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How Shekhar Gupta Cuts the Clutter and what people tell ThePrint about it

Shekhar Gupta has his own, unique style of story-telling and it’s virtually impossible to replicate CTC success. But ThePrint is not a one-trick pony.

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He loves to talk. And so he talks.

I, and the hundreds of others who have worked with him, over the last 45-odd years, have heard him speak, at considerable length, on topics as diverse as a cricket googly, the payload of an F-15 fighter or ‘a Marcos called Bongbong’… virtually in the same breath.

In fact, that’s a good question to ask: Does he even pause to breathe when he is in full flow?

Perhaps this fondness for talking is why Shekhar Gupta, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of ThePrint has become something of a cult figure on YouTube, at least in India.

If you have to ask why so, then you are neither woke nor have you woken up to the wide, wonderful world of video journalism, where Shekhar Gupta’s explanatory videos enjoy a viewership of over 2 lakh, on an average day, and has been known to touch 30 lakh on at least one occasion.

That’s CTC for you – ‘Cut the Clutter’ with Shekhar Gupta.

This month, which saw our website complete five years, seems a good time to discuss the one property that has made ThePrint widely known. It also elicits reactions galore from viewers/listeners – you’d be surprised how many people ‘listen’ to CTC while going about their daily business or commuting.

Each month, I receive emails about CTC, much of it complimentary but some critical too, and this is reflected in the comments below each episode on YouTube. Here’s the thing: The audience listens to CTC very attentively. We know this because people pick out the occasional factual error, for which Shekhar Gupta apologises on air. In one episode he said, “Many of you are smarter than me and you caught it”. This is one of the factors of CTC’s success: The willingness to admit a mistake.

Also, if you read viewers’ feedback on YouTube, you will find that often, people of different, even opposing political persuasions have conversations started by CTC.

Also read: Opinions will have a bias. But here’s why we love reading—and criticising them at ThePrint

English and Hindi medium

‘Cut the Clutter’ began on 20 September 2018. It has completed 1,066 episodes as of 30 August. When the series started, it covered two or three topics per episode and then became single-issue based, gradually. The show is primarily in English but since Shekhar Gupta comes from a Hindi-medium background – information he revealed in a particular CTC episode – he does a weekly Hindi Q&A with colleague Apoorva Mandhani called ‘Headlines Ke Peechay Shekhar Ke Sath’.

Explainer reporting

Explanatory journalism like CTC is quite the thing in journalism now. All self-respecting media organisations provide different forms of ‘explained’ reporting. It is popular with readers/viewers/listeners too because in a news environment that is literally cluttered with sources of (mis)information and further complicated by ‘facts’ and viewpoints on social media, the public needs to be able to separate fact from manipulated news/opinion; it needs to grasp the meaning and implications of complex issues in all fields—from military matters to climate change—and contextualise them. And it needs someone to do it for them in a straightforward, easily accessible manner.pastedGraphic.png

That’s where ‘Cut the Clutter’ finds its calling. It unclutters, dissects, analyses topical developments – a kind of a ready reckoner on current affairs.

Also read: Are you happy with our headlines? This is the rule we apply

ThePrint’s ‘prime time’

Warning: Unlike CTC, this Readers’ Editor is full of opinions.

Before writing this, I conducted a straw poll of people who have watched CTC – the responses tell you everything about the show, better than I can.

Asked to describe CTC in one word or a sentence, the most common reply was: ‘Informative’. Then there was a mixed bag of answers: ‘Analytical with perspective’, ‘helps us understand global matters better’, ‘I learn something new every day’, ‘it’s interesting’, ‘an explainer’, ‘bit long’, ‘comprehensive analysis of the news of the day’, ‘addictive’, ‘cult hit’, ‘hmmm’, ‘ThePrint’s prime time’, ‘news without noise’, ‘too much focus on foreign affairs’, ‘boring’, ‘declutters most complex issues’, ‘simplifying, decoding’, ‘clarity, in depth’, ‘attractive’ (huh?), ‘insightful’, ‘deeply researched’, ‘educational’, ‘needs new format’, ‘should be shorter’, ‘cogent, coherent, consistent’ (viva la alliteration!), ‘it’s a habit’, and ‘Shekhar has the last laugh’.

