Nishiraj Baruah debunks myths about lifestyle journalism in India

India’s foremost lifestyle journalist NISHIRAJ A. BARUAH started his journalism career with the daily The Pioneer, after which he went on to work for various national newspapers such as The Indian Express, Hindustan Times and Mail Today (India Today group) where he was responsible for the launch of several lifestyle, travel, entertainment and feature supplements. During his 15 years in the print media, he has reported/edited extensively on travel, music, golf, adventure sports, high society & nightlife, home & interiors, luxury and other lifestyle related trends and topics. He also plays the drums and is associated with the percussion group Delhi Drummers. He also has an unique hobby: Collecting knives and has so far 125 knives from various parts of the world. He had recently joined Harper’s Bazaar (Bride) as its Executive Editor. He speaks to The Thumb Print on the prospects and pitfalls of lifestyle journalism in India


nishiLifestyle journalism has experienced enormous growth in the media over the past two decades, but scholars in the fields of journalism and communication studies have so far paid relatively little attention to a field that is still sometimes seen as “not real journalism”. What is your opinion?


You’re right when you say lifestyle journalism has not been paid enough attention. I guess the guys who design journalism curriculum and teach in various media institutes mostly comprise of journalists who never saw the arrival of lifestyle journalism during their prime. As such their idea of lifestyle media is limited and naturally they don’t want to teach something they have little idea about. They are often very senior people and they like to rope in people to run these schools who are their contemporaries who have never done lifestyle journalism. Besides, there are not many ‘famous’ lifestyle journalists. People like MJ Akbar, my former boss in Hindustan Times Vir Sanghvi and my present boss Shekhar Gupta in India Today Group have all made their name through serious journalism. Yet these are the same editors who have finally succumbed to the allure of lifestyle/entertainment journalism aware that this way they are able to reach out to more readers.


How would you define lifestyle journalism? Do you think this brand of journalism is increasingly relevant for 21st century consumer cultures?


Lifestyle media has evolved from the moment globalisation, liberalisation and consumerism happened. Interestingly, most people turn to the full-coloured supplements like HT City and Delhi/Mumbai Times first before they turn to the main newspaper. You don’t want to read about mayhem and murders and rapes and scams all the time. You want to read about the new India where we have done so much in terms of fashion, cinema, travel, culture, music, and  and so on. These are often feel good news, as necessary as your morning cuppa to feel fresh and energetic for the day.


Lifestyle journalism has an aspirational element to it. Everyone wants a better life, don’t you? We read/see these stories, for example, on taking a Jaguar or a new about-to-be-launched car for a test drive and that not only provides you unbiassed information on the car but also builds in you a “Oh if I could own one!” aspiration. It is showing you ways to make your life more stylish, more elegant, better and helps build your varying interests and hobbies.


Also lifestyle media is just the right place for advertising lifestyle products/services. A hotel ad in a travel mag or a car ad in an auto magazine or a jewellery ad on a wedding magazine make sense as people with only those interests will pick up such a copy. It is a great revenue earner for magazines and employs a whole lot of people.


And hey doesn’t a glossy magazine with a great model on the cover looks good on your coffee table?


What are the main ingredients that make up a good lifestyle journalist?


First of all, you have to a bit colourful by nature and personality. You haveto have an interest in the finer  things of  life: it could be sports like polo or golf, it could be cars or computers, it could be even real estate, films, music and so on. Then you have to be a good writer. Since it is not hard news, you should have the ability to play with words, wrire stylish copy, invent new words, and in general your writing should have a contemporary cool quotient. One also needs to keep oneself updated on current trends and spot a new trend. In fact, I was probably the first one in India to write about electronic music 15 years ago when it was just about arriving In Indian clubs.


Do you think lifestyle journalism actually deal with serious issues?


A wedding is a serious affair, right? It is about a lifelong relationship and needs loads of planning. So if we do a story on ‘planning a wedding’ am I being trivial? If I am doing a piece on a destination in a travel magazine, am I not helping those interested to make informed choices? And if I am writing about a movie star or a Page 3 party, aren’t you entertained? Lifestyle journalism informs, guides and provides entertainment. If we aspire for a good life, a basic instinct, the we are doing serious business here. Lifestyle media also talks about the traditional crafts, culture  that are increasingly going through new changes. Yes we are serious, buddy, but never forget to down a beer to destress at work.


