Transcript: Couch Talk with Dileep Premachandran

Couch Talk Episode 59 (play)

Guest: Dileep Premachandran, Editor, Wisden India

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman– Hello and Welcome to Couch Talk. Today we have the editor of Wisden India, Dileep Premachandran with us. We will be talking about the lack of long form features in cricket writing, the reasons behind it, the issue of access to cricketers and administrations amongst other things.

Welcome to the show, Dileep!

Dileep Premachandran– It’s a pleasure to be here, Subash!

SJIn an earlier podcast with ESPN’s Wright Thompson, the topic of long form features in cricket came up, and we had a discussion on it, and the general lack of it in cricket. And, you were interested in expressing your take on the state of long form features in cricket. So, here we are.

You have reported on cricket for a while now, and are the editor of Wisden India. Why do you think there is a distinct lack of long form features as part of the general narrative in cricket?

DP– I’ll start off by giving you some simple numbers. I have been writing on cricket for 13 years. In that time, if you ask how many match reports and match related comments I’ve done, that number would be in thousands, many thousands. If you ask me how many long form features I have done, something over 2000 words, I’ll probably not fit them into the fingers, but I’d say less than 20. That gives you some kind of an idea. It is completely related to the demand for long form writing. Maybe people like your listeners who love Wright Thompson’s work, I’m one of them. But, those numbers are far fewer from the ones who want the typical “Virat Kohli asks for turning pitches against England” or “Afridi slams Tendulkar” kind of headline. Unfortunately, that is what the greater demand is for, and that is what most publications provide.

SJ– Has there been a scientific study or poll done of readers? Is it because there is no demand from the readers or is it because there is not enough writing that the cricket readers have grown up in the internet age haven’t been exposed to?

DP– I can only give you numbers. I don’t have the numbers for Wisden India yet, because we are not really big enough to give actual numbers in terms of difference in response towards long form and say, short reports and comments. I can give the numbers from my time at Cricinfo. The numbers there was startlingly different.

Just to give you an example, the first time I checked the web numbers was during the 2006 India vs Pakistan series across the border. I had done match report for the Peshawar One Day game where “Sachin scored a 100” had made the headlines. That match report was read by 700,000 people. That was 700,000 page views rather. But, this was 6.5 years ago. And I imagine the numbers are way up on that now. At the same time, I was editing features for cricinfo for a year in around 2006, and we had some really great writing there. Wright wasn’t there at that time obviously, he is fairly new to cricket. Gideon Haigh, Rahul Bhattacharya, people who could really write. And, on a good week, it will be lucky if those features got 40,000 to 50,000 page views. That is not insignificant, but you can understand.

SJ– You said 40,000 page views, and you also mentioned that is not insignificant. But, from what we see, Gideon Haigh once in a while on different platforms does these long form articles. But, outside of him, it is rare to find anybody putting in an effort. It is like, “we don’t have demand for it, so we won’t put it.” Isn’t that sort of writing good for the writers as well? As an editor who has a responsibility to a form of journalism, rather than leaving it for dead, don’t you think so?

DP– As a reader, as someone who writes, I love the long form i love doing it. Some of the most fun that I’ve had in journalism in doing the long stories. I remember doing 7 pages on Shoaib Akhtar for Inside Sport; A long story on Brian Lara when he was in Malaysia a few years ago. Those kinds of stories an features will be great fun to do. But, at the end of the day, you have to look at the economics too.

When I’m a staff writer working for a magazine, it is always easy for the editor to call me up and ask me to do a story. Unfortunately, the number of people who can pull off such kinds of stories is also very less. Special features writing, writing 5,000 to 10,000 words and keeping it interesting, keeping the reader engaged for that long, is really a great skill in iteself. And that is what makes someone like Wright Thompson so special. Not everyone can do that. You find very few writers who can do that. You have Gideon Haigh, Rahul Bhattacharya, who did a fantastic piece on Mary Kom’s life a few months ago.

