Amitoj Singh, Now Leading the Story on the Future of Money
Kingkini Sengupta interviews Amitoj Singh about his transition from sports reporting to political and financial reporting, his zeal for breaking stories and his challenges of changing stereotypes as a Sikh journalist wearing a turban on global television.
Amitoj Singh has been a journalist for the past 15 years and was previously the main anchor and News Editor at India’s New Delhi Television (NDTV). Currently, he is the India regulatory reporter with CoinDesk, a New York-based news platform, leading the story on the future of money. Amitoj has also worked with CNN, Al Jazeera, Columbia Global Reports, Business Insider, and SBS Australia, and has covered a wide range of events including the 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol, the 2019 General Elections in India, repercussions of the ISIS conflict in Iraq, the World Economic Forum in Davos, UNGA in New York, and the 2015 Cricket World Cup in Australia. Amitoj holds an MA in Journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and has been a Dag Hammarskjöld Journalism Fellow at the United Nations.
RSJ Grad student Kingkini Sengupta has previously worked with Amitoj Singh on various news stories while being a part of NDTV.
You worked for 12 years with NDTV?
Singh: Technically it’s 12 years and just about one month more, but then loosely I was with them I’d say around 2021 January, that was the last time that I did something for them, so I through the year of 2019, even though I left in 2019 I did cover Howdy Modi for them in Houston, I covered the UN for them, the UN General Assembly, I covered the IMF for them. I did some telephonic interviews and news from the US for them, then in 2020 when the pandemic hit, I did some more telephonic interviews for them, I think one or two more lives (live coverage) and covered the Black Lives Matter protests, I covered how Sikhs were helping New Yorkers during that tough time and then I was their political commentator through the crazy one week election result kind of situation where you didn’t know who had one with Dr. Roy (Prannoy Roy, Co-founder, NDTV) and right after that I was there on January 6th, 2021 for the insurrection.
I had predicted that that would happen, so I reached there and I reported on it and I shared whatever I had done with NDTV which they used and several other networks used it. And then on the 20th of Jan for the inauguration they signed me up for covering that day. I did a story, and live coverage the whole day and the night before.
Why did you join the media and why did you choose NDTV when you started off?
Singh: I was a sports person who was playing cricket for a while. I was Captain of my state. And I was also playing cricket for Delhi, my college team Hindu college, which is perhaps one of the best teams at that level. That would be able to take on a Ranji trophy team. I replaced Gautam Gambhir (Indian cricketer) as an opener so that tells you a little bit about the status and the quality of players that were there and I was studying English honors and I was a sports person so even in school, I used to play seven different sports. I was very active when I left school and graduated from the University. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and my sister Bani was working at NDTV and I asked her what’s the toughest thing to do and I wasn’t really interested in journalism at the time, but the movie Blood Diamond had come out . And I’d seen that and that really made me excited about the role of journalists in the world.
But the reason I got involved was because Bani told me that the toughest test to work on at any TV is the sports desk. It’s the best desk, most organized, most hard working, best quality of journalism and at the time it was, and so I said, this makes sense that I’d be doing something challenging.
And so I reached out to NDTV. Dr. Prannoy Roy did an interview with me.
During the interview I said, ‘Well, I actually want to be a war correspondent’ but since you’re not going to send me yet I’ll take anything that’s there.’ He said, ‘Let’s start you off on the sports desk’ and sports desk was unique because, unlike other roles at NDTV when you were on the desk mostly, you weren’t allowed to go out, the sports desk gave you the freedom to everything, but it also pushes a person and makes one learn. The people at the sports desk give you time to be your mentor and they will literally be your teachers. They taught me everything. Some of them (former colleagues) were particularly hard but that taught me a lot. It’s what I cherish and treasure now.
So, I didn’t quite figure out what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it and as a sports journalist, the first two months were a ride, I mean I was watching sport and literally talking about it, writing about it, archiving, editing a little bit here and there, helping with some research.
