If Dale Carnegie were to write his bestseller ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ now, he would certainly discourage one from taking up the job of a newspaper ombudsman. The inherent nature of this job demands that one look at shortcomings and mistakes and make necessary corrections in an open and transparent manner. The nickname for my team at the office of the Readers’ Editor is nitpickers. The relationship between the reporters and desk on one hand and the office of the Readers’ Editor on the other hand is an ambiguous one. While the heads of the journalists value our work, it is their heart that sometimes finds it difficult to come to terms with public corrections both in our daily Corrections and Clarifications section and in my weekly column.
How to come to terms with mistakes in a section that is meant to be educative? This week the oversight was in the ‘Know your English’ section. One of the issues that was discussed was the idiom: “dot the i's and cross the t's”. One of our regular writers shot an angry mail: “It seems your subeditor has failed to dot his or her i's. Throughout the item, i's appear as I's. Obviously, the subeditor thought 'I' must always be in the upper case - without quite understanding the import of the idiom. A pity!” The irony here is that the mistake has happened for defining something that means a meticulous job where one pays great attention to every detail, even minor ones, and ensures there are no mistakes.
But our problem gets compounded when the same mistake gets repeated over a period of time despite multiple alerts from the readers and the office of the Readers’ Editor. This inexcusable error is repeating the same story in two different pages. During my fifteen months tenure alone the repetition of stories in different pages has happened thirty-nine times.
Let’s look at some of the recent examples. A letter from Vellore on December 13, 2013 read: “I find that in the first column down of page 17 of The Hindu Dec. 13, 2013, there is a report ‘Sreesanth ties the knot’ by Special Correspondent. Again in page 20 of the same date under ‘National’, the same report ‘Sreesanth ties the knot’ by staff reporter in two columns has come.” K. Raveendran from Kerala could not hide his dismay behind humour when he wrote: “I convey my thanks to the editors of The Hindu for the extra care taken by them to ensure that the readers do not miss important items of news by printing them more than once on the same day (Kochi, 12/12/13, Pages 4& 10 Heartbreaking ---) and even on the same page (Kochi, 12/12/13 Metroplus,Page 2, Time for next gen ---). Kindly see to it that both versions carry the accompanying photos as well.” Another reader from Coimbatore, Anantha Kalyana Krishnan, chastised the newspaper: “In today's The Hindu (29th Oct, 2013, Coimbatore Edition) the news about stranded passengers being sent by 2 special trains to Howrah was repeated. (In page 4 Regional News and Page 11 National News.) This is wastage of precious print area. Several important press notes and news reports go unpublished citing lack of space.”
In all these occasions, the readers are right and the newspaper is wrong. My internal query always leads to some technical explanations. I am rather bewildered by the regularity with which this particular mistake is happening in edition after edition of this newspaper which has fairly robust gate-keeping systems and talented sub-editors. And, this issue was flagged off even by the first Readers’ Editor of this newspaper, K. Narayanan, in his column published nearly eight years ago.
On May 29, 2006, K. Narayanan explained how these errors happened and even suggested a way forward. He wrote: “Duplication or repetition of reports, which is happening all too frequently, is the result partly of structural gaps and partly of the demands of a vastly expanded circulation base. In the old days, there was the practice of the Chief Proof Examiner looking at the first copies as they rolled off the press, to spot bloomers if any. And one day he detected a lead heading reading, “gulfing the bridge.” The press was halted, the correction made, and a few thousand copies were destroyed. Of course, duplication of the sort that happens now was impossible then because it was hard metal — which, once locked up, could not be reused.”
He also contended that checking should not be an issue in a modern newsroom. My journalism was primarily reporting but Narayanan was a newsroom veteran. He squarely holds lack of coordination responsible for this malaise. As he rightly pointed out, checking is easier now — even when each centre handles dozens of pages — because all the pages of one edition can be seen together on one computer screen.
“What is needed is a coordinator who can take an overall view of the whole paper. This is the structural gap. The task is now split among a few with no centralised checking. Some reorientation, accompanied by accountability, is the solution,” suggested Narayanan. Listening and acting upon his advice would certainly bring about a welcome change.
Keywords: Readers' Editor column