They are also A-list writers, you need to pay them that kind of money to write that. Now, I’ll give you an insight into some of the economics involved. A 10,000 word story for a magazine like Inside Sport, for example, where they pay 60 cents per word, would fetch you $ 6000. With $ 6000, I could probably fund three tours within India. You are talking about a fair bit of money, and at the end of it, if you might get only 50,000 page views, then your accounts begin to come back at you and  say “you are crazy”. It’s not always like that but you have to justify your expense somehow.

SJ– Let’s look at it from the readers’ point of view. You are saying you are not getting enough page view to justify hiring an alias writer to give you that long form article. Now, why would you think that there is not enough market for that? Is it because the cricket reader or consumer hasn’t been exposed to that? What is it that makes more viable in United States and not in the cricket world?

DP– A few years ago, I think Sports Illustrated shifted some thing around 20 million copies a year. That is huge. We had cricket magazine, the cricinfo magazine. We struggled to market a few thousand copies. Forget carrying upto 20 million copies, we struggled to make it to a few thousands. Now, that is the part of the problem.

You are asking me if there is no long form article features out there because there is no demand for it, or if the readers are not reading it because they are not used to the format. I don’t really know. It could be a bit of both. Till the economics balances itself out, it will be a bit hard. The ESPN magazine can send writers out to do just one story in Sri Lanka or go to Buenos Aires, or Rosario rather, and chase Lionel Messi. They can do that because they have the economic strength to do it. They have a successful magazine and website. And until and unless you have either of these, it is very difficult to spend that kind of money on one story. I will love to, trust me, I will love nothing more than to do a proper story on why Sachin is such a phenomenon in India. I don’t think it has every been done from a common man’s perspective. I tried doing that once, I don’t want to name names. I tried to do a piece on why he matters so much to the common fan. I was told that it was too self-indulgent and and “we would rather get quotes from Shane Warne or Dennis Lillee on it.” You end up doing the same kind of stories again and again, not because you want to, but because that is what you are told to do.

SJ– So, it is just a clusterfuck from all sides? There are not enough readers, the readers haven’t been exposed, and there is not enough money in it.

DP– The only way around is to promote long form writing from within. Have your young staff covering tours encouraged to do as many features as possible and spend as much time as possible. That is one way to do it. That will be easy on cost, and you don’t have to pay a lot for rights and all that. Funding people for a particular story cannot be that easy.

SJ– Let’s say that tomorrow Wisden Indian is interested in having a reporter and send him chase down stories about the functioning of BCCI and the backroom politicking and back-room deals and so on and so forth. How much access do you actually have?

DP– Zero. Whatever we got will be through people leaking documents, or telling things on the phone, but nothing official. In fact, that is the problem with player profiles as well. I think I heard a question in the Wright interview about access that he has to players and teams. There is absolutely no comparison. I don’t know if you remember the fly-on-the-wall documentary that the New York Jets did a couple of seasons ago. It was pre-season, and Rex Ryan and the entire team were basically open to the crew.  And they walked into the locker room and at practice and shoot whatever they want. That was fabulous. It was amazing to watch. And I remember being very envious while watching that because that is the kind of access that you do not get any more. I don’t think we ever got anything like that. If you are working in the profession for long enough, and you a know a player for long enough, they will talk to you for an hour or two, max. Beyond that, following them through a week of training and watching them walking to their homes, hotel rooms and watching them train in the gym, those “A week in the life of” kind of stories are impossible.

SJ– And, that is because….?

DP– That is because of the restrictions. The rules that we have, BCCI have, we cannot even contact the players for an interview during a series. If you do, it is at your risk and the player’s risk. If they find out that you had a one-on-one interview, then both of you will be in a fair bit of trouble.

SJ– I understand that. If you have to talk to a player, you will have to go through a board, the media manager and others. I understand that. But, if you go to them, they will not provide you the access. Why this opaqueness?

