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    North America News >> Education

Jyoti Thottam: SAJA's New Chief



The winds of change blew through the South Asian Journalists Association last month when Jyoti Thottam became its first elected president. Thottam replaced SAJA co-founder Sreenath Sreenivasan, who convened the group’s first meeting at a small Indian restaurant in midtown Manhattan nearly seven years ago.

From a barely a roomful of people, the professional networking group now boasts more than 700 members in North America, with strong satellite chapters in the Bay Area, Washington, D.C., and the Midwest. For many, SAJA has become an indispensable resource for accurate and fair coverage of South Asia. Its activities include an e-mail discussion list and a daily compendium of South Asia-related articles. In addition to its monthly meetings and frequent speaker panels, the organization holds an annual conference and awards ceremony recognizing excellent reporting on South Asia.

“I’m very proud of what we have achieved and the connections and friends I have made along the way,” Sreenivasan, an associate professor at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism, said. “But it’s every parent’s hope to see their child grow and do better than they did. That’s my hope for SAJA.”


Thottam, 30, is a reporter at On magazine, a new technology publication owned by Time Inc. She has had a distinguished career as a journalist, traveling and writing as a freelancer in India, Thailand and Nepal. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, The Christian Science Monitor, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The San Francisco Chronicle, Voice of America radio, City Limits and Himal Magazine.


Sreenivasan said the mark of a good leader was one who knew when to step aside and hand over the reigns to “someone will keep the organization alive and kicking.” He’s sure that SAJA is in good hands. “Jyoti is enthusiastic, articulate, smart. She is exactly the kind of person we want to be the face of SAJA.”


Shaheen Pasha chatted with the group’s newly elected president recently.


Rediff: How did you get into journalism?


JT: When I was in college, I worked for the Yale Herald, my college newspaper. I really loved it and I realized that it was what I wanted to do. I haven’t found anything more enjoyable since.


Rediff: What drew you to SAJA?


JT: I was in graduate school at Columbia and there were a lot of events that I liked going to. I got to know Sree and got more and more involved with SAJA. I liked that SAJA had a very straightforward mission and it’s not too bureaucratic. A lot of organizations become just about holding meetings. SAJA was different. It wasn’t an organization with meetings and too much structure, not your typical organization. I don’t like going to meetings.


Rediff: How have you seen SAJA change since you first became involved?


JT: SAJA, obviously, has gotten a lot bigger. People seem to recognize it more than they initially did. I continue to be amazed at just how many people SAJA reaches through the e-mail list.


Rediff: What has been your most satisfying experience with SAJA? Your most frustrating?


JT: Personally, I’ve always enjoyed the fact that SAJA hosts a lot of fiction writers, in addition to journalists, which may seem a little unusual. That’s something that I have a real passion for and since I’ve read most of the authors, it’s something I’ve enjoyed. I don’t think there really is anything that I’ve found frustrating about SAJA. As I said before, SAJA hasn’t had much of an organizational structure except for the last two years so no, nothing frustrating.


Rediff: What are your plans for SAJA as president?


JT: One thing that I’m hoping to do as president is expand SAJA’s official membership. It’s been a pretty informal organization over the last few years. Anyone can be on the list, come to meetings and that’s for free. We have started a paid membership and we do have more and more people coming to our meetings and getting on the e-mail list. The organization is going to thrive on that.


Rediff: How do you plan on increasing paid membership in SAJA?


JT: So far we have gotten all our paid members without any advertising push. We have a link to the membership form on the front of the Web site. We also have membership forms available at various events and offer discounts to some of these events with paid SAJA membership. Once we start to make it a priority, I think the paid membership will increase even more.


Rediff: Being SAJA’s first-ever elected president, do you feel you will be examined more critically?


JT: I really hope they will. Sree has done such a great job over the last two years and I think the organization was lulled in a sense of complacency knowing he’d be there doing a great job. I hope the shock and surprise of having someone new will make people sit and take notice and look critically. I hope they have ideas of how SAJA should be better. The president’s role is changing. It’s now going to be about running the organization and being the public face of SAJA. Sree was doing the job of 3 or 4 people and it's my hope that 3 or 4 people will actually do those jobs.


Sree continues to do a lot without being president. He runs the e-mail list. He will do those extras, for example, like when he put together reporting tips for covering the earthquake in Gujarat. It was an invaluable resource for journalists everywhere and we received many e-mails afterwards thanking us for the service we provided. That’s the perfect example of what SAJA can do.


Rediff: As a journalist, what are your most interesting accomplishments, and why?


JT: Being a reporter in Queens [for the Times/Ledger newspapers] was such a great experience. From the age of 4 to 10, I lived in Queens and I remember places that I grew up seeing. It was great to be able to go back and report from places I had seen as a kid. I covered a lot of crime and New York City politics, which is really interesting. But then I wound up going to tech reporting. I wanted to move to a larger news organization and Time Inc. is a great organization.


Rediff: Have you ever run across difficulties as a South Asian female reporter, particularly through your travels through the subcontinent?


JT: I don’t think I ran into difficulties being a South Asian. I think there are things that you have to think about as female traveling. It makes you become more aware of what’s around you and that can be an advantage. Being a reporter is about observing details so that can help. I think journalists in India do an amazing job and they have a lot more competition than we do in the United States. They work really hard under difficult conditions and hold themselves to a high standard. My goal was to live up to what they can do and try to write something that could contribute to the understanding of the region.


Rediff: As a South Asian in the mainstream, how does your cultural identity affect or influence the type of reporting you do?


JT: It’s natural that when you come from someplace outside of the U.S., if something comes up that has to do with South Asia you must be the expert. They wouldn’t assume that someone not South Asian would know about arranged marriage. Sometimes I write about things that have to do with South Asia but most of the time I don’t. I follow my own instincts.


I really enjoy being able to do both. I like to write for an audience that isn’t familiar with it and that’s our job as reporters to explain things to people. I’ve done all different kinds of reporting, but I’ve always written things about South Asian immigrants, in particular. I guess that’s something I keep coming back to.


Rediff: Who are your idols in the media? Desis, or not? Why? What have you learned from them?


JT: Joan Didion is someone I really admire. She has a really strong voice as a writer and is an impeccable reporter. As far as fiction writers go, I admire V.S. Naipaul. He has really strong opinions about things that I don’t necessarily agree with. But his conclusion are based on really strong reporting. I would be really flattered if someone saw similarities in my work that reminded them of Joan Didion or V.S. Naipaul.


Rediff: Journalism is a different career path for many South Asians. Were you ever influenced to do anything else?


JT: After high school, I didn’t have a strong desire to be a doctor or engineer and my parents didn’t really pressure me. They had their doubts about journalism because they didn’t really know anyone in the field. It was a bit unknown. But now they’re excited to see what I’m doing.



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