One of the major constraints the journalist in charge of production faces in a daily newspaper is the availability of space. “No space,” is invariably his or her reply when questioned by the editor next morning for “an unpardonable miss.” This could have been justified 50 or 60 years ago, when communication and printing technologies were less developed and newsprint was in short supply, which forced the dailies to restrict the number of pages to eight or ten. Today the situation is vastly different. Almost all majors in the industry come out with 20-page broadsheet newspapers, often accompanied by two or more free supplements. The relatively comfortable position in newsprint supply, the technological advances, the information explosion, and the advertisement boom have made this possible in the last two decades.
Why then should this refrain of “no space” continue, is a question posed by some readers of The Hindu. Granting that news and views have to compete with advertisements for space in newspapers in a market-driven economy, some others ask why there have been no attempts to ensure a fair and judicious sharing of the available space, particularly in respect of the “Letters to the Editor” column.
This has to be seen in the context of the spread of education, howsoever slow or inequitable it is, and its contribution to expanding the readership base of the newspapers over the decades. A significant number of informed readers have been made more resourceful by the tools science and technology have placed in their hands. They are, understandably, eager to play their role in the democratic, participatory process of shaping public opinion through newspapers — of which The Hindu has ever been in the forefront.
No less significant is the interest shown by the newspaper’s long-time readers, many of whom are senior citizens who take pride in calling themselves “readers of 50-60 years’ standing.” This section of readers — former engineers, teachers, administrators and experts in several fields — are also eager to share with their fellow-readers their views shaped by their experience and expertise on issues of importance.
Besides the “Letters to the Editor” column, there is the “Open Page,” which accommodates unsolicited articles on merits. Both are open to all sections of people, not necessarily regular or long-time readers of this newspaper. In selecting the letters and articles for publication, those in charge of these sections follow certain procedures and norms. The fairness of the selection procedure is evident from the fact that letters published in the column include those in support of editorials and those critical or opposed. The public perception of the choice of the issue or event for editorial comment will naturally be subjective. So there is no point in challenging the choice and dubbing it as “not deserving a national debate.”
The latest provocation for some readers to renew the space question is the ongoing debate over Jaswant Singh’s book on Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the expulsion of Jaswant from the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Gujarat government’s ban on the book. Dr. J.P. Reddy of Nalgonda observes in his letter to the Readers’ Editor: “As it [the controversy over the book] is an internal matter of the BJP where is the need to highlight it hundred per cent by giving importance to the letters on this issue?” He implies that the issue cannot be described as one of national importance “because it is not related to the people on the whole but confined to section of people only.” His criterion may not be agreeable to many who see Jaswant Singh’s observations on Jinnah as demolishing the very base of the ideological construct of a party that was in power and is still in pursuit of power at the Centre and in the States. Also various sections of people see the ban on the book by the Gujarat government as a blatant violation of the freedom of expression.
S.V. Venugopalan of Chennai has also raised the question: “why flood the ‘letters column’ with materials on a single topic?” However, he has a more balanced view on the subject. He writes: “No doubt, the debate on the expulsion of Jaswant Singh from the BJP and the attendant discussion on the history of Partition merit due democratic space in a newspaper like The Hindu. It is granted that reactions on issues of paramount importance deserve special coverage. Few newspapers provide this kind of a wide forum.” He continues: “That in no way shall mean encroachment of due space for other topical questions or issues that the civil society is faced with. Leader page articles, editorials, cartoons and news items on a variety of issues in the intervening period simply pass by without the readers’ reflections on them being carried by the paper.”
Prasad Singamsetty of California has a grievance. A retired civil engineer and reader of The Hindu for about 60 years, he says that many of his letters on various subjects were not published. His most recent letter was on the vital issue of the illegal hoarding of the nation’s wealth and it did not see the light of the day. “Are letters on Shah Rukh Khan more important than the one on the illegal hoarding of nation’s wealth elsewhere by unscrupulous elements?” he asks.
The solution perhaps lies in a balanced approach to the problem from both sides — editors and readers. A judicious distribution of space that ensures a larger share for topical, relevant, and national issues that warrant editorial comment and adequate space for other items of importance and interest may satisfy most readers. Practice of the virtue of brevity by letter-writers and judicious selection and editing by editors could be the answer.