And then I had a moment, where I was acting a bit overconfident. I was lashed out at by a senior colleague for something that was not my fault and she still apologized for it but from that point on, I got angry with them. And because I got angry with them, I decided to show them what I’m capable of. I was staying long hours at work for no reason. I was listening to music while I was working. I stopped doing all of that. I used to enter the office three hours earlier, or at least two hours earlier and I used to be there till midnight, every day, so I would enter at seven in the morning and be there till midnight. They used to keep reminding me of time and asking me why I was not leaving for the day. I said I want to work and there’s a lot to do. I was upset by this incident because I excelled in school and was a guy who really was proud of my abilities. Apart from a few at the desk, not many really understood the sport as well as I did because I was a cricketer, so I was very technically nuanced about cricket. At some point, Ajay Jadeja (former cricketer) said after a show, ‘Why don’t you get Amitoj to report or anchor as much as you should because the guy knows a lot.’ At the time cricket wasn’t just about who scored what and who won, which it is now! At the time we really got into technical analysis of the sport and every match, because there was no Star Sports, it was just ESPN. And we were the only sports show there in the country, and it was the best show.
We really dived down deep into the details of each strike, the analysis we did was very elaborate.
The desk recognized my ability and then after some years, I started to realize that I wasn’t getting the time of day at the sports desk because there was such good competition and there were so many good people who were experienced and it’s not like I wasn’t good enough, it was just that they were already people above me who had spent too many more years and had much more experience.
Eventually I got that chance, with an opportunity to go to Australia as a journalist and one of the things that happened when I came back from the Australia test series, in which we lost four- zero and Sachin Tendulkar ( famous Indian cricketer) was supposed to get his hundredth hundred and that didn’t happen and so there was bit of a hullabaloo. I switched my citizenship from India to Australia because I was born in Melbourne and as a result of that when NDTV got to know that I had an Aussie passport, it was very easy for them to send me while saving money on Visas. That got me a lot of exposure. They chose to send me over others, perhaps because that person would have to spend 50,000 bucks on the visa and at short notice that person couldn’t really go but I could. That opened a lot of doors for me.
In 2014, I had a colleague at NDTV. And she was an anchor on the news desk.
Because we spent time working together closely in the same newsroom, I saw her life and started to pay close attention to political reporting.
By that time I was kind of done with sports coverage because what happened was the BCCI ( Board of Control for Cricket in India) had undercut journalism in India, and particularly cricket journalism because they wanted to give us accreditation for test matches. They were not making it easy for us to cover the IPL’s (Indian Premier League). There were very few limited opportunities left to do on ground reportage and there were investigations that were becoming tougher. The resources that were given to this sports desk were completely being taken away.
So the sports desk was slowly becoming smaller,as they laid off people in two-three years, almost all of them. By that time, I had made a name for myself as an anchor because I had really taken into anchoring, I really liked it in the sense that it came very naturally to me. Not that I like to talk, but being in front of the camera was not a problem. I had a personality which was unique and there was something called presence of the screen which people said I had. At some point I indicated after the 2014 election (when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India for the first time) that I wanted to be on the political beat.
I worked harder. In 2015 I was in Sri Lanka for the Test series of cricket, and while I was there, there was a presidential election.
I wrote a news story and covered it for the news team, and I think people were impressed, and when I returned, the top news editors of the channel reached out to me and said, “ We want you to be our breakfast news anchor.”
I started doing slightly political sports related stories, like at the intersection of both society, politics and sports. I did an investigative show called the Good, the bad and the ugly of the BBCI which got the attention of everyone, where Barkha Dutt (one of the managing editors of the channel at that time) got a call from Arun Jaitley (Minister holding cabinet portfolio with the Narendra Modi government) to stop the show from going on air 15 minutes before air time.
And with good reason the top bosses of the channel had stopped the show from going on air with just ten minutes to go, because there were certain things that I’d said, which were a bit toned up. They toned it down. Other than that there was nothing wrong with the show.
That kind of bothered me a bit but I realized that’s where the action lies, that’s where real journalism is. By that time I had worked so hard that I had learned how to video edit, and be my own camera person. I was a video editor who was editing stories, I was a person who was doing montages, I was archiving footage, I was a producer who could be the output editor (plan live rundowns), I could go outside and be a producer of an entire show, I could do it all. I had been my own camera person when I had gone to Germany and shot an entire series. That gave me a certain amount of confidence, and I became a rundown person. I moved the rundown around like a crazy planner. As a result of that, when I moved to the news desk people weren’t really aware of my potential, but over a period of time the energy that I brought became known. My ambition had risen so I worked harder between 2016 and 2019. I didn’t stop and I think I got burned out because I would never say no. The bosses used to call me and asked me to fill in for others and I would immediately say yes.
I used to come not necessarily hours earlier but I definitely stayed longer than I was supposed to, always. And what I did was I covered both sports, because the sports desk otherwise dissolved, I covered Jai Jawans ( well-known TV show covering different army battalions of India), I covered stage shows for them for their campaigns, I covered political stories from pollution to Facebook to political parties of India like BJP, Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, the whole gamut of things. By 2017 I started doing stories where I was breaking them and doing so in all news beats.
