The Paragon embarking upon Journalism: Jacob Koshy

The Paragon embarking upon Journalism: Jacob Koshy

Have you ever met a person who has changed tracks efficiently and never got derailed? A weird blend of hard work, dedication, zest, creativity, and unperturbed love for English is precisely what makes this story worth admiring. One such person for whom even the above description sounds modest is Jacob Koshy, an alumnus of the 2003 batch from the Department of Electrical Engineering. A Science Journalist from The Hindu, he has set his mark in his niche and continues to dominate more peaks down the lane. He has not just been a person with numerous feathers in his cap but an achiever who is stepping ahead of odds with his quirky demeanor and a passion for "do-it-all". His story is that of an optimist who took an Unconventional Career Path and set a precedent for others with unparalleled skills.

Here is an excerpt from the interview.

Monday Morning (MM): Walk us through your life before NIT Rourkela, i.e., your childhood days, schooling?

Jacob Koshy(JK): The major chunk of my childhood was spent in Ahmedabad. I had a modest background and parents were teachers. My childhood was fairly unremarkable and happy. Academically, I was among the top 15% of students and felt that taking up science was a natural progression. I had a special attachment for the subject English. Besides academics, I was pretty active in dramatics, speeches, debates, music because of my school.

The school which I was a part of ie. St Xavier's, Loyola, was highly keen on promoting the co-curricular activities among students. My school, exceptionally for schools in Ahmedabad at that time, had many premium sports facilities. I enjoyed playing basketball but lacked the talent for any sport. 

Life at NIT Rourkela:

MM: Why did you choose Electrical Engineering at NIT Rourkela? How do you see your decision to join NIT Rourkela?

JK: An older cousin, whom I looked up to, graduated from (then) REC Calicut (NIT, Kozhikode). He'd often narrate quite early in life about lively and engaging was engineering life and colleges. The school where I studied was affiliated with the state board syllabus, and back then, your performance in 12th grade determined what career options you could pursue, unlike modern-day entrance exams. Owing to such a situation, I felt that engineering was the only feasible option I could pursue.

As said, Back then in 1999, there wasn't an entrance examination culture. I was under the impression that only certified geniuses who solved 12th-grade problems in 8th grade went to IIT, and I certainly wasn't one. None of my very bright friends, or anyone I knew, went for coaching for getting a great college. English literature was still my favorite subject. I liked Physics, Chemistry, and Maths but had little flair for it. My 12th marks were good but not exceptional. In my worldview, English literature was a dead-end 'career' option, and it looked like I had little option other than engineering. Pursuing a Bachelors in Science or a core sciences degree, I naively thought, was a step-down. 

I was disappointed I didn't get a seat in REC Calicut and got only a 'core branch' seat at NIT Rourkela. Odisha, at that point, was only a small section in my geography textbook, and I remember asking my mother, "How does Oriya sound?" That's how the choice was made.

MM: Can you please share with us any fond memories you have at NIT Rourkela? Any regrets that you would like to share with us?

JK: There are too many fond memories to recount here, but the regret was that engineering was nothing compared to what I had imagined it to be.

The major part of the first year was spent in getting ragged by seniors and owing to my cousin’s narratives, I was mentally prepared for it. The early 2000s was when ragging peaked in its physical form, and the laws prohibiting it had started to be implemented pretty seriously. However, I and my fellow first years, all of whom were at Hall-1, spent our days thinking of ways of escaping from the clutches of ragging.

Studies at that time seemed to have fallen from the pecking order and reached the least priority. None of the guys in my friend circle seemed to be serious about studies and studying much. Surprisingly, many of them did spectacularly well in the 1st-semester exams. But marks were atrocious, and that's when it struck me that there were some exceptionally bright people around. The experience of living in a hostel with boys from every state in India, picking up pieces of several languages, being oblivious to who was rich and who was poor was something which I would be ever grateful to the NIT Rourkela.

Rourkela, a relatively remote industrial town, didn't really offer avenues to hang out, and then befriending people from all over the country remains the high point of studying at REC. Academically, however, engineering didn't seem too different from school as everything was about clearing papers and finding innovative solutions to problems. There were interesting labs, but I didn't personally find anything that made me curious and explore more. I was a regular in the library but spent more time with English literature, reading classics, and philosophy. The high point was, of course, discovering great, dear friends and nightlong discussions. There was no meaningful internet on campus meant that our waking and sleeping hours were spent in exotic conversation.

