What makes a newspaper different from a consumer product? How does it become a public institution, a common good, and a public sphere despite private ownership of the paper? Though there are no precise answers, I would like to share some of my personal reflections on these two vital questions with the readers.
In my opinion, readers are not passive recipients of manufactured news. They are active participants who expect relevant and important information delivered to them in a credible and trustworthy manner. They deploy many critical tools to decide which paper to buy. The very act of purchasing a newspaper is the manifestation of their agency and choice. They provide the reason and the rationale for a publication to become a social entity. For readers, a newspaper is simultaneously a mirror and a window: it should reflect what is happening without distortions and it should give an overall picture of the broad canvas. In this sense, reporting becomes a mirror and editorials and opinions become a window. If for any reason a newspaper fails in this mandate of balancing its act between being a window and a mirror concurrently, readers migrate to other papers and undermine the paper’s status as public good.
Recognising the central role of the readers, the institution of the Readers’ Editor was established in this paper in 2006. Since then, it has been in the forefront of communicating readers’ views, criticism and commendations to the editorial, and explaining the rationale behind some of the crucial editorial decisions to the readers. Its mandate is to be an effective interface between the paper and its millions of readers.
I have spent about nine months in carrying out this responsibility. I have benefited immensely from the steady flow of readers’ letters. They helped to understand and grasp the diverse readership base of this publication. There have been many instances where we used to get passionately argued letters endorsing the paper’s stand only to be countered by equally fervent, opposite views.
The most significant outcome of this organic engagement with the readers was the creation of an informal mutual learning system: the editorial got an idea of the changing demands and expectations of the readers and the readers learnt a few things about how a newspaper functions and why it reports or comments on crucial issues the way it reports or comments. At a deeper level, this exercise of keeping both sides mutually informed on the processes helps to establish the primacy of principles and to contain and check the influence of other exigencies.
The idea of a good newspaper is akin to what Sunil Khilnani called “The idea of India.” He wrote: “The idea of India is not homogenous and univocal. In fact, no single idea can possibly hope to capture the many energies, angers, and hopes of one billion Indians; nor can any more narrow ideas — based on a single trait — fulfil their desires… Of many possible ideas of India, The Idea of India makes the case for one in particular, because it is the only one that can enable other ideas to emerge, and allow them to learn to live alongside one another.” Khilnani argues “large republics with diverse and conflicting interests can be a better home for liberty, a safer haven against tyranny, than homogenous and exclusive ones. Within them, factions and differences can check one another, moderating ideological fervour and softening power.”
In this context, quintessential legacy newspapers like The Hindu try to preserve the space for liberty, plurality, heterogeneity and diversity while helping the readers to make informed choices on a range of issues — from domestic politics and economic policies to international relations and sports, from literature and arts to judicial structures and institutional arrangements.
While there are myriad viewpoints, the paper has to maintain a balance between the contending ideas and world views. In this process, fringe extreme views — either from the adventurist Left or from the jingoistic Right — are kept on a tight leash, helping truly representational ideas to contest each other in its pages. Readers may have an intrinsic understanding about the process of news selection and the in-house filtering mechanism. But not many would have had an opportunity to actually witness the process.
Open house next month
To further this dialogue between the readers and the paper, I propose to hold open-house sessions with the readers. As a first step, I would like to invite readers from Chennai in July for a half-a-day, interactive, open house at The Hindu office. Please write to us if you are interested to attend this open house. The Office of the Readers’ Editor will process all the written requests, and will send out formal invitations to about 20 to 25 readers.