Interviews

Our USP is the quality of our educators, says Prof Sanjay Ahirwal, Dean, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Apeejay Stya University

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In a freewheeling conversation with Aasheesh Sharma, Professor Sanjay Ahirwal, Dean, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Apeejay Stya University talks about the institute’s 100 per cent placement record, the impressive educational infrastructure comprising state-of-the-art editing machines, cameras and microphones, the hands-on teaching culture and never making any compromise on the quality of educators who understand the needs of the industry. He also shares his mantra for great storytelling, “In this age of fake news, be factual.” Edited excerpts:

With your rich experience of reporting from the ground, Sir, you’ve brought enormous credibility to the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. How are you enjoying your innings as a journalism educator?
Once a reporter, always a reporter. It is very difficult to detach oneself from what’s happening around the world. I am still keeping in touch with journalism in terms of writing articles. Secondly, I read six newspapers before I come to the University every day. My first class for everybody at the School of Journalism and Mass CommunicationApeejay Stya University(SJMC) is the newspaper class. At 9.30 am all students are supposed to read two newspapers and then we discuss what is happening around the world. Having said that, I don’t mind going out of active journalism, because seven years ago, I had come into academics with a vision of trying to do something serious. I am glad that I am interacting with young minds. Journalism is getting more and more digital, it is there on our smartphones. The younger generation is very good with machines unlike me. So, I get a chance to learn from them and I teach them the art of storytelling. I don’t mind that at all.

What makes the School of Journalism and Mass Communication stand out from other media schools? 
The most important thing that stands out is the quality of educators and trainers. I must thank the Chancellor Ma’am for this. There is no compromise on the quality of faculty. Most of us are from the industry. It is a nice blend of academicians and people from the industry. For instance, I teach anchoring and reporting. I have done both for more than 25 years. Similarly, Pushpa Nair, Seema Guha and Prashant Mathur, who teaches advertising, are from the industry, they know exactly what the industry needs. We very proudly say that our students can easily walk into the industry and they have been doing so. During the first lockdown, our graduates got jobs and even in the second wave, those graduating are being hired with ease for their first jobs.  This is because we are training them according to what the industry requires.

One USP of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU is great infrastructure. How important is it to have state-of-the-art facilities available to students and faculty?
It is crucial. This is where we score over other media schools. For this interview, I am sitting in my studio. This is where students are trained to be anchors. We have state-of-the-art studios and best editing machines, cameras and microphones that are used in the industry. What it does is that it helps us place this equipment in the hands of students in the first year itself. That does not happen in other universities. We believe in practical work and letting the students get their hands dirty. Sixty per cent of the course is practical and they do it on these very editing machines, cameras and microphones. We have an Internet radio station and our own newspaper and YouTube channel. Students are producing content for all these platforms and in the process making a portfolio of their own. It is extremely important for students of journalism and mass communication to do hands-on training on the latest equipment and we train them with that.

Hands-on training and industry-ready graduates is something SJMC is known for?  How do you ensure that this consistency in quality is maintained?
It is very important to train them in a manner that the industry requires. As the senior Executive Editor and Managing Editor, NDTV, I used to do recruitment of youngsters. The things I was looking for were a fire in the belly and a little bit of training in how to tell a story. The art of storytelling is the first thing that we teach them. Also, it is important for our students to interact with the best in the industry. So, whether it is Rajdeep Sardesai, or Ravish Kumar or Nidhi Razdan, or Deepak Chaurasia, they’ve all come here and provided masterclasses to our students. That’s an inspiration for the students. When the lockdown had happened, we had a bunch of luminaries from the industry talking to our students. These included names such as Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Hridayesh Joshi and Darain Shahidi. The CAGR for the digital medium is 35%. So, we train them and take them to places like The Quint, NDTV, India Ahead, ABP News. All these places have our students working there. In fact we had two of our students doing industry training in BBC, this is something unheard of. The BBC local office in India had to seek permission for this from their London office and they had a fantastic stint there.

Please tell us about the tie-ups you have with universities in the United States.
We have two fantastic tie-ups: Arcadia University in Pennsylvania and St Joseph’s University. Our undergrad course is for four years. You can do the first two years here, carry forward these credits and opt to do the final two years in any of these universities. If you have a CGPR score of 3, you get an almost 50% discount in your tuition fee. And the degrees that you get are American university degrees. It is a win-win for students who opt for this.

