K. Narayanan

K. Narayanan: Quintessential newsman

Print edition : October 23, 2020

K. Narayanan, The Hindu’s first Readers’ Editor, during a function in Chennai on January 13, 2006. Photo: Vino John

K. Narayanan (1932-2020), who was associated with The Hindu Group for over five decades, was an iconic journalist and mentor whose relentless pursuit of excellence and in-depth knowledge of news operations set high standards and inspired others.

K. Narayanan, who oversaw The Hindu Group’s first news diversification venture, Frontline, even while remaining the News Editor of The Hindu, and set the standards for the magazine from its inaugural issue in 1984, passed away in Coimbatore on September 29 after a prolonged illness. He was 88.

A person who was modern in his approach to news and news copy, and who retained a child-like enthusiasm for news until the very end, Narayanan remained at the helm of Frontline until his retirement on August 31, 1996. After his retirement, he continued as a consultant to Frontline until 2003—a year in which he also began consulting for The Hindu. Three years later, he took charge as The Hindu’s first Readers’ Editor on March 1, 2006. He stepped down from the post on June 30, 2009.

KN, as he was known to his colleagues, was born on August 24, 1932, at Mannarkad in Palakkad district in Kerala, grew up in Kozhikode, and graduated from Loyola College, Chennai. In 1955, the young KN was selected as a Kasturi Ranga scholar and was appointed sub-editor the next year. Twenty-two years later, KN rose to the position of News Editor of The Hindu because of his dedication to work, phenomenal memory, unparalleled grasp of editing techniques, mastery over the changing printing technology, and depth of knowledge of all aspects of news operations—from the limitations of the reporters on the ground to the possibilities with a hot metal press.

KN read every page and every edition of The Hindu and remembered everything that he read. Once he read a page, he made corrections—and never were these corrections about style or flourish. Every single correction was a ‘goof’ (in his view) and he insisted that each sub-editor saw the mistakes that he or she made as soon as they came to office the next day. The corrections continued until the last day he served as News Editor. It was part of his relentless pursuit of excellence—to put together a newspaper with minimal mistakes in grammar, language and facts. Factual errors rarely went past him.

Under his watch, no error was too small. All mistakes were just that: mistakes, which should not be repeated. He made it clear to the best sub-editors who worked for him that good work was the norm: “Do not expect a standing ovation when you come in the next day.” A mistake would be noticed, flagged, and made an issue of, with the aim to ensure that it was not repeated by anyone else. KN pushed hard those sub-editors he considered promising and drilled into them that the job was much more than about editing copy, writing a headline, and assigning it to a page. The job was to keep tabs on the news, constantly talk to reporters on the ground to understand the background, read as much as possible and on all topics possible, and keep abreast of the latest in technological advancements in all fields of activity.

KN himself kept tabs on almost all news everywhere. Legend had it that if something had been printed about an issue anywhere, he would have read it. Apart from this, he was constantly in touch with The Hindu’s reporters across the country and abroad. There were occasions when reporters were alerted about a development in their beats by KN, and they would invariably find it true.

KN saw the news through a badly written copy. It did not matter to him if the copy was poorly written or well written: it was the job of the reporter to get the news to the desk. From there, the desk took charge. It asked the questions, got the story out of the reporter, and wrote up the copy, which, at times, looked very different from what had come in. Just as a newsman did not see news as “bad” or “good”, K.N. did not see copy as ”bad” or “good”. For him, the news was there in the copy and it was the sub-editor’s job to make sure that the news was made the focus of the piece.

Multitasking would be an understatement to describe KN’s ability to read and revise edited stories of different publications during his seemingly endless working hours. The table in front of him would have trays containing the edited stories of The Hindu’s main edition (on Saturdays usually), its supplements such as the Friday Page and the Sunday Magazine, and Frontline. The only weapon he had in his hand then was a pencil, which helped him cut out the flab here, sharpen a sentence there, rewrite paragraphs for clarity and, occasionally, throw a badly written copy at the writer.

KN enjoyed the advantage of his peers in reporting having phenomenal access to information within the corridors of power and outside, such as K.P. Nair in Thiruvanantha-puram, C M. Ramachandra in Bengaluru and R.J. Rajendra Prasad in Hyderabad (since The Hindu was dominant in the South), and he often visited these State capitals to have detailed after-work conversations with them. As always, the focus never wavered from the job on hand. KN’s healthy obsession with news and all aspects of production rubbed off on at least some of his proteges, who still follow the news and try to live up to what he taught.

In the days before the Internet and live television, the picture was easily the most important part of a story. KN would spend hours together selecting transparencies from numerous folders with extraordinary perseverance, which was the secret behind Frontline’s much-acclaimed photo features. The age of digital pictures was at least a decade away then. The Hindu’s coverage of the Perumon train tragedy, Frontline’s coverage of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, and the fact that The Hindu’s plane, which was once used to deliver newspapers across destinations, had a dark room, were among the examples of how flexible and modern the newspaper and the magazine were even in an era where change took decades to happen.

KN’s pursuit of excellence at the desk was aided by the unqualified support of The Hindu’s longest serving Editor, G. Kasturi. G. Kasturi’s understanding and forecasting of the future of printing technology and the news business were uncanny and always on the ball; and KN, who was at the implementation end, rose to the occasion whenever required. One such major shift was in 1980, when The Hindu transitioned from hot metal technology to computerised photo typesetting.

To the end, KN retained his phenomenal memory. In June 2019, when some journalists who had trained under KN visited him in Coimbatore, where he had settled down, he recalled instances from a very distant past, much to their surprise and amusement.

K.N. is survived by his wife Rukmini and son Krishnakumar.

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