Vice-President of Digital Programming at CNN, S Mitra Kalita is a formidable force in the field of journalism. In a candid email interview, she talks about being part of a Pulitzer Prize winning team, her roots in Sadiya, Assam and more:
Congratulations on your new role as VP of CNN Digital. We in the Northeast and journalists in particular, are especially proud of you as you are, so to speak, “one of us”. How does it feel? What are your upcoming plans?
I just joined about a month ago and am still waiting to move into my house, get my kids into school and resettle into New York City. The pride of Assam, to be frank, has been overwhelming and incredibly humbling. We come from a very simple family and I am so glad my cousins still make fun of me like they did when we were kids.
Your stint at LA Times was memorable, being part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team. Would you please share with our readers the experience on working on the San Bernardino shooting? What made the efforts of your team different from the many others who covered the incident and its aftermath, what is it that distinguishes you as a team, that others could learn from?
It’s worth remembering that it was a tragedy that led the LA Times staff to the Pulitzer. So celebrations should always be tempered accordingly. That being said, so much of my career led up to the moment, from local reporting lessons to involving the audience in a fast-moving story that affects them to stories I had done on terrorism and the roots of Islamic militancy. I am so proud of our teams there for bringing together a local, national and global story.
Your career has charted a varied and interesting path, you have held so many important portfolios. Would you single out any one as being different or unique or especially fulfilling?
Each job has helped me grow as a journalist and a leader. At the AP, I learned to write fast. At Newsday, I learned to be competitive with the New York tabloids. At the Washington Post, I learned to cover a beat and think big to connect those stories. At Mint and Quartz, I felt the exhilaration and purity and mission of a startup. At the Wall Street Journal, I learned to be exacting as an editor, smart and analytical in the angles we took on stories. And at the LA Times, I learned so much in a short time about innovating in legacy organizations and relying on the basics of journalism that unite its many forms.
You have been one of the founding editors of Mint, and have worked in India. How different is it an experience to work in the US?
The US is my home, so I think working in a newsroom here feels slightly more natural. In India, I was so grateful to be working in a hyper-competitive environment. I would tell my teams, “You think it, you write it.” That was great training for the competition that is everywhere online.
What are your thoughts on the militarization of the Northeast and AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) as someone who hails from this region and yet has lived and worked in the US for so long, and has followed terrorism and gun violence in America so closely?
I cant comment on it. My friend once told me that to be an Assamese is to have one member of your family a part of the militancy and another to be killed by them. Unrest over security issues is sadly a global phenomenon today.
How was it growing up in Assam in the 80s and 90s? Would you please share your experiences about your hometown Sadiya? Do you visit often?
I did not grow up there. I visited Sadiya and Santipur as a child and it was delightful.
I think about those days now and smile. It’s rare for all the cousins to be in one place any more. We live scattered about Guwahati, Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai, Silicon Valley, Seattle, New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C. And now I am moving to Los Angeles, even further away. But this crazy, joyful spread-out family, those memories, are an anchor. When it was announced that I would be managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, my mom wrote me an email, “Don’t be proudy,” she said. “Remember where we came from. You have my ashirvad always.”
Sometimes I wonder if I weren’t Assamese — if I hadn’t spent all that time learning the powers of observation by watching and trying to mimic the behaviors of Americans, Punjabis, Gujaratis all around me — would I have still been a journalist? If I hadn’t seen the power of press and protest, marching army officers along A.T. Road outside our window as we played, never really oblivious to the political realities of Assam, would I have been a journalist?
You have written extensively about the South Asian diaspora in your book as well as news reports, how do you think the community has added to America’s diversity? Please share some of your insights with us
My parents left India in the 1970s and have always encouraged us to look forward. But every now and then, when those opportunities work out, I think it’s also worth looking back and remembering the moments that made us who we are.
What would you like to say to all your fans in Northeast India, especially those who look up to you as a role model? Any chance that we would see you in this part of the world soon?
I hope to be there in December for my cousin’s wedding! I am very grateful for the Assamese community’s love and support. They made me who I am, and I hope to do them proud.
(This interview appeared in September 2016 issue of Eclectic Northeast)