This caught everyone’s eye. If the biggest story of the day was the Cambridge Analytica, within a week I would have a breaking story about that. So it would be in Defense, it could be in information technology, could be with any ministry, and I would just jump onto it and get a story, or break a story and that’s what people started to take note of and that is where I realized more that I wanted to be a political journalist. It just hit home for me. I was making a certain amount of difference, and I was changing attitudes.
What was the motivation behind all that you did, what was the source of the energy that you had and how did you channelize that?
Singh: I don’t know if there’s one thing that drew me more than the other. There were several things. I think number one on the list was putting food on the table for my family. My father, my mother were retired individuals, and so I was financing the house. I was paying the rent of the house so I had to earn more money. I had to outperform.
Also, internally the motivation has always been something related to religious tolerance wherein I believe that the divisions that are there in society need to be quelled in favor of identity tolerance. I don’t like to say religious tolerance .My point is let people be who they want to be and whatever they want and the mindset in India was shifting towards less tolerant India and me breaking stories, doing stories that would make people think differently, while having a happy face on air, rather than the grim look as news anchors mostly have, I wanted to be able to present the news in a way in which it was not less boring but telling it in a way in which is both energetic and does not feel like the end of the world. At the same time I had to inform and prepare people for what they were going to hear.
The other thing was that my fellow colleague was a woman. What she did brilliantly was leave her privileged life behind for reportage in some of the most difficult places in India, particularly U.P. as a woman to go and report and really see the difference and that was something which really inspired me because she was a privileged person and had attended a very good school and her parents were wealthy, she did not really need to do what most of us did out of necessity. She chose to do that because she wanted to get down and learn and do the shoe-leather reporting and understand humanity. That drove me also because I always believe that you don’t really get to know what people are going through by sitting in the studio. At several times the editors would suggest that I do a story that I would not be super interested in but after getting to the ground I used to be moved by the story myself and get incredibly passionate and by the end of it, I used to be negotiating with the editors to not shorten the script. The other thing I cared a lot about was, I think this is the bigger theme, the most important, I believe that good journalism can change mindsets. I think we’re biased inherently as humans, we have what is known as confirmation bias in our systems and I wanted to break through that constantly and challenge my own notions on several things. Finally, the other motivation was, while NDTV may have disproportionately targeted a certain politician during the early 2000s and vilified him consistently for about 10 to 15 years without making it about people of Gujarat who perhaps also endorsed him. As a result of that there was a kind of resentment coming from the new government. I stood for NDTV at the time because I saw people from the sports desk that I loved and people that I was friendly were all let go and I could not face them. So for me, I was watching some force come down hard on NDTV and I’m always with the underdog so I was just going to fight for them, even if it meant that I wasn’t going to get a raise for four years.
So I filled in during the staff shortage. When I was there we couldn’t have an output editor to build rundown sometimes and we had just one anchor and I used to be the anchor and the editor. I would do the sports shows and immediately walk into the news shows, so I did all of it, because I felt that NDTV didn’t deserve the reaction it got.
I was like a very fierce advocate for objectivity. Everyone was going low on energy. One of the things that burnt me out was picking everyone up constantly, giving them that energy and helping them to do things. Nobody was getting a raise and people were quitting or getting fired and the news of raids on NDTV started making its rounds.I used to motivate myself and be reminding myself that there’s a lot that NDTV has done good, which it has as one the leading news channels on Indian television. Without the channel, without Prannoy and Radhika, I don’t believe we would have had TV journalism in India and sure it’s taken a turn for the worse, but there’s no doubt that the channel had been the flag bearer of truth even today and that deserves accolades and the recognition and acknowledgement and perhaps celebration. For me I wasn’t going to let the ship sink and I took it upon myself to do better when I had 0.1% of the knowledge of what really was going on at NDTV and the pressure it was under. I was not part of management but there were instances where a separate platform reached out to me and said the channel is sinking. You should jump ship when everyone else is jumping ship.I refused and stayed on.
Other places were offering me more money, better position. I decided I’m just going to be in an organization that has always cherished loyalty and I’m going to try to give my best and not leave it when it’s going down or when it’s being pushed down.
Is there a story/stories that has stuck with you for the longest in your career ?