DP– A lot of players might want to talk, but the board rules prevent them from doing that. Let’s get one thing cleared. It is not just the BCCI. It is equally true of the CA (Cricket Australia). You have to go through the board, media manager to get permission, to get the setting. They can even ask you for the questions, which annoys me no end because good interviews are invariably spontaneous. Like sometimes you get words that you need to follow up on, you can’t stick to a script.

SJ– The way cricket is run and marketed and covered, everything seems a generation or two behind the rest of the world. Why is it so?

DP– I’ll explain it in a way. Why is American sport the way it is, why is it structured the way it is, why do journalists like Wright have the access that they do? It is because they understood the biggest truth that sports lives and dies by – The fan. Without those guys who are spending – I don’t know how many thousands of dollars for season tickets, hundreds per game, without those guys the sports will not exist. You will be playing in a empty ball park in front of empty stands and nobody would care. No ESPN, Tv deals, no nothing. Until and unless cricket realises that, they are in big trouble. It is only a matter of time before the “TV broadcasters deal” bubble bursts till you recognize the primacy of the fans.

SJ– We have seen that fans somehow always get the rough end of the deal. Do you see a breaking point where the fan says “Chuck it. I’m no longer interested in cricket”?

DP– I think we are already on the verge of that. I was watching the Indian Grand Prix on Sunday, and there were 75,000 people in there, and some people had paid Rs 35,000 for a grand stand ticket. That is a lot more than you pay for an average cricket ticket. I recognize that it is a different demographic that probably follows Formula-1 as compared to cricket. But, there is also a huge amount of crossover if you look at the major cities. If you look at the average  Chennai Super Kings fan or Mumbai Indians fan, a lot of them will also be into other sports like F1 and English Premier League football and the NBA and stuffs like that. If you don’t move with the time and make an effort to keep those fans in the fold, they will eventually walk away. If they think they are getting the bang for their buck, by going to the stadium or reading stuff online or visiting the official website they will say “Why the hell should I put up with this?”

SJ– In your opinion, are the people running the sport aware of this? They should be, right? It is so obvious. They should be aware it and should be taking remedial measures.

DP– They should be, but what I’ve seen till now is that it is not just the Indian administrators, but across the world. “It is not just our [problem]. We find these lucrative deals for four years. But after that what happens? I don’t know/care, I’m out of here by then.” It is a ground on which no sport is going to progress. It doesn’t matter if you are in charge of TV rights or selection or whatever. If you are not looking for more than the 2 or 4 years ahead, your sport will stall at the end of that.

SJ– For the benefit of the fans, I hope that happens.

DP– Coming back to our original discussion, I would love to see a situation where there is much more long form writing out of India. I am not even thinking 10,000 word feature. I’m just thinking an average 1,500 – 2,000 worded, well researched fresh copy about a player – about Virat Kohli or Suresh Raina, somebody spending a week or two with the subject to give us something we haven’t heard before. Even that would be great as far as I am concerned. That kind of writing is woefully lacking in Indian media right now, and I am including Wisden India and everyone else in it, also the newspapers. Everyone gets trapped in the culture of “Raina wants revenge for England drubbing” “Virat wants spinning pitches” “Finn has thigh injury”. It is all news-now kind of mindset which I don’t know what an average fan gets from. I know there is a lot of readership for it, but do you just want to read that kind of stuff? It will be quite interesting if that is the case.

SJ– I, personally, don’t. But, that is where I was headed in the discussion. It is almost a year since Wisden India was formed and almost 6 months since the website has been operating. In what ways do you think Wisden India has added to the cricket coverage? How have you distinguished yourselves from other online cricket forums such as cricinfo or cricbuzz or any other such entity?

