Interview with Prem Panicker

Wikipedia says that he is an Indian Cricket Journalist. But he thinks otherwise. With 17 years of experience in both newspapers and online world, he is an inspiration for all those who are blogging. He was among the core members who founded Rediff.com. Our team after spending sleepless nights preparing the questionnaire have finally managed to interview, the current Managing Editor at Yahoo! India, Prem Panicker. Readers, here is your chance to learn a lot and get inspired.

Q: When & how did you start blogging?

A: I habitually check out new tools and techniques as they surface, so when the ‘blog’ first appeared on the horizon, I started an account to check it out. At that time, I didn’t think the form was for me, so I let it lie. Gradually, though, the medium evolved, and I think I grew with it; at some point, I realized that blogging gave me freedom that I could never find in the world of conventional journalism – the freedom to be me; the freedom to write as little or as long as I liked; the freedom to react instantaneously to thoughts and events, the possibilities excited me. So I began posting in early 2002.

Q: You have a background in journalism as well as the online media. What would you say, are the most critical differences between the online and traditional media (content-creation and also reception)? Do you think a background in journalism gives one an edge in blogging?

A: Firstly, a caveat – I don’t make the distinction you do, between “journalism” and “online media” . Media – print, television, internet, whatever – is the medium; journalism is what you do with it, the message. To respond to your actual question, the traditional media, by which I assume you mean print media, imposes certain forms, structures, word restrictions etc. on you – none of which exists online. So the real difference, I would think, is that in print you think within certain prefabricated templates; online, the possibilities are limitless or at the least, are limited only by your own imagination, as far as the shape and structure you give content goes.

The answer to your second question is, no. Blogging is personal, it is a question of using your voice to articulate your thoughts on what interests you — how well you do it depends entirely on how much freedom you give yourself to say what you think, and how well you are able to articulate those thoughts. You don’t need a “background in journalism” to do any of that; in fact, I think a media background is kind of limiting, because unconsciously you tend to carry the thinking of traditional journalistic practices onto your blog, thereby end up inhibiting your natural voice.

Q: How much do you think your posts and tweets impact popular sentiment? Where do you see Twitter vis-&#224-vis India?

A: I don’t write with an eye to influence sentiment – I write when I have something to say! I’d suppose, from experience, that when my thoughts are well framed and articulated, when what I am writing about is topical and timely and touches a chord, the response is good. As to the second part of the question, I think Twitter will continue to grow and evolve. Already, I’ve seen it go from a place where people were chronicling the minutiae of their lives [I’m standing in line for movie tickets] to a place where people share stories they find compelling, broadcast good content they find on the net, and engage in conversations. As these usage evolves, I suspect ‘Twitter the medium’ will grow organically in India.

Q: You’ve been Managing Editor of Yahoo! India for about a year now. Can you share some interesting anecdotes from your experiences with Yahoo!?

A: Eight months, actually – and it’s been a fun ride thus far. It’s been a voyage of discovery; it has been fascinating to get an insight at how a complex corporation operates; it has come with its quota of moments that are insightful, unintentionally hilarious and at unlooked-for moments, rewarding in unexpected ways.

Q: You’ve said you wanted to move Yahoo! from just content curation to having a distinctive editorial voice. How do you propose to balance the unbiased judgment of the first with the involvement of the second?

A: What I actually said was that I hope to move Yahoo from content aggregation, which we currently do, to a tripartite paradigm of intelligent aggregation, smart curation and original voice. Bias is inherent in all of us – readers and writers alike. Each media organization is biased, either consciously or otherwise. If you attempted to create a bias-free zone, I suspect all you would get is silence. Trick does not lie in eliminating bias but in creating an environment where you adhere rigorously to fact, and where you ensure that opinions are clearly flagged as such. The danger lies not so much in ‘bias’ as in the way stories inextricably mix fact and opinion. Our objective will be to make such demarcations clear, and allow the reader the space to consume content and make up his or her own mind.

Q: Yahoo! is trying to do a lot of exciting things. Can we have a sneak peek on some of the things cooking at the Yahoo! headquarters?