Singh: When I was in the U.S. I had to present a reel to people who wanted to see my work, and so I went through hours of footage that was actually on the NDTV.com website, but also hours of footage that was not even there and I had to remember it and find the tape and it was amazing. One story that was my first was about Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq-Qureshi, an Indian tennis player and a Pakistani tennis player who had come together to form a pair.
For me that was beautiful. They were both amazing and so I went to the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association. I am a tennis player, my father was a tennis ITA level tennis coach who played at the highest level, my brother’s a tennis player, we were all playing as a family, a week ago, so for me, it was a very natural space to be in.
That is one story that stuck with me, because it was sport and unity and was a great topic to cover.
There were several stories but the one that stood with me was a story that was close to my heart, because Uttarakhand was a state which had been bifurcated from Uttar Pradesh and as a result that the BCCI had not given it recognition to play Ranji trophy, which meant that an entire maybe two generations of cricketers lost the opportunity to represent India, and I was one of them. So for me, one of the stories that I wanted to do was Uttarakhand and I did that as a series, and perhaps the only time there’s been an investigative show on the BCCI. I did it and it was about corruption in Delhi cricket which continues till date. Voting, selection, the power dynamics, politics , the role of politicians. So those kinds of stories and that was a half-hour show that stuck with me. I did a documentary of Sachin Tendulkar on the day that he retired, so I did a half-an- hour documentary when I went through 23 years of his career, every single footage possible, wrote an entire documentary script which is re-written about twenty times, the voiceover was updated about 15 times, the montages were redone and the music was chosen by me. It was just the whole effort that I put into something that I loved and like Sachin was one of the big reasons why I played cricket in the beginning but as a sports person he was a legendary and still is really God of the technicalities of the sport and particularly cricket. After that there were a few, one of which was pollution. The topic is close to my heart, because my mother has asthma bronchitis so I did many stories about pollution, particularly one about the conflicting plans of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and the central government and how there’s just no uniformity, because of the power dynamics and politics.
Another story was about the Rohingya crisis. I was anchoring the morning show till 4pm. After my hours in the office, I went and shot on my own with a mobile phone, and in my own car. I found the Rohingya refugee camp in Delhi and was not aware that it was just seven kilometers from NDTV office. It broke my heart but that story became a part of the investigation for a show called Truth Vs Hype. I did it on my own, without telling anyone about it. It became a solid story which the UN looked at and offered me a fellowship and because of that I was in New York for three months, which then led to Columbia because they liked that story so much.
Then there was another story about what I think is going on right now is the information war, where politicians weaponize information and misinformation, fake news and all of that. That was a story about Cambridge Analytica that I did. It was perhaps the biggest news break, because it made headlines across the country. I was the first person to break news. I was in Goa, partying and flew back because I got the information that this is happening and I got the document that was needed. It was about how Cambridge Analytica’s boss had met Congress leaders and so I got that story out. After that I produced a show called India vs Fake news. Our managing editor Sonia in January of 2019 did this town hall where they were trying to get ideas of how we should approach our election coverage.
I suggested that the election was not about human studies anymore. We had done that incessantly for decades. This was also not going to be about elections around religion. This is going to be about fake news, and whatsapp consumption and how everyone’s taking that information through whatsapp and minds are being influenced in terms of voting, so we had to approach it in that direction. So the next day we started the show and I was very proud of the way we did that, without a team, without an output editor to build rundowns, without any help. But of all of those I think the one that stands out for me is January 6, insurrection when I was alone and I walked into the US Capitol with Trump supporters looking down at me with a turban and wondering why I was there and I just understood that India is not all that bad maybe (laughs). I saw that the US is in a much worse off place when it comes to the impact of false news, fake information, misinformation and disinformation. It made me realize that we’re a very divided society across the world and in every country and that’s the way people in power like to keep it, because that is the only way you can control things. That broke me and I’ve kind of been mostly figuring out what to do about that, since then.
Indian Journalist, New York Journalists, Columbia Political Journalists, Upcoming Journalists…
Journalist, Presenter, Political reporter, Sikh, Writer, Columbia Journalism School, South Asian Journalists…
What are the challenges you faced while doing your coverages?
