Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Sreenath Sreenivasan
Published by The New York Sun on 2006-07-13
Sreenath Sreenivasan is irrepressible.
Today, for example, he will help welcome hundreds journalists, teachers and business people to Columbia University, where he's dean of students at the Graduate School of Journalism. They will participate in a four-day annual convention featuring stars of the Internet, print, radio and television, who will offer workshops and seminars of special value to journalists of South Asian origin, and to non-South Asians interested in South Asia - one of the most economically dynamic regions of the world - and its Diaspora.
The real star, of course, will be Professor Sreenivasan, who's been organizing this networking fest for a decade and who's arguably America's leading authority on Web journalism. He's helped direct thousands of young men and women toward jobs and freelance assignments - expecting little in return other than their contact details, which Mr. Sreenivasan promptly adds to his electronic Rolodex that is, by now, little short of extraordinary.
His greeting to convention participants will not represent the start of his day. Even earlier, Mr. Sreenivasan will have already appeared before tens of thousand of viewers on WABC-TV, where he serves as the station's "Tech Guru" twice a week.
The TV segment will not have represented the start of Mr. Sreenivasan's day either. Well before the crack of dawn, he will have started to manage various Web sites and lists that he runs, including a successful one for the nonprofit organization that he helped co-found in 1994, the South Asian Journalists Association, known widely by its acronym, SAJA.
And even before he's booted up the computer in his Upper West Side apartment - which he shares with his wife, the Citi banker and world-class sports rifle shooter Roopa Unnikrishnan - Mr. Sreenivasan most certainly will have looked in on his sleeping twins, Durga and Krishna, named after two of Hinduism's leading deities.
So what's the source of his energy? Granted, Mr. Sreenivasan isn't quite 36, but surely some ancient mantra from his native India provides fuel for his manic days? Perhaps some special blend of condiments and curries from the Kerala village where his father, acclaimed diplomat T. P. Sreenivasan was born? Perhaps an intricate bit of calisthenics devised by his mother, Lekha, one of India's prominent practitioners of the classical dance form, Bharata Natyam?
The professor smiled.
"I just love my job," he said.
But, surely, the reporter said, there must be more to it than that?
"I'm an evangelist for technology," Mr. Sreenivasan said.
His evangelism started early - at the age of 23, when Mr. Sreenivasan began teaching at Columbia after obtaining a master's degree in journalism. He sensed that technology was on the rise, and he was convinced that there was a future in what came to be known as "New Media."
So enthusiastic was Columbia about his ideas that he was eventually put in charge of its New Media program.
Mr. Sreenivasan ran with the baton, practically inventing convergence journalism education - teaching journalists to work in multiple media formats such as print, TV, radio and online. He became the founding administrator of the Online Journalism Awards, the world's largest new media contest, run by Columbia and the Online News Association, which he helped co-found in 1998. (They are currently run out of the University of California at Berkeley.)
Now in his 13th year of teaching, he continues to run Columbia's New Media/Web journalism program. He also gives workshops in Internet technology in news rooms and educational institutions around America and abroad. He writes a popular column for the Florida-based Poynter Institute.
For people of a certain age who've known his parents, Mr. Sreenivasan's ambition and success aren't surprising.
Since his birth in Tokyo, he was bred to succeed - not the least because of the various cultures that he was exposed to.
As part of his parents' household - he has a younger brother Sreekanth, who works for a United Nations agency in Vienna - Mr. Sreenivasan moved whenever his father received a fresh diplomatic posting. Besides Japan, the older Sreenivasan represented India in Bhutan, Fiji, Myanmar, the erstwhile Soviet Union, and, of course, America.
"I'd invariably be the new kid at school - and, often enough, the only brown one," Mr. Sreenivasan said. "Perhaps that's why I've enjoyed being rooted in one place - New York."
When he began teaching at Columbia in 1993, Mr. Sreenivasan found that most of his students at the graduate school were older than him.
"I was conscious of being a player coach," he said.
Mr. Sreenivasan's reputation as a player coach grew rapidly. Not only was he teaching the rules, he was inventing the game.
"The media landscape was changing on account of technology, and I was there at a moment when people were looking to understanding those changes," Mr. Sreenivasan said. "Journalists and consumers wanted to be guided."
His faith in technology did not diminish even when the Internet bubble crashed in the early part of this century.
"The reason I was, and continue to be, bullish about technology is its ability to transform society for the better," Mr. Sreenivasan said. "I know full well that there's much uncertainty and anxiety in the print and broadcast media about technological changes.
"But I also see technology benefiting print journalism by widening its reach by exposing more people to the content, no matter that they are getting it on a computer screen, rather than ink-on-dead-trees," he said.
At the same time, Mr. Sreenivasan doesn't see the death of print, citing the powerful atavistic allure of its tactile experience and transportability.
Mr. Sreenivasan frames his thoughts with clarity and precision - perhaps that's because of his classroom experience and television training. Little wonder that he's in demand around the country as a speaker on technology and media issues.
He rarely disappoints his audiences - not the least because of his ability to fetch up provocative sound bites.
"When I speak about how technology is transforming societies around the world, I often tell people that there are 42 million blogs today - everybody wants to have a say on issues," Mr. Sreenivasan said. "In the old days, people aimed for 15 minutes of fame. In the future, they will aim for 15 readers of their blogs. But for now, at least, most bloggers are lucky if anyone other than their mother reads their stuff."
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist