How does one describe and make sense of a newspaper like The Hindu, which will be 135 years old three weeks from now? Is there a single term to capture its range and its reach? I think the term is tapestry. The literal meaning of tapestry, according to Oxford dictionary, is a piece of thick textile fabric with pictures or designs formed by weaving coloured weft threads or by embroidering on canvas, used as a wall hanging or soft furnishing. Metaphorically speaking, it is a way to represent something that is multi-layered, complex and defies a reductionist understanding.
A newspaper like The Hindu weaves five different spatial realities for every reader: international, regional, national, local and hyper-local. It operates in all the three temporal axes: past, present and future. However, its major pre-occupation is to make sense of the present. The interplay between the space and time in its writings gain gravitas as long as it helps people make choices, and loses its significance if it fails to address any of the issues that concern them.
In one of my earlier columns, Giving the full picture (December 24, 2012), I had touched upon on the theory of interlocking public developed by two eminent journalism theorists Kovach and Rosenstiel. They also used this theory to question niche marketing in journalism. They said: “Many of the niches created by the new information delivery platforms are much harder to define than the artificial categories identified by marketing research may imply. Television aimed at women eighteen to thirty four, or Generation X, or soccer moms, football fans is likely to alienate larger numbers of the very group at which it is aimed. People are simply more complex than the categories and stereotypes we create for them.”
The Hindu recognises this difficult reality. It offers a tapestry that has something meaningful for every reader: politics, economy, law, diplomacy, business, entertainment, sports, literature, and art. It tries to maintain a fine balance between ‘public interest’ and ‘what public is interested in.’ The reportage about international events and national developments may appear in all editions of the paper, and have more readers in terms of absolute numbers. But, one element that gets the closest scrutiny is the hyper-local.
The reason for my analysis of the hyper-local is a criticism I got from a reader, Mr. C. G. Rishikesh. He has been one of the regular commentators and invariably his sharp eyes never fail to notice any of the bloomers that escaped the gate-keeping process of the newspaper. Last Friday, he wrote: “I had an occasion to write to you earlier asking if the item ‘Power shutdown’ in the Chennai edition is edited or proofread by anyone at all. Now I ask: If a page proof is taken, does the person responsible for passing it even glance at it? Please see it today — I am not even asking you to read it line by line. I live in Gopalapuram and as the item today (page 4) relates to Anna Salai, there was no need for me to read it. I didn’t; I only ran my eye over it. What has the Readers’ Editor to say about this publication of matter in the raw? Its recurrence even after an alert/complaint by a reader to him?”
Mr. Rishikesh is absolutely right, and his anger is justified. Hyper-local news items are the ones that fall into the category ‘news one can use’ and they deserve the same attention as any other section of the paper. They cannot be treated in a lackadaisical manner.
Power shutdown announcement is a very crucial piece of information for the people living in a particular area. An advance notice helps them to plan their day. This newspaper provides its valuable space for this item because of its immense utility. It is possible that the team in-charge of this may have faithfully reproduced a press release from the State electricity board with its spelling mistakes. But, if I am a resident of Border Thottam in Anna Salai, I would be equally peeved as Mr. Rishikesh if my neighbourhood is described as Border Tfhorram as if it is some Welsh county.
I took up the Chennai edition only as an example. Hyper-local sections are the last-mile connections. In their insightful book, What do we mean by local?, John Mair, Neil Fowler and Ian Reeves explain the importance of hyper-local as a crucial link to harness community engagement and support in a local arena. If there is a loose thread in the form of lackadaisical hyper-local reporting, then it has a potential to unravel the entire journalistic tapestry.