What according to you is the secret of great storytelling, in the audio-visual medium?
All the media, whether digital, audio-visual or even print, have come to rely on good visuals. I have taught in convergent and integrated newsrooms in which there is a single input and the output can be used on multiple platforms. I implemented these in Tanzania, Kenya and Malaysia. If you belong to TV, look for the best visuals. Your words must supplement the visuals. In digital, the canvas is much wider. You can write more and use more visuals. The art of storytelling is the most important thing, whether you are doing radio, digital, films or any form of journalism. This is what we teach to our students.
My mantra for great storytelling? In this day and age of fake news, be factual. Try to put yourself in the audience’s shoes and ask whether you would want to see or read the story that you are reporting. Why should your reader or viewer pay attention to your story? That is the most important thing. If you can pitch the story in a sentence or in 10 seconds and somebody’s interested, you’ll be able to do the story.

You have taught in other media schools before this. What makes the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, with the Apeejay group’s emphasis on value-based education, stand out?
We are an old school university. We might not have the fanfare of a McDonald’s on campus or other such stuff. But we actually believe in man-making. We concentrate on giving good education to our students. We ensure that all of them get the best of internships so that there is no problem as far as placement is concerned. We don’t compromise on quality. This is something we have been taught by our management, our founder, Dr Stya Paul and by our Chancellor. If you come here, you may not have the greatest comforts of the world. However, we will give you a comfortable stay if you are a hosteller and a very good education so that you go out happy. That is the value for the money your parents and you are seeking.

Which are the leading media brands in which SJMC students have bagged placements?
This is the beginning of their career. They have gone to a number of brands such as Indian Express, ABP News, NDTV, The Quint and now one of them is working in India News, among other media brands. There are many who have gone to advertising and PR. We take pride in saying that our placement is 100 per cent. By the time they finish their course, they get a job. That’s the most important thing. The present batch is yet to complete their graduation, but they have already got their first jobs.

We hear you got great campus placements last year even at the peak of the pandemic. How important is the interface with the industry particularly in an investment climate ravaged by Covid-19?
Well, yes Covid and the two lockdowns have really affected the industry. A lot of people lost their jobs. But right from the day after the Prime Minister announced the lockdown, our entire learning-teaching process went online. We were perhaps the first university to hold exams and announce results on time to ensure students had no problem applying for jobs. This has been the case this year as well. We are in the process of publishing the results. Bigger universities such as DU and JNU may have been struggling, but we ensured none of our students suffered because of the lockdown. Plus, because of this, we are now trained in blended learning. This is what the future holds for education. We can have our masterclasses for instance, with somebody sitting in Columbia or Stanford. Blended learning is a brilliant opportunity and we will make use of it.

How do you see the convergence of mediums happening, going forward?
The convergence is happening right now. You can interview me on Zoom without visiting the university. Blended is the future and all professions have to bring it together and learn from it. Mobile journalism (MoJo) is already changing the way we shoot our stories. If you don’t learn quickly, you’ll be left behind.

What can journalism aspirants who come to SJMC expect?
I will again go back to the USP: We will provide students with the best teachers possible in the industry, who will train them to walk into the industry of their choice. We will train them in broadcast journalism; we will make them anchors, in print journalism, the art of magazine writing. We will train them in the digital medium or a mobile medium and in films. Be it PR, event management or advertising, we will train the student to be the best when the student goes for the interview. We will also try to open doors for them since we have contacts in the industry and can get them their first interview.  

Professor Sanjay Ahirwal

We are an old school university. But we actually believe in man-making. We concentrate on giving good education to our students. We ensure that all of them get the best of internships so that there is no problem as far as placement is concerned. We don’t compromise on quality. This is something we have been taught by our management, our founder, Dr Stya Paul and by our Chancellor.

-Professor Sanjay Ahirwal, Dean, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Apeejay Stya University

Aasheesh Sharma is a seasoned journalist with an experience of more than 25 years spread over newspapers, news agencies, magazines and television. He has worked in leadership positions in media groups such as Hindustan Times, India Today, Times of India, NDTV, UNI and IANS. He is a published author and his essay on the longest train journey in India was included in an anthology of writings on the railways, brought out by Rupa Publications. As the Editor of Apeejay Newsroom, he is responsible for coverage of the latest news and developments in the Apeejay institutions. He can be reached at [email protected]

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