Singh: That is a tricky one. I think in the grand scheme of things I didn’t face that much discrimination and later I realized that that’s not got to do with the fact that I am uniquely identified but perhaps more because of privileges of education I had of the institutional nepotism that happens when you are from the Doon school in India. There’s a kind of cultural, social, nepotism that goes on because there is technically something wrong with it, but when you have a capitalistic competitive news system, you don’t have time to nurture people who may have more potential than me, and so you got to really have people who are already kind of in the scene. You don’t have to mould them and nurture them and nourish them and mentor them and teach them. You’re already halfway there and it makes life a lot easier. I think, to some extent, this is my conjecture, I can’t prove it, but I do believe that in the first three years, four years, maybe in the first seven years of my NDTV career for several other reasons, but also, I wanted to do everything, report, to be on air. I think in every corporate space you’ve got to do that if you don’t do it nobody’s going to give you a chance, like one of the things I learned is that if you don’t ask you don’t get anything. So even though I was informed about cricket I think some of my team members and my leadership didn’t give me the opportunity, I deserved fast enough, and there were reasons because perhaps the people in it were good enough already. So they did not really need another person, but also because there was a bit of a question mark about my appearance, they were not sure about putting a sardar (Sikh man wearing turban) on air. I had to make some changes to my appearances like one of the things that I used to do when I came to NDTV, I had a longer beard, I had not trimmed my beard. I wore a turban in a very untidy manner, not a smart way. When I got to know that I’d be anchoring the week that was coming up, I remember going to my maternal uncle who was in the army. He ties the turban very beautifully. I woke him up at five o’clock in the morning and made him teach me how to tie the smartest turban possible because I was now an ambassador for this identity that I had as a child, which I didn’t think I am the flag bearer of but I was born into the family so that’s who I am. I felt I didn’t want to let anyone down and particularly NDTV. I didn’t want anyone to say that a Sardar is on air and he’s not looking good. I wanted it to be exactly the opposite, and so I made a bit of an effort that time and asked myself several questions and did some soul searching, and chose to trim my beard because it didn’t make sense to spend like an hour every day, trying to keep your beard tidy.
I went on air and it was great because by that time I just knew the system so well.
There was a lot to learn. Former Australian cricketer and commentator Dean Jones was on my first show. It was an IPL match I think and after my first show, we hit the commercials and I remember he said something that I will never forget, and I thank him for that, he said, “It’s not how you start, but how you end.”
That’s how people remember you, so you have to be as good as you started to end the show so I kept up that intensity of my energy in my presentation. Anchoring a show can be very tiresome. Those were half an hour shows and by the time I was doing four hours of news anchoring non-stop that too breaking news sometimes.
After that one of my bosses sent an email saying, “ This is one of the best shows I have ever seen from a first time news anchor.”
And there was this other anchor colleague who told me to remember that it is always about confidence and that the camera is my best friend. I literally maintained that because my style of doing news was very informal, casual almost, but official. It was a combination that people started noticing and I used to see these tweets and posts on Facebook about me. I got messages from people in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US on Facebook more than I got in India. Somebody did an article on me Sikhs who have carved their unique identity or something like that on Times of India or Indian Express or something and then another colleague and me had chosen for best dressed anchors or news journalists in the country and I took pride in those things because I felt that there is a stereotyping of Sikhs in India and perhaps across the world. In a Hollywood movie we are taxi drivers and in Indian cinema, we are not good enough, as Sikhs originally to be Sikhs for hero roles and all the Khans and the Kumar’s take those roles and dress up as Sikhs and make their bucks. I say have you ever seen a Sardar, he’s very energetic and is cool. Why don’t you use an original Sardar, for your shows and movies? Why do you have to always present us as either angry, either stupid, funny or brave. These are the 4 identities of Sikhs that are potrayed. There is a fifth one too, the journalist identity. No one notices that.
This categorization that I was very against. And so when Diljit Dosanjh (famous Punjabi singer from India) came into the picture with his movies and songs wearing his turban. I was very happy because he broke that stereotype.
So this is happening across the country, but even now, when you look at it there’s a lot of stereotypical behavior around Sikhs. I was in Delaware for the Democratic National Convention during the pandemic in the US, and this is in the middle of the afternoon across the parking lot next to the Convention Center. This guy with two children shouted out to me while I was wearing a turban, “Hey, can you come here, or something like that, like he felt the need to randomly reach out to a stranger and the entitlement to be able to say to me because I’m used to it perhaps. I realized he was slightly drunk, he was smelling of alcohol, but his children who were with him , he was genuinely making an effort to make them understand who I was. He told me, ‘ Can you tell them who you are and what is this turban on your head?’ It made me realize that there is a societal shift towards change but it is just so much of this conditioning that it is going to take a long time for it to change. I faced discrimination in the US, particularly during the Black Lives Matter protest after that. The conversation in America has reached a place where they’re recognizing what they have done and it’s very different what they’ve done to the black people as opposed to us, the scales are completely different but hate crimes against Sikhs have been happening forever.
