Responding to this column, a reader, Satyadev Chilakamarry, writes: “I feel you are sounding more like a columnist than a voice of the readers … My understanding is, this [the readers’ editor’s] role calls for fearless representation of readers and readers alone.” This takes us to the question of how best the “readers” can be represented. The form of representation evolves over a period and it is an ongoing process.
One of the key objectives of the appointment of the Readers’ Editor, according to the Terms of Reference, is “to strengthen bonds between the newspaper and its millions of print platform and online readers.” This does not mean that the newspaper and its readers as a collective are two hostile entities that warrant any “fearless” representation of the readers by the Readers’ Editor, as implied by Satyadev Chilakamarry.
When we say “readers”, we do not mean it as a monolith in the sense of being “a large, impersonal political, corporate, or social structure regarded as indivisible and slow to change” (Oxford Dictionary of English). The socio-economic profile of newspaper readers in general has changed over the decades, particularly after Independence. Thanks to the spread of education as also the introduction of the reservation system, the number of people getting the benefit of English education has been increasing. This led to a spurt in the readership of newspapers in general and the English dailies also benefited by it. The increase in the number of educated women also helped the English newspapers enlarge their circulation base. Although there has been a corresponding increase in the number of readers sharing their views with newspapers and criticising them, the participation of educated women and the newly-educated among the underprivileged has, understandably, been relatively poor or slow in coming. They may not have the time for it or they may not have the inclination to put it in writing. This does not mean they do not have anything to say.
A unique feature of The Hindu is that its readership includes 80-year-olds and their grandchildren or great grandchildren living under one roof. They have all grown with it but belong to four different generations with distinctly different approaches to life. That they are not averse to changing themselves to suit the needs of the time is seen in their varied life styles. If grandpa calls the Readers’ Editor’s office to give vent to his intolerance of “the falling standards of our paper,” the grandson e-mails his resentment over the non-publication of a picture of his favourite cricketer along with the report of the game. However, neither of them would even think of an alternative paper, probably because they know that their newspaper would respect their sentiments and correct its course. In between, there are middle-aged parents who strongly feel that their newspaper can help their children in choosing their courses of study at higher levels. The educated unemployed also turn to the newspapers for help in getting jobs. The Hindu has played a significant role in this respect in the recent past, writes R.M. Kumar of Chennai.
Kumar says that the Monday supplement, Education Plus, which The Hindu launched about seven years ago, was “a wonderful source of information, with its well-researched articles on different career options available to students.” He says it used to carry articles (for instance, by career counsellor J.P. Gandhi) that gave a lot of information on the different courses available to students. Commending this kind of value-addition that The Hindu has been doing from time to time, Kumar wants such services and articles to be revived in the supplement so that “parents like me can take informed decisions.” This suggestion is certainly worth considering.
Allen Eric, “a reader — and an avid fan — of The Hindu since 1996 as a class 10 student at Coimbatore, “says: “The Hindu is also my favourite media brand — given that its core proposition has been unwavering despite the series of evolutions. The re-design, introduction of colour and the new supplements have also added the possibly missing attributes of youth and vibrance to The Hindu — and helped keep up with the times.” He has also sent in a detailed note on the newspaper’s latest edition from Kolkata. He regrets: “The Hindu [of Kolkata] was certainly not as vibrant and youthful as it is today in the South: not a very exciting start for new, young readers.”
Vaibhav (23), a student who calls himself “a regular and loyal reader” of this newspaper, says he respects this paper for its “coverage and inclusive and unbiased journalism.” He says many of his letters have been published. He adds that although some of his letters have not been carried in the newspaper, he is determined to keep writing.
A reader from Coimbatore, J. Dasgupta, has suggested that data be systematically collected on the social composition of The Hindu’s readership over a period of time. Such a data bank, he says, will help the newspaper when it launches new editions. He has also renewed his suggestion that the “Letters [to the Editor]” column that now appears on the editorial page be entrusted with the Readers’ Editor.
* * *
Here is a sensible question from a reader, Mubarak Salahydeen of Chennai, regarding the usage of the word “fatwa’ in a story titled “Couple fear for life after panchayat fatwa” (July 28, 2009) and the reporter’s explanation in the “Corrections and Clarifications” column (August 5, 2009). If the word “fatwa” was used to mean “diktat,” which means “an order or decree imposed by someone in power without popular consent,” why should journalists use the word “fatwa”, which means “a ruling on a point of Islamic law by a recognised authority” and has a religious connotation?