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Choosing an Offbeat Career:

MM: What made an Electrical Engineer end up in such an unconventional career? How did you see life beyond engineering back then?

JK: Towards the second year, I realized that most people after engineering ended up in this new trend called 'IT' where Infosys and TCS ruled the roost. At that point in time, I didn't know what the new trend was all about but instead thought it was a mark of success as large chunks of people preferred it as a career option. The other options were cracking an MBA exam or a very high score on the GRE to escape to the US. None of this looked like stuff I wanted to pursue, but I was determined that I'd graduate honorably. However, I did graduate, but less honorably than I had expected.

However, like in school, I was highly active during the cultural festival season. We had no clubs then except a music club, a Rotary club, and a Lion club. The cultural festival was extremely underfunded. Nonetheless, some of us used to take long journeys to IIT Kharagpur and IIT Roorkee for their cultural festivals, and we won a few events. I explored Odisha-the lovely beaches of Puri, trips to Bhubaneshwar, Sambalpur and played bass and electric guitar during college shows. We lived in a time of technological transition.

We were the first batch to graduate with a B.Tech degree because the institute had transformed into a college of national importance called NIT. We did most of our C programming on paper, and the only 'internet' was via a Rs 20, a 6 hour voucher available via the 'Backpost' or some hole-in-the-wall.

In our first year, we saw movies when the whole college was herded in the auditorium and a movie projected on the screen. In my final year, we'd watch movies on CDs. That's about as tech-savvy as things got.

MM: How did the Diploma in Print Journalism at Manorama School of Communication (MASCOM) come about? 

JK: As I neared the end of four years of my college life, I clearly knew what I would do in the future ie.

  1. No more engineering.
  2. Pursue something where I could write and play with words.

I considered advertising a potential career option and appeared in a few exams for some schools but didn't make it. Then I came across the term called journalism, and it seemed like something I'd like and felt that I could pursue in the longer run. I cleared entrance exams for some good schools in Chennai and Delhi. Still, I chose to go to Kottayam, Kerala. Being born Malayali, I was curious about the state of Kerela. Every year, I'd visit the beautiful state for vacations in my childhood but never really explored except for meeting relatives. Secondly, MASCOM was a small school but led by a titan of journalism~Prof K Thomas Oommen, who'd schooled a generation of top-notch journalists and editors of leading newspapers, magazines, and television news channels over decades. I had a great year, read a lot of books, articles widely and indiscriminately. My confidence that I wrote well was shattered but then rebuilt again, thanks to Prof Oommen.

This was the time when the most popular television news channels of today, ie. Times Now, CNN IBN were being launched, but I decided pretty firmly that I wanted to write for a newspaper. I got my first job at The Week, a kind of 'campus interview' job as the Malayala Manorama group owns the publication.

The heart of financial and film journalism is Mumbai, and for all other forms, Delhi is the centre. I chose Delhi because I had an engineering degree, and journalism is primarily a humanities field and I guess owing to this factor I stood out. I reviewed movies, restaurants, covered bombings in Delhi but at the end of it all, I liked to cover topics related to science, which is still a niche area of journalism.

Politics, defense, international affairs, crime, sport are the mainstay of journalism, but I interviewed astrophysicists-Roger Penrose, archaeologists, geneticists and got to review the latest books. 

MM: You worked as a Science Writer in MINT for six long years. How did it play a key role in shaping your career?

JK: Livemint is currently one of India's leading business news websites, and I'd joined it while it was a business newspaper startup. It was my first full-time job as a science journalist and was led by a team of remarkable journalists with a breadth of national as well as international journalists. Since it was a newspaper-based startup, it taught me to write articles crisply and effectively to garner more viewers' attention. It's here I began to cover the vast domain, called science and technology, systematically. I visited a multitude of scientific and research institutions, obsessively tracked the monsoons, floods, and droughts--understood the science and history of rain in India. I got to know several leading scientists and heads of scientific ministries, laboratories, and research labs. 

This was also the time I got to understand the difference between science writing and science journalism. Communicating about science and research is one speciality, but journalism is fundamentally about being interrogative. Experts could be wrong, and journalists shouldn't be awed by power and pelf. The purpose of science writing is not to reduce a piece of science to its bare elements but interpret it in a way that's truthful and stimulating to the curious reader.

