Photo by: John Smock
Sreenath Sreenivasan, co-founder of SAJA and Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, in Columbia University.
NEW YORK – Professor-writer-tech guru Sreenath Sreenivasan was named one of the “20 most influential South Asians” in America by Newsweek. He is the very model of a cosmopolitan Indian American and has the intellectual pedigree (educated in Columbia University in New York and St Stephen’s College in Delhi) for an itinerant world. He has friends in high places that back his fund-raising efforts for South Asian causes from tsunami to earthquake relief.
Sreenivasan served as the Tech Guru on WABC-TV for six years, before moving to WNBC-TV as tech reporter in 2007. He surfs four browser windows at a time and thrives on “information overload.” He once confessed; “Some of my friends and colleagues accuse me of adding to the information clutter in their lives. They think I send out too many e-mail messages (100 a day, typically), and receive too many (250 a day, at least). They even invented a name for it: Sreemail.”
Sreenivasan is the digital media professor at the Columbia J-school and his courses focus on new media, web design and web usage. He co-founded the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA), in 1994 as a networking group for journalists of South Asian origin.
“We are proud of several things we have done at SAJA. When international journalists are posted to South Asia they turn to us for help, we act as a resource to promote accurate coverage of South Asia and the Diaspora. We have also given out hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last 17 years to young journalists,” said Sreenath Sreenivasan, Dean of Students and Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, in Columbia University, in New York.
A father of twins, Sreenivasan is one half of a Manhattan power couple — married to Rhodes Scholar (and Arjuna Award-winner for rifle shooting) Roopa Unnikrishnan who works at asset manager BlackRock Inc. Sreenivasan talked to Uttara Choudhury in New York about SAJA and the changing media landscape.
Over the last 17 years SAJA has grown into a powerful networking organization for South Asian journalists in North America. Why did you start it and has it fulfilled your goals?
SAJA’s success has been its ability to draw South Asians and non-South Asians to create a dynamic forum for journalists of South Asian origin, as well as for journalists interested in South Asia and the South Asian Diaspora. SAJA has also given out hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last 17 years to journalists. SAJA supports reporting fellowships with $20,000 in funding to cover stories in South Asia. We also provide $30,000 in scholarships every year to graduate, college and high school students underwritten by the Arun I and Asmita Bhatia Foundation and other donors. We also run dozens of workshops including ones on multimedia skills and more.
“We are able to connect South Asian journalists in a way that wasn’t possible before. If you look at the rise of South Asian journalists in American media right now it is stupendous: the managing editors of the Huffington Post (Jai Singh), The Los Angeles Times (Davan Maharaj) and The Washington Post (Raju Narisetti) are SAJA members…”
SAJA has grown into a national group of over 1,000 journalists working for leading publications, broadcast networks and online outlets in cities in the US and Canada. We are able to connect South Asian journalists in a way that wasn’t possible before. If you look at the rise of South Asian journalists in American media right now it is stupendous: the managing editors of the Huffington Post (Jai Singh), The Los Angeles Times (Davan Maharaj) and The Washington Post (Raju Narisetti) are SAJA members; the executive producer of morning edition on National Public Radio is Madhulika Sikka who is a SAJA member. The managing editor of CNBC is Nikhil Deogun, the executive editor of Fortune is Stephanie N. Mehta, the world editor of Times magazine is Bobby Ghosh and the international editor of Newsweek is Tunku Vardarajan.
Then we have all the influential South Asian journalists who are in front of the camera like Sanjay Gupta who is CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Ali Velshi chief business correspondent of CNN, Kiran Chetri morning anchor of CNN, Shibani Joshi who is on Fox Business Network, Uma Pemmaraju on Fox News Channel and Reena Ninan for Fox. SAJA co-founder Om Malik who runs GigaOm.com is one of the world’s most famous tech bloggers and has a huge international following. Perhaps the most influential South Asian journalist in America is Fareed Zakaria. That just gives you a sense of the range of things that South Asians are doing. We couldn’t have imagined these numbers when we started 17 years ago.