DP– I don’t think we have reached a stage where we can quite differentiate as such. One thing I tried to do, with the columnists that we have, the ones who started and the ones who I hired subsequently, give them a voice and not give them too many guidelines. I don’t want to dictate to them what they should write. I have had the discussions with them in the past about how I wrote something and my Almanac editor wrote something else, which was a different point of view, and somebody else had a problem with that. I actually want a situation where my columnist is able to express his opinions as strongly as possible. That is irrespective of whether it is pro-BCCI or anti-BCCI or pro-Cricket Australia.

If you are asking me what I would do first for long form writing, the only solution for now, as I told you, is to try and build a few writers in-house to focus on those kind of stories and hopefully get them to you in the next few months. We do have a big series coming up, like one against England, and then Australia coming to town, the Women’s World Cup in-between. Hopefully, during these three, you will see some lengthy features and a better reading experience than your average “X gets a side strain” “Y wants revenge” kind of stories.

SJ– If you had a writer from your stable of writers or there is a freelance who pitches to you a story and says “I want to write a story about why Sachin matters so much to an average Indian fan”, would you say “Go for it!” ?

DP– I will say “Go for it!” subject to budgetary clearance. It comes down to that at the end of the day. Like I said, if I spend that much at the feature and at the end of the day 2,000 people read that, that will be the last time I get the commission for doing so.

SJ– You have to be willing to take a paunt some time, you know?

DP– If I put story like that out there, and people like you and whoever else is listening on the show pushes that story, and it is sure that people will read it for what it is worth. That is the only way, we have to help each other.

SJ– I understand that. Do you have a time frame in mind where you can say “In 2 years time I can be in a better position where I can push for this distinct way of covering cricket.” than the run of the ill 500 – 800 word post that you generally see in a lot of the cricket sites?

DP– If I am still in this job 2 years from now, I can confidently tell that what you get done in India and associated publications whether that is the Almanac or Wisden, will be very different from what you read elsewhere in the market. I can promise you that. You pick up the copy of Wisden India which will be out in stores in December, and also available at the end of the month online, you will be able to see the excellently good writers that we have. That is something that I am really proud of. I won’t mention names right now, but if you are a fan of long form writing, that almanac will definitely be a good read. But again, it depends on the economics because it is a book, because we can actually sell it and it makes  more sense to invest in alias writers writing those essays. But, on your website your economics is a lot more blurred. It is just slightly harder. But that doesn’t mean we are not going to try.

SJ– I wanted to talk a little bit about the issue of access. There was an article on Wisden India on October 23rd, by Anjali Doshi. It was titled “Access Baggage”. I want you to give me your take on it. She has said in the article, “The Indian media is easily swayed by the access the players offer journalists”, and when it came to Dhoni, there was a lot of hunky-dory, happy coverage of him and then, when India started to lose, then the “lack of access had resulted into vicious attacks about his poor captaincy”. Your take on that, as someone who has covered cricket for well over a decade?

DP– I agree with Anjali’s views on that. That is something that I’ve noticed. I am a neutral observer in this. I have met Dhoni, interviewed him, but haven’t had a proper interview more than once. That too was a snatch two or three question thing in Chepauk on the day before he made his Test debut. I won’t call that an interview. In 8 years, I’ve never really talked to him, and I don’t mind that much. I understand the fact that especially in the situation in which he came into the team, the way the captaincy was suddenly thrust upon him and the way he subsequently handled it, is that the way he would like to do things and I respect that.

All players are different. You have to give some allowance for that. I’ve interviewed Tendulkar five or six times, and they were long interviews each time. But, in no way I can pretend that I have access to him the way I do to, say, Rahul Dravid or VVS Laxman or even Anil Kumble. I don’t. You have to understand that a few players operate differently. If you start getting vindictive about that, which is what unfortunately the media has done, because they don’t have access to Dhoni, then it is frankly, pathetic.

SJ– The way I see it, as an outsider, it is a double edged sword. Journalists don’t hold their end of the bargain. For example, during the Rahul Dravid retirement press conference in Bangalore, he gives  opening notes. And the first question was about an alleged rift in the team. I don’t know who asked it, but it had no sense of timing or occasion. It then became a free for all event. Someone was asking about Sachin’s retirement during Rahul Dravid’s retirement announcement.

