Born in Brooklyn, S. Mitra Kalita was raised in Long Island, Puerto Rico and New Jersey—with regular trips to her grandparents’ villages in Assam, India. She is married to the artist Nitin Mukul and they have two daughters and one mutt. S. Mitra Kalita is the vice president for programming at CNN Digital. She was previously managing editor for editorial strategy at the Los Angeles Times. She served as the executive editor (at large) for Quartz, Atlantic Media’s global economy site, and was its founding ideas editor. She also oversaw the launches of Quartz India and Quartz Africa. She worked previously at the Wall Street Journal; she was a founding editor of Mint, a business paper in New Delhi; and has worked for the Washington Post, Newsday and the Associated Press. She is the author of three books related to migration and globalization, including the highly acclaimed “Suburban Sahibs”. She speaks seven languages (but only four of them half decently). She has taught journalism at St. John’s, UMass-Amherst, and Columbia J School, and has served as president of the South Asian Journalists Association. She is at work on a book about schools and segregation, begun as a Spencer Fellow at Columbia University.
After 9/11, I did a lot of reporting on the victims, downtown businesses, New York’s economy and national security. I heard about a Bangladeshi woman whose husband worked as a waiter at Windows on the World and changed his shift to the morning so he could be by her side later for an induced childbirth. A week or so after his death in the terror attacks, I interviewed her in her Woodside, Queens home. She was anguished, obviously in pain, and I choked up as we talked. Then she led me over to her newborn. I have seen a lot of babies. But this was the most perfect beautiful human I have ever laid eyes on. Really. I just felt something looking at him and the moment stayed with me, as have its lessons — to look for beauty and hope and life in so many of the awful, ugly situations you cover as a journalist.
Ten years later, as an editor at the Wall Street Journal, I tracked down the woman and interviewed her for a 9/11 anniversary issue. She had left New York City because the memories were so painful. Her son is doing great.
The key differences, for me, are delivery and metrics. You tend to settle in with a newspaper, and have chosen to spend time with it. Maybe you do that with an article on a website but more likely you are checking your phone several times a day, whether it pings (alerts) or you’re bored (Facebook) or you’re trying to catch up (email, texts, messenger apps).
Because of this delivery, I know exactly what you are doing with the content and how you came to it. Where do I lose your interest? Did you share the story or just like it? Did you stick around our website and look for more? Did you click on the video and how long did we keep you? Which of these three headlines drew more users in? All of these metrics help inform our programming in the moment, as well as coverage decisions going forward.
Other differences: Digital is more visual, potentially interactive and allows for a diversity of formats.
The way it’s the same: Maybe you are bored in bed on a Sunday morning, check your phone and come upon a thousand-word piece that you just can’t quit. I encourage digital journalists to think about this reader, too, and strategize ways to immerse that reader in narratives, explainers, profiles — as newspapers have been for decades.
My visit to India as a kid were formative and foundational. My cousins and I would do Assamese dances and sing songs in the parlour (my grandparents called it a drawing room). I had no extended family in the U.S. so these visits always thrilled me because it felt like these strangers just accepted and loved me so much just because we were kin. The landscape in both my parents’ ancestral homes — on opposite sides of the Brahmaputra River — are beautiful. Back then, nobody had cars or phones or televisions so we had idyllic summers of running outside, playing cards, and convincing uncles to take us out for soda and candy.
In hindsight, I also have fond memories of experiencing America through my immigrant parents. Our neighbor taught my family basic recipes like banana bread and apple pie. My dad’s colleague taught my brother and me how to use a knife and fork. My parents learned what bake sales and proms and Cabbage Patch Kids were, alongside us.
I don’t think India is a country where you can look back much, if you work there. I had to separate my nostalgia for family and Assam and get down to business. We were launching a news outlet (Mint) and I was a first-time manager, supervising reporters elder than me in subjects I knew so little about (steel and sports, for example). India and its hyper-competitive media environment trained me so well for digital journalism and the idea that it is our job to break through feeds, noise and clutter with important, interesting, news and information. I learned a ton about management across cultures, time zones and perspectives.
I go through this all the time. From my fellow Indians, I hear – Assam, where’s that? From Americans – You don’t look Indian. You look Latina/Brazilian/Eskimo/Native American/Filipina. I don’t really have any answers on how to deal with it. For me, this universal ethnic look has been an asset, especially as a journalist trying to connect with communities.
Very much so. What is expected, popular and newsy changes every day, based on the day. I’d like to think the fundamentals stay the same: we report, verify, truth-squad; we surface facts; we tell stories; we connect stories to audiences and to each other.
I try to spend less time defining journalism and more time doing it. We report. We hold to account. We connect dots and explain. I see journalism as a two-way street with audiences, too. It’s the only way to gain — and keep — trust.
You have been a professor of journalism. Students enrolling for journalism course today carry certain preconceived notions with them, more so because of their exposure to social media. Ideals at work are often not born on-the-job. Is that a positive development? How should the unlearning happen, if it has to?
I don’t think it’s unlearning of just journalism school. I think journalists need to unlearn everything they think they know, every day. When I was a reporter, I tried to test this by trying to find new stories along my morning walk to the subway — you force yourself to face a blank canvas every day and ask new questions and obvious ones, too.
You are an award-winning author and an avid reader. You are credited for multiplying circulation and readership for the brands you have been associated with. Reading as an organic habit though, is on the decline. Consumers prefer to watch a short film over reading a short story, children choose cartoons on television over reading fairy tales. How can that pleasure of reading be rekindled among children and adults?
I don’t think that is true. I see the plethora of platforms and formats and mediums as an opportunity. You are right that attention spans are shorter and tastes are getting more visual. Our challenge as an industry is to pivot with audiences, not to fight them. In the meantime, we have to figure out the stories that warrant their attention – for minutes or hours – and force engagement with them.