You help people figure out podcasting, wikis or whatever’s the next new technology. Have you always been so tech savvy and has it helped your career to be so on trend with stuff that is happening on the social media side and with the latest digital technologies?
I have been at Columbia for 18 years and I am very proud of the work that is done here. It is very invigorating to work with young people. When I taught my first social media course one of my students came up to me and said, “It is a great class but I gotta tell you that you have ruined social media for me. We thought it was a fun thing where we could do whatever we wanted, but it has become another thing that you old people have taken over with constantly telling us what to do!” That really drove home what my mission is: not to ruin things but to convince journalists of the power of social media. I teach a lot of workshops around the country. I am very excited about a seven-city one month media-speaking tour of India that I am doing in July.
“I wanted to teach people how to use technology better in their lives and television gave me a great platform. I left NBC to do a start-up because I felt it was important for me to learn about the start-up world as I teach entrepreneurship now.”
I did a technology segment on television for nine years while being on the payroll of ABC and NBC. I look at that as an extension of my work as a teacher. I wanted to teach people how to use technology better in their lives and television gave me a great platform. I left NBC to do a start-up because I felt it was important for me to learn about the start-up world as I teach entrepreneurship now. I learned a lot in the process and I encourage every journalist, if they get a chance to be involved in the start-up. I was first involved in a start-up almost 20 years ago, in Business Today magazine in Delhi. It was really exciting to see the first issues roll off the press and I really learned a lot. I am glad to be doing it again in a new age.
Your parents tried to nudge you into some other profession.
My grandfather thought my father was a failure because he let his son become a journalist. Why be someone chasing other people to write their stories when you can be the story? That was one of his thoughts. My father also came from nothing. He was born in a house with a thatched roof and mud walls. But my grandfather put two sons in the Indian Foreign Service; one son retired as an engineer building tanks for the Indian army; and one is a Brigadier-doctor in the army so from that perspective of a tiny village in Kerala a journalist is a step backwards.
But my grandfather and I made our peace. People would ask him what became of your good-for-nothing grandson and he would say he is a professor in Columbia. What does he teach? And he would murmur…My grandson works with computers which is true but so does everybody. My family has been supportive — it is rare for the eldest son to carve his own path.
Why did you choose journalism as a career and especially to teach it?
I told my parents when I was 12 that I wanted to be a journalist. There is something very attractive in the ability to ask people questions, tell stories and share ideas. Going to Columbia I had an opportunity to do some informal teaching. My father was a teacher before he joined the Indian Foreign Service; my mother has been a life-long Bharatanatyam teacher, two my grandparents were school teachers so I have a teaching gene!
“The way we do it at Columbia is so much more like a coach-player relationship than a traditional professor-student relationship. We learn together and try to figure out the changing media landscape.”
I learn as much from my students as I do from teaching. The way we do it at Columbia is so much more like a coach-player relationship than a traditional professor-student relationship. We learn together and try to figure out the changing media landscape. Things we hold sacred in the media profession like getting stories right, being accurate, being fair to people — all of that we do teach, but in the end it is still about connecting directly with our students.
With the explosion of new media have you seen a sea change in journalism since you stepped into the profession?
It has changed a lot and it is changing every day. In the next couple of decades there will be more change so we teach our students to adapt to the change and be leaders within it.
In the years ahead where do you think the media jobs will come from for students stepping out of J-school?
“We should not underestimate the power of newspapers. There are a thousand newspapers in this country and there are tens of thousands of newspapers around the world. Papers will be an important part of journalism but everything is going digital.”
We should not underestimate the power of newspapers. There are a thousand newspapers in this country and there are tens of thousands of newspapers around the world. Papers will be an important part of journalism but everything is going digital. We teach magazine journalism which is different from newspaper journalism, which is different from TV and radio, but they all have a digital underpinning.
In the end they have distinct DNA if you will, and we teach that, but they are all heading towards becoming digital. At the same time, I am a big fan of print. I subscribe to several print newspapers because I really like what they do. I am a great believer of the future of print but blending it with digital.