This is my last column as Readers’ Editor of Scroll.in.
I have not been asked to leave by Scroll.in nor am I quitting over differences with the Editor. I have started on a new project that does not leave me with enough time to carry out my responsibilities as Readers’ Editor. So I leave this wonderful publication after two very interesting years.
Let me reflect here on my experience as the first Readers’ Editor of Scroll.in.
The position of the Readers’ Editor is a special one: I was appointed by Scroll.in but did not report to its Editor. I reported instead to Scroll.in’s readers. I had to listen to everyone who wrote to me, assess their points of view and respond to the criticism. I then had to convey the substance of this criticism to the Editor. I also chose to take independent notice of articles and videos published by Scroll.in. Where I felt there was a problem in fact, argument, editing or presentation, I conveyed that as well to the Editor. At other times, I chose to make concrete suggestions that I thought would enrich reader experience, all the while keeping in mind that Scroll.in is a young organisation and not generously endowed with resources. I stood outside the editorial process and had no say in decision-making, but I exercised my freedom to say what I wanted to on published pieces as also on the overall quality of the publication. The more important comments I put out in the fortnightly column; the more mundane ones I conveyed directly to the Editor.
None of this has been easy. I had to listen to everything readers expressed, agreeing with them at times and disagreeing at other times, when I thought their criticism was not valid. Likewise, where needed, I had to criticise the Editor and Scroll.in. I did not always enjoy it that my comments were usually, if not always, critical but that was my remit and I had to fulfil it.
On the whole, this relationship has, in my view, worked well. We – the Editor, the readers and I – may not always have shared identical views. What is important though is that the Editor and I worked in a spirit of co-operation. I would think that I had cordial relations as well with the readers who wrote in. It was the rare occasion when continued disagreement took us to the edge of uncivility.
A few peeves and disappointments
Looking back, I find that this fortnightly column has traversed a very wide terrain. I have commented on articles that ranged from the troubles in Kashmir to sports; I have examined the quality of reporting and editing; I have looked at text articles and video; and I have discussed the placement of advertisements as well. No subject has been taboo and no conversation with Scroll.in ever ended in a standoff. The only subject that would strain my patience was the continued (occasional) appearance of American spellings and usage when Scroll.in’s stylebook says it has to be British English. (Readers please remain alert to “fulfill”, “color” and “math”.)
There was one disappointment though, and that was a big one. I wish the readers of Scroll.in had engaged more regularly with the Readers’ Editor. Yet, while in the beginning there was a regular stream of emails to the Readers’ Editor, this slowly dwindled to a trickle. This was something the Editor and I discussed often. How can readers be encouraged to engage more with the Readers’ Editor? Scroll.in did publish – on the site and on social media – notices about the office of the Readers’ Editor, the process and the email address readers could write in to. I am afraid that in spite of everything we tried, a greater engagement did not happen. It is not as if the readers of Scroll.in are a quiet lot. Far from it. As the Letters to the Editor column show and the angry comments on social media demonstrate, the readers of Scroll.in can have strong views. But somehow this did not translate into sustained engagement with the Readers’ Editor. Perhaps it is still a novel concept; perhaps it will take time.
Readers must take ownership
I would urge readers to take ownership of the office of the Readers’ Editor. If there is one part of the publication that belongs to them it is this office. The only gatekeeping that takes place here is an assessment of the validity of the criticism or suggestion. It is through the Readers’ Editor that readers can have a say in making this a better publication. And a sensitive Readers’ Editor would lean on the side of the reader more than the editorial staff.
On its part, Scroll.in could perhaps make yet another effort to publicise the work of the Readers’ Editor. Below the tag of every article, it could, after the notice on the Letters to the Editor, have a brief notice on writing to the Readers’ Editor as well, though this may confuse readers. Alternatively, Scroll.in could occasionally publicise the office of the Readers’ Editor on its home page, on “the ears” in the page’s top corners.
When readers have written in expressing a disagreement, it has sometimes been in anger but rarely in abuse. It has been very different on social media. It is perhaps in the nature of the media, that the criticism there is sometimes foul-mouthed, and at times accuses Scroll.in of political bias. In these fraught times in India, such accusations come easily to the critics. Nothing I say will convince the trolls, but I need to say it: What I have seen in Scroll.in the past two years is honest and professional journalism. If independent journalism means not toeing the official line, then Scroll.in can stand accused of bias. If independent journalism means having a perspective, then too Scroll.in can stand accused of a slant. However, journalism is not about achieving some kind of cosmic balance in news and analysis. It is about giving all views an airing and at the same time approaching each issue with a perspective. Most of all, it is about casting a critical eye on governments and the powers that be.
There certainly have been mistakes in Scroll.in’s published work which should not have found a place on the website. But those are honest errors; not bias as the critics who are themselves biased make it out to be.
(The only abuse I have ever received as Readers’ Editor has been on my personal Twitter account, but that fortunately has not been often. And abuse on Twitter seems to be par for the course.)
If I wear the hat of a reader, I can see that I would like to continue to read Scroll.in regularly. It has reports from the field and agency news reports through the day. It has analysis, columns and features. It covers everything from hard politics to the arts. It has humorous pieces and quirky videos. It is in short a complete publication. Of course it is not perfect; the quality varies from day to day; it varies from section to section. That is how it will be. Scroll.in is a work in progress, but one with much potential. I have met very few of the reporters, writers and editors of Scroll.in, but I can sense a passion and enthusiasm among what seems to be a very young team. All this makes Scroll.in an exciting publication.
So let me end with, first, wishing my constituency – the readers – the best of a reading and viewing experience at Scroll.in in the years ahead. Let me also wish the best to all the journalists who work on it every hour of every day. I hope they will keep building this young publication that has already made its mark in Indian journalism.
Kalpana Sharma will take over as Scroll.in’s Readers’ Editor from December 1. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.