“A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself”, is that well-known observation by the American playwright Arthur Miller, which more than half a century after it was made continues to give the media a sense of public purpose. Like in all meaningful conversations, this has to be a two-way conversation between the media and its readers/viewers. The media reports to its readers/viewers, and the latter respond by writing in with disagreement, approval or expanding on what they read.

Something has been changing over the years though. The platform for readers’ response has moved from the traditional “Letters to the Editor” columns to the “Comments” feature online (which Scroll.in wisely, in my view, does not offer) or to social media.

In the Comments boxes, the nature of reader responses is different from before. Short, pithy, dismissive and sometimes vitriolic, they are often an expression of the writer’s prejudices rather than a comment on the report/article in particular. It is similar on social media, where the comments are usually one-liners – the more sarcastic they are, the greater the appeal.

From derision such as “presstitutes” in India to purveyors of “fake news” in Donald Trump’s United States, journalists and publications are having a hard time getting their readers to trust them. Are readers then losing faith in the media as an institution? And are they, therefore, really not interested in a serious conversation with publications? This lack of faith is not reflected in readership numbers though. Readers may be disappointed with the media, but in India at least, an ever growing number is looking at news in print and online, and so too on television.

Falling reader response

Some of these contradictions are appearing here at Scroll.in too. Readership of Scroll.in articles is growing, but the Readers’ Editor, for instance, has been receiving a steadily falling volume of comments and queries. The office of the Readers’ Editor has been publicised, the email address of the Readers’ Editor is up there on the website, and it has been close to two years now since Scroll.in has had this position. Yet, the numbers of readers writing in has been falling and not rising.

Elsewhere too, there seems to be a falling off in reader response. The Letters to the Editor column, which used to be published three to four times every 10 days, has recently seen an occasional decline in frequency and volume. I did a check of the column between May-end and June-end and found a couple of gaps of four to five days between successive batches of letters and a couple of times longer than a week. And where earlier there used to be a good 20 letters-25 letters in each column, now there are sometimes just about 15. Naresh Fernandes, Editor of Scroll.in, says this may be a temporary phenomenon. One hopes so but the signs are not very good.

Trolls and abusers rule

Over the longer term, the readers’ comments seem to be more on social media. It will take close tracking over a period of time to find a pattern, if any, in the kind of articles commented on in social media, the number, the nature of comment, among others. As a first shot, I looked at all comments on Scroll.in articles made between June 29 and July 1 on Twitter. Some surprises. I expected a barrage of angry comments on a number of pieces; there were certainly angry comments but only on a select few articles. I was also surprised to find that given the volume of material Scroll.in puts out every day, the comments were restricted to a smallish proportion of the articles.

Of course, true to form, the trolls and abusers made themselves heard now and then. Over the past week, the two articles on Scroll.in that got the most abuse was the interview with Nayantara Sahgal on the Emergency (more than 150 comments, mostly abusive) and Keshava Guha on the abuse External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj faced on social media (about 50 comments-60 comments, again mostly abusive). I was hard put to find anything that was both reasonable and illuminating.

We must accept that certain meaningless statements will be made and we must just ignore them. That is what we are reduced to doing when a reader writes, “These parasites must be sent to Pakistan.”

That the abusers care about only certain issues, or rather that certain issues are like a red rag to a bull, is obvious. Those spewing vitriol really do not care about the more important issues. For instance, the past week has seen two important stories. One on the first anniversary of the Goods and Services Tax, and the other on a report warning of extreme water shortages soon. You would think that both would attract an intense debate. No. Hardly a comment on both.

Yet, you can get a flood of silly comments on some meaningless tweet or the other. For instance, one user tweeted on the Scroll.in story about whether the Argentine Lionel Messi would quit international football after Argentina’s ouster from the World Cup. Given the standing and repeated failure of Messi in the World Cup, you would think this was a perfectly reasonable story and one of interest to followers of football. Yet, one reader had to tweet around this story with: “Will Scroll.in quit journalism if Modi returns to power in 2019?” I had to scratch my head to see if there was some relevance to Messi and international football. This kind of tweet that seeks to run down Scroll.in’s journalism did appeal to many readers though. There was a flood of replies, retweets and likes, most of the replies in hearty approval.

Yet, there is at the time the critical but constructive role that can be played by social media. There was a small buzz earlier this week over the publication of a particular book extract. Indeed, there were some very strange passages in that extract – extolling Brahminical caste hierarchy and repeating all those ahistorical stories about Aurangzeb. I, for one, felt the extract should not have been carried. A range of voices on Twitter very quickly brought to Scroll.in’s notice the poor quality of that piece, which, yes, should not have passed any editor’s desk.

Somewhere and somehow, relations between readers and editors, which have always been fraught with tension – creative tension, I would like to call it – need to be rebuilt. Both sides have to work on it. It is a two-way conversation.

Readers can contact the Readers’ Editor at readerseditor@scroll.in