Readers' Editor

Of redesigning newspaper and redefining common sense

Chennai, 18-09-2012: Paneerselvam, reader's editor, The Hindu. Photo:S_R_Raghunathan   | Photo Credit: SRR

I never imagined that redesigning of a newspaper would take me straight to Italian scholar Antonio Gramsci and his arguments against ‘common sense’. For Gramsci, common sense was not a single unique conception, identical in time and space. He looked at it as the “folklore” of philosophy. He explained how, like folklore, common sense takes countless different forms. “Its most fundamental characteristic is that it is a conception which, even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential, in conformity with the social and cultural position of those masses whose philosophy it is. At those times in history when a homogeneous social group is brought into being, there comes into being also, in opposition to common sense, a homogeneous — in other words coherent and systematic — philosophy,” he observed. This pre-Second World War political theorist’s Quaderni del carcere (Prison Notebooks) raises many questions, tries to disentangle some of the hold-all terms, and helps make sense of some difficult categories and classifications of political praxis.

Last week, this newspaper started sporting a new look. According to the Editor, the new soft redesign was aimed at a brighter, cleaner yet sober and modern look to enhance the reading experience. In this process, some sections were relocated and some renamed, and a few new features introduced. It may take a week or two for everyone to become familiar with the new design.

Moonrise conundrum

One of the items that moved from relative obscurity to prominence in this soft redesign was the astronomical detail relating to the time of rising and setting of the sun and the moon. At the top of page 3, these were given in a graphic format. Though The Hindu has been carrying this for decades, suddenly many readers noticed it, and they were a bit unnerved. For three days in succession, the moon was rising early in the morning and setting in the evening. The common sense argument is that the sun emerges during the day, and the moon in the night. When some readers drew my attention to this, my first reaction was similar to that of the readers. My common sense indeed coalesced with their common sense, leading to a journey that once again proved Gramsci right.

The Hindu gets its astronomical data from the Positional Astronomy Centre, Kolkata, a wing of the India Meteorological Department. Its director, Mr. Sanjib Sen, explained the science behind the moon’s movement and laid to rest the angst of common sense.

Mr. Sen explained that on a new moon day, the moon rises and sets together with the sun, and it is not visible to the naked eye because of the extreme brightness of the sun. He further explained that while the duration of the day is about 24 hours, the gap between two moon rises is about 24 hours and 50 minutes. Thus it rises and sets on an average about 50 minutes later on each successive day. “On Full Moon day, the moon is rising almost around the same time as the sun is setting, and sets almost around the time when the sun rises in the next morning,” he said. His patient explanation of the moon’s cycle, a primary lesson in astronomy, dispelled some of the wrong notions created by the seductive power of common sense.

The interesting fact in this entire episode was how the readers’ eyes go to some sections and skip others with each design template. Certain combinations of colour and fonts accentuate a few elements, and certain others dwarf them. In this instance, the astronomical data have been published in this newspaper for generations. And every month for nearly 15 days the moon was rising and setting in the day. And, it was not an issue. Either the readers were scientific enough to keep their common sense objections at bay, or the design was inherently inhibiting many readers’ eyes from the fine print details.

This perfectly fits with Gramsci’s idea that common sense is always halfway between folklore, properly speaking, and the philosophy, science, and economics of the specialists. I cannot but admire his foresight when he alerted us during his incarceration: “Common sense is not something rigid and immobile, but is continually transforming itself, enriching itself with scientific ideas and with philosophical opinions which have entered ordinary life.”

Minor glitches

And, back to the redesign, some readers feel a few new captions are not wholly appropriate. For instance, the Engagements section in the city page has been renamed ‘Eat/shop/travel/exhibition/sale/talks/events.’ There is nothing about restaurants. There is no travel news. Nor any hint of shopping tips. I too, like these readers, feel that this caption is misleading. If these minor glitches are removed, then there is a design that will survive the second decade of this millennium without any major roadblocks.

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