SMITHA RAJAN

Ahmedabad, India | Assistant Editor, DNA (Daily News and Analysis)

Frank Islam and Debbie Driesman Fellow | Host: Politifact

By Teo Escobar |

Early in her career, Smitha Rajan was reporting a story timed for Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday when she had an encounter that left a lasting impression on her.

She was interviewing people who had dedicated their lives to serving others, and one of them was a young graduate student, the first person from his family to earn a college degree.

“He could have gone ahead and had a good job earning well for himself and his family, but instead he  took it upon himself to help establish a school in a tribal area,” Rajan said.“I was genuinely touched by his selfless work.”

“If a story could have such an impact on a cynical journalist, imagine the influence it would have on a reader who is yet to be marred by cynicism,” Rajan said. “As journalists, we often tend to develop cynicism, but that one story made me realize that despite all that is bad in the world, there are people who will continue to put the needs of others before theirs.”

The experience also made her realize that sometimes you can start small, regardless of your personal circumstances; you don’t need to wait until you’re a millionaire to lend a helping hand. The experience set Rajan on the path of helping others in her own way.

“My efforts have been very modest, but I am glad I started doing them,” Rajan said.

Her career in journalism had an almost accidental start, after she earned a bachelor’s degree in business and was still working on her master’s degree in development communication. “I got an offer for a part-time job as a trainee copy editor while I was interning with a newspaper (The Asian Age).” After graduate school, she landed a job as copy editor with the English language daily in Ahmedabad, Gujarat: DNA.

After five years, she felt bored with copy editing and persuaded her bosses to let her become a reporter. She was put on the environment beat — “a relatively safe beat for a newcomer because the possibility of screwing up is low.”

“I learned a lot under my now assistant editor, Jumana Shah, who generously shared her contacts in the environment beat to help me do good stories,” Rajan said. “It was because of their encouragement that I began to look at environmental reporting in a new light. I was suddenly doing good stories because I had people to fall back on if I was stuck somewhere. My boss, Shyam Parekh, is also a former environment reporter.”

Rajan has covered several beats, but health and environment were her favorites. She wrote stories on a swine flu outbreak and the state’s poor handling of it, and stories that brought to light the environmental and human costs of Gujarat’s development. One example was an article about villages where men find it difficult to attract brides from outside areas because of rampant pollution in their villages. Rajan has also taken up issues that highlight the plight of the Dalits, the lowest in the Hindu Caste system.

She went on to become the assistant editor at DNA, and now supervises a staff of 12.  

“As I progressed, I got my own team to lead and that is when I found myself handicapped by lack of formal training in journalism,” Rajan said.

According to Rajan, the lack of availability of public records to scrutinize, despite India’s relatively good Right to Information Act, is a major handicap in doing journalism in her country.

Her confidence in pursuing important stories was boosted when she won a fellowship for investigative journalism funded by the Dutch government.

“It made me realize that if you keep on trying, success will come to you no matter what. More importantly, I met journalists from other countries and learned about journalism in their  countries, which was an eye opener for me. My respect for journalism as a profession went up several notches after I realized that for many global journalists, good journalism can be a matter of life and death.”

With what she learns during the Alfred Friendly fellowship program, Rajan plans to teach colleagues how to produce better stories and help them become better journalists.

“I would like to use this fellowship opportunity to learn how journalists and newsrooms in the U.S. are battling increased government and corporate control, reduced budgets and onslaught of digital journalism to be stronger and bolder.”

During her free time she loves to take solo hiking trips and travel. “I also like observing strangers, guessing what sort of person they might be and wondering about how their lives would be,” Rajan said.

Eventually, Rajan would like to start her own news enterprise focused on environmental stories, especially the positive ones, the ones that are happening at the grassroots level and are having an impact.

“I believe we in media concentrate too much on the negative stories and not enough positive stories are being told.”

Veengas, Smitha, Binita and Ashley share a laugh after dinner at the Reed’s