A: Broadly, Yahoo’s work operates at two levels – the global and the regional. At the regional level, right here in India, we work on projects, products that we hope will further reinforce, accelerate, Yahoo’s leadership in the content space. At the global level, there are acquisitions and consequent integrations [think Associated Content, for example], global product planning and execution, et cetera.

Some of the things we’ve done in recent times include the re-launch of mail with a state of the art platform; the addition of voice and video capabilities to Messenger. Other recent innovations are forward looking – for instance, we signed and operationalized a deal with Tata Docomo that puts the Yahoo suite of services in every phone from that provider, for life – thus opening up an entirely new consumer stream.

From an editorial perspective, we introduced opinionated voices, firstly in News, and more recently in Cricket. We started a Blog that has already done 32 million PV’s and counting, in less than four months. The push to introduce or upgrade strong verticals will continue through the first two quarters of 2012 — the idea is to create a strong suite of properties nesting under the Yahoo Front Page, and make each of them a destination in itself.

Q: Your personal blog and tweets retain the cricket writer essence of your Rediff days. Now as the head of Yahoo India’s editorial team, don’t you think you should expand your repertoire of topics? What other topics would you choose to write about?

A: As a matter of fact, I began writing in 1989, and only started writing on cricket in 1996. For the 7 years prior to that I was doing politics, human interest, interviews, profiles, even the odd investigative reports – so the repertoire was fairly extensive. I am often amused, and bemused, at the way my four, five years writing cricket appears to have wiped out all that I have done before; in fact, to my considerable amusement, when I did politics or features during my days in Rediff, one constant comment used to be “You are a cricket writer, why the hell are you writing on politics?” , as though the audience refused to see me in any other light.

I’m not, and never wanted to be, a “cricket writer” . It is just that for various practical reasons I had to focus on cricket during Rediff’s early years, and given the amount of cricket we play, it was not possible to do much of other things. In my current job, though, my work is more strategic, more at the policy level and has less to do with the actual writing and editing – most of my time is spent working behind the scenes on content deals, new launches etc. That said, we are ramping up on our cricket offering, adding new columnists, and hopefully by November I hope to add my voice to theirs with a regular column.

Q: Was quitting Rediff one of the toughest decisions to take? What was going on in your mind at that moment? Can you share some special memories from your Rediff Days?

A: Rediff – from the day I first got introduced to Mr Ajit Balakrishnan and the start up team – has been one long happy memory. And that is why quitting was absolutely one of the two toughest decisions I have ever had to make in my life. The work itself I knew I wouldn’t miss – much as I enjoyed the work in Rediff, I knew I would find new challenges with Yahoo, and the responsibility of shaping content strategy for India was immensely exciting.

I had been with Rediff since the day it was formed; a lot of people there have therefore been part of my life for 14 long years, and had gone from being colleagues to being valued, much loved friends. Even more, a dozen or so of my editorial colleagues are people I had worked with even before Rediff; in some cases these associations go back 20 years.

Q: Who is your favorite sportsperson and why?

A: I am always uncomfortable picking a finite number of anything. You admire different people for different things – and I haven’t found that one magical person who encapsulates all the different things I admire in sports. But if I had to give ONE name, I’d say Anil Kumble, (Ed.: Read how Prem picked up the winners for the Anil Kumble Contest) who personifies so many attributes I admire, and wish I could emulate: fierce determination, single-minded focus, iron will, an indomitable spirit, the ability to always be at his peak in his chosen field of activity, impeccable personal behavior… and above all else, an unassuming humility. There is a huge difference between taking your work seriously and taking yourself seriously – and if you want an embodiment of that difference, Anil is it.

Q: If cricket didn’t exist, what other sport would interest you?

A: Even with cricket existing, I am entranced by tennis, football, athletics and badminton, to name just four. I also follow athletics.

Q: You’ve said that you’d like to write a story that you’re proud of. Can you tell us something more about such a story? Are you working on a book?

A: You see the real masters of the journalistic craft at work, then you look at what you have done, and realize the enormous gulf between what you were able to produce, and the best in class. You try to match them, and then you realize that you are not, and likely never will be, good enough – all you can do is take baby steps towards the perfection those guys hit routinely…I did in a roundabout sort of way try my hand at a book when I did the online version of Bhimsen a year ago. One thing the experience taught me was that writing longform is a lifetime of work – you don’t, if you want to do it well, reduce it to a leisure-time activity. Frankly, I have ideas for two, three books – but at this point in time I am parking this for later.

