Readers of Scroll.in can be excused if they are perplexed by the position of the “Readers’ Editor” that has been created in the organisation.
Notwithstanding the title, a Readers’ Editor neither edits anything readers may write nor will s/he (I am afraid in this case it is a “he’’) channel their pieces to the Editor of Scroll.in for publication.
The best description is that as an ombudsman (no gender neutral term here, unless we decide on “ombudsperson”), s/he is expected to investigate readers’ complaints, and publicly recommend appropriate action. The ombudsman is given space to present the results of her/his investigation to the readers.
The office of the Readers’ Editor is established by the organisation – it appoints the Readers’ Editor who receives remuneration from it as well. The defining feature of this office, however, is that the Readers’ Editor is independent of the Editor/Publisher. The Editor/Publisher has no say in what the Readers’ Editor takes up for investigation, cannot influence her/his findings and is expected to publish them as presented.
Globally, the idea of a Readers’ Editor for a media publication is not new. Also called the Public Editor, Readers’ Representative, or even the Ombudsman, it has been around, Wikipedia tells us, since 1922, when the leading Japanese daily, Asahi Shimbun, set up a committee to respond to readers’ complaints. The idea seems to have caught on in North America and West Europe only in the last quarter of the 20th century when many of the larger publications established an independent office of the Readers’ Editor. Today, they are numerous enough the world over to have their own organisation, the Organisation of Newspaper Ombudsman, which disseminates material on how this seemingly strange animal functions.
AS Panneerselvan, Readers’ Editor of the Hindu and an ONO board member, tells me that the organisation has as many as 270 ombudsmen as members. The numbers are tilted in favour of representatives from public broadcasters. All the major public broadcasters in the world appear to have an ombudsman – Prasar Bharati, unfortunately, is an exception.
In India, the Hindu has been the only one with a Readers’ Editor functioning since 2005. Much earlier, in 1989, the Times of India appointed no less than a retired Chief Justice of India (PN Bhagwati) as Ombudsman of the paper, but that seems to have been a short-lived experiment. NDTV also has a Public Editor, though the results of his investigations do not appear in public. Last month, The Wire.in announced the establishment of the office of a Public Editor.
I am honoured to be appointed as the first Readers’ Editor of Scroll.in. The digital space is where some of the more enterprising journalism is now being practiced in India and Scroll.in is one of the leaders. Digital publications are bolder than newspapers, but have been careful so far not to go the way of TV news channels. I see the decision to have a Readers’ Editor as an attempt to help Scroll.in maintain accuracy and fairness.
Having accepted the honour I must stake out my independence. I may be the interface between the readers of Scroll.in and the editors of Scroll.in, but I am answerable only to the readers of the magazine.
The terms of reference for Scroll.in’s Readers’ Editor cover three areas.
- Inquiring into and responding to readers’ concerns and complaints (which can be general or specific);
- Advising on where corrections and clarifications are necessary; and, more ambitiously,
- Advising on how to improve standards in the magazine across a wide swath of areas.
This is not a small agenda but I will do my best to fulfil it.
The outcome of the Readers’ Editor’s efforts will be presented in this column, which will run once a fortnight. In most cases, it will be preceded by consultations with the Editor on complaints that have been received.
Communications to the Readers’ Editor should not be confused with the established channel of Letters to the Editor. The Letters to the Editor column expresses the readers’ engagement with what has been published. The Readers’ Editor’s columns will deal with concerns that are particular or systemic about what has been published, or what should be and has not been. I hope the Letters to the Editor column retains its liveliness while the Readers’ Editor receives correspondence on a different set of issues.
The best Readers’ Editors are those who assert the independence of their office and at the same time articulate the concerns of readers in a manner which persuades the Editor and his/her colleagues that there is value in what is being expressed. The relationship between the Readers’ Editor and the Editor has to be one of equals, seeking to improve the publication for the benefit of its readers.
I look forward to working with the readers as well as with the Editor and his colleagues to make Scroll.in a quality, lively, and, hopefully, more error-free read every day.
The post box of the Readers’ Editor is now ready to receive communications at firstname.lastname@example.org.