5 minutes with Sam Varghese

By Staff writers in Media News on

He's direct, decisive and dares to admit that he 'religiously' supports the All Blacks. ITJourno has five minutes with Sam Varghese, online tech editor at The Age/Sydney Morning Herald.

Basically, what do you do?

I work at The Age and my title is Online Tech Editor. I look after the tech sections of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald as they operate on a dual-publish model. I have been in this role since May 2002 and with Online since June 1999.

I write about anything that presents itself.

What was your first break into journalism?

I started as a sub at a tabloid in Bangalore in 1979. The editor hired me because he was impressed by the fact that I had gained admission to a college in Madras (now known as Chennai) which had turned him down.

What was the first tech gadget you ever bought?

I've never been a person for gadgets. I only got a mobile a year back. Would a PC qualify? If so, my first was bought only in 1989 - I'm a poor migrant.

Can tech journalism ever be sexy?

That's not a word I would use. At best, it's interesting.

What does tech journalism offer you as a writer?

A chance to dip my hands in something which interests me.

Biggest pet peeve?

The amount of bullshit in today's world.

What's the best advice a journalist mentor has ever given you?

My sports editor at my first daily told me that I would make a large number of enemies if I worked as a journo. Do it in style, was his advice.

One of my professors, who supervised my master's dissertation, gave me some very good advice about the reality of employment in India: "If you don't get what you like, try to like what you get." I wanted to be a Zoology lecturer, so I've strayed quite a bit.

If you could go back to any point of your life, what would it be and why?

Back to those idyllic days in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) before any of the ethnic problems began. It truly was some kind of island paradise.

Who is the one person you would want to be stranded on a desert island with?

No second thoughts, it would be my wife.

What are the big stories you'll be watching this year?

Big? Nothing really, one takes them as they come. Some of the biggest yarns pass under the radar.

Music or sport?

Classical music, both Indian and Western. Especially fusion music. It has lasting quality.

As far as sport is concerned, I follow the All Blacks quite religiously. I did some sport in college but have now become a sloth.

Is tech journalism important?

We shouldn't take ourselves too seriously. It's a job, do it as best as you can under the prevailing circumstances, be professional in your approach.

What's the best story you've ever covered?

In 1982, over 150 people died in a day in Bangalore after consuming illicit liquor. I was a journalism trainee at the time and accompanied another reporter to a hospital. I impulsively started helping in the emergency ward as they were short-staffed. Several people died while I was helping carry them to beds to have their stomachs pumped. I have never forgotten that and I don't think anybody could. It left me numb.

When I got back to the office, I had to write part of what turned out to be the one human interest tale on the front page. The copy came spontaneously. Several people were moved by it and that's the best kind of copy you can write - from the heart, not the head.

Most annoying habit?

Drivers who come close to your lane and then lurk without giving any indication if they want to change lanes. Indecision is an awful thing.

What is the most tiresome thing about being a tech reporter?

I haven't found too many irritants - that's probably because I am direct in my approach.

Who do you think has been the most influential person in tech?

UNIX creators Ken Thomson/Dennis Ritchie, Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman, and Steve Wozniak who built the first Apple.

Who are your favourite writers?

I mostly read non-fiction these days. I buy books on impulse, subject matter is generally the decider, not the author.

Cleverest thing a PR person has done to get you interested in a story?

I never follow a story unless I choose to do so. At times one has to undertake trivial things, that's reality. I've been around too long and am too cynical to get tricked. To be fair to PR people, I don't keep them hanging.

If you could write about anything in the world, what would it be?

It would be interesting to interview a would-be suicide bomber who is a lone operator and therefore free to talk. Cults have always fascinated me from the time I read about Charles Manson.

You find $1000 in an envelope on the street. What do you do with it?

I'd try to return it or else give it to the poor.

Best press event you ever attended?

I haven't gone to any for ages. I had a fascinating conversation with (OpenBSD creator) Theo de Raadt at last year's AUUG annual conference which translated into 6000 words in print.

How do you like to be contacted by PR?

Either phone or email is fine as long as it's brief and to the point.

Sam Varghese can be reached at: svarghese@theage.com.au.

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