I look forward to a conversation with the readers of Scroll.in in my job as the Readers’ Editor. And I do mean a “conversation”. In these days of instant, and often extreme, opinions, aired on social media and on TV news channels, the space for a real conversation and an exchange of views, where people listen and try and understand another viewpoint, is rapidly shrinking.
I come from the typewriter generation of journalists, when the news business was compelled to work at a slower pace as the process of converting news into written, and thereafter printed, matter took its own time. Slow journalism, if you will.
Today, that time span has shrunk, virtually disappeared. But the principles of what constitutes good journalism remain the same, or at least ought to remain the same. Unfortunately, the speed of new technology has facilitated not just “fake news” but also some sloppy journalism.
This is not to say that the journalism of the past, when print was king, was always of a high standard. Then, too, there was sloppiness, and plain laziness. Rewritten press releases appeared as “news”; they still do. A single source virtually dictated a story to a pliable journalist, and that became a “breaking” story. That also happens today.
Yet, despite the speed with which news can be disseminated today, the standards of good journalism continue to be followed by more than a few. We get to read thoroughly researched stories that try and go beyond the obvious in several publications and digital platforms, including this one.
Letters to the Editor
But coming back to the issue of a “conversation” between readers and editors, in the days when print was dominant, this took the form of Letters to the Editor. In Britain, for instance, The Times devoted an entire page, opposite the edit page, to letters. Getting a letter accepted by The Times was considered an immense achievement. So varied and entertaining were these letters that in the last three of decades, several books containing curated letters to The Times have been published.
I can recall reading the first of these, The First Cuckoo, with Letters to the Editor from 1900-1980 edited by Kenneth Gregory. The title comes from that very British obsession of sighting the first cuckoo that marks the advent of spring. Only the British would think this was so important that you would write a letter to a newspaper. That first book has since been followed by The Second Cuckoo and The Third Cuckoo and most recently by The Times Great Letters.
Other British papers like The Telegraph have also produced such volumes. In fact, The Telegraph even brought out a volume of its unpublished letters.
These letters gave you a sense of what readers were thinking during those years, their opinions on raging political controversies, and their quirky and often humorous observations on life, including Britain’s bird life. Many famous names appeared in the Letters column of these newspapers.
In India, the famous need not bother to write a letter to the editor. Their views are accommodated on the oped pages of mainstream newspapers, even when editors know that these pieces have been ghost written. The aam janata, on the other hand, must remain content with the shrunken space allocated for letters.
Like Britain, there was a time when even Indian newspapers allotted a generous amount of space for letters, although never a full page, I think. When I was in-charge of Express Magazine, the Sunday section of The Indian Express, we decided to keep half a page of the broadsheet for letters. The more letters we printed, the more we received.
Readers had to make a lot of effort to write a Letter to the Editor. It was assumed that for every 10 readers upset about an article, perhaps one would actually get down to writing. Many letters were really well written and argued and only the exceptional were abusive. And never, in my memory, did we get any letter casting aspersions on the writer or questioning her motives, something that is so common today.
I believe that the tradition of Letters to the Editor is a good one and am glad that Scroll.in provides space for letters several times a week rather than allowing readers to post unedited comments after each article, which is the norm elsewhere. Writing letters demands of readers that they spend time formulating their arguments, whatever these might be, instead of dashing off a one-line opinion that contains no reasoning.
Starting a conversation
In addition, the institution of the Readers’ Editor provides another level of interface between readers and the editors. It is meant to provide a space for genuine complaints, and for constructive suggestions that can improve the publication. A conversation with the Readers’ Editor also facilitates an exchange that can inform readers about the challenges and constraints that editors face as well as tell editors what readers notice, appreciate, or dislike.
My worthy and distinguished predecessor and former colleague, C Rammanohar Reddy, wrote often about ways to encourage readers to write to him. Yet, although the Readers’ Editor has been around for two years, a regular reader wrote in as recently as November 24, saying she did not know that she had the option of writing in to the Readers’ Editor. So, ways to constantly remind readers about this option are needed and I hope the technical team at Scroll.in will take note.
These are early days. So I am not commenting on the content of Scroll.in yet. Except to say that I appreciated that one anniversary was marked by this platform. It is one that we forget in a country where almost every day is an anniversary of some kind. And that was the 34th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster, where on the night of December 2/3, 1984, thousands of mostly poor people were killed when the deadly poisonous gas methyl isocyanate spewed out from the Union Carbide plant. It is still considered one of the worst industrial accidents. It is also a reminder of how little poor lives matter in this country.