DP– I don’t want to judge how other journalists operate, because it is not something that interests me, but I can say this – a lot of people that are sent to press conferences by their channels or newspapers are specifically told to “bring us this angle”, and that is something that you need to blame the editors for. If one of my staff had asked that question, ultimately the blame comes back to me because I must’ve told him to do that. I think sports editors across the country have to take responsibility for such questions.

It is not just retirements. I trace back to a Champions Trophy game in 2006 where India beat England quite comfortably. They were chasing 125 or something, 20/2 at some stage, lost a few wickets in a rush but still won with plenty to spare. And, at that time, Andrew Flintoff was a huge hero because of the Ashes win in 2005. He came to the press conference first. And he was handled with kid gloves by the English media, laughing, joking, asking light questions, and it went on for 5 minutes. Rahul was next. The first question, if you can even call it a question, was “Sehwag was a flop. What do you think of that?” And this is just after one game, the first game of the tournament, and they won the game and your first question is not even a question but a statement which you expect him to respond to. His mood changed completely after that, and he answered question in a very sullen manner and he left after the questions were over. I remember, as he walked off, saying to himself “You wouldn’t know which captain has won the game.” And he would be right to think that. He was right to feel that way about how the whole press conference had gone.

SJ– People complain about access and lack of. For example, for writing a long form, you need to have such kinds of access. But, at the same time, if you need access, you also need to behave in a way that you have earned the rights to the access.

DP– The journalists who still have the access to the bigger players, who get to do lengthy features with them, are the ones they know won’t just make up  stuff, know you won’t spend the entire interview around one controversial thing and make something out of that. They need to trust you to give that kind of access. Because of that, like I said, it works both ways. As a journalist, you have to behave yourself to earn that trust. I don’t mean that you have to write only positive kind of features about them, but that you have to be objective, honest and truthful to yourself and your profession. It is only when you go and do a story with a specific agenda that your editor has given you, you get into trouble. I know specific examples of editors calling up correspondents in the field and saying this person does not give the access to us, let’s finish him, let’s do a story that says what a crappy finisher he is or how he has never won a match, and go ahead and do that. Trust me, I have seen those kinds of things done. Not only is that wrong, it is unnecessary. You have no business calling yourself a journalist after you commission a story like that.

SJ– One last question and then I will let you go. You said that if you had the job for two years, you were confident that you will push towards the long form features. In the meantime, does Wisden India have in its plans to have freelancers that pitch in their story, do their own research, write 1,500 – 2,000 word article and you would be open to publishing them?

DP– If you are going to West Indies and if you manage to get to, off the top of my head, to Brian Lara or someone like that, or Curtley Ambrose, who hardly ever talks to anyone, and then you call me up and tell that you have a story and you need a week or two to work, or send it my way, then we will definitely be interested. I’m already talking to freelancers, we got Anjali Doshi on board as a columnist. We also have others in Michael Holding, WV Raman, they are not part of my staff. Obviously, none of them have done long form essays, that is not their forte, but that does not mean that we are not looking at other people who can do that for me in the future.

SJ– Those guys are big names. I was talking about guys who have their own blog. They write well. And if they hear this conversation, they may have an idea, or a trip planned. They can get in touch with you.

DP– They can. Nothing stopping them. I just had correspondence with a guy in Australia who is covering the Bradman Awards, and he has sent across some stories from there. I am hoping that they will be a good read, I haven’t seen them yet. I am always open. My email is out there. People can write to me. If there is something interesting and which is worth doing and which is not going to cost us dear, then we will do it.

SJ– Cool!

On that note, Dileep, thank you so much for coming on the show!

DP– My pleasure! Good to do this again.

SJ– Fantastic. Hope we can talk again.

DP– Thanks a lot, Subash!

SJ– Cheers!

Download the full episode here.

Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman