For this newsletter, we spoke to Samarth Bansal, a reporter who’s optimistic about journalism as a profession. In a piece on his blog, he explains how he thinks about the profession as a collective and how it’s not all doom and gloom. We spoke to him while he was in the process of emerging from his eight month sabbatical to reflect on his journalistic work and process. He says he was able to take this time thanks to his side gig. Before his sabbatical, Samarth worked as a freelance journalist. He also has experience working on the data journalism teams at the Hindustan Times and The Hindu. You can read more about him on his website.
Samarth just launched a fortnightly newsletter where he’ll be reporting on stories and sharing his “truth-seeking process” (more on his project at the end of this newsletter). He also has a free course on Meta (formerly Facebook) Journalism Project India on product and code for journalists. Before we dive into the interview, we want to share some crucial context from Samarth: “I think it's important that I tell that while making all these grandiose arguments about journalism, I have a side job… that also enables me to take time off to think and take a sabbatical and now get back into journalism… If I did not have that, maybe I would not have been talking about these things. So that's a privilege.”
This interview has been edited for brevity, as we spoke to Samarth for over an hour via video call.
In Old News: How would you explain the work that you do?
Samarth: So I started my career as a data reporter. In January 2016. This segment of people [that] call themselves data journalists is a small community. Somehow or the other everyone knows each other through first degree or second degree connections. And so this skill is really valued in the market. So if you just want to do data stories, you have ample opportunities, and more people should learn it. I've written about it in my data journalism blog. But what I eventually realised early in my career, during my time at HT [Hindustan Times], is that we were becoming so numbers-focused, as the output. Ultimately in journalism we answer a question through a story. And numbers are one way to answer that question. It's not the only way. It's a good way. [But] there is no reason why a personal story, or anthropological stuff is not as meaningful as statistical work. Everything has its own value.
So when I was at the Hindustan Times, I kind of had for a while a free flow, where I could work with different people, do different kinds of stuff. So that got me more into “traditional reporting,” going onto the ground, talking to people, documents, all of that stuff. And so through that, I think this idea started emerging that you just think of a story that you want to report, you want to answer a question. And a reporter has different methods to do that. So that was number one, where I really got a hang of and started identifying myself as a reporter. And then the second thing that happened over time, the imagination of what is a news story, that started expanding. So one of the crucial distinctions between just news and journalism, I think that really hit me. News is when you are in a newsroom environment. We think about what is newsworthy. All of those kinds of questions, but newsworthiness in itself is very arbitrary, right? There is no definition. Like, why this is a story, why that is not a story. It's important, but it's not the only thing. It's one imagination of what a story is. So I had a fellowship at the Wall Street Journal, while I was at HT. And I think that really boosted me to think more innovatively. And also it gave me confidence that we can expand the kinds of stories we attempt. So when I left HT and moved to freelance work, I got the opportunity to work with editors who said, “Okay, go chase this story, and we'll see what comes out of it.” So that was quite amazing that you don't need to know what the story is, we just find it out. And that was more of an entry into thinking about long term investigative projects. So I have stuff that I've worked on, say for two months, but nothing came out of it. So it's fine. It's totally okay.
The third is just writing. And that is something I'm currently working on. How do you become a better storyteller? I always make a distinction between three things which I think are important for a journalist. Reporting, Writing and Thinking. I think these three strands if you think differently and become better at it, we become better journalists. So reporting, I have upped my game, at least I think over the past few years. Writing, I still have a lot to work on. Because even when you have the information, how do you tell that story? How do you structure it? What works for a 700 word piece? What works as a 5000 word piece? I still struggle with that. So it's a work in progress.
In Old News: Was it hard to train your brain to think differently about news or what a story is?
Samarth: Over time, I really started having questions about the utility of just news. For example, my news consumption significantly went down after I exited the newsroom. And in my sabbatical, there was time and I went off news. So there was a point when I used to feel [that] it's my civic responsibility as a citizen to know every bit and thing that's happening. But there is a distinction that I, over time, learned between events and systemic processes. So I got more interested in understanding processes and how things are happening. Instead of saying, “Oh, this politician said this today, or something bad happened there,” [instead] I was like, “I care about it. But I am not really interested in the details.” [I] more shifted towards processes. And why that is happening. What's the history behind it? What are the patterns that explain it? Does it fit into a certain structure or not? Then automatically, my questions also shifted. And when your questions shift, your ideas that come to you, they also shift. So I think it's more in terms of my personal journey of what I find interesting.
