Friday, Dec 02, 2022 09:15 [IST]
Last Update: Friday, Dec 02, 2022 03:38 [IST]
A TGIF! Cover Story…
There are few who goes on to become a maverick in journalism - 'Pam' or Pema Wangchuk Dorjee earns that distinction undoubtedly in Sikkim. His grey long locks, the white shirt and blue jeans, unfazed by whom he is interviewing or questioning clearly distinguishes him from most of the rest here.
The man who started Sikkim's English daily Sikkim Now!, 20 years ago has scaled another journalism summit with late YN Bhandari Award for Best Journalism 2021.
We turn the tables on Pam and question him on TGIF! like never before…
Pema Wangchuk Dorjee 'Pam' born in Kalimpong, West Bengal initially started off his journalism career with Himal, Himalayan Magazine, a quarterly English magazine published from Kathmandu, Nepal as managing editor in 1993. Thereafter, he joined Sikkim Observer as a reporter in 1994 followed by Weekend Review as an editor in 1999. Pam then launched his own media house Sikkim NOW! in 2002 which unfortunately was closed in 2016. Since then he has been associated with Summit Times as consulting editor.
A brief experience of your journey from a school teacher to a journalist…
Pema: Teaching was my first job. Like with journalism, I benefited from serendipity and the trust of strangers to land employment as a teacher at Kyi-de-Khang in 1992. It is not often that a 21-year-old, barely out of college, who was not even an English Honours student is offered this responsibility. But I was! Admittedly, I was a complete misfit in the staff-room and I will blame this on my youth. But the school management and the students were very welcoming, indulgent and accommodating. I have had the privilege of getting similar support as a journalist as well. I loved teaching, still do, and that is perhaps why I did not want to spoil things for myself and the students by staying in it too long and making it boring for the students and for myself. This, and some personal reasons saw me in Kathmandu in 1993 where again, chance, luck and the indulgence of strangers saw Himal, a very respected publication edited by one of the sharpest journalistic minds I have had the privilege of knowing, Kanak Mani Dixit, offer me a job. My work at Himal was technically not journalistic, but I was constantly among journalists and writers, and that exposure was heady. When I found myself back in Gangtok, I chanced upon Jigme N Kazi’s book, ‘Inside Sikkim Against the Tide’, which had been recently published. I finished the book and knew when I closed it that I wanted to work for him. I knew extremely little about Sikkim at the time, and neither understood, nor cared for politics, but I called on Jigmela and said I wanted to work with him. Sikkim Observer was not being published at the time, and although most people have complained of Jigmela being gruff and direct, he was extremely patient with me. Assembly elections were on the anvil at the time and Jigmela told me [and I am paraphrasing here] that if the government changed, he will be able to resume his paper and I might have a job. The government changed! And I was in Jigmela’s living room the next day to check whether he was serious about the job offer. He was! Remember, he did not know me at the time, or anyone in my family for that matter. If he advertised for a reporter, I would have been the most unemployable applicant. So there again was luck and the trust of strangers. And Jigmela was a very good teacher and an extremely trusting and supportive editor. Everything I know about journalism, Sikkim and its politics, is built on the foundation laid by him. The gist of the answer to your question would be – I have been extremely lucky, and people have always been extremely trusting with me.
Of all the career options, why journalism?
Pema: I wonder about that as well, not that I had a whole lot of options laid out in front of me. I guess the process began with me deciding things I did not want to do. I am an army kid, and grew up in cantonments. That was the only life I knew, and I loved it. I could have joined the army [and would have definitely been court-martialed by now :)] but I had decided in class XII itself that I did not want to be in the army because even though I loved the army life, I had lived it and wanted to see what else was there. Options were limited in my time. I did not want to be a doctor because I cannot bear the sight of blood and engineering was not an option because I did not have the discipline required to complete the course. In those days, hotel management was seen as a glamorous alternative, but even my parents laughed at the idea knowing my problems with authority and rules. And I did not know how one became a journalist and was never even a newspaper reader or news consumer. The only two journalists I knew about were Clark Kent and Peter Parker. But I discovered the excitement of journalism early enough in my working years, was smitten, and thankfully accepted.
How was the work environment and journalism in Nepal?
Pema: Actually, I forgot to mention earlier. I also worked in Kathmandu Post in Nepal. For two days. Not as a journalist, but was picked in the advertisement/ marketing division from a walk-in interview. I was desperate, as were they. Kathmandu Post had only just launched at the time. I hated the work on the first day itself. Thankfully, I met Kanak on day-02 and could quit Kathmandu Post and join Himal. My exposure to journalism was brief and limited in Nepal, but the excitement was palpable. There were many young people in the sector, several publications were being launched [I sketched and wrote movie reviews for an English weekly called Spotlight published from Kathmandu]. Everyone was trying to be professional. The seniors were working with the young and the young were pushing the boundaries. I got to witness some of that, and it was very exciting and refreshing. Of course there were challenges as well, and many complaints, but the outlook for journalism was positive.
