Why I came to New York to launch a media startup in India

The Tow-Knight Center housed in the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, on the same block as The New York Times.

Two years ago, I happened to read an article by Gabriel García Márquez in which he lamented that journalists have become “lost in a labyrinth of technology madly rushing the profession into the future without any control.” I faced a different kind of predicament: sure, I was rushing my career into the future without any control, but I desperately wanted to get lost in a labyrinth of technology.

I was—well, still am— a print journalist who was often encountering dire predictions of doom wrought on the newspaper industry in India by digital publications. Yet I had been slogging indifferently.

The article did set off alarm bells. But it would take me more than a year to finally act on my anxieties. I had moved to a new team within my newspaper and took time to settle in. And then one day I called a classmate from journalism college. Sriram Srinivasan and I were print media students in college but he was currently the digital editor of a large newspaper in India.

How did he make the successful transition? I was curious.

Sriram’s response was unexpected. He said I should think of combining learning digital journalism skills with starting my own media venture. Since I was writing about aviation for more than a decade, he thought I should try and create an aviation-focused new media platform in India.

The question was how. I knew little about digital journalism or, for that matter, entrepreneurial journalism. Sriram pointed me to the journalism institute he had attended a few years ago: The Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism in New York. I gave it some thought and decided it wasn’t a bad idea.

Time to Go Back to College

I knew from my reporting and familiarity with the aviation media landscape that there existed an opportunity for a genuine aviation-focused media platform. No doubt, starting one would not be easy. Far from it. But regardless of whether I succeeded or even founded one, I was certain it was time to take a break from work and redefine my career.

In the scramble to put to bed editions or write stories, I had hardly found time to take a breather and discuss ways to assess and attune my work to the rapidly changing media environment. In many ways, getting admission into Tow-Knight seemed like a natural progression. I had performed every task a print journalist could think of: page-making, editing, writing, rewriting, production, breaking stories, writing long form, commissioning articles, heading a team and even helping start up two magazines within my newspaper.

At the risk of sounding cocky, I found myself in a similar position as former Washington Post editor John Harris. One key factor, according to Harris, that pushed him to found Politico was that “writing and reporting were becoming too familiar and too easy.”

I began to prepare in earnest for Tow-Knight. I talked to past fellows. I worked hard on my hypothesis for a business venture after conducting interviews with several aviation stakeholders in India. I was selected for an interview with Tow-Knight Center director Jeremy Caplan. Jeremy, I am certain, is a natural at poker. I had no idea how I fared at the interview. An agonizing two-month wait for the results was about to begin.

New York, Here I Come!

Then, out of the blue, I received confirmation that I was admitted to Tow-Knight. I was elated. But after the news sunk in, I realised confirming my participation was going to be a difficult decision. I would be away from my wife and four-year-old daughter for nearly five months, the tenure of the Tow-Knight program.

Not only was the program and stay in New York—one of the most expensive places on earth—going to cost a bomb, I was also facing a dilemma at my workplace. My newspaper offered me the position of National Features Editor if I could postpone the fellowship to the next year. (For the record, Harris got a counteroffer from The Washington Post to stay.)

I rejected the newspaper’s offer.

Cut to the present. More than a month has passed since I arrived in New York. Do I regret my decision? Hell, no! The agony of missing my family apart, I am loving every moment of my stay in New York and the program. I am seeing firsthand the raft of innovations sweeping newsrooms in America, meeting interesting people (the other day, I spent 20 minutes conversing with The New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, the details of which I shall share in another post) and soaking in the diverse culture of a great city. What about the program?

The Best Decision of My Career

I can shout from the rooftops that accepting the Tow-Knight fellowship has been my best career decision to date. In class, I am taught and surrounded by a bunch of immensely talented and kind people from countries as diverse as Peru and Germany. I am acquiring new skills every day.

I have learned more about journalism in the past one month than in the past five years. I strongly recommend a program like Tow-Knight to every mid-career journalist.

As for my venture, these are early days. I am knocking on unfamiliar doors. But I am more than convinced that Indian aviation needs a media platform devoted fully to it. The sector is poorly served by the mainstream media and existing publications. India is the fastest growing aviation market in the world, but it is isolated from information on fast-changing technological innovations and passenger behaviour.

I have seen the palpable frustrations of decision makers, marketers and professionals in Indian commercial aviation with what the media offers them. My venture will seek to address their needs and solve their problems with help from the Tow-Knight program. How am I going to do that? Watch this space.