One of the most important elements of my work is to respond to readers’ complaints and redress them. The most recurrent among the complaints is about the “Letters to the Editor” section. I receive at least 50 complaints a month about non-publication of letters.
The joy of seeing one’s name in print is boundless. I vividly remember what I did when my first article was published nearly three decades ago. I went around my neighbourhood news-stands and picked up a dozen copies of the publication that carried my article. I bought a clear plastic binder to protect the magazine for posterity. Despite innumerable bylines, the desire to see what I have written in print has not diminished a bit. It is not vanity but a public validation of one’s point of view. Hence, I recognise the sense of loss and the weight of their grievance when readers complain about the non-publication of their letters to the editor.
Every letter, a new dimension
Before going into details, it is imperative to place the role of readers’ letters in the broader context of interactive journalism and participatory democracy. I know that a reader’s letter is a not a mere feedback mechanism. It is an act of engaging the public sphere. Every letter brings in a new dimension. It adds a nuance that may not have been hitherto fully explained. Sometimes the letter becomes an encouragement and at some other times, it is a rap on the knuckles.
The overwhelming desire of the readers to respond makes the narrative of the newspaper dialogic. It keeps the space for constant weighing of facts and opinions open. The myriad aspirations and expectations articulated by the readers mirror the complex, multilayered socio-political reality of our society.
I believe that the media is a site for democratic mediation of ideas. It is important for any politically-sensitive person to reach out to the public directly, to bare open his/her ideas and views through the dynamics of the media to ensure a place for those ideas to germinate into something more concrete in the public sphere. Not for a minute had I any delusions about the media being free from ideas and political orientations. The centrality of readers’ engagement gives the newspaper its character as a site for mediation of ideas.
The Editor, the Readers’ Editor and the readers are on the same page when it comes to active participation of the readers — in both the print and the online platforms. Over the last decade, the space for readers’ participation in this newspaper has increased many fold. First, the “Letters to the Editor” section was extended to other sections beyond the edit page. Today, the readers are able to share their views in the magazine section, city pages, Metro Plus section and various others. The online platform provides space for comments, and usually accommodates hundreds of readers’ views in the comment section. This moderated section rejects only a few comments that are abusive, incendiary or irrelevant. It demands a very basic writing style: “Please write complete sentences. Do not type comments in all capital letters, or in all lower case letters, or using abbreviated text. (Example: ‘u’ cannot substitute for ‘you,’ ‘d’ is not ‘the,’ ‘n’ is not ‘and’).”
Coming to the main area of grievance: the “Letters to the Editor” section in the edit page. I shared the complaints of some of the readers with the editor-in-charge of the section and discussed what can be done to redress them. She explained the process of selecting the letters and the limited space at her disposal. This section can accommodate a maximum of 1,300 words a day. She has an unenviable task of selecting 10 to 15 letters out of a daily average of 250 letters. She reads all the letters and deploys a filtering mechanism to sift through hundreds of thousands of words. She uses the following criteria: relevance, topicality, regional balance across various cities, avoidance of repetition of arguments and providing space for new writers.
Now to an oft-repeated question: will the readers’ letters be acknowledged? I am happy to inform you that all electronic mails to the “Letters to the Editor” section will soon get a computer-generated response and the readers can take comfort that their mail has not gone into a spam box.