynicism by his peers day in and day out, can jolly well handle the pressure of having to express his opinion necessarily every day on every issue. As for the bloggers who died, one feels sorry for them but wonders at the same time if this class of people, whose contempt for the world’s affairs is evident in their frivolous SMS-style lingo, can ever be so serious about something that it can even kill them. Is HT City sure that the reported heart attacks were caused by blogging?

Afterthought: The tabloid sections of India’s mainstream newspapers have young adults as editors and just-post-teen reporters. Bored with the desk-job treadmill, the young sometimes want to break free. If the immediate boss is able to sense it, he/she sends the young chap on a 'mission' — that of interviewing a few familiar faces of eminent personalities of the respective fields of work. That leads to the sub-editor-turned-reporter interviewing a man on the street or two, maybe a psychiatrist or psychologist and finally some known person who is no more than a camera-friendly pretty face on the idiot box.

I am impelled to speculate that it must have just occurred to the HT City editor a few days ago that bloggers must be a stressed lot. So a foot soldier was summoned and commissioned to frame a story around the idea. I don't mean that the interviews therein are fake. But the appearance of quotes by only those who agree to the idea makes one sceptical.

Finally, it's time all mainstream newspapers mulled over the idea of daily editorials. What is the probability that a motley group of three to five journalists, who are the editorial writers of a given newspaper, can have some heady opinion on everything that happens on earth? That too, every day? Whenever the space is filled up for the heck of it — and this happens quite often — it shows.

The writer is a mathematician and linguist, now a corporate communicator and has been a journalist, a teacher and marketing manager (in reverse chronological order) in his previous vocations

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.