So it made me realize a little bit about that and I don’t think that it’s got to do with just America, I think in India it happens all the time. But we are always called with different wierd names and however intelligent we might be, they will always say to us certain things that cannot be true for all of us. So it’s a bit annoying and frankly speaking, if you look at India, the community that is the most prosperous is Sikhs and so it is perplexing. You will never find a beggar in Punjab but when I went to the US, it made me realize that it’s way too big of a problem and Sikhs are really behind. The media is greatly responsible for this. People behind the TV, people responsible for what is viewed by the world are responsible because they don’t put a person on it with a Hijab, they will always make the Taliban’s turban look like terrorists’. They will allow for a certain stereotypical recognition of what is an ideal news reporter or presenter rather than allowing for diversity to flourish with the power of television. Once you normalize us like every other day identity by putting us on TV and not presenting every Muslim in a Hollywood film as a terrorist you’re going to change everything and for me that’s very powerful. So, I try to find a job by making that argument, by telling people look, you’re not going to get a Sikh as good as me. I have the education and I have the experience, I’ve got what you needed from Columbia now. What’s missing? People talk about diversity and inclusion, but it’s not just shades of color it’s about what people were also on their head or any part of the body. America has more than a million Sikhs, you attorneys who are Sikhs. You have Sikhs everywhere and never has a single Sikh been on air in any news channel, how weird is that? It’s subtle discrimination it’s not like what black people have suffered. Asian American are sort of different even amongst Asian Americans, there is no monolith so many different people inside that term. Issue is that Asia is the biggest continent and what you’re doing is getting all of us together, that is itself a problem. There is just so much it doesn’t end this conversation. This can go on forever. However, I did not face any particular discrimination but during BLM protests there was an opportunity for America to ride that wave of ending discrimination against every community. And so, for me, when I said black lives matter what I mean is that there was due attention given to the African American Community but, seven, eight months later, there was this Asian American hate crime, there were a few incidents against them and they are continuing and that then became the topic of conversation. It just surfaced for me because of the movement where you learn through the inspiration of BLM through the hard work of the people behind BLM to understand what it means to be accepted on equal footing, the difference between equity and equality. When you understand that and how to take ownership of it, and then vocalize that and advocate for it and educate people about it and then believe it yourself, like the caste system in India it’s not something that people start talking about. It’s still underground and not mainstream conversation. It’s changing, there’s the shift which is a quiet one and it’s not a vocal shift. It’s happening without a noise about it that says that this is wrong.
We as a society need to stop it, that’s not happening! Black lives matter was a moment of awareness, for me, when I realized that, why is it that we or anyone with a different identity is discriminated against are not vocalizing. It should be more about democratic equality and that is what the Indian Constitution reads, which is equality for all people.
How was the experience of covering so many different beats, how easy or tough was it and how did you blend in?
Singh: It was easy because professionalism across the world is a little bit higher than in India. So when you go as a reporter there’s a very mechanical process that you have to follow and things are somewhat made easy for you to report. There isn’t the shoe leather work that is needed to be done in India or at least the countries that I have gone and done reportage. I’ve only been to Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, England, Germany, Switzerland, the US, and Sri Lanka.
All of these countries, most of them were for sporting coverage. Like Australia was for sports, but then I covered, other news like the murder of an Indian woman. They are much more responsive and answerable to the media and so you don’t have to go around chasing the people in power. I think one time I faced discrimination again and it was difficult and I will explain why because there’s a certain way in which they consider Indian journalists in Australia, for example, they looked down upon us, because some of the Indian journalists come out there and really showcase themselves to be poor journalists and so there is like this impression about us. Like one of the people in cricket Australia once said something demeaning to me and I had to let him know in his own language what he was doing wrong publicly because he said what he had to say to me publicly and it was a reminder to him that just because some engage in low quality journalism, doesn’t mean most of us do. I think the US was uniquely different because the US has a huge undercurrent of the whole immigrant narrative coming in and taking over parts and so it was difficult to reach out to random people on the ground and talk to them, not New Yorkers because they are cool but like somebody in Texas once I called him and they said something like, ‘..why don’t you go back?’ I asked the question and obviously my accent was heard by the person and he realized I was not American and he instead of answering the question I had asked, he said this and put down the phone. Those kinds of things happen but the differences I’d say was a recognition of how so many different cultures, even if they’re all white people, are so different. In Sri Lanka, for example, it was beautiful because people were just amazing, covering stories were easy. In Australia, it was like they would look at you with a bit of suspicion, particularly when you’re wearing a turban but smile at you because people are now being asked to be more hospitable. And it’s like what I always say, this is like point 00.1% of what a woman goes through. I’d say in America it was similar wherein on Halloween and Times Square, I was wearing a turban and I had another Sardar friend with me who’s also wearing a turban and we were wearing kurta pajama (traditional attire of the Sikhs). People thought we were literally going for a random Indian party on Halloween and considered we were not Sikhs but people who are dressed up as Sikhs but they didn’t even know what Sikhs are and what a Turban is. International coverage was not a problem, like the World Economic Forum, the UN was great. Sometimes wearing the turban or being an Indian journalist helped.