Q: How would you rate the quality of Indian blogs? Share your favorite five blogs and your top 5 Twitter follows.

A: I believe that one of the unsung stories of the last year or three has been the gradual evolution of the Indian blog. Over this period of time, a variety of voices have been surfacing; existing ones have matured and now speak in assured fashion; this is having a knock-on effect on the ecosystem, prompting more bloggers to take the craft seriously. And all of that is very heartening. Also, the reader has begun to take blogs more seriously, and started seeing it as a good source of curated content – a case in point being the Yahoo India blog I mentioned earlier in this interview.

I follow, at last count, 28 Indian bloggers [and even that number leaves out a dozen or more of really deserving blogs; it is just a question of time available]. There are blogs that deal with current affairs, with politics, with development, with the arts, with tech, lifestyle… the spectrum. I won’t do those bloggers the disservice of picking just five; every blogger on my daily to-read list is equally compelling and it would be grossly unfair to pick any five for special mention, so maybe soon, as a follow up to this, I’ll send you the full list.

Q: What do you find to be the most gratifying aspect of blogging?

A: The instantaneous, and qualitative, feedback. In all honesty, I believe I’ve become a far better writer thanks to active blogging and to a flock of passionate readers who, besides keeping the debate going, have been quick and unsparing with feedback on the quality of individual posts. When you write in isolation, like say for print, you have no means of giving yourself a reality check. Against that, social media is one long – and often brutal – reality check; the one thing it does not allow you to do is take your audience for granted.

Q: What is your pet peeve about blogging/social media?

A: The trolls – who seem to take perverse delight in spoiling the discourse. I’ve never figured out what motivates them, why they spend so much time and energy seeking ways to ruin an otherwise interesting discussion/debate.

Q: Any successful person would have their share of detractors. How do you deal with yours, considering your visibility on an intrusive medium like the Internet? Is privacy ever a problem?

A: Detractors, I don’t know – I’ve been mercifully free of them for the most part. I do the best I possibly can; I’m not in contention for some arbitrary “best in class” label. I value the relationship I have with my readers – I do get mails from readers asking if we can meet, and whenever possible I say yes, because there is nothing like first hand feedback from fans of the game who read you. Some of them have become very good friends, as a matter of fact.

Q: Do you promote your blog? What promotional techniques work best for you and why?

A: Actually, even when I was actively blogging I didn’t do any promotional work, barring maybe linking my posts to Twitter. I think if you write decently, and provide value to the reader, he becomes your best advertisement, tells others about it – like they say in retail sales, the best megaphone is a satisfied customer.

Q: What is your advice to someone who wants to start a blog?

A: Stop thinking about it, and just start. Takes just a few minutes. And once you are started, stay focused on what you want to say, what topics you want to write about. Concentrate on strengthening your voice – and quit obsessing over the number of readers you get, or don’t. Once you start the numbers game, it puts needless pressure on you, you get depressed if you aren’t seeing the numbers, and either do a lukewarm job, or quit altogether.

Q: Do you earn revenue from your blog? Do you have any tips on this?

No, that’s never been my chosen route. I write when I want to and like it that way.

And finally, some fun facts about Prem Panicker:

Your Favorite Colour: Black.
Your Favorite Movie: Out of a few hundred? Okay, Rashomon
Your Favorite TV show: West Wing.
Your Favorite Book: Anything by Shakespeare, any time.
Your Favorite Time of the day: That moment when you walk through the office door, and a day full of possibility looms.
Your Zodiac Sign: Aries.

Thank you Sir, for this wonderful interview. We are sure our readers after reading this interview would get inspired. Friends, if you have any questions for Prem Panicker, do ask him and he would be happy to answer. For now sayonara, 🙂

Connect with Prem Panicker: Blog, Twitter

2 Replies to “Interview with Prem Panicker”

  1. Very nice interview. Good questions asked and incisive answers given (as your would expect from Prem). Well done!

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