In Old News: You mentioned that sometimes you can go for two months without a [story as a] result. And you're okay with that. Is that something you had to learn? Or is that something that you've always accepted as the nature of things?
Samarth: So I think for over three years now, at least, I spent a lot of time just thinking about journalism and what does it mean? Like, what [its] contribution really is. If you are inside a newsroom, and there are structures that are set up, there are ideas about what's a good story, who's a good reporter… If you just keep following that… I think it's very hard to pull yourself out of it and look at the bigger structure. And sometimes you find that things that we consider super important, or that sense of guilt that comes by not doing certain things... [But] actually, in the larger scheme of things, it's absolutely meaningless. It's just more of like, we feel good. But that does not necessarily mean that it's doing good. There is a distinction. I think some journalism professor said this, that [modern newsroom structures] are not designed to create public understanding. They're designed to create new content. Even really good friends who are doing excellent work, they’re always just chasing the next story. Which is good, which is important. But all I'm trying to say is that, you know, we can make these distinctions. That excellent newsbreak on the front page does not necessarily mean it's helping us better understand, say, modern politics, business, or whatever you are interested in. So if two months of working does not lead to a story, it definitely teaches me a lot.
In Old News: Does the sabbatical help you transition from one style of working as a journalist to another that you aspire towards?
Samarth: In November or December 2020, I clearly remember telling a friend that “I want a zero story moment where I don't wake up to think about a story idea. Like, how do I put a hard stop on it?” And I'm telling you, it is absolutely difficult because as a reporter, you always have ideas you like. My diary is full of ideas I want to chase. So how do you tell yourself you can't just do a story?
One of the reasons I also took sabbatical is I wanted some time off to study… I spent three months doing two online courses, they were super rigorous. And there was a period of three months where if there was a camera looking at me, I was solving math problems, doing homeworks just like a very sincere undergrad student. And that process, by doing math, I also started connecting it with stuff I've done in journalism of how basically we make statistical arguments. It's not trivial. I mean, most of the times we think about statistics as running numbers in Excel, which is just a tool to do an analysis. But the difficult thing is to reason statistically, or think like a statistician. So that thinking I wanted to refine, because if you see any research paper that you quote, a study happened here, a survey happened there, fundamentally there is some statistics involved. And the more you learn statistics, the more you are able to identify bullshit.
So I think that's where the sabbatical, at least, shifted my thinking. How that translates into my work, I'm also looking forward to it. Whether it remains the same or it actually shows a shift.
It's possible that everything I'm saying is totally self delusional. I have these ideas, I read about it. But when you get to do the work, it's all the same old thing. That's what I don't know. It's just that I wanted for myself this time. To at least think about it in a more structured way. And also, when I went off news, to just reduce the constant inflow of others’ thinking. Taking a sabbatical basically gets you out from an autopilot to a more thoughtful way of looking at your journalistic work.
In Old News: In the early days of your sabbatical, turning off the reflex that “this is a story, and I should pursue it” was difficult. But since then, have you been able to really log off?