I didn’t get myself down and dirty like journalists now in Ukraine would have to do. That would be something I’d like to hear about because mine was more like a planned experience. I was at the UN. It’s a process, it’s systematic journalism there. The best conferences are held at noon, where we make an interview request by email. It’s not shoe-leather reporting. Similarly in Switzerland, I was there at Davos, which is the same, and then there was this Swiss Government sponsored trip, which again where everything was made available to us so it wasn’t like my hard work and toil. It’s only like later that I did the kind of international journalism, wherein I went to Iraq and I had to do everything myself in a sense, even though I had a fixer who knew the language and was connected, I made an extra effort and did real journalism, instead of just do what a channel needs because this was not something a channel required. This was my thesis, I had to write 20,000 words and I wanted to write it in a particular way, so I had to do it in the best possible way. I went really deep down into the story, and obviously the resources provided by international news organizations, the time that they give in, the thought process that goes into a story is just unbelievable. I remember, the Master’s thesis I wrote was six months in the making but I used to sometimes go on air in seven minutes over a big news break and just start rattling. Bosses would call me and just say go on air and I had to ask what the story was but they would be telling me in my ear through the talkback after I sat down to anchor. I had that confidence which no other reporter had. I had developed a knack of understanding, very quickly, what a story was. In the US that doesn’t work because you got to be the boss of your story inside out . Even in Australia you need to know the story but particularly so in the U.S they will ask you twenty questions about it, before the story is aired which tells you a little bit about the rigorous story development that takes place and that’s the difference.
What did you cover in Iraq and how was it different from the other coverages that you have done?
Singh: Completely different but it was as close to the Rohingya story that I was earlier talking about but even worse. My sister’s children, I am close to them and around the time that I chose this topic was because I was just perplexed about how this could happen to children and how this world could allow this to happen to them. What happened was that, there is a certain community in northern Iraq the Yazidis are a minority community. They have been victims of genocide, since centuries wherein they are thought of as an evil population, for some reason, because they pray to a certain God and I found it uniquely interesting because what happened was when ISIS attacked Iraq and took over Mosul and in June of 2014 or 15 and then took over the Northern other parts, they took Yazidi women as slaves. First they took all the men, lined them up, shot and killed them, children included, young boys and then took the women and made them sexual slaves, after kidnapping them, sold them as sexual slaves, retained some of them, married them with the wives they already had. They also raped them and impregnated and kept them as cleaners in their own house. The children that they had were the children of Sunni ISIS terrorists and Yazidi women which is a problem when ISIS was defeated, because the Yazidi community did not want to take children who are born to ISIS men. So the mothers suffered incredibly because not only had they gone through this ordeal, but they had also landed themselves up in a position where their own families did not want to take the children with them. So for me that was really heartbreaking and these children were orphans and it was disastrous. It broke my heart and I went and met three women who told me their story and how they were still not united with their children. Then I went to the political leaders of that region, I went to the religious leaders of that religion, and all kinds of different people including NGO’s who are trying to work on this and other people who were trying to rediscover or rather find the mass graves of the Yazidi people. It was just a very traumatic experience as a journalist. That’s a story that is clearly the one that has stood out for me and that’s not published yet. I have still not been able to get it out.
Did you ever talk to anyone about getting it published or are you still in the process?
Singh: In fact, one or two organizations wanted to publish it but one of the things that most media organizations are doing now is cutting the story short. I don’t want to cut this one short. They want to publish 2000 words. I’ve written 18,000 words. I shot in on a mobile so it is like a complete package and there’s something I don’t want to compromise on.
Do you want to use it as a book or something sometime?