I learned to read scientific journals and grasp the essence of an article or at least the portions that would interest even a non-specialist reader. I also read and came across various disciplines, from cosmology to human genetics, and asked critical questions to authors. I was also fortunate that one of my editors was an engineer, and I rarely had to convince editors of the importance of a story. Livemint was also fantastic in other aspects as well since it took its web design seriously and had reporters conduct video interviews. Reporters were pushed beyond comfort zones of merely writing out the day's story to explore various domains.

MM: After working for a certain time, you did your Masters' in Contemporary India Studies at Kings' College London. How did it help you in your area of expertise?

JK: Six years of working taught me a lot of things namely about the working of scientific institutions, the relationship between science and technology, how technology translates and impacts various strata of society differently, and the interplay between politics and economy. The significant learning for me was that science is not technology, and there's a long historical context to how the two came to be seen together. This had as much to do with politics, capitalism, religion, and not just brilliant men, from our textbooks to suddenly unraveling nature's mysteries.

I felt I needed time to read and learn subjects that I hadn't encountered as an engineering student, but I also wanted it to be abroad. An opportunity came in the form of a fully funded scholarship at the India Institute, Kings College, London. This was for a Research Masters's, where I was expected to submit a dissertation that also had to include fieldwork at the end of the year. I was interested in the impact of genetically modified cotton, one of the searing issues that had agricultural as well as political consequences in India. In London, I took classes in history, sociology and signed up for various seminars.

It might seem unusual to take up a  course on 'Contemporary India Studies' in London, but being exposed to a different learning culture and accessing scholarship by a wide range of authors within and outside India was a valuable learning experience for me. It's important to understand the present situation very carefully and to put yourself at a distance. This doesn't necessarily lead to enlightenment but will help you appreciate different ways of approaching problems. A journalist needs to view and evaluate different points of view on their merits.

I used to live in a college back in London. Though the experience of hostel life in London was vastly different from the NIT hostel experience, the lessons of gelling with people different from your cultural background were common. I topped off my visit with some fieldwork in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, where I interviewed and reported the challenges farmers faced with genetically modified (Bt) cotton.

Life as a Journalist:

MM: Currently, you are working as a Deputy Science Editor in The Hindu. How has your work experience prepared you for this role?
JK: The Hindu is one of the few newspapers in India that has for decades been committed to mapping and monitoring the impact and development of science and technology in India. The 2003s were the beginning of the transition phase for the media and being a reporter in a newspaper no longer meant your commitment ended at writing a 500-word news story.  The newspaper's website had started to acquire identities of their own. You have to find other channels of reaching out to your audience: via mediums like Podcasts, video interviews, data analysis, visualizations, and many more to tell your stories.

MM: You have covered major issues on undercounting of coronavirus cases, shortage of vaccines in several states, and many more. Constantly reporting and updating the people, How was a day in your life likely to be as an investigative science journalist?

JK: Like for many journalists, covering the pandemic was a transformative experience for me. An aspect of biology rarely grows to such massive proportions that it completely upends life as we have known it.

Science journalists such as me who'd been covering science, health, and aspects of the research for so long suddenly took the centre stage of journalism. Epidemiologists and virologists--the professionals who rarely make it to newspaper pages became front-page banner headlines.

Fear, panic, misinformation, complicated information were rife everywhere, and I was for most of 2020 thick in the middle of interviewing experts, reading journals, talking to epidemiologists, mathematical modellers, vaccinologists, and churning out, sometimes, 4-5 stories a day from multiple fronts. Before the pandemic, I used to write on the environment and pollution too extensively, but much of this took a backseat in 2020 when covid struck.

MM: Science information can't always be sensationalized to capture attention, and the increase in access to scientific studies and findings causes science journalism to adapt. The general public doesn't typically search for science information unless it is discussed widely. What is your take on this? As an editor, what factors do you look into before publishing an article? 

JK: I mostly write and don't pick external articles for publication. Whether a news story is related to the scientific field or not must be written engagingly. Just as engineers make products that people can use and musicians make music they hope those other than their loved ones will listen to, writers and journalists write to attract attention.

