Newsroom Diaries 2016: As the sun set on J Jayalalithaa's life, covering the death of an era in Tamil Nadu

Editor's note: This article is part of a series of newsroom diaries by various members of the Firstpost team. These diaries will provide you with the journalist's recollections of a particular bit of news coverage in 2016 in which she/he was deeply involved.

The year gone by was an aphrodisiac for a news junkie like me. Each day was unpredictable: it challenged us, surprised us, shocked us, and sometimes it even made us weep.

The Mumbai editorial desk of Firstpost is no less than a war room. Strategies are planned over the counter — the editor shouts out directions, and you get to work. Stories are published while the news is still breaking. Bigger follow-ups are planned and every news story is inspiring. Nothing beats the sprinting energy of breaking news and in a digital newsroom like Firstpost's it gets exceptionally interesting. It’s rigorous — to the point that it can send you in a tizzy — especially on the copy desk, the bulwark of any newsroom, which strives to keep every item of written or spoken news grammatically stout, factually correct and understandable.

And 2016 was here to test us.

The year started with Assembly elections in five states. The coverage at Firstpost was ambitious, with live debates, live blogs and constant updates on social media, we did everything that a team as small as ours was not expected to. I was keenly involved in the election coverage: travelling to Tamil Nadu, reporting on issues that had the potential to sway the mandate, and I thought this is when I would hit my crescendo, my high note, my pièce de résistance. That wasn’t it, but I was very close.

In terms of national politics, 2016 was defined by Sturm und Drang. A priceless moment was when J Jayalalithaa returned to power. Significantly, this was the first time in 32 years that a chief minister was selected to serve consecutive terms. The AIADMK front won 136 seats as opposed to DMK alliance’s 98. It was going to be a crucial year for the party and all eyes were on the iron-willed lady, who despite all odds, rallied to victory and was reduced her rivals to rubble. However, 2016 had just begun.

Then came September — and the first reports of Jayalalithaa’s frail health began making headlines. On Firstpost, we published reports analysing the AIADMK's secretiveness about Amma’s health. Those who follow Tamil Nadu politics know how private a person Jayalalithaa was, and any news outlet trying to breach that boundary of secrecy was threatened with defamation suits. Her ‘unknown’ illness gave a fillip to the rumour mills as well.

The shelf life of a news story is fleeting — it does not depend on the relevance of the development, but on when the next big one comes along. Reportage on Jayalalithaa’s health petered out as time went by, except for the occasional news alerts which told us she was recovering and out of danger. Once bitten, twice shy, the press largely restricted itself to publishing handouts from the hospital.

It was in early December, when we in the newsroom were still hungover from stories about Donald Trump’s unexpected victory and reeling under demonetisation reports, that Jayalalithaa was admitted to the hospital once again, having suffered a massive cardiac arrest. That was 4 December, a Sunday.

I was at a friend’s place when it happened, and it was as if news channels weren’t giving us enough information. I called up my contacts in Chennai and tried to get some information — but what they were able to tell me was mixed, and frustrating.

By the evening of 5 December, talk around Jayalalithaa’s declining health had reduced. The world had again moved on to other stories — long queues at ATMs, the Opposition slamming the prime minister, etc.

 Newsroom Diaries 2016: As the sun set on J Jayalalithaas life, covering the death of an era in Tamil Nadu

Late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. AFP/File photo

At 11.30 pm on 5 December (Monday), Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa passed away. It did not surprise us; it was cathartic, in some way. Once reality dawned, we realised what a big task was on hand. The Firstpost newsdesk wraps up work by 11 pm and every editor was either on their way home, or at home. But the website had to be changed, it was too huge a development not to be reported till the next morning.

While Jayalalithaa’s death roused many emotions in me, the only one that I could identify at that point was the adrenaline of rushing to work in the middle of the night to get a live blog up and running so that the flow of news and information wouldn’t stop. My editor’s words to me at 12.30 am on the intervening night of 5-6 December were: “We should have all the information for those who wake up and want to know about it.”

As a colleague and I rushed to the office in the dead of the night to make sure that the website was active and updated, I knew I had hit my crescendo, my high note, my pièce de résistance.

Digital journalism is free of several things that hamper the print medium: there is no limit on word counts, the possibilities are immense. We tapped into this and the result was beautiful. It was a very different experience from covering the Assembly elections in May. While the newsroom was charged up in May, the mood on that December night was quiet and sombre. The floor was empty except for a few security guards and the two of us.

Towards morning, the first visuals started coming in from Chennai — the city stood still as the swelling crowd tried to catch a glimpse of their Amma. I had seen Jayalalithaa only once, from afar, and while I was relentlessly keying in words on our live blog, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of loss. The lane off the ever-buzzing Cathedral Road was mostly quiet. Save for the police post right at the entrance, the road, dotted with rambling bungalows and high-end apartments, was remarkably nondescript. I had lived in Chennai for six years and it was surreal to acknowledge that Jayalalithaa was no more. It was as though a family member had been lost.

It was bittersweet and symbolic when gentle dawn broke as the cavalcade took Jayalalithaa's remains to the Rajaji Hall. Even as the sun set on her life and her career, a new sun rose in Tamil Nadu.

My 'day' ended after 15 hours of gruelling, thrilling work.

2016, honestly, was a boon for journalism and I was more than glad to be part of it. This year — despite the news carousel which has still not stopped moving (and I hope to God it does not) — set me off on a journey of news coverage which was scary, and satisfying. I have never experienced anything like this in my journalistic career so far. It left me exhausted — and exhilarated. Even as I conclude this personal account, I should add that it was so difficult to choose just one subject to write about — because you cannot move on from a news story that you’ve closely covered. It becomes a part of you.

Jayalalithaa’s death will always remain that night when I rushed to the newsroom and put in my best as a journalist.

Updated Date: Dec 31, 2016 17:26:45 IST