You could have joined any of the national and international media houses, why did you settle for Sikkim?
Pema: I don’t really think I could have... When it comes to Sikkim, what I realised early is that one needs to have a sense of belonging to begin trying to become a journalist; there has to be some connection with the place. Although I really liked Kathmandu and the heady vibrancy of the young journalists there, I knew I did not belong there. I actually did not belong anywhere at the time since I grew up all over the country and would always get stumped when anyone asked me where I was from. But I had started feeling for Sikkim as home, it only followed then that when I wanted to become a proper journalist, I would try it here. And Sikkim, despite its image of being paranoid about influx and non-locals, has been very patient and welcoming when it comes to my personal experience here. Someone called me a refugee once. I was not feeling anything, but it is true in a way and I am grateful that Sikkim offered me refuge.
How in 30 years have journalism in Sikkim changed and how did you contribute?
Pema: Journalism was in a very difficult place in 1994. Things had gone so bad that when I was hired as a reporter, I was among the rare journalists hired as such. Publications had shrunk to the editors doing all jobs and roping in family members for help. The environment was vitiated and journalism was very partisan. From that situation to the present day when Sikkim is serviced by an army of working journalists is a huge leap forward. There were only weeklies at the time, and not always very regular. Now news is available by the minute. No individual can claim any contribution to this process and neither will I. We are just glad that we were part of the process, catching the right waves and coming along for the ride.
Was it disheartening to see the downfall of Sikkim NOW! newspaper? Reasons you want to specify that led you to shut down the media house.
Pema: Of course, it was disheartening. Failure is always difficult. In Sikkim NOW!s case, not so much because it was clearly a personal failing, but more so because I had the resources of colleagues who were willing to go to any lengths to pull the paper out of its predicament, and I still failed to do things properly. I can only imagine what they must have gone through when the paper folded up despite them having given their best. That is the only regret I carry. The reason the paper shut down is because I could deliver as a publisher despite having colleagues, who, without a shred of doubt, were the best journalists in Sikkim. When the economy was doing fine and the ad-revenue was smooth and healthy, all was well. I was just not a good enough manager of resources and an inept financial mind when the fiscal crunch hit us [along with the entire economy actually]. We dragged things along for a while, but eventually realisation dawned. NOW! had to call it a day.
Has there been tough competition in print journalism lately, with some already established houses in the market while the ever growing digital journalism makes headway ?
Pema: Print is undoubtedly being challenged by digital media. That said, print, because of the costs involved, has always faced challenges. It cannot beat digital media when it comes to breaking news. What we need to realise is that journalism is not just about reporting incidents and events. Journalism is also about context, about explaining issues, exploring under-reported but important developments, and as things stand, print is better at this form of story-telling than digital. This requires investing in journalists, something which print has not been able to do. Unfortunately, it is not just journalism which is suffering as a result, but also the people.
Your take on the media culture & professionalism in Sikkim. Also is it right calling a person by their name or calling them as Sir/Ma’am when interviewing?
Pema: I have no problems with being respectful. As for Sir and Ma’am, because these terms carry a sense of hierarchy among us, I would recommend not using them if you want to be taken seriously as an equal. And for journalists, it is important to be taken seriously because too many people we need to ask questions of are so used to talk in this condescending tone that unless we fluff our feathers a bit, they will talk down to us as well and then we can only request and will not be able to question any more. Also remember, journalism is not a popularity contest – we need to be taken seriously, and being liked is not a prerequisite for that.
Why can't you leave behind your regular wardrobe of white shirt and blue jeans, is that a style statement or is it just you?
Pema: You mean my formal wear? Just kidding. Style requires too much work, so it’s clearly not that. To begin with, a wardrobe of formal clothes is too expensive to maintain and update. I guess I am a scrooge in that sense and don’t remember the last time I bought clothes for myself. And when you have mostly hand-me -downs or clothes bought for you by friends and family, they pick things that are functional and will be worn often. No one wears formals on a regular basis, so I keep getting jeans and the occasional white shirt. If friends and family start giving me expensive suits and formals, this question some years later might wonder why I am obsessed with the most expensive threads...
If you could ever switch your career away from journalism what would it be?
Pema: I don’t have a clue. At this stage in my life, that is also a scary thought. But hey, I also believe one can try to become anything; but I have such limited skills that if journalism won’t have me anymore, I will need to undertake a serious SWOT analysis to even begin exploring alternatives.
Few words of wisdom to the upcoming scribes.
Pema: Wrong person to expect words of wisdom from. I have a string of occasional successes but consistent failures behind me. But then again, after starting at 21, I am still around at 50, so stay the course. Journalism pans out eventually provided it excites you, and you are open to challenging yourself every day and challenging others occasionally, and if you like to tell stories and have the privilege of having the skill and access to the platforms.