Samarth: Yeah, I have been able to totally let go of that. And also living in the mountains [helps]. So I just go for a walk, listen to some nice music or look at the mountains. I think the important point there is this: during the second wave of the Coronavirus, we all felt what it was like. Things [were] happening in my family, with my friends. It was a terrible time. And actually, that for me was the test case scenario. I at one point felt guilty. I was really questioning that ‘this crisis is upon us and I am not reporting?’. It just felt really absurd. Even if I can't do on-ground reporting, for whatever reason, I could just be doing data reporting. That I can do from wherever I am. Write informative stories, and feel that I am contributing as my colleagues are doing. And I truly appreciated the work that was put out by journalists during this time. But then I have to tell myself that it's fine. It's okay to not do a story. And I had conversations with friends who are going through the same phase. In that moment, I realised that at the end of the day, journalism makes sense only when you look at it as a collective. Tomorrow, if I stop reporting and writing, it is not going to make any difference. I am just one individual reporter who writes stories. But if tomorrow, 1,000 people like me stop reporting, it will matter. So even if at one given point where instinctively I feel the urge to report, I [have] made peace with the fact that it is okay. And I am hoping that in the long run, this sabbatical and ideas that I've taken back and the things I've learned, will eventually make me a better reporter. I'm 28 right now, I am happy to become a good reporter at the age of 40. But it's a process. If you can really sharpen your journalistic process, right from how you think about stories to how you report to how you write it. That is what matters, not how many retweets etc, it gets or impact.
In Old News: Do you have any advice for journalists who would want to be able to create something like what you have? A side gig and time that lets you focus on the reporting you want to do?
Samarth: I just think that it's important in today's time to have skills that are not just journalism specific. I also have friends who are so attached to the identity of being a journalist that they can't see themselves doing something else.
My background is in math and engineering. Everyone knows tech is the hottest thing in the world right now. So it's great that I have tech skills, I can code, I can do software, I can do data, I can do product. So I have really highly valuable skills in the market. So it's easy for me to get opportunities out there. But for those who don't have, I think they should actively try to work and build skills that are in demand. Because if you think long term, say you are doing something, and while having a full time job, you figure out ways to set a six months or a year long goal: I am going to pick a new skill that will create alternative sources of income for me, if I decide to go independent.
My advice would be to build a mindset. In a gig economy, it's turning out to be bad for people who are at the lower end of things, given the exploitative structures that we hear about. But if you develop a niche, and if you're on the other side of it, where I consider, fortunately, I am at this point, it can do wonders for you. Because you can really cross-subsidise your work here and there. Do what you want. But for that, a diversified skill set is important. And building the skill set is valuable in the long term, because the skill set or [what’s] important today may not be valuable 10 years from now.
So you get into that zone where you pick up skills quickly. And you almost make it part of your day to day affair. You know it will help, so to be a better journalist, develop non-journalistic skills. That might be a way to sum it up.
I think it all comes down to really thinking hard about your finances. For two people, the same amount of money has absolutely different value. Like until a year ago, I did not have to pay rent. But now I live at this place, I have to pay rent. Having a really good sense of personal finance is absolutely important. Because it just clears things out — this is what I need to sustain, this is what I need for my luxuries, this is what I need for the future. I have an annual target. If I hit that number, I am sorted, then I will do that. [Like] I will take one month off to take leisurely walks in the mountains, if I meet my target. I think this really helps to get that money and not keep chasing it. Again, [it] totally depends on everyone's personal finance framework. But it's important to have a framework.
Editor’s note: After we interviewed Samarth, he launched his newsletter The Interval. We sent him a couple follow-up questions via email to learn more about his new project. Here is that follow up, edited for brevity:
In Old News: Your first newsletter shares findings from reporting you did in 2019. Were you already thinking about ways to share bits and pieces that didn’t make the final draft of the story when you published it? How long have you been working on this project on the down-low?
Samarth: Just to be sure, the Mint piece you linked to has little to do with what you read in my newsletter. Working on that analysis just told me something was off and it ended there. It was a few months after when I decided I need to solve this puzzle and not leave it as a data caveat that I started reporting.
What I have published is part of a bigger puzzle I was trying to crack. So a lot of my reporting on this story remains unpublished and I will use it at some point. The publication that commissioned the story got shut down and then I was stranded for a while. And a few folks I would pitch this story to wanted this weird thing called "newsworthiness" — why are we talking about now? And I was like, boss, screw that. I will self-publish it. The news media — not all, but most — largely shows interest in covering events and not processes. Please see the distinction here. I read this again and again to remind myself that the event-oriented structure of news doesn't help in understanding how the world works.
To be sure, it's also possible that I am doing something very wrong with pitching and all. Not discounting that.
In Old News: What is your plan (timeline/coverage) for the fortnightly newsletter project? How do you hope to see the fortnightly newsletter grow or shape in the future? Were you also working on it during your sabbatical?
