The foundation of shit

I’ve been a commissioning editor in Indian science, health, and environment journalism for a little under a decade. I’ve learnt many lessons in this time but one in particular still surprises me. Whenever I receive an email, I’m quick to at least shoot off a holding reply: “I’m caught up with other stuff today, I’ll get back to you on this <whenever>”. Having a horizon makes time management much easier. What surprises me is that many commissioning editors don’t do this. I’ve heard the same story from scores of freelancing writers and reporters: “I email them but they just don’t reply for a long time.” Newsrooms are short-staffed everywhere and I readily empathise with any editor who says there’s just no time or mental bandwidth. But that’s also why the holding email exists and can even be automated to ask the sender to wait for <insert number here> hours. A few people have even said they prefer working with me because, among other things, I’m prompt. This really isn’t a brag. It’s a fruit hanging so low it’s touching the ground. Sure, it’s nice to have an advantage just by being someone who replies to emails and sets expectations – but if you think about it, especially from a freelancer’s point of view, it has a foundation of shit. It shouldn’t exist.

There’s a problem on the other side of this coin here. I picked up the habit of the holding email when I was with The Wire (before The Wire Science) – a very useful piece of advice SV gave me. When I first started to deploy it, it worked wonders when engaging with reporters and writers. Because I wrote back, almost always within less than half a day of their emails, they submitted more of their work. Bear in mind at this point that freelancers are juggling payments for past work (from this or other publications), negotiations for payment for the current submission, and work on other stories in the pipeline. In the midst of all this – and I’m narrating second-hand experiences here – to have an editor come along who replies possibly seems very alluring. Perhaps it’s one less variable to solve for. I certainly wanted to take advantage of it. Over time, however, a problem arose. Being prompt with emails means checking the inbox every <insert number here> minutes. I quickly lost my mind over having to check for new emails as often as I could, but I kept at it because the payoff stayed high. This behaviour also changed some writers’ expectations of me: if I didn’t reply within six hours, say, I’d receive an email or two checking in or, in one case, accusing me of being like “the others”.

I want my job to be about doing good science journalism as much as giving back to the community of science journalists. In fact, I believe doing the latter will automatically achieve the former. We tried this in one way when building out The Wire Science and I think we’ve taken the first steps in a new direction at The Hindu Science – yet these are also drops in the ocean. For a community that requires so, so much still, giving can be so easy that one loses oneself in the process, including on the deceptively trivial matter of replying to emails. Reply quickly and meaningfully and it’s likely to offer a value of its own to the person on the other side of the email server. Suddenly you have a virtue, and because it’s a virtue, you want to hold on to it. But it’s a pseudo-virtue, a false god, created by the expectations of those who deserve better and the aspirations of those who want to meet those expectations. Like it or not, it comes from a bad place. The community needs so, so much still, but that doesn’t mean everything I or anyone else has to give is valuable.

I won’t stop being prompt but I will have to find a middle-ground where I’m prompt enough and at the same time the sender of the email doesn’t think I or any other editor for that matter has dropped the ball. This is as much about managing individual expectations as the culture of thinking about time a certain way, which includes stakeholders’ expectations of the editor-writer relationship in all Indian newsrooms publishing science-related material. (The fact of India being the sort of country where the place you’re at – and increasingly the government there – being one of the first things getting in the way of life also matters.) This culture should also serve the interests of science journalism in the country, including managing the tension between the well-being of its practitioners and sustainability on one hand and the effort and the proverbial extra push required for its growth on the other.