thinking about yesterdays and news

When I was five years old, I was commissioned to do something very very important: it was my job to read the morning newspaper headlines to my father. [There wasn’t really much competition for the job: two of my siblings had arrived by then, but the eldest was only 3 at the time].

I loved the job; it meant I could see my dad before I went to school, even if “seeing” was stretching the truth; he normally came home very late, and we knew to keep as quiet as possible in the early morning. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, reading the morning headlines to my dad.

It was early morning on the 23rd of November 1963, I was a few days past my sixth birthday. I had the Statesman in my hand (we used to take three papers in those days in Calcutta: The Statesman, the Amrita Bazar Patrika and the Hindustan Standard). I began reading. Unlike any other day, I didn’t have to choose an order in which to read the headlines. There was only one. Kennedy Shot Dead. So I read it.

And my father got up, something I’d never really seen him do that early. He began searching for his glasses, called for coffee (which appeared mysteriously), and said to me “Keep reading aloud” while he got dressed. It was the first day I can remember reading complete paragraphs, complete stories.

I have no idea why we were such Kennedyphiles at home, but we were and continue to be. There was something about JFK and Jackie and Camelot, everything about the family and the legend. And you know something, it didn’t matter what I heard and saw and read since. We remained Kennedyphiles warts and all. I was particularly taken with two photographs taken around then, photographs that received immense publicity then and later. Tim O’Reilly reminded me, via a tweet, of the Resolute Desk one, and that made me think of the Salute:

The emotion in those photographs has stayed with me ever since.

Today, as Tim’s tweets brought those emotions to mind, I started musing about the process by which some of the remarkable events of the last 50 years were “broadcast” to me.

The Kennedy assassination was the first such event in my life. Given that he was shot dead around midnight IST, and that he was pronounced dead around 1am IST, radio was not appropriate. For one thing we didn’t have 24 hour radio. So the morning paper was the expected route. While the event became a defining moment for TV coverage for many people, this was not the case in India.

When it came to the Martin Luther King assassination, I was older, and read the news for myself. Again, the time of the event militated against the use of any medium but newspaper. When Robert Kennedy was shot, I was nearly eleven, and heard it on the radio. As far as I can make out in retrospect, the only distinction between radio and newspaper for me was the time. In the early morning I read the paper. For the rest of the day I listened to the radio. There were no midday or evening papers in those days, and no television.

The next event to evoke similar strong memories for me was that of Apollo 11, man landing on the moon. I was a little bit older, and was taken to the United States Information Services offices to watch the event, on grainy television. While the images are ingrained in my memory, the stronger memory is that of hearing the radio at the same time, and the One Small Step speech stood out as the defining moment. On radio.

Over a decade later, the momentum was still with newspaper and radio. The scene moves to December 1980, a few weeks after I’d left India. Television was now part of my life, but in those days it wasn’t anywhere near 24 hours a day. After 11pm or so all you saw was the Test Card. So, when I went for a walk to smoke a cigarette and buy a newspaper on the morning of the 9th, I was mystified. There were people sitting down on the pavement near the paper shop at the end of St Anthony’s Road, Blundellsands, and they were crying. Openly. Young and old. I walked in, picked up a paper, read the headlines and joined the others on the pavement, crying. John Lennon had been shot dead. Again, the medium by which I came across the information was newspaper.

A decade or so later, I was bemused by the way the Gulf War began; it was heralded by CNN, and, in turn, it announced the true birth of CNN. Cable news was born. And for a while it defined the way I received the news.

The sudden and tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales did not fit the mould; I was on holiday in India, and read the news as I got on board an aircraft. Back to newspaper.

And then came 9/11. A turning point. The core communications device by now was the mobile phone. A colleague of mine, Kumud Kalia, called me around 850am Eastern Time, to tell me that there had been a small explosion at the World Trade Center, and that there was some talk about a Cessna crashing into the tower, with potential terrorism implications. I went to the COO, we agreed to call for the highest state of alert and notify the Gold Emergency Team, and we were all watching CNN in a hastily-arranged command centre by the time the second plane hit the tower.

The mobile phone became the way I received news, and it’s been that way ever since. CNN via television has receded in importance while CNN via computer has gained relevance; quite often I go there after being alerted by a friend, either via a phone call, a text message or via Twitter.

Of course there were other noteworthy events in between the Kennedy assassination and 9/11. I’ve just picked a handful. There’s a serious point I’m trying to make. And that is this:

In the past, I went to the news. Today, the news comes to me. In the past, when I went to the news, it was written by news professionals. Today, when the news comes to me, it is brought to me by a friend, an amateur. In the past, the place I went for the news was fixed. Today, the place the news comes to me is mobile.

There are other implications. Because I am mobile, the news genuinely comes to me 24/7. In the past, even if the television provided 24/7 news, it didn’t matter. I didn’t watch television for 24 hours a day. Similarly, in the past, the news was broadcast to me. Today, I can choose to subscribe to the things that matter to me, so that the news is relevant to my interests.

That’s why Twitter is so important. The ability for amateurs to publish news instantaneously; the capacity to embed the tweet with context and detail via the inclusion of urls, tiny or otherwise; the facility to bruit that news abroad via the publish-subscribe mechanisms and the RT or retweet mechanism; the ability to receive all this via mobile devices…..all these are signs of change, of significant change.

More importantly, all this is done globally and in an affordable and inclusive manner.

That’s an amazing amount of progress in just 45 years. We have only just begun to learn about the value of these things. I look forward to learning more.

2 thoughts on “thinking about yesterdays and news”

  1. JP,

    I remember 31st October 1984 when we heard the news about Mrs Indira Gandhi death in our radio. We were about to leave home to catch a train but my father decided to cancel the trip.There were rumours and mayhem in certain areas for the next few days — radio was the source of authentic information.

    Do you foresee possibilities of misuse in publication of information as this can spread rumours very fast sometimes with serious implications. I wait to hear and learn more on this.



  2. JP

    The reason mobile works so well for us is that it’s personal and excludes adverts. Twitter ditto.

    The intensely personal communication method enables a depth of messaging that TV, newspapers and other monologue-using media can’t match.


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