Samarth: I started The Interval as an experiment and I have no idea where it will go and what will happen. I want to stick with this at least for six months and then reassess. Unlike the weekly explanatory newsletter I published 2-3 years ago which was a side project, The Interval is an original reporting focused newsletter which will have my fullest attention. Every story in the newsletter will have have the reporting rigor comparable to my work with bigger platforms. That is the goal. But I didn't want to start something and say, "hey, I have a newsletter and I will send you interesting stories every two weeks!". That did not sound appealing to me. Subscribers should have some understanding of what they are going to get. The idea behind The Interval — a newsletter to think deeply about the truth-seeking process and forces that distort it — emerged when I saw there is a connecting thread in most of the ideas listed in my diary. I think having a clear theme helps readers and it helps me.
I have three key goals.
One, I want to work on my writing. I am an okay writer at the moment and want to become a good writer. The journey from an okay writer to a good writer won't happen soon. It will take months and years. It's a long-term thing and I am fine with it. What I can do in the short-term is align my effort to achieve the long-term goal. That's where my newsletter helps. I can experiment with styles. I can experiment with length. I can experiment with my voice. I have complete freedom to do whatever I want to do in my newsletter.
For example, popular media doesn't like the reporter to be in the story and first person narratives are discouraged. I don't get it. Why not? I am more honest in my writing when I can say that look here is what I know and this is how I found it out and here is what I don't know and this is what I am thinking about it. That is how I tell these stories to my friends. I think it makes reporting more credible. But for some reason, when you write for the world, Indian publications have rigid ideas about the format that works. Now I am not saying those formats are not good — not at all. Just that I want to experiment with different styles of telling the same story and see what people say. For the first story, I wondered: I have a great education story — or let's say, what I thought was a great story — which is deeply reported and it is telling us about a fundamental problem of a metrics-obsessed society. But the topic is dry: survey data is bad, incentives were not aligned, metrics impacted governance. Right? So can I do something and make it interesting? After multiple iterations, I landed on the idea to narrate the story as a puzzle I am solving and take readers along on a journey. The first-person is great style for that. Now I don't know if what I thought actually worked or not but look, I could at least try it out because it is my newsletter. And my subscribers wrote back and gave me feedback. I love this freedom to experiment.
Two, I want to figure out if the ideas that I find interesting are just my fancies or if others find it relevant too. I love editors — and the thing I miss the most while publishing my newsletter is an editor — but just for a few months, I don't want an editor to tell me what works as a story and what doesn't work as a story. I just want to report the stories my gut tells me are good stories and learn from feedback.
Third, and this is a difficult one. I often think about: What does it mean to be an independent journalist? Here is how I look at this: I want freedom from the ideas I have accepted about journalism that I learnt inside newsrooms. I want to be free from that and think from first principles. And I want freedom from the desire to be published in big publications. I am not there yet, but I want to get there. So it's a test: can I publish some solid reporting on my newsletter even when I know I can publish it with a reputed brand? And if I am able to do it, how do I feel? Do I even want that? I don't know. I want to find out.
It's not that I won't do any reporting for publications. Some big projects necessarily require the support of an organization. I will and I am having those conversations. But I will pick limited projects so that it doesn't affect my newsletter reporting.
The trade-off is obviously reach. Low readership is the cost to work towards those three goals, and I have made peace with it. I want to be read more, yes, and I will follow the rule book to get more readers, but honestly, I started The Interval assuming that ten people are going to read every email. Not joking — ten people! This whole readership thing is also very humbling.
Some stories will be read more widely than others and it is fine. I do this work because I love reporting and I love writing and I love journalism. I wish someone at a big publication hires me, pays me good money, doesn't expect a story every week, lets me work on ambitious ideas and allows me to experiment. That job doesn't exist.
So this is the head space in which I am entering 2022 and let's see where it goes. I never plan beyond six months (because plans don't work) and it's possible that I find out things that will change everything I said above.
[To follow Samarth’s journey, subscribe to his newsletter here: https://www.samarthbansal.com/welcome-to-the-interval/]