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7 questions with S. Mitra Kalita, editor at the Los Angeles Times

The Indian-American journalist, whose team recently won a Pulitzer prize, has some great advice for students who aspire to media careers.
BY Uma Asher |   27-04-2016

S. Mitra Kalita is Managing Editor for editorial strategy at the Los Angeles Times, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Mitra was part of the founding teams of the Indian business newspaper Mint andthe news website Quartz. She also oversaw the launches of Quartz India and Quartz Africa. When she worked at the Wall Street Journal, she directed coverage of the Great Recession and launched a local news section for New York City. She has also worked for the Washington Post, Newsday and the Associated Press.

Amid all that trailblazing, she has made the time to write three books related to migration and globalization, teach journalism at several institutions including Columbia University, and serve as president of the South Asian Journalists Association.

Raised in Long Island, Puerto Rico and New Jersey, Mitra has made regular trips to her grandparents’ villages in Assam, India. She is married to artist Nitin Mukul and they have two daughters.

In this email interview with BrainGain Magazine, she discusses Pulitzer-worthy journalism and her experience of working in India, among other things.

  1. Congratulations to you and your colleagues on the Pulitzer prize for your coverage of the San Bernardino terrorist attack, a story that raised deeply emotive political issues. You joined the LA Times about a year ago. How would you say you have helped shape the way in which it handled the story from its earliest moments, and handles news more generally?

    Thank you! So the day that terror came to San Bernardino, I was actually out of the office at a Google offsite for media executives. As soon the severity of the attacks was known, I tuned out of the summit (as did a lot of journalists) and zeroed in on our coverage, its angles and presentation. This is a story that was very important to our region because we were the only news provider with so many reporters on the ground and constant updates. While I traditionally oversee the copy desk, social media and data visualization, the skills you needed on a story like San Bernardino went beyond headlines and graphics and tweeting. We needed to connect so many dots between this poor county, workplace violence, the militarizing of immigrants in America, the security and safety issues it forced. I’d like to think we balanced news breaks with stronger, nuanced contextual pieces, and reporting from here and there, especially well.

    A moment like that one is not about just the breaking news event but it is about all the training and lessons you apply BEFOREHAND that essentially equip a strong response. My year at the LA Times has been spent trying to pivot the newsroom to be more focused on our audience, to connect dots among sections, to entice readers with headlines and arresting visuals. That it all came together in December was indeed a very proud moment.

     
  2. As a graduate student of journalism at Columbia University, your focus was on new media. What were the most important aspects of your education there that have helped your career?

    I learned outdated programs such as Dreamweaver, but I was also exposed to PhotoShop and Final Cut Pro. More than the tools, majoring in new media helped me see what is possible in a digital landscape and how to push storytelling. I also focused on narrative writing and ended up getting a book contract for my work on how Indian immigrants had transformed New Jersey, and, thus, America as a whole.

     
  3. I gather that a good deal of your education was funded through scholarships and from your job with the campus paper, rather than loans or family funds. Did that make it harder or easier for you in the long run? What’s your advice to students regarding funding their higher education?

    I have amazing parents and great support from family, but paying my way through school taught me both the value of hard work and education. To this day, I do not take employment for granted and I am a “roll-up-sleeves and get it done” person. I suggest students apply for scholarships and jobs that are somewhat related to the careers they want to pursue. And remember it is as important to know what you DON’T want to do so no experience is a waste of time.

     
  4. You were part of the founding team of Mint, one of India’s most respected and successful business newspapers. Was that the longest period that you lived in India at a stretch? What would you say was the most important thing you learned from working here?

    Mint taught me how competitive environments breed innovation. I learned startups and new companies are often mission-pure and that it is important to find a workplace where most, if not all, of your colleagues are driven by a common purpose. I lived in India for two years. There were challenges, but I also credit lessons learned in India every day for helping me transform the American media landscape.

     
  5. In your assessment, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Indian journalism?

    A major weakness is the blurry lines between business and advertising, a lack of context and background in stories, and uneven standards of ethics and quality across the country. Strengths are the work ethic of journalists, the shoe leather and dedication it requires to break stories, and how reporters know they have to act fast or be left behind in as competitive an environment as India.

     
  6. When you studied at Rutgers College, majoring in History and Journalism, you were a member of Phi Beta Kappa, one of the oldest and most prestigious honor societies in the US. Can you tell us a little about what it meant to you to belong to the society?

    I was very proud, but I don’t think about it much now. It seems a designation for the résumé and proof that I did well in academics and mastered a foreign language (Spanish).

     
  7. What is your advice to Indian students who aspire to become journalists?

    Have ideas. Many of them. Be curious. Be empathetic. Find a reason to do what you want to do. Work on your writing and communication. Work for a few years before graduate school so you arrive knowing what you need to do. Be nice to everyone, not because you need something from them, but because it’s the right thing to do.
     
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