Besides CTC, these comments say a lot about Shekhar Gupta and what interests him: International affairs, science, strategic and defence issues, governance and politics. However, CTC does cover other topics too: The sheer width and diversity of issues the show covers day in day out, week after week – to begin with, a staggering six times a week, now down to five – is in my niece’s favourite word, ‘Amazin’. Pick any week and you will find CTCs on Pakistan’s climate catastrophe, Zia ul-Haq’s coup, and Mizoram statehood day.

As I said, CTC is not opinion, but there are occasions, such as the recent episode on the Bilkis Bano case, when Gupta did not ‘sit on the fence’ but expressed his stand on the 11 men convicted of her rape receiving remission from the Gujarat government.

Let’s be clear: Gupta is not an expert on every topic he discusses, but his experience as a journalist who has covered a wide range of issues during his 45-odd year career is the bedrock of CTC. It allows him to reach back and pull out anecdotal evidence from the past, which lends historical perspective to an issue. In fact, journalist Milind Khandekar, who first suggested that Gupta do a video show, said it must leverage Gupta’s experiences.

CTC is factual, based on a great deal of research by a young team of journalists at ThePrint and Shekhar Gupta himself. Senior editors are also consulted as are outside experts. Gupta has to read, understand and absorb intricate details of a subject, be it scientific, legal, economic, historical, political, or anything else under the sun. He has to then break down a complex matter into a simple form and convey it in a way that explains and engages the audience.

But nothing could have prepared Gupta for the Covid pandemic and the minutiae of the virus, the vaccines that were hurriedly invented, or the various treatments – topics that were covered extensively on CTC. Of course, it helps that Gupta has a doctor’s interest in things medical. The Covid period saw CTC do very well with shows in English and in Hindi – ‘Cut Corona Clutter’ it was called, occasionally.

One take

From what I have watched, I find that it’s not just the range of topics that draws in viewers, or the research that goes into it: CTC is about style, it’s about storytelling. It’s easy to watch and easy on the eye. Anyone from a school student to a grandparent can watch/listen to it.

Indeed, Gupta on CTC is like the elder in a family: He doesn’t dumb down, he simplifies information; he’s not intimidating, he is intimate, and patiently explains this and that, digressing here and there with personal recollections. In the 29 September 2021 episode, Gupta admitted that perhaps he was ‘boring you because I am talking too much about myself’.

I could be wrong but I think there isn’t a CTC episode that doesn’t have a personal anecdote, a muhavara (idiom), or a reference to an old Hindi film (periodically, Hollywood). Yes, it can get a little long in the telling like a grandmother’s tales but these are all part and parcel of CTC success. The language is colloquial, conversational and there is clarity of thought. Gupta looks the camera – and you – straight in the eye, is comfortable talking to it and gesticulates a lot. I find that distracting but others like it, so it’s just a matter of opinion.

What’s remarkable is that Gupta does not use a script or a teleprompter and there is seldom a second take. It’s action, roll, ‘The End’ – start to finish, in one take. Perhaps that is why it is longer than it ought to be – approximately 20-25 minutes per episode. Gupta says 18 minutes would be ideal and to me, that sounds about right.

Also read: We asked our readers why they like ThePrint. This is what they told us

One trick pony?

It is an unfortunate truth that without CTC and Shekhar Gupta’s weekly ‘National Interest’ column – in both print and on video – ThePrint would command much less attention. This is worrying and something ThePrint needs to address, immediately. What do the other video programmes need to do to play catch up? Does ThePrint need new shows? Do production values have to be scaled up (admittedly, CTC isn’t a slick production)? What’s the missing ‘je ne sais quoi’, as the French say, that will draw in viewers, the way CTC does?

Well, better-produced shows, with more visual elements for one, better promos on the website and social media for another, and perhaps most important of all – fixed days and time slots would help enormously, especially for viewer recall. You know, if it’s Tuesday it’s so-and-so. That goes for CTC too: It goes out at different times all the time.

However, it would be unfair to compare other shows with CTC. Shekhar Gupta has his own, unique style of story-telling and it’s virtually impossible to replicate his success. But ThePrint is not a one-trick pony. It has other video shows that do it proud. We need to just figure out how to get them seen and heard—and talked about—more.

Shailaja Bajpai is ThePrint’s Readers’ Editor. Please write in with your views, complaints to readers.editor@theprint.in

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