After a three-year stint as Readers’ Editor (RE) in The Hindu and a little more than 50 years in journalism, it is time for me to say ‘bye’ to the valued readers of this esteemed newspaper, to editors past and present, and to my colleagues. I am retiring from service this month end.
I am reminded of the farewell column of my illustrious predecessor KN (K. Narayanan), the first Readers’ Editor of The Hindu, published three years ago. He wrote: “Generally the editorial staff are committed to accuracy, the cornerstone of a newspaper’s credibility. Sometimes they did feel readers were a pain, and the Readers’ Editor a greater pain, but they were supportive nevertheless. The daily corrections caused discomfort to many and anger in some, but we carried on with the effort to promote professionalism among journalists and trust in readers about the paper’s honesty and openness.” (“Online and Off Line,” June 29, 2009).
There can be no two opinions on the need to ensure accuracy of high standards. A major problem that confronts newspapers is the increasing occurrence of language-related errors, notwithstanding all efforts to avoid or minimise the errors. Accordingly, my team gave top priority to this from the very beginning, guided by the path shown by KN and encouraged by the overwhelming support of scores of enthusiastic readers pointing out errors. “Corrections and Clarifications” became a very successful column and remains so to this day. The sustained contribution of readers to this reader-writer collaboration has been an eye-opener.
There are other significant factors that contribute to a newspaper’s credibility and, in a larger context, to its role in society. For many readers, content is as important as the style of presentation or layout. Over the years, the newspaper’s role in society has gone beyond just providing information. Readers expect more. Moreover, the composition of the readership has changed substantially, if not radically. More and more of the newly educated, with different socio-economic profiles and priorities, are joining the ranks of readers. Newspapers cannot afford to ignore any more the socio-economic problems confronting the disadvantaged and deprived sections of people such as women, Dalits, and tribal people across the country.
An editorial in The Hindu on August 27, 2003, on the occasion of its 125th anniversary observed: “The Hindu believes that journalism of social responsibility must make its commitment to the principle of humaneness more explicit, more immediate, more wide-ranging and more nuanced.”
In recent years, serious readers will have noticed in the newspaper a spurt in reportage and feature writing on the realities of deprivation, distorted development, abuse of the environment, the agrarian crisis, farmers’ suicides, and so on. The sterling contribution of The Hindu’s Rural Affairs Editor, P. Sainath, is nationally and internationally recognised and it has been heartening to see a trend of young journalists contributing sensitively to such coverage.
A significant number of RE columns related to several social problems brought to the notice of my office by people living in different parts of the country or written about in the print and digital media. Many readers have told us that they have benefited from this focus. The column also, every now and then, pointed to the significant failings and vices of the news media.
One recurring complaint from readers related to failure to get their letters published in the relevant columns. They tended to believe that only letters supporting editorial positions taken by the newspaper got published. However, in reality, a fair sharing of the available space was ensured through tight editing wherever possible.
Another grievance of readers was that they did not have a space of their own in the newspaper to write, particularly because The Hindu generally did not publish unsolicited articles. Allotting one full page (Open Page) was suggested and the then Editor-in-Chief readily agreed. Subsequently, the race to write among readers saw this space being extended further. Even writers who contribute to the editorial pages now write for the Open Page.
Is this not the right time to call it a day? My sincere thanks go to Murali N. Krishnaswamy, A. Shankar, and R. Lakshminarayanan, who worked with me in the RE’s Office, and to numerous other friends within and outside the newspaper.