All TV channels and internet news portals and newspapers and magazines have given a significant part of their coverage to lifestyle stories. The advent of niche magazines are a case in point.


There ‘hype’ surrounding the death of lifestyle journalism because of the sudden action by Outlook group announcing the closure of its three licensed international publications, Marie Claire, People and Geo. How would you assess the scene in India when it comes to lifestyle journalism?


It was just a particular media company that due to their own financial complicacies had to close down the three magazines you have mentioned. Lifestyle media is thriving, but the trick is to go niche. You cannot be a lifestyle magazine meant to appeal all sections of readers. Lifestyle magazines have become very very audience specific. Thus we In India Today group have magazines that are on men’s health, on fashion, on automobiles, on luxury, on environment and travel, housekeeping and gardening, and so on. Very soon, India will have magazines only on cigars or horses. Niche magazines are the way to go.


The other area where I see the growth of lifestyle journalism are the corporate magazines which are client/company magazines/newsletters published on behalf of them by various media houses. These cater to the customers or  employees of these companies. Thus I was a part of the edit team that used to publish Mercedes Benz magazine, a premium high-life glossy, that go out to the owners/customers of Mercedes cars.


Why is it so difficult to accept the journalism that extends beyond fierce reporting on rape cases or scams?


Is it difficult? Well, human interest stories will always move mankind, but then there is always a big section of readers who would rather read about the beautful and fascinating things happening in the world. There are enough people to report on the Israel conflict or farmer’s suicide, but come on, we need to smell the charcoal flavous of a Jack Daniel or try out the latest fitness fad that is Zumba, go skiing in Gulmarg, or admire the new colours of a  Satriya dancer’s outfit. Is that trivial?


Can you narrate some of your experiences in lifestyle journalism? Did you get into this field by chance or by choice? Please tell us about your journey as a lifestyle journalist?


It was by choice. Back in Don Bosco Dibrugarh, we were influenced by everything foreign, ‘imported’ ‘smuggled’ in a pre liberalisation world. Second-hand old issues of Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire fascinated me and I remember trying to cram up names like Versasce or Formula One icons or Hollywood stars. My dad, as usual, wanted me to be a doctor, but I went for Arts, which surprised everyone around, given I had a first division in 10th. But when I managed to bag the 13th position in all Assam with a few ‘stars’ in some subjects and joined Ramjas college in Delhi University, parents were finally reconciled to my arts leaning. I loved English – the language more than the literature, and after graduation worked in a few advertising agencies as a copy writer. But when I realised that you get absolutely no credit for the creative ad lines and concepts that you came up with, I joined a newspaper  where your articles and stories are always credited with a byline. From then on, I have worked in the lifestyle sections of The Pioneer, The Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Mail Today, Air India Magazine and now Harper’s Bazaar – first as a reporter and now as an editor. It has been 16 years now!


How was it working for the Air India Travel magazine? How do you assess what kind of stuff does your readers want to read?


It was nice, but being a magazine for a public sector company like Air India, we had many limitation on journalistic freedom. The management was very conservative about the use of certain words or pictures which they think could be offensive. The magazine just cannot afford to be controversial. But we did our best and won a few awards, one for being the best corporate magazine in India.


Readers in an aircraft are varied and as such you have to satisfy everyone from grandmoms, teenagers, business travellers to kids. So had to ensure variety in its content.


Your job also entails a lot of travelling. How has been your experience?


Travelling is always a joy. In fact, my last assignment for Air India magazine was in Tel Aviv and this was just 4 days before the bombings happened. Now I know what Gaza Strip looks like – a place we have so often seen on TV growing up. I am at my best when I write on travel for it involves just about everything in lifestyle from sports to music to food to entertainment. The only drawback: you have a complaining child and a grumpy wife back home, but  I try and make up by producing  Mickey Mouse bag from Disneyland Hongkong or cheese from Switzerland.


How do you see the prospects of a lifestyle journalist in a region like Northeast india?


It is very limited. Quality lifestyle publications are few, and salaries are not enough to sustain the lifestyle of a lifestyle journalist. But North East is cool and everyone in the world has an eye on it. From Bihutronics to Missing fashion, resorts and restaurants, it has a style of its own. I wish some local entrepreneurs start a quality magazine/journal where production and presentation are of fantastic standard. The Thumbprint webzine is a great effort in this direction.