The response of readers to the Open Page becoming a full page from March 14, 2010 is simultaneously understandable and overwhelming. Many readers have long been asking for this change. In fact, I recently learnt that the column was given one full page when it was launched in the late 1970s and that arrangement continued for several years. I am happy that it has been restored to its past status and I join readers in thanking the Editor-in-Chief for making this possible. “It shows that The Hindu's concern for the readers and the fact that it sees them as dynamic stakeholders, not just consumers,” said A. Clement (Chennai). A large number of readers have expressed similar sentiments. Sunil P. Shenoy (Mangalore) observes: “The opening up of this important section demonstrates the commitment of the newspaper to enable the common man to share his views.” A few readers have also come out with suggestions on how the extra space could be put to optimum use. I know these will be given due consideration by Chief News Editor P.K. Subramanian and a small team who are in charge of this valuable page.
A proud history
For a 131-year-old newspaper, history and tradition have a special significance alongside change and innovation – and the Open Page has a proud history behind it. The one-page feature, meant for the readers and by the readers, was born during the run-up to The Hindu's centenary celebrations in September 1978. The 1960s and 1970s saw several innovative changes not only in terms of the paper's editorial content but also in respect of its unprecedented reach to readers in far-off places not reached before. Many features were introduced to attract and educate readers with quality journalism. Well-trained reporters and correspondents were tasked with specialisation in fields such as education, science, sports, commerce and so on. The Open Page came as a centenary gift to The Hindu's readers, who had traditionally made excellent use of their ‘Letters to the Editor' column, with verve, ease, reflection, and certainly no fear or inhibition.
A Hundred Years of The Hindu: The Epic Story of Indian Journalism by Rangaswami Parthasarathy (Kasturi & Sons Ltd., Madras, 1978) relates this story in Chapter 53 (pages 780-781) titled ‘A Decade of Progress and Travail':
Towards the end of 1977, The Hindu introduced three more new features which have proved to be very popular. The first of these is called “Outlook” in which the reader is presented with the verbatim report of a 3-hour discussion by a distinguished panel of experts on any specified subject, chosen by the Editor. The panel is selected from all parts of the country and the participants include men and women who have achieved distinction in their fields of work. Their number may be the five, six or seven, and they are given complete freedom to express their views, The Hindu merely tape-recording the debate and presenting them to the reader in full and without editing. Many important and topical subjects like the problem of the handicapped, population control and position of women have been considered by these panels and their discussions are published in a four- [newspaper] page report on a Wednesday once every month.
The second, which is a one-page feature, is called “Special Report,” which carries short articles from Special Correspondents, industrialists and others on management and labour and other topics of interest to the general reader. The feature is published once every month.
The third, also a one-page feature is called “Open Page” and it is the reader's page. It affords readers an opportunity to think aloud on burning problems of the day and suggest solutions. It is also a monthly feature.
Interestingly and fittingly, A Hundred Years of The Hindu was dedicated to “the thousands of devoted workers who by their selfless service and unflinching loyalty over a long and eventful century made it possible for The Hindu to grow and serve the people, and to the millions of its generations of readers in India and abroad to whom this newspaper is a way of life.”
Some long-time readers may recall that the first Outlook feature, “Development – where do we go from here and how?” published on September 28, 1977. It was the transcript of a panel discussion, recorded at the newspaper's head office in Chennai ten days earlier, in which three well-known economists, Professors C.T. Kurien (a retired Director and Chairman of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai who now lives in Bangalore), C. Rangarajan (now Chairman of the Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council), and Prabhat Patnaik (of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, who is currently Vice-Chairman of the Planning Board of Kerala) participated. The others on the panel, which was designed to blend scholarly insights with hands-on practical experience in industry, were J.T. Panikar, an engineer-planner and futurologist, and M.K. Raju, a professional manager. The full, unedited transcript of the discussion, which was held in the Editor's office and lasted three hours, was published in four full pages of the newspaper. It is clear from the response that tens of thousands of the newspaper's devoted readers read it from start to finish.
It is interesting that the feature came with a five-paragraph introductory note from the Editor, which, among other things, pointed out: “The reader will note that the discussion ranges over a very wide field, touches upon a variety of issues and theoretical and practical considerations, and brings out differences in standpoints, emphases, diagnoses and prescriptions. The spirit of polemic is present, also a basic concern with real-life issues.”
The first ‘Open Page'
The first Open Page was published on October 19, 1977. A four-line highlight alongside the page branding at the top read: “How do people react to events, ideas, developments? The Hindu seeks, in this monthly feature, to provoke public discussion on key topics of current interest, to promote purposeful thinking. This page is open to you.”
The inaugural page carried three articles spread across eight columns. The top story, “Is Cellular Production the Answer?”, was a follow-up to the International Conference on Production Engineering, which was held for the first time in a developing country, in New Delhi. The article highlighted the metalworking processes that would suit the country. The blurb read: “The ‘small is beautiful' concept seems to be catching on. Mass production may well be replaced by production by the masses. In the ‘cellular' form of organisation now gaining ground may perhaps lie the answer to the current hot question as to how small industries ought to be promoted.” Of the two other articles featured on the page, one related to the quality of village life. Interestingly, this article has in it references to the “Outlook” discussion published on September 18, 1977. The blurb declared: “Any attempt of rural development will fail to enlist the support of the local people unless it seeks to improve the quality of their life. And, for this, it is essential that goods and services are taken to their doorsteps.” The third story, “How Safe are Our Work and Study Spots?”, cautioned the people against the menace of pollution.
Of these three special sections, only Open Page has survived to this day, either as half page or full page. There were, however, occasional breaks to accommodate either of the other two features (Outlook and Special Report) or to cover election-related stories for three weeks in December 1984 and seven weeks in April-May 2009. While Outlook was stopped in December 1983, Special Report ended in April 1993.
The first full-page Open Page published last week (March 14, 2010) has attracted wide reader attention. Of the four articles it carries, two are related to women's problems and their empowerment. A poignantly narrated story of an elderly couple, who terribly missed their son and daughter, both employed in the United States, won the hearts of many a reader, as is evidenced by the number of letters it generated.
A specially gratifying feature is that my predecessor, K. Narayanan (The Hindu's first Readers' Editor and before that the newspaper's highly esteemed, long-time News Editor) has welcomed the change.
The expanded Open Page meets the aspirations of the readers who are eager to write, provided they avail of the space with all seriousness, keeping in mind the rules of the game. With a circulation of 1.46 million copies, the newspaper offers its readers a handsome opportunity to seek to inform, engage with, and influence public opinion — on issues that matter.