Singh: I’m not qualified for that to be honest, I don’t speak the language, I am not an Iraq-based journalist. I was just like a parachute journalist who walked in and did a story, and so I don’t feel like I should do that. But eventually I want to do something out of it, I just want to do it right now.
You attended journalism school when you were, I think 33. Does it change the way you see things?
Singh: It does. NDTV was a broadcast journalism space, it was completely oriented toward broadcast and, yes, post 2014 we were as reporters professionally asked to become writers, so we had to first publish for the website before we did the TV story and that did help a lot for me because the course that I chose a Columbia turned out to be completely disproportionately focused on long form narrative writing which I didn’t imagine when I went into it. I thought it would be a bit of a balance and though it said that this is a course meant for long form narrative writing, I thought they’d accommodate a little bit of the TV space or fast breaking news stories, which I didn’t do because both the professors who are leading that particular course where book writers or long form piece writers. One was a New Yorker staff writer, and the other has written 108 books and that didn’t help because when they were upcoming journalists people still had the interest in reading as TV had not flourished so much and by the time we became journalists the attention span was six seconds, even shorter now. For me that was a bit problematic and initially I wasn’t learning a lot at Columbia, I thought and felt that I had been shortchanged. I had spent 12 years by then as a journalist, and NDTV really teaches you a lot so I felt like I knew so much, but it’s the way you think and how you choose every single word to say what you want to say and articulate what you what what is the news as closely to the truth, as you can with the word that you’ve chosen ,that art is what Columbia teaches. First three or four months, I was a bit surprised at Columbia but then over a period of time it kind of sunk in that here’s what the learning has been and I do believe that Columbia as a school probably needs to redesign that course because it’s highly disproportionately leaning towards a medium of information consumption that less and less people are consuming.
You want to be able to be the master of a medium of information or news or factual truth telling that is the most consumed as opposed to the least. When you have one minute to tell a story, you know the problem, because you can’t tell the story in one minute.
What do you do with Coindesk now and how is that different from what you have done so far?
Singh: I am the regulatory reporter for CoinDesk. I’m covering India, mostly, but also every other part of the world, depending on the story and whether I have sources on that story and an interest. CoinDesk is New York based. It is the longest and perhaps easily most respected cryptocurrency news outlet in the world. My current colleagues are from Bloomberg, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal so a mix of people from the best finance journalism are all working together as a part of an amazing team. I’m covering the position that the government is taking on cryptocurrency in India, Pakistan, Singapore, Dubai, Ukraine, Russia, all of that. How is it different? Well, for one, I’m not going to the office, so I am my own shepherd in a sense, because I don’t have an immediate boss over me. So I have to motivate myself, I have to dig out the stories, pick the stories myself. Sometimes, or rather, mostly I do them without even pitching it to my editor. I am mostly on the phone, building sources, building the name for CoinDesk. So I’m not just responsible for the reportage, but also for being the ambassador of the organization in India. I don’t have to do television news. So it gives me more time to write slightly more nuanced stories and be very well informed about a story before I write it or deliver it as in a new cycle, which was not the case in broadcast. Sometimes in broadcast due to immediacy, we had only 20% of the information that we needed to write to do a story and we will have to go with it which would often lead to a less nuanced story presentation. So it was further from the truth than you would like it to be, but faster. Here, it’s slightly slower. But it’s much closer to the truth, the nuanced truth that is. But most importantly, I think it is different because I was earlier a sports journalist and a political journalist. Like in the year 2013- 14, I was a sports journalist, then between 2013 and 2015, I was at the intersection of sports and politics, covering the BCCI. And then for the last six years, I was basically a geopolitical journalist, covering elections and a lot more like misinformation. Now I’m covering the financial world. So crypto is like my vehicle to get into the financial world of journalism. And that’s why this is very different. And the financial world of journalism requires you to be like this entire beast on its own. Like in politics, you have different political parties here, you have different companies. And they’re all sharks who are important in their own way, and much more organized than political parties. And the information flow is much more. And it’s a lot about numbers and money. And so you have to dig deeper. And you don’t necessarily need to land up at a rally because there are no rallies. So it’s not about what voters are saying. It’s about what numbers are saying. And that’s very important. For this you need to develop an expertise of a different kind. So it’s just more laptop time and less camera time.
What is that one advice you would give to future journalists?
Singh: Believe in the power of truth even if it appears to not be enough in changing voters mindsets or bringing change. Your role though is not to change the voter’s mindsets. Your role is to fearlessly find the truth and talk about it. That’s why people entrust you with their voice. Honor it.