Shortly after riots devastated Gujarat in 2002, Vinod Mehta participated in a panel discussion on whether the graphic reportage of the violence had not actually communalised the situation even more.
The other panellists, all senior journalists, argued that reporters covering such events needed to be mindful of the impact of their reports. At this stage, Mr. Mehta cut in: a reporter on the spot, he said, should focus only on the events as they unfolded, being as accurate as possible, with just one caveat — the story, if possible, should be reported from the point of view of the victim.
It was this ability that Mr. Mehta had — to slice through convoluted arguments, often hiding agendas of varying hues — that made him the great editor he was.
If he had an unerring instinct for a good story, he also knew precisely how to spin a done to death story to extend its shelf life. He revelled in controversies and scandals. At Outlook — where I worked for six years — editorial meetings were always brief: if you had not pitched your idea with almost headline-like brevity, you were in danger of losing his attention. When your story was written, he knew exactly what needed to be elaborated on, sometimes pushing you to say what you had hesitated to say. Always democratic, he never held a disagreement on a story anyone might have had with him against that person. He was never pompous. Mr. Mehta, of course, was not infallible; if he had dismissed a reporter’s assessment and then found later that he was wrong, he might not have apologised, but he would make it up to the reporter swiftly — for instance, by handing out a plum assignment.
Vinod Mehta came to journalism from the world of advertising. In his early years in Mumbai, when he launched Debonair , everyone was fair game. But when he moved to newspaper journalism with The Indian Post first and then to The Independent and finally The Pioneer , he gradually learnt over the years, to his cost, that newspaper proprietors were not always willing to risk hurting the fragile egos of politicians. But till the end, he never quite lost his irreverence.
His stints in all three newspapers were short, but despite the brevity of the tenures — a few years each — he left the stamp of his personality on them. He attracted some of the most talented journalists, created great teams, and then gave them the freedom to work. It was only at the Outlook , the last organisation he launched in Delhi, that he lasted 17 years, creating a rival to India Today .
With his death on Sunday morning after a long illness, an era in journalism came to an end.