'Sensationalisation', to me, is a derogatory term deployed, usually, by powerful people who're affected by the contents of the article. If an article is based on facts and attracts attention, it isn't sensationalisation. Not only the 'general public' but even scientists wouldn't read a science story if it isn't interesting.

Much like a phone or any innovative product, any story needs to be packaged well. These are matters of taste, and certain articles may offend readers. However, as long as a story is strong on facts, it's up to the writer and publishing team's skills on how information can be presented.

MM: What major challenges have you faced in building your career as a science journalist? 

JK:  Though on the rise, it's still relatively rare to find journalists with an engineering background. However, around the time I became a journalist, at least three editors I knew were engineers. There are several more media outlets today beyond the traditional print media, which means there are more opportunities now.

Separately, the coding skills that many engineering graduates have are now very valuable to several media companies with applications for data crunching as well as making engaging, visually-driven stories.

For many years, the humanities section has been grossly neglected in engineering education. This has led to bright graduates being oblivious to the context in which they study and acquire their skills. Sadly many of our brightest, irrespective of their core branch, join IT companies where they take on jobs that don't require 4 or 5 years of engineering.

MM: Being constantly with the big brains of the nation, where do you see the big societal transformations in the future? 

JK: Social media, I think, is the biggest disruptor, particularly in how news is produced and consumed. We have already seen the effects of this on various aspects of public life, from how Parliament functions to how people react to news as well as criticism. At the very extreme end, tech-gurus warn of the predominance of Artificial Intelligence(AI) in all aspects of the decision process. If data drives what we should eat, how we should sleep, it's not too far when algorithms tell us for whom to vote.

MM: You must have written many articles and covered many stories, Any particular article which landed you in controversy? 

JK: I haven't been embroiled in a legal case but reports of mine have been cited in court judgments and caused embarrassment to officials who were pulled up for not adequately discharging their public responsibilities. This was related to an article linked to river-water pollution.

Panorama View:

MMCan you share any incident, journal, or book that has radically changed your perspective?

JK: Learning and gaining experience in life is a series of pivotal moments that offer you opportunities to see matters and issues in unfamiliar ways. Because I constantly deal with a wide range of literature, it would be hard to single out a particular one.

MM: India dropped to 142nd on the World Press Freedom Index, among the most dangerous nations for journalists. What do you think are the main challenges of journalism in general and science journalism in particular?

JK: Journalism is as much about verifying the information as writing or presenting it. Television brought in the culture of 24/7 news. The breakdown of traditional revenue models in print journalism has increased media outlets to focus more on their online operations, which, like television, is a premium on speed. This poses a challenge to verification. There's a premium on 'virality', and stories--many times false--are uploaded online without proper context. If it's proven to be false, they are usually just 'taken down.' The written word, in newspapers, had a sanctity precisely because it couldn't be taken down at will. However, the written word has lost some sanctity because rumors can circulate the world a million times before the truth catches up with it.

MM: How was NIT Rourkela instrumental in shaping you as a person?

JK: When I reflect back on the four years of my college life, I feel that it has a massive role to play in my professional life. Instances being – I became more curious and aware about the diversity of India during my days at NIT Rourkela. The friends with whom I enjoyed some of the most memorable moments are some of the most precious and greatest treasures of my life.

MM: What are your next steps? What are your plans for the future? 

JK: I am looking forward to writing articles across different formats, having new experiences, and translate them into knowledge, and sometimes, understanding, for readers.

Final Message:

MM: Any message to the aspirants who want to opt for Journalism as a career? Any message to the readers out there? 

JK: An engineering education is enough to make you understand that the solutions to simple-sounding problems are often complex and needs to be broken down so that it can be solved. It teaches you to respect and occasionally love machines. However, it also tends to diminish the reality that engineering solutions often discount the messiness or irreducible aspects of human relationships. 

To techno-fix, the world sounds obvious to engineers, but only understanding and empathy can help you understand why that isn't always true. I think I learned more about Electrical engineering, especially from a historical perspective, from reading literature than from engineering textbooks. A job ingests is not the end of learning and as one ages, it becomes ever more important to nurture the soul. It's important to listen to yourself as well as watch the world for new callings.

Team Monday Morning congratulates Mr. Jacob Koshy for having a successful and illustrious career and wishes him the best for his future endeavours.

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